Genre: Survival Horror
Japan - November 2002
North America - November 2002
Europe - March 2003
Australia - February 2003
Note: This review is for the Gamecube version only
Back in 1995, the 64DD, a disk drive peripheral for the Nintendo 64 was announced. It was then that Capcom came up with the idea for a prequel to 1995's Resident Evil. Unfortunately, poor sales meant that the 64DD wasn't to be released worldwide, and Capcom instead stuck to cartridges. Momentarily, Capcom's attention turned to Resident Evil 2, which was ported to the N64 on a whopping 512Mb cartridge that pushed the boundaries of cartridge based systems and proved once and for all that the N64 was capable of rendering full motion video.
Despite being very expensive to produce, it was a massive success and Capcom set about creating the prequel as an N64 exclusive in 1999. The real-time "partner zapping" system used to switch between the main protagonists was designed to take advantage of the console's unique features and strengths, namely the lack of load times that plagued optical disc based consoles such as the PlayStation and Sega Dreamcast. Zero was very nearly finished by July 2000 but was moved to the Gamecube due to a lack of storage space on cartridges for the size the game had eventually become. As a result of a deal with Nintendo, Capcom released a remake of the original Resident Evil in March 2002, with Zero finally seeing the light of day in November that same year.
The RE series had seen a number of releases up until that point, but what was special about these two games was the massive graphical overhaul. Both games truly showcased the raw power of Nintendo's little purple cube. The pre-rendered backgrounds look amazing and are to this day considered some of the best looking technical graphics of the era. The atmosphere is dark and moody, the environments are littered with grit and debris and it truly continues the spirit of the RE series. One area sees you enter a large church where a giant bat crashes through the roof, and the train in the beginning, used to ferry top Umbrella employees to the various facilities, looks fantastically decadent and luxurious. Some of the other locations include a rather forgettable water treatment plant area and an Umbrella Corp. training facility, which looks eerily similar in design to the mansion and contains a few memorable rooms like the chess room, and a torture chamber. There are also some familiar locations for those that have played RE 2.
The game begins when S.T.A.R.S Bravo Team prepare to enter the Arklay Mansion to effectively serve as fodder for all manner of nightmarish creatures. The opening cut scene gives you a shot of all the faces of Bravo team looking pensive in the helicopter, and that's before they suffer engine failure. If you have played the first RE, this scene has a poignant feeling of nostalgia and sadness, as you just know these men aren't going to make it out alive and will come to a spectacularly gruesome end. When the helicopter crashes, they find an overturned vehicle with dead soldiers along with the mansion. Working on the presumed likelihood that their prisoner had murdered them, Rebecca is sent to look for him while the others check the mansion, leading her to a train. From then on, she seems to get further and further from the mansion.
The setting and plot are generally well done considering they had to stretch a missing prisoner pretext into a whole game and get Rebecca back to the mansion in time to get rescued by Chris Redfield. Which, incidentally is something that bothers me constantly about Rebecca Chambers. She is the youngest S.T.A.R.S member, can handle firearms as well as most other team members, has extensive medical training and at 19, must have been some kind of child genius. But what she can't do is avoid the traditional 'damsel in distress' gender stereotype. She still frequently relies on male companions to save her, but the reverse never seems to happen. But that aside, there is a lot of backstory in Zero and it sheds light on how the T-virus was created and how the Arklay Lab outbreak occurred. Some favourites such as William Birkin and Albert Wesker also return, and they are just as perplexed by the situation as Rebecca and Billy.
The gameplay for Zero is along the lines of all early RE titles. The "tank" controls that are the Marmite of the gaming world, causing a huge rift in fans of the series, feature for the last time here. I admit to being a fan of this style of gameplay, as the purpose of survival horror is to scare you witless, not make you feel like an overpowered, buff 80's action movie badass. A single enemy could spell the end for you if it catches you off guard. Slowly opening doors, static camera angles and slow moving characters enhance the feeling of terror about what is around the next corner. Still, even compared to other contemporary RE releases, Zero feels painfully slow.
Unfortunately it seems to be two steps forward and one step back, as although it sounds convenient, it brings a new set of issues. There is a limit to the number of items you can put in a specific area, so if you save healing items or ammo, you still have the problem of both spreading things across two or three rooms and backtracking to ferry items to the next area. I had this problem every time I left the training facility, and it just became frustrating as there was no need to be there except to pick up magnum ammo that I didn't even get to use until much later. The camera also hinders picking things up again when items are cluttered in one spot, as it can be hard to see exactly which of the many items you are taking. In the attempt to make Zero more realistic, they just made it more frustrating.
As for the character zapping, this feature was invented for a cartridge based system, and despite the best efforts of Capcom, using discs has meant that the game pauses a moment every time you switch. It's less of a zap, more of a lurch, and it frequently gets annoying. I can't help but think they should have dropped it and maybe introduced a co-op mode instead. Speaking of which, I believe this game was the inspiration for RE5's co-op. Rebecca is slightly physically weaker than Billy, so you will likely end up using Billy for combat, with poor Rebecca relegated to serving as a pack mule for carrying the extra items that Billy can't. Things really can't get any more humiliating for her, in spite of her youthful pep.
In theory the puzzles should be much more interesting with two characters, but nothing particularly stood out except the part when Rebecca had to be rescued from a hole in the floor and you had limited time to get there and grab her hand. It reminded me a lot of the mission to cure the poisoned Richard Aiken in the first RE. Unfortunately the AI is a little too trigger happy at times, which is not ideal when you are trying to save ammo. You can set them to 'idle' mode but it's not handy when there are enemies around, so you're caught between saving ammo or health. On the plus side, you are free to split both characters up if that's the way you want to play, so that negates the issue somewhat, and having two characters doesn't make the game any less creepy.
Although RE Zero is a solid game, it's difficult to compare it favourably to what came before. Nemesis set out with all the aims to refine the gameplay of RE that Zero did, but made a much more successful job of it. The one thing to be said for Zero is that the monster designs are very creative. The leech zombie performs a similar role to Nemesis, with unique tactics required to dispatch him. There are of course the usual zombies, dogs and hunters, but there are a few enemies only found in Zero. Eliminators are essentially zombie monkeys, which sounds ridiculous, but they are a smaller, faster version of hunters, and large groups can quickly cause you problems. The other major new enemy are the Plague Crawlers, which are resistant little buggers that need a little more than a handgun to take out. The plot reasons that these strange additions to the RE bestiary are the result of yet more failed attempts at creating non-human B.O.W's. Thankfully this game lacks the super fast Crimson Head zombies that the REmake had, because that would have made this game infuriating. The scorpion boss makes quite an entrance, collapsing the entire roof of the train, with rain lashing down into the carriage as you're backed into a corner. The typical cinematic flair is certainly still there.
The music is up to a high, creepy standard, with the leech zombie appearances evoking a sudden swarm of disgusting insects. The majority of the soundtrack consists of the usual RE style of slow, haunting ambience intermixed with typical suspenseful, heart pounding danger music. It continues the tradition of high quality music found in other RE titles and wearing a second pair of underwear is recommended. The final boss music is some of the most epic boss fight music I have heard in an action game.
The replay value of Zero is enhanced considerably by the usual RE series unlockables, in which you obtain a closet key that gives you two new outfits for each character (including a somewhat raunchy leather biker outfit for Rebecca - no guesses who that was made for). The other big bonus besides the usual unlimited ammo weapons for beating the game with a high rank is the 'Leech Hunter' mini game, where you collect blue or green leeches throughout the training facility while dodging or killing enemies to a time limit. The more you get the better the prizes for use in the main story. If you have played the 'Mercenaries' mode for Nemesis or Code Veronica's 'Battle Mode' you'll know what to expect and it certainly won't disappoint. These type of games have always been a high point of the series, and even the more recent, action oriented RE games have included them.
Ultimately, Zero is a very good game by most standards, but unless you are a fan of the series, chances are it's not going to set your world on fire. It has more of the absolutely gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds that REmake had, a series of very interesting backstories and some creative critters that will leave fans purring but unfortunately the changes to the gameplay hinder rather than help. It's not the worst of the RE series (RE 5 & 6 have a lot to answer for) but it is second worst of the classic RE series, above Code Veronica. Zero would have done well to learn from the example set by Nemesis, which introduced new gameplay ideas without making the game clunky, such as the gunpowder mixing and live selection. If you do happen to be an RE fan, by all means you should explore what Zero has to offer, both in terms of backstory and a classic survival horror experience. If not, you may well still enjoy this game, but if you're looking to see what the fuss is all about, REmake on the Gamecube and Nemesis on PS1 are better choices.
+ Gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds and character models with cinematic cutscenes
+ Creepy, atmospheric soundtrack
+ Classic survival horror with extensive backstories and lore
+ Unlockable costumes and game modes make it worth replaying
- Character zapping system feels very sluggish
- Rebecca's role as a heroine reduced to carrying items and being rescued
- Item dropping brings new problems rather than fixing old ones