"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.