Resident Evil 4

The man to thank for all this is surely Mikami-san. He was asked to return as director because Capcom was unhappy about how the franchise he spawned - and which has shifted over 24 million units - was being re-imagined. Back at the helm, the prodigal son decided to scrap much of the existing work, starting afresh with a view to creating something more radical. It signifies a remarkable turnaround for the man who also created Devil May Cry and two years ago told a Japanese radio show that Sony manufactured the PS2 on the cheap so customers would have to buy replacements.

Of more consequence to Sony, Mikami-san is widely seen to be the catalyst behind the decision to make Resident Evil 4 a GameCube exclusive, along with four original titles: Viewtiful Joe, Killer 7, PN 03 and Dead Phoenix (the latter now cancelled).

The accompanying statement from Production Studio 4 explained that the decision was: "For the sound growth of the gaming industry. For GameCube." In retrospect, the obvious omission was the phrase: "For Capcom". Having clambered so eagerly into bed with Nintendo, the publisher now finds itself jealously eyeing Sony's installed user base. The imminent arrival of Resident Evil Outbreak on PS2 (sadly stripped of network play in Europe) may well be an indication of where the future of the franchise lies but, for now, the good news is that Mikami-san is back where he belongs, concentrating on injecting new life into his creation. And it unmistakably feels like a Mikami game - aggressive, kinetic, exuberant, inventive and mischievous. His fingerprints are all over the shotgun, which blasts its victims through the air, an effect rendered more dramatic if you can slam the corpse into a nearby object. Indeed, the sheer amount of ordinance - Kennedy also has access to grenades, a machine gun and a sniper rifle - serves to underline the action-heavy nature of the gameplay.

More intriguing, perhaps, is what's going to happen to the puzzle aspect. Only the most masochistic players would want to see the continuation of item-ferrying, interminable backtracking and combine-this-with-that solutions, but it's currently unclear what's going to fill the void. One possibility is that the head-scratching side of the experience will also be more immediate and environmentally based. In the code we played, certain areas of the forest had been rigged with laser-activated explosives. Avoid these, and you stumble across a wolf caught in a mantrap. Shoot the mechanism and the animal escapes, but remains understandably wary. Alternatively, remove its paw with care and man temporarily has a new best friend. It's an endearing moment, and one that hopefully points to a more interactive, non-linear approach to the way the story will develop.

Reinforcing Resident Evil 4's new sense of immediacy are barely perceptible loading times, cut-scenes generated solely using the game engine and - praise the dark gods - no intrusive door-opening animations. The design now feels coherent, streamlined and thoroughbred. Ammo and health are now displayed as screen furniture, and the process of picking up items is also a lot less convoluted, with no need to dip into a separate menu just to confirm that, yes, actually we would like to pick up the shotgun shells thankyouverymuch.

End of days
The only real danger facing Resident Evil 4 is that it risks sacrificing atmosphere and tension to appease a more trigger-happy audience. This concern, however, is unfounded. What the new game actually does is strip away all the niggling irritations that have blighted the series without losing anything from the core experience - which has always been about attempting to survive in a world gone mad.

Soon after the first scraps of information leaked online, scans were taken from subscriber copies of a US magazine carrying the exclusive. Once again, the internet went into overdrive, but this time the response was overwhelmingly positive largely because - as you can see - the game looks nothing short of sensational. Nonetheless, there is still dissent, invariably from the type of fan who's resistant to change of any sort. But then Metroid Prime also faced vehement criticism before anyone had even played the code...

Irritating as it might often be, the force of opinion is also testament to how fiercely protective people can feel about the gaming franchises they grew up with. But emotional connections shouldn't halt progress. "We wanted to bring back the players who had started to feel that Resident Evil wasn't offering anything new," explains Kobayashi-san, who has been working on the series since Resident Evil 2. "And in order to do that, we had to change everything." Even if that meant abandoning the zombies who, spiritually at least, have always been the stars. Keep moving or die a painful death. Welcome to the world of survival horror.

Capcom haven't announced a UK release date for the Gamecube-exclusive Resident Evil 4