Given that it's supposedly due out by April next year, it's surprising we haven't seen more of Resident Evil 5 by now. In the run-up to Capcom's Captivate 08 event in Las Vegas, that seemed to be changing, after reports circulated of a female character, drop-in online co-operative play and a cover system. But despite whetting our appetites with a brand new, mystery-filled trailer introducing, among other things, Chris Redfield's female counterpart, the game's producer, Jun Takeuchi, politely declines to comment on her, co-op or cover, promising a drip-feed of information between now and release and more substantial details at E3. We do get to see the "world's first playable build" of the game, but of course we're not allowed to play it ourselves.
As we know already, Resident Evil 5 sees former STARS member Chris Redfield heading off to Africa - ten years after his unit disbanded - to controversially shoot up some of the locals. Takeuchi says Africa was chosen as a location because it holds the secret to the T-virus. "One of the main story points in Resident Evil 5 is exploring the origins of that virus," he says, only adding that the full game will play out over a period of about 20 hours, and is 60 percent complete at the moment. The trailer we're shown (you can watch it on EGTV) gives us another glimpse of the African shantytown setting we're familiar with. A bright but decidedly uncheerful location, Takeuchi says that the contrast of light and dark will be a key tactic in scaring us to pieces.
It's also the setting we're being shown in playable form on Xbox 360. Takeuchi's colleague Masachika Kawata is on pad duties, and he picks up Chris Redfield trapped in a kitchen defending multiple entrances, besieged by sunburnt zombies keen to get out of the heat and cut open his head with machetes. As they advance, he lowers his sights and shoots them in the leg to slow them down. They clutch at the wounds when shot, even though they're far from fatal, suggesting that Resi 5's zombs can still feel some degree of pain even if they've "lost all semblance of humanity" as Takeuchi helpfully points out. Shots to the head do the trick though, and, once floored, enemies bubble away to nothing following some phosphorescent agitation.
After the zombies breach the ceiling above him and the tide becomes too heavy to turn back, Chris makes a break for it and hotfoots it outside, and starts touring the town to make his escape. "This environment is right at the start of the game," Takeuchi explains as Kawata plays, and is "about four times the size of the village at the start of Resident Evil 4". It's a mess of half-built walls and wonky picket-fences, tyre piles, skeletal buildings loosely cobbled out of planks and steel poles, filled out with market stalls, burnt out cars and the charred husks of buses. Everything is rust and decay, and even the clothes flapping on washing lines are muddy rags.
The draw distance is huge, though, and while the area appears enclosed (at least for the purposes of our demo, perhaps), Chris has lots of paths to choose. Kawata directs him up some ramps onto gangways, and Takeuchi points out that there will be more vertical gameplay. Chris can leap across gaps and hop back down to the ground with contextual action-button usage, ala Resident Evil 4, and the environment is partially destructible.
Door handles can be shot out of the decaying wood, stalls and walls are swept away by grenade explosions, and Chris can fire at oil drums lying around, which envelop anything nearby in flames. In the trailer, we're shown Chris sniping a barrel on a bridge in the distance to take out a group of enemies, and upending a truck that's charging towards him by doing something explosive to flip it onto its side.
His enemies aren't all raggedy zombies, though; the meanest one we're shown is a hooded executioner figure with a giant battleaxe, who follows the player relentlessly, swinging his massive weapon with impunity, sweeping away the environment and even his undead colleagues in his hunt for Chris. When Kawata flees indoors, the hooded monster smashes through a nearby wall, ruining his defence.
Takeuchi says that drawing zombies into narrow corridors and alleys to reduce the effect of their numbers will remain important, but it's only so much use when the walls themselves offer little comfort. We don't get to see the battleaxe monster dispatched (Takeuchi explains that for the purposes of the demo they set his AI to "God" mode to wind up Kawata - those crazy Capcom guys!), but when we collar the producer outside later he says that you will have to wait for him to make a mistake - get his axe caught in the ground, maybe - and exploit that, rather than taking him out with gunfire.
Other enemies are shown in the trailer - the dogs are back, of course, and zombies with retractable facial tentacles that grab the player by the head - but the most interesting is the guy with the chainsaw, who appears to retain enough coordination and problem-solving ability to cut through the lock on a metal gate. Chris isn't messing about in the armoury stakes though. You can now switch weapons in real-time, and we get to see a pistol, shotgun and machinegun, while grenades will include explosive and incendiary - the former sends zombies flying in a geyser of dirt. We're also told there will only be one melee weapon - the knife.
Artistically it's all fairly familiar to Resident Evil 4 veterans, but graphically it's far more beautiful - the key being how complete the environment appears. There are no jarring edges, awkward texture transitions and only the occasional shonky animation or dip in frame-rate to suggest there's more to be done. The engine is Capcom's proprietary technology and Takeuchi is very proud of it. "We think we are making the best graphics of any Japanese developer right now," he says through his translator. It's been suggested that the game is visually reminiscent of the Black Hawk Down film, and it's not a bad comparison - Ridley Scott's Mogadishu was a baking muddle of tattered buildings and scrap, and Resident Evil 5 echoes its scorching bleakness.
But while Capcom is keen to go blow for blow with its rivals graphically, Takeuchi recoils from suggestions that the game's controls should be significantly modernised with elements like strafing and the ability to fire at the same time as moving. Watching Kawata's hands as he plays, it's clear he's not using the right analogue stick at all, and on-screen the old move-then-fire-then-move-again mechanic is in clear evidence. We're told again that there's more to see in this area (that rumoured cover system, perhaps), but that the player is deliberately not being given the kind of fluid control expected of modern third-person action games because Takeuchi likes the way the restriction adds to the suspense and panic of extricating Chris from potentially fatal situations. "It is taking one ability away from the player, but we feel it results in a better game," he says.
A key point for Resident Evil's long-term fans, given its PlayStation heritage, is how the PS3 build is doing, and Takeuchi says it's "proceeding smoothly". Asked why we're only being shown 360, he says that the main development platform is the PC and when Capcom asked him to provide a console-based demonstration for Captivate 08 it was simply quicker to port the current build to 360 because of its similarity to the PC, and that we shouldn't read too much into it. "We're really pleased with it," he says of the PS3, "and certainly as with other developers we did have problems getting to grips with it at first, but now understanding how it works it allows us to do a lot of things we couldn't do before." However, asked by a European journalist whether the team had considered using Sixaxis for Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition-style controls, he says they ruled it out because Sixaxis is "not quite sensitive enough for that". Have at it, Internet.
Overall, we know a bit more about Resident Evil 5 now (it's got a girl in it!), but we don't know much more. Takeuchi declines to explain who the chap with the megaphone is who appears to be mobilising the crowds of zombies against Chris in the trailer, although he does point out that we haven't been told if he's being manipulated by someone else or not. We're closer, then, and fans will pour over the trailer for further clues (that wriggling parasite at the end, eh?), but it sounds like E3 will be a bigger reveal. We'll follow the corpses around the world for you and let you know the results.
Resident Evil 5 is due out on PS3 and 360 by the end of March 2009.