Resident Evil on the Cube isn't even out in Europe yet, but we've already had a taste of the highly anticipated prequel thanks to Capcom's Japanese demo disc. Wouldn't it be nice if we got this sort of exclusive perk in Europe in exchange for a measly pre-order, instead of rebadged demos from official console publications? [Stop whinging - Ed]
The demo is a short, utilitarian preview of the game, covering the train sections demonstrated in the myriad screenshots saturating the internet at the moment. The player controls both Billy and Rebecca through some early areas, fighting to reunite them as they struggle at opposite ends of the train.
Beginning with Rebecca, the player is immediately thrust into combat with a carriage-full of zombies. Rebecca is your typical female Resi protagonist; pert and unassumingly beautiful, decked out in what at first appears to be combat gear but soon turns out to be a medic's uniform. Moving around the first carriage reveals a couple of lurking zombies (met with great roars of "damn you Capcom!" as I spat my drink unceremoniously onto the carpet in fright) and also highlights a few refinements to the control scheme. Although ostensibly the same as the Resi remake, the C-stick at first appears to do nothing, but more on that later.
Once composed and (hopefully) safe you can switch to Billy, who starts off near the back of the train. Thankfully, loading between the two characters takes no longer than loading a new room. Billy is clearly some sort of escaped prisoner, with tattoos all over his shoulder like George Clooney in Dusk Till Dawn, and a busted handcuff swinging from his left wrist. Wandering around quickly reveals that Billy has more train to play with, as he stumbles out of the back door and proceeds to find himself mauled by a legless zombie clawing onto his leg. Billy also has to fend off dogs in a typically frightening bit of canine-leaping-from-off-screen gameplay, but it quickly becomes clear that neither Billy nor Rebecca can get too far. Pooling their talents seems to be the best bet.
The first major puzzle involves opening a locked door (surprise, surprise), but the key itself is locked away, and you will need two crests to open the bag containing it - one for Billy to find and one for Rebecca. Trawling the passenger coaches, dreary kitchens and burning dining room upstairs (complete with burning zombies, who continue to burn post-slaying), the first crest is quickly uncovered, but how to get Becca's bit to Billy? As it happens, the train is a double-decker, and kitchen staff rarely carry plates up and down flights of stairs, do they? As you might expect, the puzzles all fit the environment in this way, which will hopefully mean some intuitive ideas later on, and the pooling of talents when separated is very Project Eden - not a bad formula to inject into the ageing Resident embryo.
When handling control of one character, the other is left to their own devices, but you can issue simple instructions to open fire or ignore aggressors and such. As you take on new areas though, you finally work out where the C-stick comes in, using it to move the other character around. The AI for your partner when under CPU control is pretty good, although you do end up wasting a bit of ammo when you're both firing at the same zombie. Then again, the team of two has given Shinji Mikami and his team license to fill rooms with zombies, as many as five at a time, and this challenge of fending off hordes of the undead is pretty intense.
Another good thing about Resident Evil Zero is the train environment. We don't know how much of the game will be set here - Capcom has said not much - but the claustrophobic settings really help the polygon-characters-on-animated-backgrounds technique to work effectively, and the sights and sounds seem a lot more atmospheric than in the GameCube's first Resident Evil, which at times seemed a bit too glossy and momentarily lifeless. Resi Zero is a game with a brooding atmosphere.
So far then it looks like a case of a lot of changes, but a lot of positives. Resident Evil Zero is shaping up to challenge a lot of people's perceptions of the series, and as it will unearth a lot of the back-story while mixing in new concepts, it should end up pleasing an awful lot of people; both fans and naysayers.