Did anybody actually swap their PS2 for a GameCube because Shinji Mikami ran away with Resident Evil? We sincerely doubt it. And despite protesting that the PS2 in your front room is about as durable as a china teapot in a hurricane, Mikami-san obviously still has some time for Sony, because Resident Evil Online is a PS2 game, despite a thriving Xbox network and a cheap as chalk Cube broadband outlet. It doesn't seem like a decision borne out of necessity.
Death by numbers
But whatever decisions Capcom has made, you can be assured that Resident Evil's first online outing looks absolutely luscious. It's as worryingly ambitious as we'd hoped, and if producer Yoshihiro Sudo (of Auto Modellista fame) and his team can pull it off, we'll have lots to shout about next year. Next year? Yes. It seems like the game is still a long way off, but that's a good thing, because it looks tremendous even now, and we're happy for Capcom to take their time if it means the game is closer to their vision of it. We should get our first playtime with the game at E3.
So how does an online version of the gaming world's premier scarefest plan to work, you'll no doubt be wondering? Well, the idea is that there are eight characters, random jobsworths from around Raccoon City, each skilled in a certain area and weak in others, who must join forces to overcome the scourge of the T-virus and escape the City's clutches. Recent reports suggest up to four players will be able to co-operate in RE Online, starting off at different points around a massive game world and being forced to congregate before they can co-op their way out of this night of the living dead.
This immediately throws up questions for the player. If three of you show up and unite, like something out of 28 Days Later, but one of you has failed to materialise, what do you do? If zombified, your old friend could be one of a horde of nasties waiting in his particular section of the city. Do you risk sending a search party? Do you all go? Do you forget about him entirely? And what's his or her reaction likely to be if they scramble to the meeting point on a slither of health only to find a note reading "sorry, you were late"? Can you deal with a perfectly healthy but blood-crazed pistol-toting mechanic chasing you down while you're sparring with the undead?
It's a dynamic which asks lots of questions. Most interesting though is the brace of characters. They're not soldiers, they're not STARS agents and only one of them is even a cop. In fact, their respective professions are journalist, waitress, plumber-with-a-violent-past, surgeon/politician, subway officer, security guard, computer genius and hard-as-nails policeman. Each character will be skilled in some areas (like lock-picking) but dangerously unhelpful in others (you know, social skills). Plumber-with-a-past David, for example, will obviously be useful in certain situations, but his violent tendencies could bubble out of the broth at any moment. And as a surgeon and politician, George is surely a very measured and reserved man, but his recent divorce could give him cause to treat the lasses unfairly.
Those four characters not controlled by humans will still appear in the game, offering a helping hand or falling foul of the viral menace, but if you want to get out of Raccoon City alive, you will need to co-operate with somebody, because the puzzles and design of the game are set to be on a par with Resident Evil Zero's - and then some. Teamplay will be a pre-requisite to success, so even if you don't like the guy manipulating female journalist Alyssa, you'll need to set those differences aside. You'll only be able to converse via set phrases in the game according to Sudo-san, as Capcom wants to focus on gameplay, but you know, you could sell the other guy short and let him topple to his doom somewhere secluded. No-one will know, right? This sort of trust system should produce some highly entertaining gameplay results, but it really needs human interaction, as Vivendi learnt to its cost with The Thing. In Resi's case, it's just like cheesy B-movie horror and we love it.
Unfortunately, we only know so much about the technology behind the game. Apart from the fact that Capcom will support hundreds of simultaneous games worldwide, that there will be some sort of online rankings system, that there will almost certainly be some sort of single-player adventure attached, and that there will probably be downloadable content in the not too distant future, we only have what we've seen in screenshots and gameplay movies. From those, it seems to us that Capcom is working very hard to try and mimic the Cube's system of very high-res pre-rendered-but-slightly-animated backgrounds and high-poly characters, and it seems to be doing this successfully. Of course, your average zombie does look like a blurry green texture, so presumably real effort will go into the game's 'stars', if you'll excuse the pun. We also know that the game will revisit familiar locations, but Sudo-san has been quick to stress that new locations will be abundantly available in recent interviews, including a hospital, tube station and forest.
Make no mistake about it: for Capcom, Resident Evil Online is a momentous project. Rumours of an online instalment for the Resident Evil dynasty have been kicking around since 1999, but it's only in the last year or so that Capcom has really started getting excited about it. And though the brief walks the tightrope between worthy and over ambition, Capcom will be putting a lot of weight behind it - and we have a feeling that it will turn into something truly special, like a B-movie role-playing survival horror zombie fest. Hail to the king!