In Depth Review: Resident Evil 4 [GCN]
Resident Evil 4 is one of the few subjects of this generation that has seen a nearly radical shift in gameplay benefit the series, to the point where the game can easily be considered one of the very best of this generation. Resident Evil 4's gut-wrenching action, twitch-interactive cutscenes, primal violence and mile-high production values absolutely cannot be missed by any serious gamer looking for his or her cathartic fix. I argue that the game's triumph can be attributed to the one thing that people were fearing from this sequel, and the element I described before as so powerful for videogames: change.
Resident Evil 4's most significant change from past entries in the series is its bold transition into a fully three-dimensional world viewed from a third person, over-the-shoulder perspective. Those familiar with the earlier games - even the Gamecube remakes - know that Resident Evil is famous for pre-rendered scenery with polygonal characters. In Resident Evil: Code Veronica's case, the environment was fully 3D, but the perspective was still fixed and controlled by the game itself. In essence, then, Resident Evil 4 proceeds to be a mixture of traditional Resident Evil gameplay set in a quasi-FPS perspective. This change completely overhauls the series and brings breathtaking action to the forefront.
Remember the tank controls? Where left turned your character left, and up moved him or her forward? It's back. But where the perspective changed in this game, so did the utility of the "tank." The major difference here is that because you literally see what Leon sees, you will rarely find yourself running into a pre-rendered wall or turning left when you meant to run straight. Although you'll catch yourself wishing you could strafe sometimes, the perspective is still dynamic and palatable. The game is simply more playable than the titles of the past, and helps to introduce a quicker pace to your actions.
Oh yeah, quicker. It may seem unfair to have the advantage of quickness and a more practical viewpoint since you'll be able to skirt around zombies. But when Capcom said, "No zombies," they meant it. The enemies of this game, first appearing to be innocent Spanish-speaking villagers, have been upgraded to match your newly formidable viewpoint. They no longer shuffle towards you uselessly, groaning with arms extended, hoping for some grey matter à la carte. Instead, they cuss you out in Español, trot towards you with pitchforks, and lanzan las hachas en su cabeza. No bueño! They gang up on you and seem to know that in this videogame you can't see behind you - so they flank you and get around behind you.
Our protagonist, Leon Kennedy of Resident Evil 2 fame, is not helpless however. With this new perspective, Capcom has also given you the ability to control your aiming with FPS-type precision. Where in previous entries you could only aim up, straight or down, Resident Evil 4 allows you the benefit of targeting heads, chests, arms, legs, y cojones. Enemy reactions - especially for that last one - ring true to reality, as they'll grip their eye socket, drop to their knees, and bend over to grab their moneybags in agony. This isn't just an aesthetic trick, mind you. Hitting them enough times in the head results in a shower of rasperry juice and skull fragments, reminiscent of Raiden's fatality in the original Mortal Kombat and resulting in an instant kill... sometimes. By dropping enemies to their knees, you can run up to them and roundhouse-kick or suplex them with a swift context-sensitive press of the A button. Never before has the Gamecube's oft-maligned "big green button in the middle" been such a welcome icon to see on the screen.
Context-sensitive actions play a bigger role in the gameplay than just kicking off a villager's head. There are several action sequences reminiscent of Shenmue where a button press means the difference between Leon living or dying. One of the first of such harrowing sequences has Leon tied to a post with another prisoner, as a big lug enters the room dragging an ultra-heavy axe. As he raises his weapon to strike, you have a split second to press A and B or L and R (which combination to press is random, so you can't memorize your way out of it). Fail, and usted es muerto. Succeed, and your shackles are broken by the axe and you have the chance to riddle your attacker with bullets. Much more exciting sequences - like escaping a boulder, dodging assailants who lurk in the ceilings above you, and a truly sweet mine-cart ride await to titillate your gaming instincts. This has the added bonus of making seemingly long cutscenes interactive and fun.
Other welcome changes to the gameplay include interface and secondary functions such as your inventory and weapon upgrades. Brand new to the series is an ultra-useful Diablo-esque inventory system that's defined by standard one-block measurements. Different items take up different amounts of space, so you're never beating yourself over the head about not being able to pick up a shotgun because an herb is taking up your last item slot. You're also able to drop items wherever you want. You'll still have to strategically manage your items so that you have room for new potential weapons, but it's far more intuitive than having a mere six boxes to hold an item each.
Also brand new to this game is the ability to literally buy weapons from wandering bandanna-masked merchants. You can almost see their toothy grins behind their bandannas as they greet you with a hearty, "Welcome stranger!" You purchase weapons, first aid spray and even weapon upgrades by using currency gained by downing enemies, opening crates and chests, and selling off artifacts you find throughout your journey. You can even stick gems into holes of other artifacts to increase their overall value exponentially. You'll be holding onto some artifacts for a while, then, waiting for that gem or crystal that fits into an eyehole or divot. But thankfully these items don't take up space in your regular inventory.
The change to your inventory and ability to buy weapons and upgrades server to further pick up the pace of Resident Evil 4 when compared to previous games because it gives you much more control and freedom over how you play the game, and takes away much of the worrisome moments of item-box hunting and underpowered weaponry. Capcom has really taken the "survival" element out of this would-be survival horror game and has given you the leeway to shoot anything that moves, granted you take smart shots and don't start spraying shots all over the place. Perhaps this will disappoint those who were looking for more survive-by-a-nose-hair type stress-inducing gameplay, but at this point it's been done seven thousand times. It was time for a change, and Resident Evil 4 pulls it off marvelously.
Still, the rest of the gameplay has the superficial makings of a traditional Resident Evil title without regressing too far back into the past. Yes, there are locked doors to open, levers to pull, podiums to maneuver and keys and pickups to find. However, the puzzle element of the game seems much more secondary to the action, as opposed to the previous entries where ammo conservation and statue pushing took the forefront. The most involved you'll get is maneuvering a few levers to get some items - be they small statues or colored lights - in the correct order, and most of the puzzles descend into shooting switches to open doors. Keycard hunting by far takes the bulk of the "adventuring", and when compared to the obscene amount of firefights you'll find yourself in, the puzzles hardly - if ever - slow down the pace of the game negatively. In fact you'll appreciate the breathers they give you.
So with all the action going on, is this game scary? Absolutely. Not content to turn Resident Evil into an all-out shooter, Capcom graciously kept in all the elements that made Resident Evil games so unsettling. Mind you, the B-movie scares aren't in here as much, and overall it definitely isn't as scary as the Resident Evil remake on the Gamecube. But it's still something you'll be hesitant to play in the dark, late at night, and alone... which of course is the most awesome way to play this game. Many of the environments are dilapidated and downright grungy such that you'll think a rotting corpse will greet you at any moment, even though you know there are no zombies in this game. Other environments are lonely, cold, sterile and metallic, giving you that eerie and sneaking suspicion that some horribly grotesque science experience is shuffling along waiting to separate your vertebrae and digest the contents of your cranium. There are enough dark areas that, even though you know you're in for a shootout and not an ammo conservation contest, you'll keep pulling the R-trigger to ready your weapon because you swear - seriously - that you saw a pitchfork over there. It's just a shadow. Then you hear chanting behind you, "Morir es vivir," and a spiked mace smacks you square in the head. Soldier up, Leon.
The creepy mood in this game is possible in large thanks to the splendid aesthetic presentation set forth by Capcom for this game. It might seem quite difficult to pull off a setting done so well with prerendered visuals and masked lighting effects in full 3D, but the development team has managed to do this and keep the game running at 30 frames a second to boot. I never saw the framerate dip once. This is all the more amazing when you see the extremely detailed textures, high polygon character models and real-time lighting trickery. The textures do get blurry, yes, but you have to get up really close and scrutinize them; any farther, and craggy rock walls look exactly like rock walls and even look like normal mapped textures. The character models are some of the very best I've seen on the Gamecube, with sharp muscle definitions, clean facial animations and smooth, realistic motion capture animation. The lighting is practically unrivaled - even besting Splinter Cell's Gamecube efforts, which look spoofed in comparison. Visually, Resident Evil 4 is an astounding achievement technically and artistically on the Gamecube, battling tooth-and-nail with the Metroid Prime series for top honors in both categories.
The sound engineering is so highly sophisticated as well that you'll find yourself trying to learn Spanish while reminiscing of the friendly greetings the Spanish villagers have for you. Favorites include "Muerte!", or, "Die!" and "Te voy a matar!", or, "I'm going to kill you!". The voice acting in general is very well done, a far cry from "the master of unlocking" days and even bettering Metal Gear Solid's pristine voicework in terms of natural delivery. Ashley, the American president's daughter and girl Leon is tasked to save, is characterized so well that you'll begin to wish you didn't have to save her. The voice acting portrays her as annoying, snooty and whiny by sounding genuinely like those traits, rather than performing a charicature. Leon's one liners are delivered with a great, snide sense of smartness, even if they are on the cheesy side.
The music and sound effects help push along the action and dragging you along into it. When you hear that whirling axe coming from your rear-right speaker, all you can do is wince at the inevitable pain that's coming your way. You'll find yourself readying your weapon as you hear the faint chanting, or in some monstrous cases, squishing in the distance get louder and louder as your assailant(s) approach. You'll look for that damned light switch in your room as the ambient music turns from moody to downright disturbing. What's most significant - and ironic - is how the game continues the series' tradition of using silence so expertly to bring out the most atmosphere. It's when the long silence is broken - by anything, even yourself - that you jump a little bit, and that effect is used generously here.
So you're running around with this great new perspective, getting creeped out by the darkness and silence, capping fools in the eye, kicking butt, taking names, and chewing bubblegum. What for? If these aren't zombies, then what are they? Resident Evil 4 offers an interesting story that introduces a new menace that's not the T-virus, or any manufactured virus for that matter, but is slightly similar in concept. You know these people aren't normal, and what makes them actually tick is disturbing and gross. The story paces itself decently with a mixture of notes and clichéd cutscenes, where diabolical fiends explain their dastardly plans with their disgusting new toys because they don't trust that you - the lousy meddling American - can stop them. In the end, not everything is explained and some characters make unexplained appearances, and the story - though interesting and cool - can end up just giving way to the action.
That's all fine and well, because the gameplay is so fine tuned that the few hiccups in the story progression can be forgiven. There's so much game to play here that even if you skipped every note and pressed Start through every non-interactive cutscene, you'll have your hands full with the fifteen to twenty hours of gameplay that Resident Evil 4 has to offer you for your first time from beginning to end. There are so many great moments - many of them the context-sensitive action sequences - that will make you want to play the game again right after you beat it. Plus, there are added modes - The Mercenaries and another "Assignment" (the full name of which will spoil the story) - that are unlocked when you beat the game. (Note: If you're one of those who waited for the Playstation 2 version, you get the added bonus of having a nearly full-length game experience with a side character that explains some of the loose ends in the original game.)
Though Resident Evil games are single player, there is fun (and a false sense of security) to be had with friends huddled up beside you as you navigate through the games on a stormy night. Resident Evil 4 is no different, except this time there's the added crowd effect of cheering and yelping as your shotgun blasts send enemies reeling ten feet back into a brick wall and your well-timed kicks knock enemy heads clear off topped off by that glorious spray of hemoglobin. One early sequence had me kicking off one head, suplexing and crushing another, then turning around and unloading buckshot into five villagers simultaneously, stunning two more villagers and kicking their heads off, getting grabbed then shaking free - resulting in another kicked-off head, then finally gaining some distance for the coup de grace: a friendly neighborhood grenade. That's beef.
Make no mistake, Resident Evil 4 should not be played by those too young to play it. But it begs to be played by any self-respecting gamer when they come of age, the supremely squeamish respectfully not included of course. That is perhaps the only slight downfall of the game, in that those who can't come to grips with its ultra-violent subject matter won't be able to experience the pure intensity and entertainment that this game has to offer. This game successfully marries cinematic presentation with that never-put-down-the-controller level of awareness and presents gaming fans with an experience that is frightening, dramatic, astounding and above all fun. It's so good that even though the Playstation 2 version just released a little while ago, it was worth dropping the bucks for a Gamecube for to get it early. It's so good that it might be worth owning both versions just for the pride of having them in your collection.
Resident Evil 4 is a contender for Game of the Era.
It is, without a doubt, Game of the Year.