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.