Saying the Resident Evil 5 demo is the most exciting demo to be released in 2009 isn't really saying a great deal considering we're still in January, but there's no doubt that Capcom's latest instalment in the classic survival horror series is a big deal. With the game due for release on March 13 gamers don't have long to wait, but Xbox LIVE (Gold for now) members can try two small sections of the game right now. We dusted off our headshotting, crate smashing and item collecting skills to see how the game is shaping up.
On entering the first area of the demo the most striking thing (for anyone who's played Resident Evil 4 at least) is the new control scheme. It might sound like we're making a mountain out of a mole hill here, but you can strafe in Resident Evil 5 - something that has been impossible in previous games. Up until now rounding a corner was a danger in of itself, with your character having to walk in a strange loop to ensure you don't unexpectedly come face to face with a zombie nasty. With strafing in place you can pop out in a way perhaps more in keeping with how Chris Redfield, a trained operative, would operate.
Our initial feelings on this are resoundingly positive. Anyone who's played a modern action game will feel right at home, while the choice to freeze you on the spot while aiming means the game retains the panicked feeling of the previous games. You can choose to play with classic Resident Evil 4 controls if you wish, giving the strafe controls a miss completely, but for the average player the default new control scheme is very good. We had been concerned that this new modern setup would turn our beloved series into another run of the mill shooter, but gladly it seems we were wrong.
Second up on the things you'll notice ahead of everything else is co-op partner Sheva. This AI or human controlled female character is along for the ride, helping you out and even fighting in areas you can't reach alone. The idea of co-op usually gets us excited no matter what the game, but we were surprisingly unsure about its inclusion here. Resident Evil has always felt like a solo, isolated experience, in which you were the badass hero charged with saving the day, and in many cases the girl. Here there's a completely new mechanic where you will often be the one in need of help.
When playing alone Sheva is handled admirably by AI, with you helping her to reach high platforms or make seemingly impossible jumps. She isn't simply another NPC that will just tag along, so while she gets stuck in to the combat, she also falls foul of the enemies in the same way you do. So yes, she can die, and death for either of you is game over. In what is probably the best example of co-op in the demo Sheva leaps across from one balcony to another, eventually coming face to face with a horde of infected on the other side. You're stranded some distance from her, so it's time to whip out that sniper rifle and get to work on exploding some heads - perhaps taking out some explosive barrels too.
From the demo the solo experience certainly feels odd. Sheva's artificial intelligence is competent and she'll often come to your aid, but something doesn't quite feel right. Thankfully, after playing with another human, the two-player co-op appears to be a very smart move on Capcom's part. Playing alongside a real person completely changes the way the game feels, with the almost depressing need for the computer's assistance being replaced by a sense of camaraderie and a desire to succeed. Without a virtual character arriving on cue to help you out the feeling of isolation returns, perhaps even to a greater extent than in previous games. If your partner is in trouble it's entirely down to you to help him out, and you're going to get told loud and clear over your headset.
While the demo is far too short for our liking (to be honest, we're so keen to play the full game anything else is going to disappoint at this point), it demonstrates the kind of graphical quality to expect come March 14. Resident Evil 5 has been labelled Resident Evil 4 HD by some, and the design influences are clear to see, but this looks leagues ahead of the game we first played on the GameCube back in 2005. The characters are superbly modelled and full of detail, the environments are stunning, and the lighting is what we've come to expect from our games this generation.
Having played a lot of Killzone 2 recently we expected Resi 5 to feel a little dated, but thankfully it doesn't suffer nearly as much as we'd feared. Little things, like hanging bed sheets that appear to be solid objects in the game world, stick out simply because the rest of the game world has been created so well. The awkward way enemies fall and bounce down stairs is at odds with the way the environment around them looks so real. The way your character refuses to jump down from a platform seemingly inches above the ground below without you first hitting X to trigger an animation jars, because up until then the controls had been so smooth. This is still Resident Evil it seems, flaws included, for better or for worse.
It's a slightly negative way to end a look at what is a brilliant demo. Following Resident Evil 4 was always going to be tough, bordering on impossible, but Capcom appears to have done a very good job indeed. It won't be until we've played through the entire campaign that we can say for sure where Resi 5 sits compared to the series' highly regarded games of the past, but we seriously doubt survival horror and Resident Evil fans will be disappointed.