If there's one thing you can rely on in life, it's that us poor Europeans have to wait many moons for Capcom's PAL conversions. In the case of the GameCube-exclusive Resident Evil Zero, it'll be March 7th before you get your sticky paws on, confusingly, the fifth in the long running series.
With the GameCube being comprehensively outsold 10 to one by the PS2 (in the UK at least), such interminable delays in key titles can't be helping Nintendo's cause - and the first bona fide 'new' Resi Evil title since Code Veronica almost three years ago would have distracted more than a few gamers out there.
Sheds new light on old evil
Putting aside such strategic mess-ups for the time being, Zero is without doubt a long awaited title, having been rumoured as far back as 1998 as an N64 project. In common with so many big franchises these days, Capcom has decided to do a prequel, which reveals what happened in the run-up to the 'first' game - shedding new light on previously shady characters, and giving Shinji Mikami and co. free reign to explain the origins of the notorious Umbrella Corporation and its morally bankrupt minions.
This time around, the game kicks off with the S.T.A.R.S Bravo team's surviving a helicopter crash while on the way to the Aklay Mountains to check out some bizarre murders. But at the scene of the crash, the six strong team stumble across a fairly mangled military train, full of the corpses of Navy officers. Time to investigate.
And this is where Rebecca, the first character in the game, comes in. After disposing of a few groaning Zombies aboard the messed up train, the mysterious Billy Coen appears, and shortly afterwards saves her ungrateful hide from a hideous creature and teams up with the 18-year-old rookie, despite her initial reservations.
Thus, for the first time in the series you're given the chance to dynamically 'zap' between characters, and very quickly you realise that working as a team is often the only route to success (in a slightly too contrived fashion). Not only are certain puzzles dependent on two characters being present, but it also helps in combat situations to have back up.
Naturally, being a survival horror title, there are a swathe of locked doors, a succession of objects for you to find, and a whole army of undead to suck your life away. In this respect the formula hasn't been changed one iota, and rather annoyingly, neither has the 'spin on the spot' control system, the unhelpful 'atmospheric' camera angles, the baffling typewriter save system, nor - unbelievably - the torturous door opening/stair climbing animations.
In addition to this, Resident Evil Zero is one of the most evil in the series, requiring you to look after your ammo stocks with even more extreme care than usual- not to mention your health levels, and you'll die multiple deaths in the process of exploring new areas. With this in mind, if you're one of those people who likes to blitz through games unchallenged, and any of the aforementioned elements bugged you in the past, then nothing about this latest version will convert you, even if it is one of the best looking titles ever made.
Evil has never looked so sumptuous
Talking of which, the visual splendour contained within the game is truly superb. While the recent remake was special in its own right, the element of surprise was lacking. In this 'all new' game, you genuinely look forward to the next set of locations to see what delights await; every room is rendered with exquisite detail, and are complemented by subtle light and shadow effects, as well as incidental scenery animation that brings the whole thing to life. Not to mention some gloriously dark and evil sound effects. Ooh, we're scared just talking about it.
And with progress inevitably comes more enormous, vile creatures to depose of. Although unless you're armed to the teeth and have plenty of health, it's pretty unlikely you'll be killing them first time around. One of the recurrent themes in RE0 is the game's tendency to punish you for profligacy - often forcing you to retreat three or more saved games to a point where both characters have a decent amount of ammo and health (if one character dies, it's Game Over). The trouble is the element of surprise inevitably causes you to crap your pants and be wasteful. But once you know the lie of the land, you'll probably berate yourself, and wonder aloud what all the fuss was about. Or you could just start the game again on "Easy" mode, but that would be missing the point entirely.
Weapons of mess destruction
Weapons-wise, it's pretty much familiar territory, with pistols, shotguns, grenade launchers the staple of the game. New additions encountered thus far have been limited to making our own Molotov Cocktails, but we're assuming there's plenty more to come - given that we're not quite halfway through yet.
As discussed, the controls haven't changed radically since the last outing. You rotate the character by moving left or right on the left stick (or D pad), and moving forward or back by pushing the appropriate direction. Holding B while moving makes the character run, right trigger brings the weapon out, while tapping A attacks - your aim being controlled by the left stick. Meanwhile, Y brings up your inventory, X swaps to the other character, Start commands the other character to follow you or stay, Z trigger calls up the map, and the right stick controls the movement of the other character - allowing you simultaneous control.
It's a well established system, but still feels as clunky as hell - a problem compounded by the dodgy camera angles that rarely give you an appropriate view of the action when you need it most; during combat. Yes, the auto targeting system helps, but shooting things you can't even see just feels plain wrong - and you end up stumbling straight into oncoming enemies as a result. Also the buddy AI isn't as sharp as it could be, with Molotov Cocktails being 'accidentally' thrown at you instead of the enemies, one particularly annoying example.
Sodding static cameras!
With all the technology at its disposal, you would imagine that a more dynamic camera system would have been employed by now. We can only assume it's trying to stay 'true' to the franchise and will use the excuse that it's trying to create a more sinister atmosphere, but to be frank it just makes the game less fun to play, as more often than not you're at the mercy of the game's failings, rather than your own.
That's not to say we're unhappy with RE0 - we're nearly halfway through, and having just come across monkeys, we have renewed enthusiasm for the battle ahead. We fully predict this latest offering will rob us of a good chunk of our Christmas, so on that basis it's a strangely compulsive beast of a game, and is shaping up as the another cracking slice of survival horror. But next to the masterful Silent Hill 2, it feels dated in fundamental areas - and three years after Code Veronica fans would have been expecting more than dual character-specific puzzles and the same game in shiny new clothes.