Resident Evil 4
18th Mar 2005 | 16:15
"What are you playing right now?" We were asked this question a few weeks back by a senior member of staff from a high profile development team. He's working on a hugely popular franchise for a massive publisher.
Our answer was quick, enthusiastic, and wide-eyed. "Resident Evil 4".
The developer rolled his eyes in resignation. "Oh man," he sighed, "those guys have done such an amazing job on that game..."
We can't think of any better way to sum up Capcom's Resident Evil 4. It's so stunningly superb that it makes games developers feel powerless to equal it.
There are a number of reasons for this - in fact, there's a catalogue of reasons that would run into thousands of pages if we even attempted to write them all down. So we'll stick to some of the most important reasons why Resident Evil 4 could be the most overwhelmingly complete videogame experience you'll ever enjoy.
Here's the first: Resident Evil 4 is the first videogame to brutally grab the pant-messing power of the horror film and elevate it to all new heights by adding gameplay. This is scary stuff. Really scary. Not just slightly worrying. It's the type of genuine scariness that'll make you jump, sweat, shiver, freeze, hyperventilate and yelp like a dog in a trap.
And the scares are done not just by cheesy atmospheric tricks or cheap scripted 'BOO!' moments like dogs crashing through windows. There's a continually grating sense of agitation as you explore the deserted villages of rural Spain and beyond, and it never lets you go. Put it this way: if previous Resident Evil gave you a fright every half hour or so, Resi 4 will hand you your stomach on a plate every five minutes.
It starts relatively tame, mind. Before we get in too deep, be comforted by the fact that we're keeping this review a (fairly) spoiler-free zone. Capcom hasn't released a whole lot of info on storyline, and we think that's the best way to keep it. If you go into Resi 4 with preconceived notions about what to expect that quickly get shattered like a dropped mirror, all the better.
You'll already know that you're playing Leon, long-time stalwart of the Resident Evil series. He's working for a secret organisation charged with protecting the President of the United States' family. It's a cushy job, but unfortunately the President's 20-year old daughter has only gone and got herself kidnapped. Turns out she was last seen in a remote part of Spain. You have to go and get her.
Accompanied by a couple of wise-cracking Spanish cops you drive deep into the heart of the Spanish countryside. This is truly non-Resi territory - the great outdoors, in the middle of nowhere, and in the depths of the wilderness. But you've got a job to do. Reaching the village where the President's daughter was last spotted, you climb out of your four-by-four and approach a house. There's a real sense that you're isolated from everything and everybody. Everybody normal, anyway.
MASTER OF HORROR
Is your pulse quickening? It will be. Better than any game we've ever seen, Resident Evil 4 immediately creates a pervasively oppressive atmosphere in exactly the same way that a successful horror movie does. The colour scheme is muddy brown, there's a gritty visual filter drenching the screen and the incidental sound effects are superbly eerie. Basically, you've pinched a loaf into your pants before you've even come close to a zombie.
Resident Evil 4 is so scary because the developers have exercised total control over the medium, and that means throwing out the dodgy parts of past games in the series. Forget the Resident Evil you know. This is so different that all that mucking about in Raccoon City might as well have never happened.
First of all, the control system is totally different. Long gone are the fixed cameras and 'spin-on-the-circle' movement, replaced by a far more effective third-person behind-the-back camera. It feels a bit like a FPS, but with Leon's body at the centre of the screen. At first the controls feel strange because of this. All your movement is done on the left stick, with the right offering a limited snap-back view of your surroundings. Turning quickly is therefore difficult, although you can spin 180 degrees by pulling back and pressing B. If anything it initially feels a little clumsy, but there's a very good reason why Resident Evil 4's control method is genius. We'll get to that in a minute.
Shooting lumps out of your attackers is achieved by pressing the right shoulder button to enter the aiming stance. The camera zooms in over your shoulder and a red laser-sight shows where you're aiming. Pressing A shoots. There's no FPS-style running and gunning here. You stand your ground and unload, or bitch out and run. Again, this feels a little clumsy at first, and (again) there's a very good reason why this is genius. We'll get to it, honest.
GO FOR THE HEAD!
But first we need to tell you how awesome it feels to blast the festering crap out of redneck types. As you hold the right shoulder button the left stick becomes your aim. Targeting different regions of your opponent's body elicits different effects, so hitting them in the chest will slow them down or spin them, while a close-up shot to the face will blow their heads clean off in a magnificently crunchy shower of brain shrapnel.
But there's a catch. While you no longer have to go into your inventory to reload your weapon, reloading is a time-consuming affair. We've lost count of the number of times we've had hordes of enemies bearing down on us and we've heard that horrible, terrifying 'clunk' as the chamber empties and Leon goes into his laborious reload animation. Awesome.
That first encounter we described feels horribly panicked and rushed as you fumble for your weapon and take your first tentative shots. The great thing is that this feeling never ebbs away, no matter how many enemies you've plugged or what powerful weapon you're packing.
And there are plenty to pack. As you progress through Resident Evil 4 you'll find new weapons (including grenades of all varieties) throughout the environment (pleasingly, a shotgun is available within the first ten minutes) or available to buy from the mysterious Merchant. This bloke's always around when you need a new piece, and for the right price he can upgrade the power, speed and capacity of your existing weapons. He doesn't sell ammo, though, so you'll have to keep an eye on your stocks - but happily this is the first Resident Evil that wants you to have enough ammo. Not too much. Just enough to take out as many bad guys as you need to, without making you feel too comfortable.
Shotguns feel meaty and spread the pain pleasingly, while the rifle allows sniped headshots that shower undead head mush everywhere. The SMG offers ultra-fast rates of fire but is fairly ineffective, while the rocket launcher is stupidly powerful but only comes with one shot. Then there's the Magnum: hits harder than a freight train, but ammo is in short supply. All in all the selection of weapons is hugely satisfying and always feels meaty enough to do the job.
There are other ways to attack your enemies that come in handy. If you stun an enemy with a bullet to the face you can kick him with a swift tap of the A button, resulting in another glorious nugget explosion if he was close to death. You have a knife too, which comes in handier for busting open ammo-holding crates and barrels but can also be used for bloodletting.
IT'S NOT WHAT YOU SEE...
Let's get back to that control method, then, and why it's simultaneously clumsy and genius. The camera in Resident Evil 4 is perfect. Honestly. It's amazing. Not because it gives you total freedom to manipulate it, but rather because it tightly controls what you can and can't see. Your peripheral vision is severely hampered, especially when you're aiming your weapon, meaning you're constantly concerned about threats from your sides and your rear. It's this feature more than anything else that creates the sensation of true terror Resi 4 often elicits.
Here's an example. You've fought your way past the first house and stumbled into the main courtyard of the village, where a large group of rednecks have been alerted to your presence. Desperate to buy yourself some time you barge into a wooden shack (incidentally, double tapping A lets you kick open doors for added speed, a cracking little touch) and shut the door behind you. If you were thinking straight you'd block the door with the dresser to halt your pursuers' progress. But you're not thinking straight. You're wetting yourself. So you reload your weapon, take aim at the door, and wait for them to come through. It flies open and you let rip.
Then there's a crash. You ignore it, because you're still dealing with the four villagers dragging themselves through the door.
And then it happens. A woman wearing a blood-stained apron sticks a kitchen knife through your head from behind you.
How the hell did that happen? It happened because she broke the window behind you - the window you weren't watching and couldn't see - and crept up behind you. Resident Evil 4 is constantly playing with your perception like this, making you increasingly paranoid that something's about to hit you from behind. And when you do get hit, it drains a shocking amount of energy. Resi 4 is unforgiving and it's hard, but it's never frustrating. Guess what? We'll come back to that.
That little example was not a set-piece. It was just one of the countless memorable things that happen in the organic flow of the game. That's not to say there aren't set-pieces. There are, and every single one is brilliant in its own way. Seriously, there's not a dud amongst them.
Again, we don't want to spoil things for you, but there is one set-piece we just have to tell you about. You find yourself trapped in a house stuck atop a hill. The door's barred and the windows are boarded, but a staggering amount of villagers have gathered outside and they all want your blood. It's the ultimate zombie movie stand-off: You against the undead hordes, and they just keep coming, and coming, and coming. It was during that set-piece we realised Resident Evil 4 was the zombie game we've always wanted.
Resi 4's cut-scenes are just as refreshing as its set-pieces. They're short, to-the-point and expertly directed. But what's really impressive is the way Capcom has implemented interaction into cut-scenes by forcing you to press buttons at designated times. This could be a horrible idea, but it works brilliantly and really connects you to the action. There is one action-packed cut-scene late in the game that's played out entirely with split-second button taps. Miss them and you're dead. Nail them and you feel like you're truly playing a zombie movie.
To clarify, zombie isn't the right word. There's something far more sinister going on in Resident Evil 4 than an outbreak of the T-Virus, and the huge array of enemies you'll come up against are far more terrifying and varied than anything you've seen before. The villagers are bad enough. Then there's the lumbering bloke with the hessian sack on his head and the chainsaw. There's El Gigante, the huge troll, and Del Lago, a massive sea monster.
Of particular note is the brilliant enemy AI. Your opponents aren't necessarily clever, but they're bloody well persistent, relentlessly stalking you from every angle until you're cornered. You can't just stand back and pick them off one-by-one. Later you'll come up against even more aggressive enemies with even more aggressive weapons, and once whatever it is that's turning them towards evil takes hold, you're definitely in real trouble.
Real gory trouble, that is. We knew Resident Evil 4 was visual in its depiction of violence and gore, but we were still surprised at just how vicious it is. There are loads of death-sequence moments that'll have you covering your eyes or sucking spit through your teeth in disgust. Best of all, this level of brutality never feels pointless or comic. Rather, it's a wonderfully cathartic climax to the brooding fear and escalating tension you've been feeling - a sudden release of terror captured in a claret-soaked image of a blade through your face.
Just writing about it has our pulse racing and our brows sweating, and we feel we've hardly touched on the magnificence of Resi 4. There's so much to rave about that it becomes overwhelming, like there just aren't enough positive words in the dictionary to do it justice.
So let's take Resident Evil 4 down to technical, game mechanic terms by comparing it to the previous games in the series. Again, it's fantastic. It makes the past Resi games look like clumsy, annoying piles of zombie turd. In Resi 4, there's almost no pointless back-tracking. The checkpoints are placed perfectly so as to cut frustration but still offer a challenge. You can save whenever you find a typewriter (no need for ribbons, thank goodness). The puzzle sections have also been toned down. No longer will you be stuck for ages trying to work out a hideously oblique brainteaser. Rather, you'll be pleased to have a quick breather from the oppressive action.
When you do come across the President's daughter and the game switches towards an Ico-esque escort mission, your controls for telling her what to do are simple and effective. One tap of X tells her to wait or follow, and you can order her to hide with the same button. Impressively, she ducks automatically every time you swing your weapon her way, totally defusing any potential 'You Shot The Dumbass President's daughter so it's game over' type scenarios.
There are a couple of occasions when you're placed in control of Ashley, unarmed and pretty useless. Amazingly, even these sections don't frustrate. They're short for one thing, and they're so well judged that they add another dimension to the game's action. Good God. Capcom couldn't even mess those bits up.
Overall, there's a real sense that Resident Evil 4 has been designed by people who really know, love and understand how a good game works, and how it makes you feel. Or rather, how it should make you feel. The tense and evolving gameplay is consistently driven into every fibre of your body in new and exciting ways and the pacing is nothing short of perfect. Playing Resident Evil 4 was the first time in years we never once got even slightly frustrated or bored by a videogame.
INFECTED AND PERFECTED
Most importantly of all, Resi 4 is continuously throwing something new at you, whether it's a new environment, a new weapon, a new enemy, a new stimulating set-piece, or a new terrifying experience. This endless originality is particularly impressive when you consider that there's at least twenty hours of gameplay here, which is more like 30-35 hours in real terms when you add in deaths, exploration, deaths, and a few more deaths.
But the real mark of Resident Evil 4's untouchable superiority is wrapped up in that sigh of resignation from our developer friend. In truth, there's so many stunning aspects of this game that a tiny gesture like that says much more than pages of considered prose could.
Resident Evil 4 displays such extreme mastery of the videogame medium that it deserves far more than any review could give it, which essentially makes the thousands of sycophantic words we've just battered out redundant. So, we'll finish with the review we thought about running: Resident Evil 4. The perfect videogame? Pretty bloody close.
We've had our copy of Resident Evil 4 for weeks thanks to our friends at Skill Games. Check out their website at www.skill2k.com for more info.