I remember when Resident Evil was a good game. Believe it or not, it wasn't always the industry leader in beating dead horses. In fact, at its debut back in 1996 it was an amazing experience. With all due respect to Alone In The Dark, Capcom's original frightfest is what made the horror genre such a raging success, and rightfully so. To follow that runaway hit, Capcom outdid themselves with Resident Evil 2. Widely acclaimed as better than the first game, it improved almost every aspect of the formula and polished it to a fine sheen. Unfortunately, that game has proven to be the series' high point. Every sequel since has been a carbon copy (or worse) in all areas but the graphics. Instead of expanding on its strengths, Resident Evil has become so contemptuously stale and creatively bankrupt that it's hard to imagine how they sell enough copies to justify its continued existence.
I'd guess that nearly everyone playing games today has tried at least one of approximately twenty multiplatform Resident Evil titles available, so I'll briefly recap the game and focus on the changes. Resident Evil Zero is a third-person action game, dubbed "Survival Horror" by the creators. The defining criteria of Survival Horror are usually a very limited supply of health items and ammunition coupled with an extra-large dose of monsters to keep players struggling for life from start to finish. The genre also frequently relies upon keyfetch-type tasks for the bulk of gameplay, as well as "cinematic" camera angles intended to increase suspense and fear. The entire Resident Evil series follows this pattern, and Zero is no different.
This latest edition casts special agent Rebecca Chambers from Resident Evil and new face Billy Coen in the lead roles. As the Zero in the title implies, the game is meant to be a prequel of sorts. Set one day before the first Resident Evil, Rebecca's law enforcement unit (called S.T.A.R.S.) is sent to investigate reports of mutilations and attacks near secluded Raccoon City. Their helicopter is forced to make an emergency landing, and Rebecca soon encounters Billy after splitting from her group. They decide to team up in order to survive, and intellectual rigor mortis sets in immediately afterward.
Zero varies from its predecessors in two main areas. The first break from tradition lets you control Rebecca and Billy simultaneously instead of consecutively, with only one quest shared by both. Previous games also had two characters, but each one's adventure was played separately from the other. The second big change is that the infamous "magic item box" used to store goods (one of the series' trademarks) has been axed in favor of a system that allows players to drop objects in any room at any time. Disappointingly, neither of these is a significant step forward for the series. In fact, the decision to remove the item boxes is actually a terrible one, and makes a bad situation even worse.
While gamers have historically voiced complaints regarding harsh limits on items carried at one time, the real beef was not being able to drop worthless things in favor of vital ones. This is a crucial point because the boxes themselves were not the problem. The bugger was that you were forced to make constant deposits to the boxes in order to pick up things you really needed. Now that the boxes are gone, the developers have only traded one evil for another.
With no way to manage stock from a central location (the function of the boxes), you end up with things scattered from one corner of the game to the other. Ammunition gets left on one side of the mansion, and health-ups are dropped on the other. That's not even mentioning the crucial grappling hook forgotten in the basement or the poison antidote you were forced to abandon in a remote upper lab. The simple fact is that you're going to spend an obscene amount of time doing more backtracking than ever before. Managing your inventory is a nightmare, and the intended convenience turns out to be a hindrance.
Zero's other feature of instantly switching between characters or teaming them up isn't a horrible misstep the way the item-drop ability is, but it amounts to little more than an insignificant non-event. Players are given the option to have either Rebecca or Billy take the "lead" at any time, and the character not chosen will follow behind controlled by the game's artificial intelligence (AI) (imagine Scooby sticking to Shaggy in a creepy basement, and you'll get the idea). Through a menu, this AI can be given orders to attack enemies on sight or remain passive. It can also be told to remain in one place or to follow the "lead" character. While this seems like a good idea on paper, I feel that without the option to have the second hero controlled by a friend, it's a huge waste of potential.
As it is, the AI can only be classified as an electronic moron. I've never seen the inactive character dodge out of harm's way, and they rarely seem to open fire until monsters are within striking distance or closer. You can control the secondary character's movement in real time with the GameCube pad's yellow C-stick, but it's problematic to watch your partner's back when trying to protect your own. To make matters worse, if your partner happens to die while you've got your hands full, it's game over for both of you. Hope you saved.
With the liability doubled, you'd logically expect the benefits to be doubled as well. Not so. Since the AI is near worthless in a firefight, the only thing gained by having a partner is a new way to solve painfully simple puzzles. None of challenges in Resident Evil Zero are more complex or creative than moving each person to a separate location and pushing a button. For example, Rebecca can pull a switch upstairs to let Billy through a gate downstairs. In another spot, Billy can only cross a bridge only after Rebecca activates it from a remote control center. Thrilling and revolutionary game mechanics these are not.
With one of the game's new elements being inconsequential and the other a complete failure, what's left? The same flawed and archaic structure that's been the foundation of the series for the last six years. Capcom stubbornly refuses to change things that sorely need to be eliminated or overhauled. The clunky, unnatural control system is as bad as it ever was, and the problematic camera angles still leave players unfairly vulnerable to attacks. The stringent item limits create hours of backtracking busywork, and building an entire game around brain-dead, objet d'art, locked-door puzzles doesn't fly anymore. The only things I see going for Resident Evil Zero are the refined graphics and contrived lore thrown in for those still trying to find consistency in the Swiss-cheese storyline. However, even this fails to satisfy.
Since Zero is a prequel, I find it quite surprising that none of the characters express shock or dismay encountering the walking dead and other horrors for the first time. If the back of the box didn't say that this is where the story got its start, I'd swear that these two had been killing zombies for years. They just don't show any reactions or emotion, it's especially bothersome because it fails to jibe with Rebecca's dialogue and personality from the first Resident Evil. I was also highly disappointed in the game's story. I can't discuss it here without risking spoilers, but I will say that it's clear the writers don't believe in using Occam's Razor. Newcomers or the hardest of hardcore fans may find Zero to be entertaining, but there's absolutely nothing here for anyone who's tired of the same regurgitated game we've been served time and time again.
It's sad to see Capcom run its biggest franchises into the ground until they're completely impotent. Mega Man and Street Fighter suffered this fate, and now Resident Evil has indisputably joined the ranks of bright stars turned into desiccated has-beens. The real irony is that Capcom has always been one of the industry's most powerful creative forces when they choose to be. However, they can never seem to resist the temptation of shamelessly cashing in despite all of the negative long-term effects. My feelings on Capcom's business policy aside, the bottom line is that Resident Evil Zero's title perfectly describes the content and play value of the game itself.