Resident Evil 4
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.
“Look, I told you I didn’t steal your combine harvester!”
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 and most significant aspects which will strike you about this game (whether you are a series veteran or a late newcomer) are the most welcome over-the-shoulder camera and the vastly superior third-person aiming. Eschewing traditional controls as seen in the likes of Hitman or Splinter Cell, Leon cannot strafe at all, and must remain static 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. However, irrespective of how well the game controls on consoles, it seems a serious oversight that there is no option at all to use the mouse; you have to wonder what those who handled this conversion were thinking to make such a fundamental error. It’s a real shame, because in the console versions the controls (combined with the new camera) are an enormous improvement over the previous Resi games and really add a lot to the gameplay. For that authentic experience, it feels just as comfortable to play the game with a PC control pad, the way it was ultimately designed to be played, which is far preferable to having to use the keyboard.
“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 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 insatiable 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 its 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, the set-pieces 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).
“Is that a barbecue? Smells good, what are we having?”
Graphically, Resi 4 made a particularly strong showing on Gamecube and PS2, but it’s clear the PC version is a rushed port with nothing by way of graphical enhancements, and so it doesn’t even begin to compare to some of the visual powerhouses seen on the PC in the last few years. Graphical patches are available on the web for free, which makes everything considerably sharper and more detailed, but don’t expect anything which pushes your graphics card. Patch or no, the environments are presented in filthy, grimy detail, and there are some attractive special effects on show such as explosions and fire. Aurally it is top-drawer. The score is wonderful at setting the scene and creating real tension, and the sound effects are excellent on all fronts (particularly memorable are the boom of the Broken Butterfly or the unnerving chanting of the monks). 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.
” 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.”
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 who 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 as well, 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 perhaps three or four 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 resalable 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 named Mercenaries 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 mini game), a series of mini-missions called Assignment Ada and the most important 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.
The crows are obviously evil. Kill them. Kill them all.
There are occasions when you have to participate in a Quick Time Event cutscene by pressing buttons when prompted (much like seen in Shemue or the last couple of Tomb Raiders), 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, such as 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 head 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 an 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 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. While on balance 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.
The absurd lack of mouse support aside, there isn’t much here anyone could criticise too strongly. In something of a standard for Capcom action/adventures like this, the closing section is fairly awful (see also: Devil May Cry, Onimusha 2), and slightly at odds with the rest of the game. Furthermore, series purists may be disappointed at the fundamental changes Resident Evil 4 has undergone since the last couple of proper series entries, however I personally feel the series has needed a reinvention like this since Resident Evil 3 on the PlayStation back in ’99/’00. The firm focus on relentless action and lack of any substantial puzzles may not be to everyone’s taste, which is fair enough, although it all adds up to one of the most measured, exciting and progressive titles of recent years.
“I loved you in Lord of the Rings.”
In terms of technical proficiency and presentation, Resi 4 is a solid effort, although it has again been superseded by more recent games. Loading happens between each (fairly large) area, but is thankfully brief. The cutscenes are superbly directed, and certainly 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.
“It’s just a real shame that the PC port was subjected to a half-arsed effort, because on consoles Resident Evil 4 has revitalised a stagnating series”
After almost three years and three separate ports, Resident Evil 4 is perhaps beginning to feel a little long in the tooth now, but a quick play will quickly dispel all cynical thoughts, and re-assert the truth that this game is a masterpiece; an example of survival action gaming at its absolute peak. It’s just a real shame that the PC port was subjected to a half-arsed effort, because on consoles Resident Evil 4 has revitalised a stagnating series and given the genre a firm boot up the arse, leaving other games in its wake. For the cheap prices you can get this game – assuming you can’t get it on a console – you would still do well to pick it up. A fantastic game and a bona-fide future classic.