Resident Evil 4 Reader Review
Everything has changed. Well, nearly everything. Gone are the shuffling, cumbersome and clichéd zombies of old. In their place is a new enemy - a more cunning, ruthless, determined and proactive foe. Gone are the dated and awkward controls which have long been a [somewhat detrimental] staple of the series, and in their place are controls which, although they may take a bit of getting used to, are as reliable and fluent as any other third-person game out there. The static camera is also consigned to the past, and is replaced by an over-the-shoulder viewpoint, which will give you a perfect view of your foes, your trials and the horror you must endure.
Leon S. Kennedy - one half of the starring cast from Resident Evil 2 - returns as the protagonist. The plot begins as the US President's daughter has been kidnapped, and Leon - as a special agent assigned to her protection - is following a lead of her apparent sighting in a remote part of Spain. What he finds there is a far cry from the T- or G-Virus of old, but no less devastating. And as always the infamous Umbrella are never too far from the events, along with a familiar face or two who make a return.
The first things which will strike you about this game (whether you are a series veteran or a late newcomer) are the much improved over-the-shoulder camera and the right analogue stick controls. Eschewing recent two-stick third person controls as seen in the likes of Hitman or Splinter Cell, Leon is entirely controlled with the right stick and on the left you are granted a small amount of camera angle control. You bring your weapon up to aim with the R1 button and thanks to some excellent sensitivity and a laser sight on most weapons, you can aim and shoot at whatever you like. That said, Leon needs a steady hand, and cannot move whilst aiming. This really adds tension to the proceedings as you try to balance keeping a safe distance whilst taking down the enemy and going in for melee attacks (more on this later) to conserve the precious ammo. All in all the controls (combined with the new camera) are an enormous improvement over the previous Resi games and really adds a lot to the gameplay.
The setting of this latest Resi episode is also something of a step away from previous entries. It starts out in a darkly hostile and chilling setting of a quiet rural Spanish village, and later moves onto a huge castle before returning to the more typical setting of a secret island replete with laboratories and unnatural experiments. Similarly, the enemies you find within are largely unlike anything you'll be familiar with from the previous games. The bulk of your foes look like ordinary people (although in desperate need of basic hygiene teaching...), but display supernatural strength, resilience and an impeachable desire to kill you. They are also much more challenging than the series' traditional foes, in that they will pursuit you whenever possible, wait to ambush you and generally keep Leon on his toes. Barricading yourself in a farmhouse will keep you safe for a few moments, but you'd better find a way to make a quick exit or find somewhere to make your stand, because when they break down the door or make their way through the second floor windows you will have nowhere to run. The game is probably at it's best in these early stages, and once the superb action like this sets in after about ten minutes it barely lets up until those end credits roll.
Resi 4 is much more of an action game at heart than any of the others in the series. Puzzles are still present, but for the vast majority generally are no tougher than finding a key to unlock a door. For series veterans they will probably feel like little more than concessions to the previous games' puzzles. No, the focus here is well and truly on the action and the confrontations. But thanks to the new controls and Leon's arsenal the odds never feel unfairly against you, despite the fact you will be frantically gunning a dozen enemies at times. It is also home to some very fair checkpointing, where you're unlikely to have to replay more than about five minutes upon death (which will happen unnervingly often at first).
Graphically, Resi 4 is certainly one of the better looking games on the PS2. Character models are perhaps not quite as detailed as they could be, but the environments are presented in lovely, grimy detail, and there are some truly excellent special effects on show such as explosions and fire. However, it does become apparent just how good the GameCube version looks in the cutscenes, which are pre-rendered from the Nintendo system's version. Both versions look great for their respective hardware, but the Cube version certainly packs more of a visual punch. Aurally it is also top-drawer. The score is wonderful at setting the scene and creating real tension, and the sound effects are excellent on all fronts. The voiceovers are about as good as you'd expect from a Resi title; fairly well done although the script is consistently cheesy. Also, Leon's character has changed slightly since we last met him - rather than the clean-cut rookie he was back in Resi 2, he seems to have had a few lessons from fellow Capcom hero Dante and has developed a sizeable streak of arrogance. He never goes too over the top though, so it doesn't become irritating or tiresome.
The enemy design is probably the best from any Resi game so far. Aside from those crazed villagers, you also get chainsaw-wielding maniacs, spooky chanting monks, giant flying bugs and huge blind warriors to carry two blades and rely on your sounds to find you, amongst others. The boss battles are also excellent - probably some of Capcom's best outside the Devil May Cry games. It'd be nice if they were a little more tactical, but they're still tricky, epic and exciting. The level design is of consistently high quality throughout. You will be taken round a huge variety of locations, from those already mentioned through old mines, churches and their accompanying graveyards, huge lakes, sewers, temples and rural woodlands. There is little mandatory backtracking aswell, and you are for the most part on the move at all times. These environments are largely unlike anything else experienced in the series, and manage to feel fresh and different against the survival horror genre as a whole.
Leon's arsenal is not to be trifled with. He might be severely outnumbered, but he is most certainly not outgunned. Yet again the limited space in your inventory returns. This means you have enough room for probably three different weapons and ammo, but you also need to make space for healing items. Thankfully support items such as keys are handled in a different screen this time, and don't take up precious room you need for medkits or ammo. Throughout the adventure you collect money and resellable items from fallen foes and hidden locations, and these can be used to buy goods off the merchant you meet on your travels. He pops up periodically in 'safe' locations and you can buy all sorts of things from him, such as new weapons, healing items, an inventory size increase, body armour and weapon upgrades. Upgrading your weapons is a really nice touch, as it means you can make even the very weakest guns strong enough to support you the whole way through. Also, when weapons are upgraded to the very maximum, they get one final special upgrade unique to each gun. It might be something like an extra-large magazine or hugely increased power; finding out what each one is can be quite tempting.
To complete first time, you are probably looking at around 16 - 18 hours, so it's at least half again as long as what we've come to expect from most games of this ilk. Not only that, but upon completion a multitude of special features open up. These range from the standard cutscene viewer, a survival mode which pits you against wave after wave of enemies where you have to score points and survive until the time counts down (an evolution on Resi 3's Mercenaries), a series of mini-missions called Assignment Ada and the PS2's most important exclusive addition; Seperate Ways. This tells the story of the goings on from another character in the story (you probably know who but I won't reveal it for anyone who doesn't know yet), and shows a few things from another perspective, a bit like the alternate scenario in Resi 2. The extras round off a very complete package, and finishing them will unlock yet more features for the main game, so there is a lot of playtime here, all in all.
There are occassions when you have to participate in a real-time cutscene by pressing buttons when prompted (much like seen in Shemue), which includes a superbly directed and lovely looking 'boss' fight. These interactive cutscenes are exciting and involving, and thankfully don't happen too often, as they do in Fahrenheit, which is to the game's credit. Leon is a lot more agile than any Resi hero who has gone before - most of this is due to context-sensitive actions he can perform in specific locations or circumstances. This includes a quick, smooth leap over a wall or out of a window, or climbing up a ladder. He can also melee attack foes if he inflicts enough harm to cause them to stagger - if an enemy takes a bullet in the face and staggers back, Leon can quickly approach and knock them down with a roundhouse kick. Similarly, if an enemy falls to their knees he can perform a suplex wrestling move. If you want to conserve ammo then doing these attacks wherever possible will be helpful, if not necessary. Normally I don't like performing context-sensitive moves like this in games, but I found those in Resi 4 slick, responsive and brief.
There are many occasions during the game where you will have to escort a second AI-controlled character. Although this can often spell doom for some games, it works really well here because things are kept simple. The character will run behind you at a couple of metres, will follow wherever you go if possible and you can command them to wait, follow or hide given the situation. It is also your responsibilty to keep them out of harm's way and protect them. Although it doesn't quite imbue the same sense of chivalry experienced in Ico, it works well here and adds slight elements of strategy to the game.
So, clearly a lot has changed, but does the series retain any elements? Will it still appeal to long-term fans? I think it will. Although the game is changed as a whole, there are a few minor elements still present, like the classic herbs and first aid spray to heal, and the legendary typewriter to save. Although puzzles have largely been removed and the focus is firmly on the action, it never feels as though the absent elements are at the expense of the tension, due to your numerous and powerful enemies. Although it doesn't have quite so many creepy moments as the earlier games, it easily has as many outright shocks and the subtle fear is prevalent throughout. That said, as someone who was tiring of this franchise over the past few years I think this reinvention of the series is absolutely what it needed, and has invigorated not only the series but the genre as a whole.
So anyway, here's the part where I should mention the game's faults...
Erm, the ending is a bit rubbish. I'll come back to this...
In terms of technical proficiency and presentation, Resi 4 is up there with the best. Loading happens between each (fairly large) area, but is mercifully brief. The cutscenes are superbly directed - as good as the very best titles such as Metal Gear Solid 3. The difficulty level on Normal will feel very harsh at first, but this is a game which will get easier after the first couple of hours, as you gradually acquire better weapons and learn the most efficient ways to tackle your foes. If however, Normal proves too difficult, the game will (in typical Capcom fashion) give you the option to downgrade to Easy after a couple of deaths. You can't say fairer than that.
So, to summarise, Resident Evil 4 is not only one of the best action games of the generation - nay, one of the very best games of any kind from this generation - it has revitalised a stagnating series and given the genre a firm boot up the arse. Given that it's just gone platinum and can be picked up for less than £12 on some good websites, you would be an absolute fool to pass this up. A truly essential game and a bona-fide future classic.