Japan may have gotten the jump on the rest of us with the Resident Evil 5 demo this month, but a fortunate alignment of circumstances found your humble correspondent in the right place at the right time with the right kit: Japan, last week, with an Xbox 360. The two-level demo gives us our best chance yet to see how Capcom's latest is shaping up ahead of its 13th March release on the Microsoft and Sony boxes.
The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, no different to what it was in October when Capcom essentially premiered the playable demo at the Tokyo Game Show. If you've been following the trail since we saw the game in action at Capcom's Captivate event in June, you'll know that two small sections have been deemed suitable for public consumption to date.
Without doubt the Big Thing in this long-awaited sequel is the emphasis on co-operative play. While 2003's GameCube-exclusive Resident Evil Zero dabbled in character-swapping and co-op puzzles, Resident Evil 5 brings the feature to the fore, with split-screen, System Link and online play available in the demo build. The star of the very first Resident Evil, Chris Redfield, returns for the latest adventure, this time as an agent for the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA). Called to investigate an incident in West Africa known as Kijuju, he hooks up with fellow BSAA agent Sheva Alomar who acts as his guide in the early part of the adventure.
With no time wasted on back-story, the demo thrusts players straight into action, wandering the narrow corridors of a filthy shantytown armed with a pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle and knife. You're quickly set upon by melee weapon-wielding natives, all apparently suffering the violent effects of the mysterious T-virus. The answer? Shoot them with laser-assisted pinpoint accuracy until they dissolve on the floor in a bubbling mass of goo.
With a control system inherited wholesale from the beloved Resident Evil 4, there are few surprises in terms of how the game looks and feels. The controls, in particular, share the quirks of old, which you'll either love for the panic and tension they infuse, or feel slightly irritated by, because of Capcom's reluctance to allow the same freedom of movement, aiming and camera control we get elsewhere. A total of four control mappings help cater for individual requirements, but by and large what you're faced with is identical to what was present last time out. Even hardened champions of Capcom's enduring series might feel a slight pang of regret that Resident Evil 5 is so doggedly true to past glories and hasn't seized the opportunity refine the overall feel.
As ever, the key to getting the most out of the game is to simply go with it, and rewire your action-adventure control habits to a series of unusual requirements. For better or worse, armed combat is still completely at odds with just about every modern third-person game out there. As it was in Resident Evil 4, aiming is a comparatively ponderous process with accuracy given priority over speed, so you have to be mindful of where you're shooting from to avoid being blindsided. With the emphasis on lining up headshots, it's as satisfying as ever once you're past the initial obstacles.
As for the co-op, the demo suggests teamwork will be an essential part of the gameplay, with players able to help each other out in a variety of combat- and puzzle-specific contexts. Sticking close to your partner not only makes it possible to share ammo and health items easily, but quite often provides useful melee support whenever, for example, one player find him or herself locked in a fierce tussle with an enemy that's pounced on top of them. Instead of the afflicted party having to furiously waggle the left stick to shake off their assailant, a swift roundhouse kick from the other character brings the situation under control as soon as the button prompt appears.
Beyond generally sticking together, each of the set-pieces shown off in the demo illustrates how important it is to keep each other alive at every turn, with one or the other player thrust into the position of arch defender. At context-sensitive locations you'll be offered an opportunity to provide an 'assist jump' to boost your partner up to otherwise-unreachable areas, which will then enable one of the duo to cover new ground. Predictably, these solo runs result in a zombie onslaught that requires the other to provide vital covering fire from afar - in the demo's case via a regulation sniper rifle with adjustable zoom.
In the climax of both demo segments, we also get the chance to do battle with horrendously powerful foes that directly reprise the leatherface bit near the start of Resident Evil 4. Now, as then, concerted attacks eventually present an opportunity to daze these colossal opponents and land a powerful blow - though the smartest approach appears to be to lure your unwary foe into the path of combustible objects and catch them with explosive force.
In terms of weapons, the demo throws up few surprises, with a fairly standard loadout of pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rifle, grenades and knife. While the weapons generally feel the same as they ever did, the enemies appear to drop more ammo than before. Evidently the currency-based system for ammo and upgrades remains in place though, with endless loose change discarded, although the shops are closed in the demo.
Built with a greatly enhanced version of the already awesome Resident Evil 4 engine, all the locations shown off in the demo convey the requisite rancid squalor you'd expect from a bloodthirsty shantytown in the grip of bioterrorism. Festering remains lie decaying in darkened corners of rickety corrugated-iron huts, while makeshift barriers and discarded boxes and tyres fill out a labyrinthine environment strewn with junk.
There's plenty of subtle lighting and intricate texturing to help, as terrifying, slavering zombs with glowing red eyes lurch in your general direction out of the gloom. Armed and dangerous, they howl for backup, pound down doors, vault fences and smash through windows to get to you. Shooting them might throw then off their stride for a moment, but it's game where the headshot becomes an all-important tactic - not only to save ammo, but to save time. The sooner you can dispatch a lumbering enemy, the sooner you can turn your attention to the three other frothing lunatics stumbling in your general direction.
For now though, there's little more for us to go on than these two vignettes, which last little more than ten minutes apiece. For a game reportedly clocking in at over twenty hours, it's way too early to judge quite how the full thing will play out, but we like what we've played. Newcomers to the series might find some of the control, camera and combat quirks a little jarring, but those who regard Resident Evil 4 as a classic will be right at home.
Resident Evil 5 is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 13th March 2009.