Resident Evil. We're familiar with this, yes? A mansion on the outskirts of a messed up city, zombies crawling out of the corners and lunging for your throat, dogs leaping through windows, giant snakes, fright after fright and the constant thud, thud, thudding of your heart as the Evil grips you by the throat and chokes the fear right out of you.
Let's start by talking about those visuals. They are, after all, one of the main reasons you'll be making another reservation. Resident Evil clutches stubbornly onto the real characters, fake backgrounds philosophy seen in the original game and the likes of Onimusha. By that I mean that Chris and Jill, all of their entourage and their mutual and significant opposition are polygon-based, beautifully designed and mostly realistic, and that the mansion they find themselves in and their environment as a whole is pre-rendered with occasional areas of animation. These can consist of flashes of light from the storm outside, dripping water, mirrors and other aspects that interact with the player or subtly complement the picture. It's a marriage that stands up to all but the toughest of conditions, and half of those are to do with game design. There are occasional issues - the main character animations are great, but the control system sees them running up against walls as though they're on a treadmill, and lightning flashes illuminate the player and cast striking shadows from every aspect of furniture, but the player him or herself still fails to cast a real-time shadow. Ultimately though, these fine points are insignificant compared to the whole. Chris and Jill both look and move in a very lifelike manner, and the mansion might as well be real - the resolution is the limiter, one feels. If ever there were to be a perfect setting for a survival horror adventure, this is it, and don't go thinking that a mansion gets boring either. Throughout the 12 or so hours it took me to polish this off with Chris, I never once got bored of my surroundings. Even playing through it again with Jill, things remained fresh and startling...
Unfortunately though, Capcom has only chosen to overhaul certain aspects of the design, and in refining those and redesigning the narrative and events that drive the frights, has neglected to address issues which, ludicrously, it even bothered to fix in the second PlayStation game. Most notably, the control system, and also the effect the puzzles and loading screens have on the suspension of disbelief. Trying to sustain a frightening environment is a tough job, but it's one arguably made impossible by a cumbersome control scheme and ill-fitting brain fodder. Although the control system maps very well to the GameCube controller, it's still a case of turning and then moving - the fact that a proper analogue system hasn't been employed here is a real concern, and one that Shinji Mikami's team is apparently quite happy to leave untouched, judging from the demo of Resident Evil 0 we recently got our hands on. Manipulating the inventory and using your weapons and the new defence items - one-time weapons which can be used to overpower zombies as they attempt to sink their teeth in - is perfectly simple, but the combination of fixed camera angles, however cinematic, and the clunky control system is a troublesome and oft frustrating one. Juggling inventory items is another annoying distraction. The game offers you two characters by means of difficulty levels, and each has a slightly different story to tell, but the most significant difference is their capacity for items. Chris can hold fewer than Jill, and it's far too much of a problem. Running back and forward across the house to stash items in deposit boxes and marshalling your supply of health and defence item may seem vaguely strategic, but in reality it's simply keeping you from the game's raison d'être, surviving the horror.
Oh the horror
Those of you who survived the PlayStation original will quite rightly be wondering whether or not you have much to look forward to here. After all, nice graphics a better game doth not make. Thankfully, Capcom has made enough changes to surprise even fans of the original. Your path through the mansion has changed greatly, and although you'll recognise most areas, your passage through them and the challenges you face have both altered. Indeed, Capcom has actually used your pre-existing knowledge to better toy with you! Imagine putting on your favourite horror movie and building yourself up for all the scares, only for it all to unfold in a subtly but inherently more frightening manner, and you have a good idea of how Mikami-san and co have opted to chill you. However, instead of feeding on your trepidation throughout, they do still insist on thrusting a series of tedious puzzles into the game, and you will continue to spend a lot of the time frustratedly labouring over which crests open which doors. You do have to wonder who set all this up. Do zombies take time off from brain-munching to indulge in brain-teasing every now and then? Of course, in reality none of this will cross your mind, because you'll already have found yourself distracted to the point of disbelief, and that's the game's biggest single flaw: it can lose its hold on you with greater ease than it can grasp it. Scared though you may be, it only takes one or two find-the-key hunts to bore you into submission. And if the puzzles don't do it, the load screens will. Oh yes, they're back. Although some things have been cut out, such as the "going upstairs" load screen, opening virtually every door in the mansion will present you with a little door-opening animation while the game considers what to put on the other side.
Back on track
In strict fairness to Capcom though, the problems of puzzles and controls shouldn't be allowed to overshadow the diversity and intensity of the game. The chief reason for its success is the plot, and the cinematic way it's portrayed. You quickly and easily grow attached to your characters, and because they all look so lifelike, limping when injured and striking an aggressive pose when confronted, they manage to retain your interest. The contribution of excellent voice acting shouldn't be overlooked, either. Each character has their own respective tone, manner and level of emotion, and although the dialogue is decidedly cheesy at times, it's a step forward from the lines heard in the original. Due to the high quality of the visuals, many of the game's striking cut sequences might as well be running on the game engine. From the opening cinematic though, which has been changed to an overwhelmingly scary alternative version with plenty more grit and tension, to the mid-game conversations and other key plot-twists, the story is told in a very compelling manner. It's easy to get caught up in it, and if this is your first Resident Evil game, you might want to put some cash on standby for the second and third games, which are due to see the light of day sometime in the near future on the Cube. If you think you can stomach the distractions listed above and fancy sinking your teeth into Capcom's latest, the only thing left to perhaps dissuade you is the difficulty level. One has to say that it's still pitched a bit too high, and particularly at the start it's easy to get caught out and clobbered, before having to retrace your steps over quite a distance. The save game system of collecting ribbons and recording data at type-writers remains intelligent and necessitates thoughtful saving behaviour, but at times things do seem a bit too overwhelming, and it's often quite a long way between reasonable opportunities to record your progress.
It may seem like an old reviewer's cop-out to say it, but Resident Evil is a game you will either love or hate. You will either love it for the new ground it breaks and the way that it's been rescripted to scare old fans anew, or you will begrudge its retreading of a tiresome and irritating path to the point that its unparalleled visuals mean virtually nothing. For me, it's a shockingly scary game which really keeps your heart pounding, besmirched by only a degree of old-hattedness. Have no fear though, Resi fans, it's still definitive.