You could feel the anticipation build when Masachika Kawata took to the stage at Sony's Tokyo Game Show conference last week to make an announcement. You could even feel that anticipation, still, after the somewhat flat reveal of a new logo that Capcom would be using throughout the 20th anniversary of its most famous series, Resident Evil. It's okay Capcom - we'll happily see you unveil all the logos in the world if you're teeing up something new. Everyone in the auditorium was too polite to speak out, but you could feel their hearts pumping to the same beat: 'Seven, seven, seven, seven.'
That was the moment that Capcom decided to announce Umbrella Corps, a multiplayer-focused online shooter set nominally within the universe of Resident Evil. It could, it's fair to say, have gone down better.
Even Kawata, a long-time producer on the series who's part of a small team within Capcom's Osaka studio, could sense the anticipation, just as he could tell when we meet a couple of days after the conference that this new project wasn't exactly what fans had wanted.
"I felt that pressure so much. I kind of fumbled my words a bit - I felt that atmosphere of expectation," he says in a gaudy hotel room looking out over the show. "I can understand people hearing the Resident Evil team in Osaka, then seeing a shooting-based game coming out and not being sure where that impetus is coming from, but as a team we've always challenged ourselves to strike out in new directions - the series has a history of spin-offs that don't stick to the script of the earlier titles. I think this reflects that history, and as a company we like to try new things."
"I'm sure some people, when they saw us speaking about the 20th anniversary of the series, then introducing something so different, that might be somewhat confusing or upsetting to some users. We've an anniversary year, which starts this year and continues into next year, and we've got a few things in store, so they can look forward to more announcements down the line."
Before then, though, there's Umbrella Corps. Even in the eccentric lineage of Resident Evil spin-offs, this one stands out. Built in Unity and with a breakneck approach to multiplayer shooting, in the hand it feels more like Counter-Strike than Resident Evil. The single mode we play in a short demo on the showfloor, called One Life Match, sees two teams of three face off against each other, and if you're taken out you remain out for the rest of the round. It's tense, but it's also a little clunky, and Umbrella Corps' biggest problem right now is that there are countless games wrestling for the same space it's about to enter.
At least it has some ideas of its own, and a certain amount of its own personality beneath all those heavy-duty SWAT suits its soldiers wear. It even makes some comical swipes at playing at a Resident Evil game - and, surprisingly, a fair few of them land. The action plays out in third-person, with the camera holding tight to the player's shoulder. Movement's relatively slow, and the combat's high-impact - whether it involves rounds fired from a snub-nosed machine gun or the sharp end of the brainer melee weapon that can lock on to enemies. It preserves some of the tension that Resident Evil's renowned for. That, of course, and the text inked in blood that reads 'You Died' when you meet your end.
"You really have to be aware of what's going on around you, including the vertical," Kawata elaborates. "That's quite a fresh, new aspect we're bringing. There's almost even a feeling of an emotional connection with the original Resident Evil, where you had the famous door animation - when you opened it, you didn't know what was on the other side. When you play the game, there are levels with shutters and doors you have to open yourself, and you can do it in an analogue fashion, slowly if you want, and you don't know what's going to be there waiting. It might be a zombie, or something, so it ties in."
Oh yeah - despite the fact that this is a player-versus-player only game, zombies have been somewhat awkwardly parachuted into Umbrella Corps. They're a strange addition, stumbling nonchalantly through the small levels and ignoring players until an enemy shoots the Zombie Jammer on their back, at which point they're swarmed by the undead. There are other tactical uses - you can grab a zombie and use them as a shield - but it's the least convincing part of Umbrella Corps' make-up, certainly at this early stage.
Which leads us to a simple question, and probably the first one raised when Umbrella Corps was announced. Why? Especially after the critical failure of Raccoon City, and with the appetite for a traditional Resident Evil seemingly at a high, why is the Osaka studio spending its time working on this off-beat spin-off? The answer is disarmingly cute. As is the case in many Japanese workplaces, the young workforce has a passion for playing Airsoft together - which is essentially paintball without the paint - and it just wanted to get some of that passion across in a game.
"These guys know their stuff, they have their hobbies doing the real-life version of Umbrella Corps - well, as close as you can get," Kawata says with a little chuckle to himself. "They've also brought a certain sensibility to the title. One thing that shines through is it's really close quarters, claustrophobic environments with the possibility of the enemy's attacking you from any direction. That's something we've brought not just through playing games - we've felt it when playing these survival games, or playing laser tag in these dark corridors. That's something we've been able to bring, by having that real experience."
That influence comes across in one of Umbrella Corps' better ideas, an analogue cover-based system that allows you to slowly peek out of cover. Right now, though, it doesn't work too well - the sticky cover is either too sticky or not sticky enough, and you're often left fighting the controls more than you are other players. There's still time to go, of course, but Umbrella Corps' will have a lot to do to win over fans before its release on PlayStation 4 and PC in the first half of next year.
Kawata, for his part, is optimistic Capcom can do just that. "I'd like to see the dust settle on TGS. People have expectations in place, and we're focused on making the most refined, focus game we can, and I'd like them to stay with us in the months leading up to its release."