Many dismissed the concept of a PlayStation 2 port of Resident Evil 4 as a pointless waste of effort; an embarrassment waiting to happen. Whether these premature opinions were borne of partisan conclusion-jumping or valid technical concerns, it's not entirely clear, but few expected Capcom to be able to bring its much-admired GameCube masterpiece to the PS2 without some hefty compromises. Surely the creaking architecture of the veteran Sony machine would be unable to cope with the lavish demands of Capcom's survival-horror epic and PS2 owners would be left with nothing but a pale facsimile of the glorious Cube original? And wouldn't the rush to convert the game to a machine it wasn't designed for merely amplify the PS2's shortfalls? Apparently not.
Despite Sony regularly reminding us over the past decade that we should never underestimate the power of its consoles, it's bizarrely fashionable to dismiss the prowess of PS2. That Capcom has done such a grand job of squeezing a Resident Evil 4 port of few compromises onto the PS2 merely underlines exactly why the next-gen can wait just a little bit longer, and why the doubters can once again indulge in a tasty slice of humble pie. With games as good as this (and the likes of Black, King Kong and Call of Duty: Big Red One) appearing on the current gen horizon, why shell out for expensive new hardware?
Armed with the latest build, it didn't take long for the Capcom rep to confound any lingering negative expectations we might have been harbouring. Having seen the screenshots, we anticipated a rougher-looking version stripped down to its bare bones (and maybe sporting some wince-inducing frame rate issues). But far from being disappointed, seeing it play out in front of us was almost as much of a treat as witnessing it for the first time. For starters, the PS2 version features a true 16:9 aspect ratio, minus the bothersome pseudo-widescreen letterboxed viewpoint that slightly diminished the undoubted impressiveness of the Cube original. Anyone with a widescreen TV will know how important a true 16:9 mode is to the overall experience, and to see the game in true (non-zoomed) widescreen is a sight to behold. With progressive scan also being added to the mix, it's damned near the best looking game the platform has ever seen.
Cut and paste
As with all of Capcom's horror epics, the cut-scenes are among the best you'll see anywhere for standout visual opulence, and the same holds true here. As you'd perhaps expect, the CG sequences remain utterly faithful to the original (not being affected by any hardware limitations, naturally) and on that score PS2 fans can enjoy these spectacular scene-setting interludes exactly as Capcom intended.
But fortunately, when the gameplay finally kicks in you're not left with the distinct impression that someone's just whacked the resolution down several notches. In what must go down as one of the more heroic technical achievements of the current generations, the difference between this and what we were treated to on the Cube is initially... almost imperceptible. Running around the stark woodland of rural Spain, you get that exact same feeling of roaming around a harsh, unwelcoming environment where danger lurks around every corner. Skeletal trees, fallen leaves and a slate-grey sky give the area a sinister ambience that pervades from the moment Leon S. Kennedy steps out of the taxi on his search for the President's missing daughter.
Playing through various points of the game, it's abundantly clear that everything that Cube owners loved is present and correct, with every heart-stopping set-piece delivered with hammer-blow intensity. A lot of it of it's down to the astonishing faithfulness of the visuals, which look almost as detailed, crisp and clear as the original and yet somehow manage to hold up in terms of the frame rate. To prove the point, we booted up the original and proceeded to flick between channels to see what the true differences were, and having contrived to get both versions to the exact same part of the same level it was quite surprising to see how slender the Cube's advantage is. Indeed, the PS2 version is a definite match for the Cube original. The sum total of the differences amount to a missing lighting effect (the one where the light source appears to shine off walls and objects and illuminates gloomy corridors when you run up to them) and a less vibrant colour palette. We think most PS2 owners will be happy to settle for that. The important thing to report is that none of these extremely minor visual compromises have any bearing on the gameplay or the overall enjoyment. The fact that the core gameplay is completely intact is well worth celebrating.
If anything, the mapping of the controls to the Dual Shock pad feels instantly natural, with all of the buttons assigned intuitively. Not only that, but the overall responsiveness makes for spot on aiming and general movement; although part of that has to go down to us having played the game extensively earlier in the year and being able to slip right back into it.
While it's true that the PS2 version of Resi 4 can't claim to be the most technically proficient version, Capcom is attempting to make up for the shortfall by blessing this all-important conversion with all manner of exclusive content. For starters, there's the added bonus of five complete new chapters of gameplay which explore the back-story in some depth, allowing gamers to play as Ada Wong. According to Capcom it will allow us to see what she gets up to and who she's working for while Leon's busy fighting off a posse of completely insane villagers that sprout tentacles from their heads when you upset them. Accordingly, we can expect new areas, enemies and weapons to contribute to what Capcom says will amount to five hours of extra gameplay.
What new weapons? Well, if you finish the game you can get to grips with a couple of ludicrously powerful new uber-firearms: Ada gets a crossbow with grenade-tipped bolts (always handy), which certainly packed a punch when we asked for it to be unlocked, but it was nothing next to Leon's new weapon: the hugely powerful Las Plagas Removal Laser Gun (aka the PRL 4.1.2). Like some kind of awesomely powerful plasma rifle, it works on two levels: normal bursts of white energy, or a charged-up version which takes out some of the game's most powerful foes with ruthless efficiency. One burst might render them temporarily paralyzed, while charged ball of ferocious white heat simply rips through their stunned torsos, making short work of the shambling populace. On the other hand, it does take a few seconds to charge up, so you have to watch yourself when you're surrounded - although the area effect does take out multiple enemies at once.
In other, slightly less impressive news, there are two new outfits to enjoy: Leon has a dapper new mafia suit with a cream silk scarf (don't ask), while Ashley now has the added bonus of being able to wear a bulletproof suit of armour. Bet that gets sweaty.
Elsewhere, on completing each of the game's missions, the game delivers an Ada Report File; a document which reveals all-new information on the future of the Umbrella Corporation, as well as the dealings of the "ever mysterious" Albert Wesker and "other members of the cast" Capcom has revealed. In case you're wondering, the Mercenaries Missions and Assignment Ada are also included in the PS2 version, making the PS2 version something of a completist's set.
With final review code heading our way in around a month's time, check back soon to see whether the PS2 version really does live up to its highly promising billing. Whatever the outcome, join us soon for the full in-depth analysis of one of the PS2's most-anticipated forthcoming releases.
Resident Evil 4 will be released on the PlayStation 2 in Europe on November 4th.