Resident Evil 0
Resident Evil games have dragged us kicking and screaming through houses of horror, a besieged police station, freaked-out labs and a reeking city crawling with the recently deceased. And now that the series is stepping into the wayback machine with Resident Evil 0, a GameCube-exclusive Evil prequel, we're getting our newest survival-horror fix aboard a...whazzat? A choo-choo? "The train is only one of the stages in the game," Tatsuya Minami, producer for Resident Evil 0, says of the boxcar environments that we've always associated with this title.
Turns out that the two main characters--spunky S.T.A.R.S. Bravo teammate Rebecca Chambers and series new guy Billy Coen--wander through several other nightmarish areas as they play out the 1998 events leading up to the original Resident Evil. But what's much niftier is what this duo can do in these environments. For the first time ever in an RE title, you can switch between the principal players at the flick of a button or have them fight side by side if they're in the same room. Minami calls it the "Partner Zapping" system, and it makes for puzzle possibilities you just didn't see in past REs. For instance, we used Billy to hit a switch that opened a door near Rebecca, letting her enter a new area when we zapped back to her location. In another section, we had Billy use a dumbwaiter to send health herbs up to Rebecca on a higher floor.
And that brings us to the other big gameplay twist: Item crates--which in past games were the only places you could dump gear--are now extinct. "You might question what happens when your inventory is full," Minami says. "In that case, you can drop off an item anywhere." Items remain on the floor until you pick them up again. Other RE0 features are mostly tweaks resurrected from past Evil games. The head-stomp move, which brings eternal rest to zombies gnawing at your feet, makes a welcome return. But Minami said it's too early to say if the defensive weapons from the GameCube RE1 will make it into this game. Curious status-screen partner-A.I. settings such as "Back-up" and "Act Alone" have yet to be explained, as well. But one thing's clear from these shots: RE0 packs the same madeover backgrounds that defined the first 'Cube game. In fact, the environments here are even spiffier, with more animated bits and creepier lighting and shadow effects. This is one train you'll want to catch at night.
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When you've built your career on flesh-eating zombies and mutant dogs, you'd think nightmares would be an on-the-job hazard. But for Hiroyuki Kobayashi, one of the programmers of the original Resident Evil on the PlayStation 1, undead dreams were the least of his worries. "Sure, I had nightmares," he says, "but they weren't about zombies. They had more to do with all the software bugs we kept running into."
These days, he's too busy for bad dreams; as producer of the series' long-awaited prequel, Resident Evil 0--due in November exclusively for GameCube -- Kobayashi is spending every waking moment forging a new chapter in the series' serpentine saga. And newcomers confounded by the previous games' plot twists piled atop plot twists will be happy to know this Evil starts with a clean slate. It takes you back to the very beginning, an entire day before everything officially hit the fan.
"As the title suggests, RE0 deals only with events set before the first game," says Kobayashi, "and since the game will lead up to the story in RE1, it's naturally going to explain a lot." it'll also be the first RE game to feature a "partner-zapping" system that lets you switch between the two playable characters in real time (see sidebar on the next page). So for you RE enthusiasts who dig the series' creepy atmosphere, realistic firearms, and shambling zombies -- but get turned off by its impenetrable mythos--we couldn't think of a better way to kick off your biohazard love affair and get to the root of its evil.
On the Night Train
By now, if you've followed RE0's coverage, you've seen a lot of screens set aboard a mysterious train. "The game doesn't begin on the train. That's just the main area we've shown so far," Kobayashi says. "There will be backstory before you get to that level. And I can tell you now that the train environment doesn't take up much of the game." But since it's nearly impossible to talk about RE0's plot without mentioning at least the premise of RE1, let's rewind (or should we say, fast forward) a bit and start from the "beginning." The first Resident Evil game introduced us to the STARS (Special Tactics and Rescue Squad) Alpha team, featuring series mainstays Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, whose mission was to solve a series of gruesome murders near Raccoon City. They were also charged with finding out what happened to the STARS Bravo team, who had flown in a day earlier to investigate the murders only to disappear in a helicopter crash in the mountainous outskirts of town. The crash was never resolved in the Resident Evil timeline -- until now. RE0 kicks off with Bravo team's chopper going down. Before their crash, however, the Bravo gang makes two unusual sightings: the burning wreck of what looks like an overturned truck off in the distance, and an ominous but dormant train stopped in the thick of the forest. After their chopper bites the dust, the team splits up to investigate the strange sightings.
The first of two characters you play in RE0 is Rebecca Chambers, a rookie pipsqueak medic out on her first real mission. (You may recall her brief appearances at the Umbrella mansion in RE1). She stumbles upon the seemingly derailed mystery train in the woods and boards it, only to have it lurch into motion and hurl her toward a destination unknown. "The train itself contains a secret about what it's being used for," says Kobayashi. "You don't know that when you first hop on board, but the reason the train even exists will all be revealed as you advance in the game."
Enter Billy Coen: ex-Marine, escaped convict and playable character number two. A survivor of the overturned truck glimpsed by Bravo in the air, Billy pops up early on in the game, even before the train level. By the time they reach the train, both characters will be under your control. "Billy's story is deeply related to the game's plot, but that's all I can say right now," Kobayashi says. "Players have to start with Rebecca. Then soon there's an event that brings the two of them together. Some may think Rebecca is the main character, but Billy is just as much a main character too."
Originally intended for release on the Nintendo 64, RE0 went through several delays before Kobayashi and company decided to finally scrap development. "We got pretty far along in the N64 version," he tells us. "We'd already finished many of the backgrounds in the game, and we started to realize that one ROM cartridge might not be large enough to contain everything we wanted to include." Fortunately, around that same time, Nintendo officially announced the GameCube. "We knew right away we had to move the project onto the more powerful system," he says. It's a good thing they did: RE0 now looks every bit as sexy (or grotesque) as the recent RE remake on the GameCube.
But you'd think that having just played RE on the GC, we'd be used to Capcom's newly mastered art of creating animated 2D backdrops. Not so. As we played RE0, we spent a ridiculous amount of time pausing along the way to admire the fine visual details. Subtle touches of background animation specific to the moving train--the flutter of curtains hanging off an open window, the slight rocking of tipped-over bottles on a kitchen counter, the flicker of candlelight fighting to stay lit, the shaking of the screen when the car hits a bump on the tracks--really make you feel like you're on a locomotive bound for hell. Just outside, the weather has taken a turn for the demonic. Heavy lashes of rain and moaning wind complete RE0's awesome and disconcerting ambience.
But it isn't all just pretty backdrops and creepy atmosphere: For a bunch of essentially 2D environments, the game feels incredibly three-dimensional. Gun down the undead in the train's narrow, claustrophobic aisles and zombies will actually slump back against the seats and slide out of sight--until they clamber back up for round two. Then you see the dynamic shadows cast by players and enemies alike. Walk by a light source and watch your shadow trail, elongate and wrap onto the walls around you. It just feels frighteningly real.
Billy and Becky
Not that you'll have a lot of free time to admire the graphics; you'll be too busy getting your hands dirty with new gameplay features that let you strategize beyond just traditional ammo management. What's this? Strategy in an RE game? It all comes from RE0's new zapping system. For instance, leave Rebecca alone for too long and you'll hear her panicked voice over the radio minutes later, asking you to get off your ass and lend some backup. That's when you make a choice: Do you run all the way back with Billy and his 12-gauge boomstick, or "zap" over to Rebecca and fight the zombies alone with her dinky 9 mm pistol? "While RE0 has a scare factor, it's different from RE on the GameCube," Kobayashi tells us. "Since this game contains two characters, you always have to consider the safety of one or the other. To me, that's where the scare comes in." Kobayashi also said that at some points in the game, you will be completely alone, making RE0 a unique combination of experiences.
Even with the new zapping system, Evil fans will still find RE0 comfortably familiar. All the series' staples--including the dreaded "stand-and-rotate" controls, the different-colored healing herbs and the typewriter save-game ribbons--make a predictable return to the game. "We know a lot of gamers want to see true 3D controls, but we believe RE'S radio-control-style game-play is the best for a game with frequent camera switching and pre-rendered backgrounds," Kobayashi contends. Still, Kobayashi and his team were able to squeeze in one last innovation for RE0: the ability to drop items anywhere. For years, fans have been screaming for the end of those ugly, nonsensical inventory chests that magically hold all your leftover items, regardless of location. Now, they've been put to death. It's a welcome innovation, to be sure, but we've also noted that you can't just drop stuff with wild abandon; you must make sure there's enough space on the floor for all your clutter, which can sometimes be tricky to eye with RE0's busy backdrops.
Kobayashi says he hasn't decided yet whether this installment will be a tougher game tailored for the Evil hardcore or more easy and accessible. From what we've played, squeezing past the undead in the train's cramped boxcars is hardly a cinch. "RE0 will have more enemies and you'll need to shoot most of them," Kobayashi says, "but I'm planning to put in enough ammo so you won't have to run from zombies all the time." Nevertheless, he says the game won't deliver the "Hollywood-style action" of RE2 and will instead feature suspenseful moments and tricky puzzles more in tune with the GC version of RE1. In other words, if that remake gave you nightmares, expect more sleepless nights while playing this prequel.
But with RE0, Dino Crisis 3 and RE4 all creeping from the shadows, Kobayashi is far too busy to have nightmares. He credits that mostly to the dedication of his talented staff. "Now that I'm no longer a programmer but a full-time producer, I don't get those bad dreams anymore. But perhaps," he says with a grin, "these nightmares have been passed on to the members of my team.