We're not sure how this is possible, but playing through Resident Evil 4 a second time is even more enjoyable than the initial run-through 10 months ago. It really is one of the best games Capcom has released in its long, glorious history. It's that simple. Its engaging premise, tense combat, gorgeous, varied environments, and some of the most terrifying boss encounters ever add up to something special - a true reinvention of the series, and one that deserves every superlative thrown its way. The fact that it's now being released on the PS2 (and therefore now available to the masses) makes us feel all warm inside. A game this exciting and this consistently entertaining deserves to be played by as many people as possible.
But, as we've said before, no one expected the supposedly humble PS2 to be able to cope with the graphical trickery that the GameCube managed with aplomb. Even the most optimistic Sony fanboy would have secretly harboured doubts that their machine could do such a fine-looking game justice. We all expected a few compromises; slowdown, less detailed visuals, longer load times and maybe the odd glitch here and there. But it couldn't be further from the truth. Not only has Capcom produced an almost compromise-free conversion (on one disc, too), but thrown in a ton of extra content into the bargain. Somehow, waiting ten months for the definitive version doesn't seem such a bad thing.
Cubes of comfort
Okay, so we said "almost compromise-free". Perhaps inevitably there are some, but all it amounts to are the absence of a subtle lighting technique that was used in the Cube original to give the illusion of a light source reflecting off surfaces. Apart from this (and it's not something you'll even notice until you flick between versions), the PS2 port scores extremely well, replete with a (somewhat hidden) Progressive Scan mode (hold down Triangle and X when it boots, bizarrely), as well as a 'proper' 16:9 widescreen mode (unlike the Cube's letterboxed 4:3 version), allowing the game to really shine on big-screen TVs. Throw in native surround sound support into the bargain, too, and - for once - we've been able to enjoy the game in all its glory. And what glory.
Even the controls seem a more natural fit on the PS2's Dual Shock, with the default settings much more assured than we remember them on the Cube. Being able to aim quickly and with precision is the key to enjoying Resi 4 - because that's pretty much the bulk of what you'll be doing throughout the game as you fend off a succession of demented plague-ridden Spanish villagers. Whereas we'd typically overshoot our aim on the Cube, it was generally bang on the money in the PS2 version from the word go, making the game a lot less frustrating this time around. Whether this was down to us simply being better at the game (having had plenty of practice earlier this year) or whether genuine refinements have been made is open to debate. Suffice to say, all our mild grumblings about the controls that we had last time weren't an issue here at all.
While we're on the subject, many of you will still whinge about the slooooow turning circle, and the slightly odd inability to strafe - and they're fair points when you've approached it fresh from playing A N Other action adventure - but once you've settled into the context of what Resi 4 demands of you, it all seems to make sense.
Close encounters of the 4th kind
You see, the thing it does that almost no other game does is draw out each and every enemy encounter to a delicious extent. They amble towards you. You slowly take aim with your trusty pistol, line up your red laser pointer somewhere near their head and give them all you've got. But still they come. And here's his mate... and now his sister, who's also his mother... And this one's wielding an axe! Eek! He's chucking it at my head! Blam! Two of them go down, but they're not dead! Arrrgh! [ClickClick] Out of ammo! [Switches to shotgun] Kuh-BLAM! Off with their heads! But what's that chugging sound? A man with a leather mask and a chainsaw you say? Noooooooooooooooo! Run!
And so on.
The beautiful charm of Resi 4 - apart from its dank yet vividly detailed environments - is how palpitating the combat sequences are. You simply never get bored of them. They're slow-paced, but every shot counts, and it's all the more tense and gripping for it. It's all about being patient, picking your spot, conserving your ammo as much as possible and trying not to get munched by red-eyed shambling locals that sprout tentacled heads when the old one gets blasted off. In a sense, the billions of other Resis did this too, but back then the 'dramatic' fixed camera angles made it a joke trying to aim properly - especially with many of your enemies off-screen. Here, there are no such issues, and as such you feel fully in control of your destiny - possibly for the first time in the entire series. The switch to the over-the-shoulder view in combat is an excellent decision, and one that means your enemies are always in view, and ready to have their faces shot off.
And while we've got them in our sights, the enemies in Resi 4 are worthy of massive applause. Not for their dress sense, or their rural haircuts, you understand, but for their general ability to scare the crap out of us. For the first time, Capcom has managed to create a semi-believable scenario that doesn't involve the clichéd zombies we're used to. At first, the cast within Resi 4 look normal - like a bunch of Mediterranean villagers going about their business. Taking control of Leon S Kennedy, your mission is seemingly no more sinister than to discover the whereabouts of the president's missing daughter.
Cometh the axeman
But when these unfriendly souls start trying to chop your face off, it's clear there's more to this scenario than meets the eye [yes, an axe]. It pans out, in fact, that all these lurching, mad-eyed locals are in fact 'infected' by an organism that's taken over their thought processes. Someone's behind this 'plague' and it's up to you to find out who, exactly.
Of course, getting there is a lot more demanding than simply shooting up a bunch of angry village idiots. Plenty of puzzling gets thrown into the fray too, although somewhat less than previous games in the series. As such, none of the puzzles are all that taxing - acting more as a means to force the player into exploring all these lovely environments than anything. If there's one central disappointment with Resi 4, it's this. Much like Silent Hill's descent into action-heavy encounters, Capcom evidently reckons we all prefer a bit more action these days, and as such some of the old school adventurers will feel slightly let down by this change of direction. But only slightly.
Despite the decreasing emphasis on puzzles and object-collection, that's not to say it's lightweight. If anything, this tight focus on the horror of the encounters you have makes it even more challenging than before, and battling your way through the massed ranks takes a surprisingly long time. Some sections will really test you to the limit on the first run through, and you'll see that dreaded blood-drenched Game Over screen more times than any other game on the market right now. At its unforgiving worst, you'll curse having to replay certain sections, but a vigilant use of the good old typewriter saves (no ribbons needed anymore, thank goodness), and a careful approach will see you through. Besides, it's so damned satisfying when you do finally get there. You won't mind the odd repeat prescription when it's this spectacular.
Even in its original GameCube form, it was never the shortest survival-horror title on the market. An initial run-through opened up a bunch of entertaining new modes that some fans enjoyed even more than the full game, which is saying something. Assignment Ada gives you the chance to play through a scenario featuring one of the main side characters, Ada Wong, on a mission to find five Los Plagas samples. Essentially an excuse to give you another huge scrap with innumerable enemies (from all parts of the game), it's tough, but hugely entertaining if you've got the will for the fight.
Mercenaries, the other unlockable extra from the original, also makes an appearance here. Taking the combat-focused nature of the game and refining it into a time-based score attack, the idea is to fend off your adversaries for as long as you possibly can, set in four locations from the main game. Needless to say, the name of the game is to clock up as many kills as possible, while scouting around for time extends, more ammo and health. Die, and you'll lose your score entirely. Live, and clock up a four star rating (30,000 points) and you'll unlock one of four other characters to play as. It sounds simple - and it is - but it's furiously addictive, and for some, the best bit of the whole game.
Aside from that, there's also a movie viewer to allow you to indulge in the dozens of slick cut-scenes, and a few other hidden Easter eggs. But the one that's caused the most excitement is the all-new 'Separate Ways' episode, where you play as Ada Wong, once again, except this time in five new chapters that follow the same timeline as Leon's adventures. Having ploughed through five to six hour's worth, it's possibly the best extra any Resident Evil fan could wish for, allowing players a unique insight into what Ada was up to while Leon was busy doing his 'thing'.
All those times Ada seemingly just 'shows-up' (that grapple gun's just great), we get to find out what trials she had to go through in order to make things work out the way they did, and doing so gives you a remarkably satisfying insight into the motivations of certain characters. As you go through the new episode you also unlock the Ada's Report section, which goes some way to filling in the gaps in the storyline, and helps the player understand why certain things are happening. It certainly helped us, anyway, but then we are a bit thick when it comes to unravelling the multi-tentacled Resident Evil universe.
Initially, you might feel a pang of disappointment when playing through the Ada missions. They're hugely welcome chunks of new content, but essentially all they amount to are a succession of straightforward encounters with enemies you're already familiar with, in locations you've already explored. The puzzles are almost non-existent, recycled, or so obvious that you can't really fail to suss out what you're supposed to be doing. Still, it seems churlish to complain about six hour's worth of new stuff - especially when you get a new weapon into the bargain (the Bowgun - which fires explosive-tipped bolts). Don't get us wrong - it's still a marvellously entertaining interlude, but just don't expect to see anything new, apart from some new cut scenes and some narrated explanations after each chapter.
And if that wasn't quite enough, you can then go and play the main game again (at 'Professional' level if you like) as Leon with a hugely-powerful new plasma rifle, the Las Plagas Removal Laser Gun (the PRL 4.1.2). Operating on two levels, you either fry your foe with a plasma burst, or hold the button down for a couple of seconds, charge it up and unleash a huge ball of white-hot energy, ripping through their plague-ridden bodies. Nice. If you're feeling really sad, you can do the whole thing with Leon dressed in Mafioso attire, while Ashley (the president's daughter) now gets a bulletproof outfit.
Top of the list
We've probably missed something. There's always so much extra stuff in Resident Evil games, it makes your head spin, but in this case Capcom has really gone for it. Even if Capcom had done a basic, no-frills port of the GameCube version, we'd still be raving about it, given that it's easily one of the best games of the whole year. That Capcom has delivered a huge pile of excellent extras into the bargain and done such a sterling conversion job makes it nigh on essential. If the idea of 20 hours of palpitating living nightmares sounds like your idea of fun, then you have no choice but to part with your cash immediately. If only all videogames were this brilliant.