Headless loser or shotgun-toting blood-splattered Bruce Campbell-esque badass? That's the question Resident Evil always asks of its audience, but one that the epic fourth in this veteran horror series wastes no time in hollering in the ears of anyone who dares to pick up a GameCube joypad to challenge it. Compared to most games, the Resi series has been notorious at busting gamer's balls in all manner of ways, but number four grabs those unwary testicles, twists them 720 degrees, hacks them off with a blunt instrument and promptly feasts on them before flobbing them back in your disbelieving face. While emitting a dry rasping cackle.
Having played the E3 demo a number of times last summer, we knew roughly what to expect. You play as one-time STARS rookie cop Leon Kennedy, on a mission to rescue the US president's daughter Ashley from the clutches of a Spanish gang. Entering a stark, decaying rustic village in the midst of Autumn 2004, it's clear your presence is not welcomed. Even the most polite enquiry is met with the swing of an axe, and very soon you get the picture that you're going to have to fight for your survival every step of the way. But unlike every other Resident Evil game released to date, you're not fighting off bloodthirsty zombies, rather what appears initially to be a bunch of normal-looking middle-aged locals who for reasons yet to become clear are programmed to kill intruders on sight.
Village of the damned
So, having fought off a few stragglers on your way into the village, all hell breaks loose. Whoever spots you immediately shouts gruff instructions in their native Spanish tongue and before you know it you're frantically running into the nearest house, hastily constructing impromptu barricades in front of exposed doors and windows, kicking the hordes of invaders off ladders and even jumping fearlessly out of windows and off roofs to make your escape.
But escaping itself, it seems, is a futile exercise when all the exits from the village are locked and reinforcements keep on appearing no sooner than an entire wave have been disposed of - a task made even more complicated when a hooded chainsaw-wielding leatherface appears on a mission to remove your head from your torso. When it comes down to it, it's you or him, and if you're not careful one quick swipe and you'll be witnessing with some disbelief the sickening sight of the screeching mechanical blades growling their way clean through your neck in one fell swoop, followed by much spurting of claret. What's initially unexpected is followed by the stark realisation that that's it. Game Over. No second chances, it's back to the last continue point to Do Better Next Time. You'll wonder what the hell's hit you, and needless to say you'll blame the game. We always blame the game.
We can virtually guarantee that you'll howl in righteous indignation at Capcom for yet again implementing an initially unfamiliar and as a result unwieldy control system that feels at odds with the industry standard. Combined with a comparatively zoomed over-the-shoulder camera view and a characteristically slow turning circle, Resi 4 is the kind of game that will reduce even experienced campaigners to gibbering wrecks. It's a real shock to the system that, to be honest, we weren't expecting.
But stick with it. Once you've endured the steep climb to the top of the learning curve, progression is relatively straightforward thereafter and only then can you begin to appreciate the immense amount of breathtaking entertainment the game has to offer.
It seems hard to believe that we've got this far through our review and haven't mentioned the one thing that immediately stands out about the game - the visuals. We blame our inability to settle into the gameplay quickly enough before shouting about them, but even if you find the game not to your taste, it's undeniable from a technical standpoint that it's a glorious achievement, and sets the kind of benchmarks we find it hard to believe anyone will top on any console platform in this generation. Capcom has hardly been found wanting in its ability to deliver delightfully detailed game worlds rich with atmosphere over the last nine years, but RE4 is something that stands so far apart from the old pre-rendered days that you can immediately see why the game's taken so long to emerge from its development chrysalis. Right from the very first scene to the last almost every location is a thing of great beauty that deserves the greatest accolades possible, crammed with typically sinister monstrosities that come layered with not only an added dimension of artificial intelligence, but with some of the best animation and visual effects witnessed.
The first thing you'll notice in the game when you face an enemy is their human-like qualities. Not only do they look like normal rural folk getting on with their business, but they will shout for help the second they see you, try to stove you head in with the tools of their trade and react proportionately to the power and precision of your shots, with area-specific reactions should you, for example, shoot them in the shoulder. One long held tradition that's been carried forward, though, is their inexorable shuffle towards you; like living zombies. It's more of a mass possession than a march of the living dead, but either way they're not pleased to see you and will stop at nothing to beat you to a bloodied pulp, and look mightily impressive while they're doing so.
Not your ideal holiday destination
All of the attention to character detail wouldn't count for much if it were not for the consistently impressive settings that are easily among the most beautiful and atmospheric any video game has yet pulled off - something that's especially critical for a slow-paced game such as this where you're largely ambling around. Kicking off in a leafy rustic village it's a sight to behold, with a feel that's at once remote and positively reeks of impending doom. In every intricately detailed texture there's a game setting that oozes dread, with Capcom going all out to create the most wonderfully-crafted rocky, leafy backdrops, full of damp, shabby wooden buildings, each bedecked in the most Spartan fashion imaginable; a table here, a dresser there, but little else in the way of home furnishings. Even the trees surrounding the village look impoverished, skeletal and stripped of their leaves in the autumn gloom. It's not a place you'll be planning your holidays anytime soon.
And so it goes on, further into the village via a lake, into an enormous castle, through its vast interior and predictably terrifying netherworld and onto a heavily-defended island in what must surely be the biggest, most intricate and certainly most impressive Resident Evil adventure yet. There have been a few minor compromises, sadly, with the game rendered in a letterboxed 4:3 format that effectively means you lose about a third of the screen area to black borders. Widescreen gamers with the right TV can zoom in and effectively eliminate the borders entirely, but the payback is a somewhat less impressive image quality (even with 480p progressive scan mode switched on). This is the price of benchmark visuals, it seems, and one we can live with for now.
Meanwhile, back to the game itself, much of the game structure itself stays true to the long-established concepts that have seen it through six or more iterations (more if you count the light gun titles, of course), with many of the more tedious mechanics ditched in favour of a far more playable game that lends forgiveness when it's needed most. Virtually every single area of the core mechanics have been overhauled to a greater or lesser extent, and in almost every sense it's a positive improvement in areas we've been campaigning about probably ever since the first one arrived back in 1996.
Although to begin with you might argue differently, the combat controls have been considerably improved; even taking into account the initially mystifying lack of a target lock-on. At first your laser pointer will be wobbling all over the place, straying in all directions other than where you actually want to place it. Enemies will gang up on you and although you'll occasionally be handed the opportunity to kick or shake enemies off you, you know you're in trouble if that happens. But sooner or later it starts to feel perfectly responsive and natural, and moreover you'll start actually being a little more strategic, taking out enemies from a distance to avoid being crowded out, with headshots by far the best means of doing so. The main beneficial addition is without a doubt the laser pointer, which comes as standard on most weapons and generally makes your life so much easier by taking a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. You'll even feel more impressed with your handiwork than just hitting a cheating auto-target button at every opportunity.
Add to that, enemies evidently drop a damned sight more ammo and health pick-ups than they ever used to, taking a massive amount of frustration away from the game as a result, and reducing the requirement to be ultra-conservative with ammo - as was always the case in the past. You still can't afford to be profligate, but nor do you end up hearing that hideous 'click click' after 10 minutes, nor find yourself having to mess about fighting with the knife or any perverse ammo-saving nonsense, and the game is all the better for it.
Better still, Capcom has finally listened to gamers' objections to having to 'buy' their right to save the game with a stock of typewriter ribbons. This was always a faintly ludicrous idea anyway and happily now you can record your progress as many times as you like - albeit at the nearest typewriter save station. But even when you die, you're not forced to lose 10 minutes of painstaking progress, with a sensibly implemented continue system that allows you to pick up from just before your most recent death; usually the entrance to a new location or just prior to a boss fight for example. This seems a particularly welcome change, and makes it much less frustrating than ever without taking anything away from the challenge.
Pack up your troubles in your old XL attaché case
A few compromises haven't quite gone far enough, though, with another restrictive inventory system that allows you to hoover up as much treasure as you wish, yet treats every box of ammo as a separate inventory slot-hogging entity. Admittedly you can upgrade your inventory space several times, but it's never quite enough to carry all the things you need and is probably the last pointlessly irritating thing that Capcom doggedly clings onto even now.
Controls-wise, it still doesn't quite have the flexibility most gamers are used to from a third-person action game. The main bugbear is the continued use of the 'spin on the spot' system, which makes targeting enemies on opposing sides particularly bothersome as Leon slooooowly turns around (seemingly in no hurry at all) to aim in their direction. Admittedly you can do a 180-degree about-face in an instant, but it's not always appropriate to do so. Likewise, the limited ability to wrestle control of the camera from the game wasn't wholly necessary; we'd have preferred at least to be given the choice of automatic or manual camera. We guarantee it would have eliminated half the trouble we got into with enemies making unexpected lunges at us on our blind side. Still, you do get used to it, it's really not that big a deal and we enjoyed our experiences nevertheless, but we don't entirely get on with having a viewpoint nanny dictating what we can and can't see.
As always with all Resi titles, puzzle-solving is a fairly important factor within the game, with plenty of familiar ground covered from the standard object collection, block pushing, and the like overlaid with the odd timed 'get out of that' teaser thrown in. This time around much of the obscure object-hunts have been left out, or are so obvious that the problem is solved no sooner than it arrives. Very little is left for the player to get truly stuck over, which makes a change, with a much greater emphasis on combat or Shenmue-style button combos (e.g. hit A and B now to dodge, L+R to duck, and so on). Some sections even require the player to rapidly pummel the A button to dash away from something, or rotate a lever rapidly. In this sense it's probably the least challenging Resi ever, but by no means a doddle. We're not entirely convinced though that the long-term adventurer will appreciate having the need for lateral thought replaced with action, but we certainly appreciate more people will get on with the game as a result. It's a tricky balancing act. No one likes being stuck on obscure puzzles, but nor should we be able to simply breeze through either, and the truth is we couldn't, but that had more to do with Capcom ratcheting up the combat to compensate.
What are ya buying Cobber?
One very welcome change this time around is the weapons upgrade system, which comes in the form of a shadowy merchant who pops up at regular intervals to buy and sell all your combat related needs. Being set in Spain, Pesetas are the currency of choice in RE4 and usually spew forth from dead villagers, or from raiding the many crates and vases strewn around. Bashing everything up is usually a good idea, as very quickly you'll amass a small fortune of coinage and treasure (not to mention ammo stocks) with which to trade weapons upgrades with the throaty and curiously Antipodean Merchant. And not only can you buy more powerful weaponry, but 'tune up' your existing arsenal in terms of firepower, capacity, reload time and aiming. It's a huge improvement to any upgrade system employed in any previous survival-horror game and offers a massive incentive to search every nook and cranny to enable you to tool yourself up in the most devastating fashion, with a wide selection of pistols, magnums, rifles, shotguns and grenades as well as the more devastating mine launcher and rocket launcher to see off stubborn bosses in style.
In terms of the overall cinematic feel, Capcom still holds dear the B-movie ham feel of old, with the usual collection of over-the-top megalomaniacs to meet, spar with and eventually depose of. They're not especially frightening on their own as such, given that they're completely ludicrous pantomime characters with matching costumes and voices. Half the time you're expecting the audience to shout 'he's behind you', but even if they did your head would have been munched off long before you could spin around on the spot to face him.
Yes, for sinister thrills the game works best when it's not annoying the player with the hammy character and story interludes where Ashley (the president's daughter you rescue about 40 times) does her best Kim Bauer impersonation [her high-pitched bleating cuts through your senses worse than any chainsaw, believe me -bloke who sat next door throughout]. Just shuffling around the immensely impressive environments and dispatching yet more shuffling villagers or moaning monks is scary enough. The story is secondary, and rightfully so, usually no more than a device to set up the next boss encounter. We can happily live with that, so don't be surprised to be greeted with another over the top cartoon caper. Some things may have changed, but this is not and never will be Silent Hill, Project Zero or Forbidden Siren in terms of its feel. Despite the grittier, more realistic look, this is still camp pantomime horror with men with silly hats and even sillier voices that morph into tentacle wielding supermonsters after you've dealt with a dozen of their minions, and we still love Capcom for it. After all, it wouldn't be Resident Evil if it were serious would it?
Time to buy a GameCube, then...
So having wrestled with the game from every angle we could think of, the simple realisation we came to it that although Capcom still hasn't quite managed to exorcise the series of all of its demonic bad habits, it has managed to craft a relentlessly compelling title that feels so rich with atmosphere, breathless excitement and palpable tension that virtually all our minor quibbles go out of the window. Yes, most players will have justifiable issues with the camera and controls that simply don't exist in most games (and really shouldn't exist here), but once you get into the groove after an hour or so you really do adapt and just get on with enjoying a fabulous 25 hours-plus of non-stop entertainment. In short, it's the biggest, by far the best looking, arguably the most enjoyable and least frustrating Resident Evil game we've played and it was worth every torturous minute to savour what will rightly become regarded as a true masterpiece of the horror genre. If you need to buy a GameCube to play it, then don't hesitate. Waiting a year for the almost certainly inferior PS2 port is not an option if you don't want to miss out on one of the games of 2005.