ZERO HOUR: Part 1
(WARNING: Spoiler be here...)
Last week saw the HD re-release of 2002's Nintendo Game Cube classic Resident Evil: Zero for digital download. I decided to review this title because, besides being a Resident Evil Maniac, I actually remember buying, playing and beating this game when it first came out for GameCube way back in November 2002. I remember it well because I had to go back to Game Crazy, (Defunct Hollywood Video’s old video game spin-off stores), twice as the game shipment was late. Like many fans of Capcom's Zombie Saga I had "fallowed the systems" the Resident Evil series had periodically scooted around to and I was anxious to see what all the hoopla was about this game based on articles I had read in different places. By then Zero had been in development for the better part of 5 years and had already changed development systems once.
For those whom do not know, RE: Zero is the prequel to the original/ 2002 remake of Resident Evil. Despite the deceptive synopsis that states we will learn the previously unknown fate of the STARS Bravo Team, (We already know. They died!), we actually only focus for 98.5% of the time on rookie STARS medic Rebecca Chambers who provides back-up for Chris Redfield's scenario in Resident Evil. Partnered with 'Becca is escaped military convict Billy Coen, an ex-Marine Lieutenant who we eventually learn was framed for a mass murder he didn't commit and has been sentenced to death. He's also more interested saving his own hide and escaping the nightmare-filled Arkley Woods so he can begin a new life on the run à la The Fugitive rather than unraveling a biohazard mystery. Understandable.
As we all know by now, a bizarre series of murders has been discovered to have occurred in the Arkley Mountains on the outskirts of Raccoon City, USA. The remains of the victims in these crime - mainly hikers, campers and the occasional hobo squatter - all show signs of having been partially eaten by both animal and human attackers. Pressure from the press and public outcry has forced the City Government and Police Chief Brain Irons to act. In response STARS Bravo Team, (Special Tactics and Rescue Services), is dispatched via helicopter to the scene of the latest attacks. However, once airborne the whirlybird's engine "malfunctions" (read: Albert Wesker) and they crash land in the mountains far off course. As Bravo Team gets their bearings they come across the overturned military truck that was transporting Billy to a Military Base for his execution. (I always wondered if Billy's real destination was the Arkley Lab because a.) The Military was on Umbrella's payroll, b.) It had provided prisoners as test subjects in the past and c.) Umbrella kept the Military and Federal Government out of the loop as far as the outbreaks go in the beginning.)
The soldier guards are all dead; mauled to death. And Billy is MIA. So Bravo Team separates to find Billy, (several team members end up at the Mansion, others are mangled to death in the woods by Cerberus and zombies), and it is tiny, lone Rebecca who eventually finds him and must work together with him to survive this nightmare. Their quests take them from the Umbrella-owned, blood-soaked derelict passenger train-The Elliptic Express, to the equally abandoned and cobweb festooned Umbrella Training Facility, and on to the outlaying fringes of the Underground Main Lab on the very outskirts of Raccoon City, until they finally reach the Arkley Mountains Water Treatment Plant. All of which are inhabited by monsters and zombies jacked up on both the t-Virus and its ancient-born "mother" virion, Progenitor.
The creatures in this game are a bit more "primordial", as a great deal of them are supposed to be early, failed Progenitor/ t-Virus experiments. If you have a deep phobia about skittering insects be warned now as over-sized cockroaches (The Plague Crawler), centipedes (The Centurion ), scorpions (The Stinger) and the stalwart spiders (Web Spinners) are always clicking and hissing from the shadows, waiting for the right moment to spring out and attack. Ditto goes for those who get queasy from slimy critters such as Lurkers, (giant bullfrogs that eat your character in one gulp after a brief tug o' war) and a legion of mutant leeches that also play a significant part in the story. Hunter-a and Cerberus, (both on the run from the decimated Arkley Mansion/ Lab and both berserker-hungry for prey), make repeated appearances. As does the Proto-Tyrant, a discarded early prototype of the Tyrants that are seen in the rest of the series and just as deadly as it's younger "brothers". For the fanboys, (and girls), series favorites Albert Wesker, William Birkin and STARS Bravo Capt. Enrico Marini all pop in for various cameos which help serve to plug up some holes in their respective backstories, (especially Wesker and Birkin's).
And we are also introduced to an important and key character in the series meta-story overall, one Dr. James Marcus.
Dr. Marcus, along with Lord Oswell E. Spencer and Sir Edward Ashford, discovered the Progenitor Virus outside of Kijuju, Africa in the early 1960s by fallowing arcane clues, maps and legends. While Sir Ashford saw the altruistic possibilities in Progenitor's mutagenic properties, (cures for cancer and paralysis for example.), Spencer and Marcus saw the possibility of biological evolution and profit from their new discovery. Ashford died of Progenitor exposure early on, thus cementing the direction Marcus and Spencer would take in their research. Spencer would follow his Eugenicist’s dream with Project Wesker while Marcus focused on unlocking Progenitor’s genome - thus pathing the way for Dr. Birkin's later discovery of the G-Virus, all under the cloak of the newly formed Umbrella Corp. However, because Progenitor was primal it had an extremely low adaptability rate, (like 1 in 500, 000), killing many test subjects outright and the research went slowly and resulted in the occasional metaphorical tussles between life-long friends Marcus and Spencer. Eventually, Marcus hit upon the idea of merging Progenitor with several terrestrial viruses such as Ebola and the DNA of a leech, thereby creating the world famous Tyrant Virus, t-Virus for short, which easily adapted to all known Earthly organisms and thereby laying the ground work for all the hijinks that are to come in most future Resident Evils.
Because this breakthrough threatened Spencer's position in the company and thereby possibly derailing his beloved pet Eugenics/ Wesker Project, (as well as the fact that Marcus was conducting uncontrolled human experiments on Umbrella trainees), Spencer sent his favorite "son" Albert Wesker and up-and-coming ruthless hot shot William Birkin to do his dirty work and murder the good Doctor while appropriating his research for company purposes. But of course this is grade B horror so we know it didn't go down just like that. Marcus' pet Queen Leech grabbed a joy ride on the Doc's body when it was dumped in the sewers. For the next decade it incubated in Marcus' corpse, absorbing his memories and personality. When this ten year shtup-fest finished the then newly revived and empowered Marcus embarked on a reign of terror against Umbrella and Spencer. He contaminated the Mansion Lab's water supply with t-Virus thus causing the outbreak, he attacked the train and the exploratory teams sent to reopen the Training Facility - killing all the researchers and security personal, and he directly confronts Wesker and Birkin via monitor about their crimes. As you can see, much like Resident Evil's "progenitors"- the George A. Romero Dead films, the zombies and creatures are more speed bumps to our heroes in the story than true villains. It's the humans whom are the real bastards.
Gameplay-wise Zero is an almost carbon copy of the REmake from 2001. That seems logical as they were both made using the same engine and design aesthetics. With that said, there can be no argument that REmake and Zero where both beautiful games when released. And much like some 30 year old horror classics such as Romero's Day of the Dead and John Carpenter's The Thing, their graphics still hold up despite the fact that the old school "tank" controls sometimes feel like you’re trying to control the mind of a drunken farmer driving a Harvester tractor. One of the real innovations with Zero was the Partner Zapping, which allowed you to switch between two onscreen characters on the fly, (More on that in Part 2).
The other was the ditching of the by-then outdated Item Chest. Now your character could drop something on the spot. I don't know how many times playing the old Resident Evils "back in the day" where I'd finally come upon an elusive key or puzzle part, only to be stonewalled by the fact that my inventory was full. Then I'd have to shag-ass it back I don't know how far to the closest Item Box to do some inventory maintenance. Some fans say this adds tension and an element of strategy to the games. I always thought of it more as a pain in the ass. But this new feature is a double edged sword. For one thing, both Billy and Rebecca only get six item slots and there are no side packs to be found for extra space. Another, some weapons, like the shotguns and grenade launcher, take up two slots at a time. Again you must be strategic and you will find yourself ferrying your junk from one spot to another at points in the game, (I always pick the Save Rooms as they are considered "safe").
Zero also finds it's tenor and thematic mood more in tune with REmake as opposed to the more action based later "original" games like Resident Evil 2, 3 and CODE: Veronica. This translates into the fact that those of you out there who prefer more faster moving horror games such as Dying Light or, (God Forbid), Resident Evil 6 are probably going to be bored to tears in spots. Combat will also be a tricky and frustrating proposition for the younger gamers out there. Especially if this is your first time playing one of the "original"/ post Resident Evil 4 games. Because of the fixed camera angles you will at times be forced to blindly shoot and hope the target lock on you aim is working right. It's either that or just wait for your enemy to come to you. If it's a zombie you're in like Flynn, Boo. If it's a Hunter or Plague Crawler things get dicey. If it's a Cerberus or an Eliminator, (Think rabid/ t-Virus infected baboons),....yeah, Good Luck with that.
And don't try to just "hold your ground" with the Leech Man. In Zero the t-Leeches operate on a hive mind mentality controlled by the Queen Leech (Marcus). At times they will merge together and form a "Mimicry" Marcus. When attacked or agitated Mimicry Marcus will soon transform into the aforementioned and often hated Leech Man. This spasming monstrosity will surely make even seasoned horror gamers jump when it pops out of nowhere with its signature music and it's jerking, sliding stance. This thing moves like greased goose shit and is hard as Hell to kill if you don't know what in the eff you are doing. (My Master Yoda advice here: Fire is your Friend!)
So much for all that. Now, for the ending of this first part of my little review I thought I would focus on going back into the past for a moment to bring us up to speed in the present and the future of Resident Evil as a series. Originally Zero was conceived as an N64 game, because of the lack of load times the carts allowed and Capcom's desire to make RE cross console as this was the pre digital download era. (Let's face it, I don't care if it's 1979, 1982, 1988, 1997 or 2016 - fricking game systems are expensive and it's not everyone that can own all the systems out there). However the programmers soon were faced with memory limitations so Zero's development was shifted to the Game Cube.
This was when Capcom, in my humble opinion, pulled a boner. They signed a three game exclusive with Nintendo for REmake, Zero and the long awaited Resident Evil 4. Nintendo was by this point in the beginning of a waning phase as far as popularity goes. Nintendo's own Frankenstein creation, the Sony PlayStation, was blowing its doors off and Sony was all poised to release the PlayStation 2. Nintendo's old rival Sega was still clawing to stay in the game, (no pun intended), with its Edsel-Betamax of a console, the Dreamcast. And it didn't help that Nintendo was known for its Mario/ Kiddie-friendly fare, which Resident Evil surely was not. As a result of that and a general malaise towards the series in general, (Story-wise they just kept going backwards - Literally.), Remake and Zero fared bad in overall sales compared to earlier titles. It was at this point that Capcom told series guru Shinji Mikami he had two choices, either end the show with Resident Evil 4 or overhaul the whole damn affair with a soft reboot. Mikami took the reins again and jettisoned the original story elements from RE 4 to be used later in future games, (Originally 4 was a straight sequel to CODE: Veronica set at one of Spencer's Estates in France some four months after the Raccoon Incident.), and settled on an X-Files "Monster-of-the-Week"-type premise that transformed it into the action fest, side-story most folks all know and love today.
Which set the road for Resident Evil 6, a subject I'll get into in Part 2...