It's another big game for the N-Gage - Resident Evil: Degeneration - and with it comes a lot of expectation. Not from the dedicated N-Gager, but from the huge numbers of general public that will see the name of the game and expect a third person shooter, with lots of zombies, fast action and running around real world locations.
They pretty much get what they expect, but there are a few rough edges when porting a Home Console classic down to a quarter-VGA screen with phone buttons as controls. But we'll get to them as we get into the game.
First up, for the four people reading this that have no idea what a Resident Evil game involves: it boils down to one word. Zombies. If you want to expand that, then go for three words. Lots of Zombies. The infected (for that's what they are called in the game) have risen up around the world, and your job is to get out of the tricky situation you find yourself in, find as many survivors as possible, and then vamoosh out of wherever you are.
So let's look back at what the general public are going to expect from this game, and start with the real world locations. Resident Evil: Degeneration is set in an airport. There's plenty of opportunity in here for a reviewer to make some comments on the mental state that travellers at an airport have, but I'll let you make your own jokes.
Choosing this setting provides a certain amount of familiarity to the level design - we all know what an airport is like, although having the wreckage of a plane crash in the middle of the Arrivals Hall lets you know that it's not going to be all cosy, even if there are some delightful representations of fire on the N-Gage screens.
One crashed plane in the lobby, and some doors to open.
One disappointing feature of the level maps is how mid 90's they feel. By that, I don't mean the décor (at a push I'd say the airport looks rather like Manchester) but the design of the level maps. There is a huge reliance on corners set a 90 degrees, giving a grid like feel to all the levels. The real world isn't like this, but of course modelling like this is a little easier on the graphics engine. We're also in a world that's not fully three dimensional - there is no crossing over your own path in an upper level, although when you advance to another area this might be faked by the program.
Of course if it's a good game, all of this can be forgiven. In the main the engine powering Degeneration feels like that which powered the original Doom game. It works well, as long as the rest of the game compensates.
Normal exploring on the left, aiming with the laser sight on the right
And to be honest, it almost does. Resident Evil Degeneration needs a certain amount of gritting your teeth to get through it - if you do then you will be amply rewarded in game terms, but you do need to consider that you are playing on a mobile phone. And that's the major gotcha in this title.
Because a phone keypad, no matter how well you tweak it, is still a phone keypad and not a game controller.
Some games (and I'm looking at Metal Gear Solid Mobile) are in a genre where your slow response isn't that vital. You're meant to be slow in a stealth game. Resident Evil is not a stealth game - it's 100% shotgun to the head action. Yet using the D-pad is horribly slow and regimented. Rather than run around (and lets be honest, speed is the key when fighting zombies, it is your one big advantage over the lumbering undead), you'll be fighting the D-pad to get the right direction. Neither are the two action keys in the N-Gage system (the (A) and (B) keys that also act as the MP3 controls on the N95) set up to use what you would expect to be the main key of the game. The Fire your gun key. Yes you can redefine them, but surely the default controls should be the best compromise, because not everyone will change them?
Even though the controls are hampered by the physical phone, Resident Evil: Degeneration is still fun. The airport itself is expansive (you spend almost the whole game there), and progressing through levels isn't just a matter of heading straight to the exit - you have to find information and objects to allow you to get through closed doors or inaccessible areas - nothing too complicated but enough to take the game off the treadmill, and giving you a decent sense of exploration along with the ammo-fuelled carnage.
Although you start with a pistol and a knife (no mention of how you got them through security), you'll get the chance through the game to upgrade your weaponry, either in the form of new weapons or buying upgrades for your existing armoury from weapons dealers that happen to be dotted throughout the airport.... ahem, yes. Which seems like a chance for some RPG-like building of stats and choosing your style, but alas there is so much money lying around that once you pick up a new weapon you can zap up the reload speed, capacity and accuracy to an insane level in short order. Nice idea, but let down by the level design.
The graphics do deserve a mention, and this is the first N-Gage game where I've felt that a graphics chip (such as those available on the N93, N82 and N95) to work on the polygons might be a good idea. There are moments when the graphics of the lead character break up, especially when you go into 'aim' mode by looking from behind the character and a laser sight is activated. Seeing inside the 3d model is never a good sign, and more polygons could help this. There's also the greyness in the game - so yes the undead with no blood in an airport is going to be naturally full of grays and cream walls, but with more definition and polygons a greater range of shading could have been implemented. The draw distance (how far away something is before it starts to be drawn) is also amazingly small, and needs improvement.
The draw distance is very short; note the back wall that's not visible on the left that "pops up" on the right.
Maybe all this is yet another result of the lack of graphics acceleration and the focus on developing games for lowest common denominator hardware. Using standard OpenGL calls would at least have meant that N-Gage players on the best-selling N95 (for example) would have seen far smoother and richer graphics. Does the current software rendering hamper the gameplay? No. Does it hamper the look of the game? Yes. Does that have a knock-on effect in the perception of the game? Yes.
Right now, Resident Evil's graphics have nothing to be compared against, so they stand up well as a mobile shooter. As more games in this genre come along, the geee-whizz newness of the game will start to fade, and the level design, controls and ambience will come under the microscope. Luckily, they can stand an examination but I fully expect any other FPS shooters to be able to trump every area of 'Evil with some careful thought.
For now, first mover advantage belongs to Resident Evil, and it's a very strong move. I would recommend the title (even though I feel the free demo is far from enough to make an informed decision), but it is with the above reservations. It's a fun title, I think most people will enjoy the gameplay, but it misses the mark very slightly. Perhaps a true FPS is not possible on such a small all in one device?