2001 was a pretty lousy year in a lot of people's eyes. Not just for gaming, but for other entertainment industries and more important matters, like the state of the planet and my credit rating. However, one of the things that stood out like a lighthouse amongst the jagged rocks and froth-topped waves of the rough sea that was the last year was Nintendo's marriage to Capcom, and the tsunami of intense relief that washed over us as Shinji Mikami delivered that fateful word: "exclusive".
Nightmare In Racoon City
Ignoring the newly announced Resident Evil Online for PlayStation 2, the series now lives on the Cube, and the first product of this extraordinary relationship is a remake of the original Biohazard, or Resident Evil to you and I. The series has now come full circle, and the Japanese copy of Biohazard we have spent the last few weeks with has left us breathless, and more than a bit scared.
Resident Evil begins as it always began, but this time takes the player through a stunning pre-rendered forest sequence, graphically quite unlike its stormy precursor. Unlike the FMV that sold the series, this introductory sequence is (hopefully) directed like the horror movie that Resident Evil has spawned. Nervous members of Bravo team search for the remnants of their colleagues' downed chopper, only to find bloody traces of their friends and a mangled wreck. Before long the question of what happened to Alpha team is answered, viciously, by a pack of ravenous, disfigured zombie hounds, which chase the surviving members of the team towards a bizarre mansion in the woods. Now it's time to meet the residents...
To say a lot of work has gone into the cinematic value of the game would be to put it mildly. This is an interactive horror movie as far as I am concerned. Playable characters Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, as well as their compatriots, look human. They move like real people. Okay they are quite obviously computer-generated, but the animation and voice acting in the cutscenes which break up the gameplay paints a picture of realism. Gone is the hopeless dialogue, replaced by occasionally cheesy but often chilling exchanges between the main characters. Furthermore, the moaning and groaning of the recently deceased is enough to send a shiver down your spine, if only because an encounter could mean your last step for the evening. And how long has it been since the last save point?
Growling In The Dark
Biohazard's characters are matched in detail by a world of intricately drawn environments. The game is still using pre-rendered backdrops through which the polygonal characters waltz, and a by-product of this approach is the slide-up-and-down-the-walls control and camera system which dogs most Capcom games. Admittedly it is annoying, and it means that the characters often look quite daft running at a brick wall, but unlike Onimusha and the likes it's bearable here because the rest of the composition looks so good.
Hallways glow with the light of candles, and as the storm flashes outside pillars of light thrust Jill or Chris into the open, before plunging them back into darkness. Often these lightning strikes are enough to give you a hint of an enemy - they're not all loudmouthed zombies. The grime and sodden ground of Silent Hill 2 can take a back seat now, because Resident Evil redresses the balance for games of the scare-fest variety. The mansion is one of the most gloriously detailed constructions seen in a videogame to date, and the layout is meticulously planned for the maximum fright, with a few changes here and there to give fans of the original more than they bargained for.
Not content with that, each and every corridor and room is without repetition. Quite a feat. You have the big shiny hallway, which acts as a central hub to the rest of the house, then there is the dining room, just as shiny but illuminated further by the presence of a fireplace. Upturned chairs signal that a struggle took place here, and this is a theme of the game - the environment is crafted deliberately. You can't dismiss anything or it might come back and bite you in the ass, or impale you, which has already happened to us.
If you've ever wondered what a zombie looks like, Capcom has a pretty good idea. The graphics in the game never once let up in terms of quality, and from what we've seen there is no such thing as slowdown. The only problems encountered so far have been slight telltale pauses between sections of gameplay and cutscenes, which punctuate the game oddly but don't distract too much, and those (mercifully short) loading sequences disguised as door animations. Unfortunately the series has yet to escape the clutches of that particular menace…
The interface is a lovely clicky monstrosity which is actually fairly simple to operate, evidenced by our being able to use it despite a complete ignorance of the Japanese language. Swapping inventory items about is easy, and managing your life-saving herbs, watching your health status (also represented in-game by Jill or Chris taking on a growing limp) and arranging your defence items is a piece of cake.
Defence items? Far more than a simple rehash, Resident Evil in its new incarnation is distinctly different to its predecessor in a number of places. One addition which we can tell you about without spoiling the game or its storyline is defence items. Knives, grenades and other items can now be used to stop a zombie if he gets close enough to lunge for your neck. Instead of taking a chunk out of you, you can plant a huge knife in his head, throwing him off long enough for you to make your escape.
Die Horribly, And Love It
Beyond the audio-visual experience you may be surprised to learn that there is something of a game to play. Fighting is often the wrong answer, because zombies can get close to you and do untold damage, especially in numbers. Racing about the place avoiding bad guys is often crucial to staying on your feet and conserving those life-saving defence items for the bigger, more ruthless bad guys ahead. Strategy and fear are your allies. Running away is your friend. Being scared is your nemesis, but also half the fun. Resident Evil will frighten you, and that's a good thing.
Although much of the game and the plot remains elusive thanks to the language barrier - we've picked up vast quantities of items and documents which we can't read, for a start - we have been completely absorbed by the challenge and excitement of the game. The save structure remains, with ink ribbons used to save your progress at typewriters around the house, and because of the limited numbers available you will need to be sparing in your use of them. That means making damned sure you play it right, and if the fear of being eviscerated at any moment isn't enough, the fear of losing an hour of play to a bad decision will keep your on your toes.
With the game only a few months away from its European release in September, this one looks set to imprint itself on our bank statements. With any luck this new approach will herald the revamping of many of our favourite games. Technically the PAL conversion is shaping up very well, and from what we've heard the principle fault that afflicts many PAL games will be absent here. The only thing that some players might bemoan is the lack of the free memory card that accompanied the Japanese release. Either way, it doesn't look like this one will disappoint, and we can't wait for another excuse to play it.