Resident Evil 4 (Video Game)

Developed by Capcom Entertainment

If anyone doesn’t know about this one yet, they’re not even a casual gamer. Resident Evil 4 is the biggest news in survival horror since… well… Resident Evil. Hype has been large (mostly word of mouth) and the game has been long in development. Nintendo exclusivity became port scandal just after it was finished, and the director of the game, who had said he’d cut off his head if it came out on PS2, was left looking rather stupid.

So why all the excitement and hype behind this game? Well, the Resident Evil series was meant to be the GameCube’s GTA, the mature system selling series of games showing that were to show quite clearly that the Cube wasn’t just for kids. At least so far, it hasn’t panned out that way. Most people unfairly decided that the remake was just a remake and something not worth buying a whole new system for. Zero was overlooked perhaps because it was a port from the N64, or perhaps because it wasn’t different enough.

Resident Evil 4 was always meant to be heading towards the GameCube and was the one that was going to be revolutionary. Series creator Shinji Mikima remade the original to work out what it was that made that game so good. You have to know where you’ve been before you can go on. Those were his thoughts. After a few major restarts to the project, not unheard of with Mikima involved, the final prototype had been revealed to, in order, shock and then awe.

The main character was Leon S Kennedy from Resident Evil 2, no surprises there, but no zombies, a camera that follows the player, and analogue aiming that was realised to its full potential. The environments were much more interactive thanks to a new context sensitive action button and smart level design. Instead of awkwardly staggering around the levels, Leon could vault over fences, dive head first through second story windows, knock down ladders that the games mysterious enemies were climbing, and perform roundhouse kicks. Running in letterboxed widescreen, even though the camera angle now followed Leon, the game seemed all the more cinematic.

This was a whole new Resident Evil…but still a Resident Evil game: No moving while shooting, herbs for health, creepy notes and diary entries giving hints to the story, familiar weapons and puzzles. Now it was freed from many of the things that had been seen as constraints before.

Resident Evil 4 has done something to me. It puts me into an awkward position. Here I am working on only my second review for this website and I’m about to do something that could hurt my credibility at this early stage.

14 years ago, I said something…a phrase that I’ve never since said after playing a game…and I want to stress that, because when I say “Resident Evil 4 is the best game I’ve played.” I don’t want people to think that I say the same of every great game that comes my way. The Resident Evil remake made it into the top ten games list I keep around in my head, but I didn’t think a game would ever topple the top of that pile.

The Secret of Monkey Island was a game without flaws: It was funny, engrossing, ingeniously designed, and repayable… I make a point of playing through that game about once a year and it hasn’t lost its charm, wit or fun. For 14 years it stood as my favourite game, and I’d always hoped that something would come and take that crown.

While there is no such thing as a perfect game, games can be flawless. There are always going to be areas that any game can see improvement in, but that is not to say that how it does those things are flawed.

There hasn’t been a Resident Evil game that wasn’t flawed in one way or another, usually in numerous ways, and whether it was the bad voice acting, the poor inventory system, or the controls (and whether or not they bothered you, the gamer, personally) it’s undeniable.

I can’t pick holes in Resident Evil 4 without attacking game design conventions on a whole. You can see enemy’s weapons sometimes clipping through doors as they try to open them… but I honestly can’t think of a single game where the enemies could open doors but that didn’t suffer from that problem. Certain things are far from realistic (and this is actually a roundabout complement ultimately) but saving with a type writer or a finding merchants happily setting up shop all across a psychopath infested village are justifiable concessions, realistic or not. They either improve or facilitate the gameplay.

The graphics of course, could be better…but they’re the best I’ve seen to date in any game. They aren’t beyond the X-Box or the PCs capabilities by any means, but graphics aren’t just technical achievement. The steady frame rate, the detail that the world has, and the art design surpass anything I’ve played. You could say that the textures could be higher resolution in places, but lets be honest: you can always say that. You could say that it’s a shame that the game only runs in letterboxed widescreen, and doesn’t offer 4:3 full screen or anamorphic widescreen, but that’s asking too much of the current hardware generation.

There are no doubts in my mind, having played the game through start to finish, that it was designed from the ground up to support the GameCube. Very few developers other than Nintendo have created engines to get the best out of the Cube, and Nintendo’s style is usually very colourful and almost always cartoony. When the Cube has gotten sole attention, in the case of Crystal Chronicles, the second party Metroid Prime games or here, it’s only then it shows its true power.

No one has done dark gritty gore like this before on the Cube. Even the two previous GameCube exclusive games fall short of this one on the gore quotient. If you’re looking for a gory game, this is it. There may be games with more gore on other systems, but I’d wager that they don’t have better-looking gore. 480p support for the first time ever in a Resident Evil game doesn’t hurt in the slightest. The character models look as good as they did in the remake and Zero but animate even better. Even though the control scheme still isn’t analogue, Leon just doesn’t seem mechanical in his movements. To see better breaking wood than Half Life 2 did on PC is just one of the many slight graphical touches that will have your jaw on the floor.

About the only thing you could contemplate criticising is that it’s letterboxed, but the game only looks as good as it does because of it. Given the choice between anamorphic and inferior graphics, I’d stick with what we have.

Sound could be surpassed on the X-Box with its Dolby Digital support, or on a high-end PC, but it’s the best you’ll ever hear from a GameCube I’d wager. DPL2 might not be the best surround option, but I’ve never been as aware of the rear speakers as I have here and it’s only the second time we’ve had Resident Evil in surround sound (RE2 on the N64 being the only other example). Technicalities are only the smaller picture anyway. Sound design is top notch. The enemy noises get under your skin, and by having the enemies all speak in a foreign tongue, the phrases they say never get repetitive, even if you come to recognise some of them. Only the merchants become repetitive, perhaps because most of their phrases are unnecessary.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve said next to nothing about the game at this point other than praising its quality. That’s because of what makes the game so good. RE4 isn’t the best game I’ve played because of one feature, it gains that status thanks to a huge list of small moments and to say too much would take away your enjoyment of the game.

About all I can do is describe the gameplay and the controls and assure you that the less you know about the game going in, the better. The boss fights are probably the best I’ve seen; I don’t doubt that you already know too much about them. The way the game hints at them before you run across them has probably already been spoiled for many people who have already seen some of the boss designs. I’m not going to add to that.

As mentioned before, Leon’s movement is controlled just as before, only now with context sensitive actions. Areas aren’t sectioned up into rooms any more, and you’ll be spending a good part of your time outside. Now you’ll have a largish area connect in the classical way by doors or ladders to other areas but now, within an area, there’s no guaranteed safe haven.

While there are ways to hinder your pursuers, certain enemies have ways to avoid or destroy any obstacle you can use. Also, enemies come in much larger numbers now to reflect the larger areas, and it’s not unheard of to face over a dozen enemies at a time. In fact, it’s very common. The bigger enemy count and the fact that enemies now drop ammo for you make the game seem a lot more action focussed. Puzzles tend to have their solution all within the one area, and almost always when that isn’t the case you’ll find a note telling you where you should look for answers, or receive a radio transmission that points you in the right direction.

Fighting standard, run of the mill enemies feels invigorating for having the analogue aiming. Enemies respond more believably to different hit zones than any I’ve seen before. Even bearing in mind that a headshot isn’t necessarily going to kill everything you come across, the things react in a way that’s totally feasible for having been shot in the head. You can wing enemies, trip them up, drop them to their knees, and depending on how much ammo you have you’re going to have to think your way through a lot of fights.

Earlier in the review I mentioned that saying there were concessions to the reality being presented in order to help the game design and that that was actually a roundabout complement. This is because the previous games were all concession. The tension never came from a believable world, but from restrictions forced upon you by the game designers, so that we’re talking about a believable world with a few justifiable reality breakers is a huge complement for a Resident Evil game.

Merchants are your source for weapons, weapon upgrades and items that don’t relate to puzzles. You can’t buy ammo from them and the only health items they sell are health sprays. Anything giving the player more choice is a good thing, even though the presence of the merchants is a little unbelievable compared to the rest of the game. It maintains that feeling of never having enough space for everything you want, while giving the player greater choice. Now it’s not a question of “Do I want the shot gun or all this health?” it’s a question of “Do I want to upgrade my pistol, buy a shotgun, or buy a rifle?” The money aspect of the game is so well implemented as to feel a complete part of it.

The inventory has been changed quite a bit too. Puzzle items and treasure go into a separate inventory area with no limit on space, and you have a box made up into a grid for ammo, weapons, and health. Anyone who has played RPGs like the Deus Ex series should be familiar with the basic concept. A rifle may be 6×1, a pistol 3×2 and a shotgun 4×2. Ammo boxes and herbs are all 2×1.

While it is weird that the pitchfork wielding villagers are carrying around boxes of ammos for guns they don’t have, and that the merchant, who has stacks of ammo boxes at his store, hasn’t got any ammo for sale, it balances the game so finely that you’d be a fool to complain. Believability should always come second to gameplay and, in RE4, that’s always the case. Too many games forget that. So there’s old typewriters in really, really weird places. So you save at a typewriter in a secret underground passage that’s sat on a crate. So what? Being able to save without ink ribbons is a good thing… who cares what the save points look like at this point?

The tension in Resident Evil 4 comes much less from enemies jumping out when you’re least expecting them and going boo, and the type of horror your faced with has completely changed. Before, it was being backed into a corner unloading shots at a slowly advancing zombie hoping it’d drop before reaching you, now it’s the fear of being swarmed…overwhelmed…exposed…

The enemies will try to surround you, and they’re going to succeed sometimes. They’ll follow you through doors, windows, over fences. You can barricade yourself in, but be sure to leave an escape route. Even during cut scenes you have to stay on your toes as the game throws in a new dodge feature. Often in the middle of a cut scene you’ll have to press a button combination to dodge, and failing to do so in time will usually lead to your death, so don’t put the controller down. It spreads the tension into new areas and since the button combination randomly switches from either L + R to A + B, you can’t even just memorise the presses. Success is almost always rewarded with some of the coolest cut scene work you’ll have ever seen.

I’d wager that you’ll die a lot more in Resident Evil 4 than you’re used to, but the generous save points and a new continue option will take some of the edge off those deaths. Actually, it’s probably not fair to say that you’ll die, “Get slaughtered” would be more on the money since for the first time in a while, the gory death sequences are back and I’ll be damned if they aren’t the best yet.

It’s a pet hate of mine for people to emphasize absolutes, like to say really pregnant for example, but when some of the enemies get their hands or claws or tentacles on you, you’re going to be absolutely positively unquestionably dead, with a big sick gorehound grin on your face to boot.

Personally I didn’t find the opening day time scenes to be overly scary, though other people have been experiencing fear even in those early areas on a level that I didn’t, but as it started to get dark, the tension came in, and the true frights started to reveal themselves.

Resident Evil 4 is still not without a few Romero references, one very specific one is a realisation of something I’ve long wanted to experience in a game, and feels like it’s been taken straight out of Night of the Living Dead. You’ll know it when you get there and I’m sure it’ll make you all warm inside as it did me. Warm with abject terror perhaps, but you’ll know a little of what it was like to be in Ben’s shoes that night.

What RE4 does surprisingly, is widen its canvas of inspirations. You have some rather Lovecraftian elements for one thing, something that other games have had shades of, but it feels much more front and centre here. You’ll begin with strong feelings of the Evil Dead, which will soon pass over into Texas Chainsaw Massacre with shades of Friday the 13th Part 2. You’ll encounter enemies that feel right out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and even spot a rather surprising and blatant reference to Resident Evil. The film, that is.

It’s a hearty meal for the horror fan, and really the potential hang-ups you may have will be preferential. If you want to be able to move and shoot at the same time, the game would lose so much tension. If you wanted to be able to side step, it’d be too easy to avoid your enemies. Where as previous Resident Evil games have arguably made it too hard to manoeuvre this middle ground really feels like a sweet spot rather than a compromise.

Perhaps you’ll prefer the more consistent thumbscrew terror of the Remake, or perhaps RE4s slower build and then spikes of terror will be more your thing. Maybe you’ll miss having to search everywhere to find 4 pieces of stone to fit together to open up the door to the next area…RE4 is certainly not any shorter than its predecessors coming in at around 20 hours just to play through the game the first time, and it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. It never once got boring; if anything just gets even better once you reach the final area of the game. Then you have the small bonus mission you’ll unlock, the ability to play through the game again but starting with all your improved equipment, the harder difficulty mode and the very worthwhile action minigame that I’ve already spent hours playing.

For a game without multiplayer to be this lengthy and repayable is very rare. It’s not just that the game rewards you for replaying; you’ll find yourself wanting to replay. Going back with all your equipment and laying waste to the enemies that had you running scared is perversely fun and satisfying, and hard mode? Well let’s just say it’ll test your mettle.

Whether you’re a newcomer to the series, a casual gamer or a Resident Evil veteran, I’ve never had any more certainty in recommending a game. While I can’t promise you that you’ll take it in as your favourite game, I can tell you that without any uncertainty: it’s now my favourite game and that I’ve yet to run into a dissenter. Now I just hope my next review can be a bit more down to earth…

5 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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