Resident Evil 4
For the first few minutes of Resident Evil 4, I felt a little disorientated. The traditional fixed camera of old was gone, replaced by a fully 3D environment. As I ventured into the outskirts of the village, something else nagged at me. I realised that the whole thing felt utterly unfamiliar. This was meant to be Resident Evil, and yet there was no gloomy mansion. Furthermore, there were no zombies. It took a mere 10 minutes or so for my concerns to evaporate. I was standing in a dirty hut when the realization hit me. I had run in, turned around and found myself staring at the bloody body of a woman, impaled to the wall by spade thrust through her face. From this point on, I was in no doubt.
Resident Evil is back.
The plot is simple; you play as Leon S. Kennedy, the hero of Resident Evil 2 and survivor of the viral outbreak that destroyed Raccoon City. Now an agent for the US government, Leon has been sent on a mission to central Europe to find and rescue the President’s daughter. Little does Leon know that his adventures will take him far beyond the sinister village that he first arrives at…
Visually, Resident Evil 4 is simply breathtaking. The different environments are drawn and textured superbly. Each is distinctive in its own way; the village is wonderfully gritty and gloomy, while the castle interior gleams with marble and brass. The visuals create an unbelievable atmosphere that sucks you in right from the start and doesn’t let go until long after you’ve finished the game. The attention to detail is equally amazing. The various areas contain such a high level of detail and this adds immeasurably to the overall atmosphere. In the village, farming instruments lie propped against fences and chickens peck at the ground, while in the labs the whiteboards all have diagrams and equations scribbled on them in a variety of pen colours. One of the corridors in the castle has open windows and the curtains billow gently as you run past. While many of the environments are original (such as the village), others hark back to Resident Evil 4’s predecessors, such as the science labs and containment facilities. These are where this new-found atmosphere is at its best and show that the developers have not forgotten the series’ roots.
The enemy character models are drawn just as well as the environments. The villagers are dressed suitably in grubby, peasant attire, their faces grim and vacant as they stagger towards you. The cultists are resplendent in their various coloured robes, some wearing golden skull masks, others shaven-headed and tattooed. All carry menacing weapons such as scythes and flails. There is a variety of twisted, mutated creatures (this is Resident Evil after all) and all are superbly drawn and animated. Quite often the best visuals are reserved for the ‘boss’ encounters. The creature known to the villagers as ‘The Lake Dweller’ in particular is a fabulous, nightmarish creation. Other spectacular graphical moments are the set-pieces, which are more frequent than in previous titles. Catapults hurling flaming boulders, huge stone columns collapsing and bronze statues of dragons spitting fire are but some of the moments that draw gasps at their visual mastery and brilliance.
Like its predecessors, RE 4 makes extensive use of cinematics, pushing them to a whole new level. For the cut scenes that depict combat, the use of swiftly changing camera angles and Matrix-style bullet time combine to create amazing scenes that both thrill and help drive the plot along. The scripting is top-notch and the voice acting masterful. If your life depended upon the quality of a single game’s graphics, atmosphere and presentation, then you would be completely safe with RE 4. Visually, it’s a master class. Even the credits at the end are eerily beautiful. Graphics of course don’t make a game. Well, they almost do in RE 4 given their realism and the atmosphere they create, but gameplay is equally important, if not more so. Fortunately, RE 4 more than delivers in this department. The game has undergone something of a transformation.
While its predecessors are primarily survival-horror games, RE 4 is more of an action-adventure title. No longer are you limited to the amount of saves you can make and you can even reload your game from designated ‘start points’ if you die. These are far enough apart to prevent the game from being to easy but close enough not to cause irritation when you die. And you will die - plenty of times. Ammo - often a rare commodity in previous titles - is far more readily available and in fact on normal mode there are very few times when you find yourself running dangerously low. The reason for this is the new direction of the game. Gone are the small numbers of zombies and infrequent mutants. Instead, you are faced with masses of enemies. I killed over 950 during the course of the game. Compare that with the relatively low number of enemies in the previous games and you get some idea of the new action direction RE 4 has taken. The game is far more action-orientated than the previous titles and all the better for it.
Another new feature is money - you can find and sell many treasures on your travels and the cash you raise can be spent on upgrading your weapons or purchasing new ones. For some of the game you team up with Ashley, the President’s daughter. I was concerned this would detract from the gameplay but instead Capcom have made it work very smoothly. You can instruct Ashley to wait or to follow you, and care must be taken to protect her as enemies will try to abduct her. Several times you will probably be called upon to try and take down an enemy with your sniper rifle as he runs off with her strung across his back.
Controls are much the same as before, but they have been tweaked to optimise performance. The camera is sadly not fully rotational but works well and the 3D environment makes you wonder how you put up with fixed cameras for so long. It works sublimely. The environment is more interactive than before; you can shoot down lights and so forth. Capcom clearly realised that now the game and environments are fully 3D a greater level of interaction is needed. Subsequently Leon can jump over fences, climb ropes, fling himself out of windows and roll on the floor to dodge blows. Enemy interaction has been improved as well. The physics have been reworked completely so that enemy bodies react according to where you shoot them. Shoot a villager in the leg and he’ll fall to the ground, shoot him in the shoulder and he’ll spin to one side. Shooting enemies in specific positions can result in them being stunned, allowing you to get close and perform a special move, such as a kick to the head, or, more spectacularly, a supplex move straight out of WWF.
The weapon lineup has been hugely revamped. The handgun, shotgun, magnum and rocket launcher are all present and correct, but are joined by a rifle with scope, a machine gun, a mine-thrower and others. One of the new innovations is the inclusion of the weapons dealer - a mysterious figure who appears at many points in the game and sells you new weapons as well as offering upgrades on your old ones. One of the main annoyances in the previous games was the limited inventory space. RE 4 avoids this by allowing you far more room for a start, with the possibility of buying new ‘equipment cases’ from time to time which increase your inventory space. While you can carry a decent amount of items, you can’t have all the weapons at once (not until near the end at least) and so you’ll have to be selective.
RE 4 is a joy to play. After a while the controls become second nature. The action is often thick and fast, at other times more measured and cautious. Some of the situations you end up in are the results of pure inspiration - such as trying to defend a farmhouse as hordes of villagers try to burst in through the windows, Night of the Living Dead style. The set pieces that occur at various points in the game add a different dimension to the gameplay. You’ll be walking along a wooded path, fairly sure that you are safe for the time being, when suddenly your confidence is shattered as the game cuts to a cinematic showing some villagers pushing a boulder off a cliff. Suddenly an on-screen instruction is flashing desperately at you, instructing you to hammer the ‘A’ button in order to outrun the boulder. When the boulder bears down on you, the instruction changes to show the shoulder buttons you need to press to make Leon dive acrobatically out of danger. Any hesitancy on your part and he’s dead meat.
Such events do not only occur during the game, but also during cinematics. You’ll be enjoying a confrontation between Leon and an ‘old friend’ when suddenly Leon’s opponent lunges with a knife. A button combination appears on the screen and you have to perform the combo quickly enough to save Leon’s stomach from being sliced open. A small touch perhaps but one that adds even more depth to the game. Puzzles are not quite as prominent as in the previous games and are not nearly as difficult, but nonetheless are cleverly designed and break up the gameplay nicely. The ‘boss’ battles are refreshingly frequent and original in their application. The final showdown is particularly well-devised.
The game’s audio is unsurprisingly excellent. From the screams of the villagers, to the ghostly chanting of the cult members, to the voice acting; all is superb. The music is classic Resident Evil - haunting and unnerving in all the right places. So many times during the game the atmosphere is dictated by the music and other audio. The cast of characters is well thought-out, with a couple of familiar faces joining the ranks of new individuals. The maniacal, giggling Salazaar is a particularly imaginative character, while the suave Luis Sera adds a touch of continental class. The game is pretty long - if played through thoroughly, it’ll take between 20-25 hours to complete on normal mode the first time through.
A first for a Resident Evil game is the inclusion of a shooting gallery mini-game, accessible from various rooms in the game, with figurines of the main characters (complete with tinny sound effects) as the prizes. Not only that, but once you’ve completed the game on normal you unlock 2 more mini games, one of which sees you selecting one of four levels and having to then kill as many enemies in the time limit as possible.
In terms of negatives, it is extremely hard to find anything really worth commenting on. A way of cycling through weapons rather than having to change them via the inventory screen would have been nice. While the new action/adventure direction that RE 4 takes works extremely well, at the same time a little of the horror of the previous games has been lost. There are fewer moments that will make you jump and less times where the tension builds up unbearably before flooding forth in one terrifying moment. This isn’t to say that the game can not be chilling, as it is (try standing in the middle of a graveyard in the pouring rain, with the church behind you illuminated in the light of the full moon, while a horde of rabid villagers carrying burning torches hunt you down). It can be said, however, that some of the horror aspects have been toned down slightly, and it would not be unfair to say the game’s direction is a little more commercial.
None of this really matters however and the content and storyline are both unmistakeably Resident Evil. Resident Evil 4 is a masterpiece, a master-class in game programming and design. The truly great games will never cease to surprise you, and RE 4 is one such game. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something invariably happens that turns everything on its head. It is hugely difficult to explain just how good this game is. It is without a doubt the finest Resident Evil game to date. It is also probably the most thrilling, epic and exhilarating 3rd-person adventure game ever made, raising the bar to incredible heights never before thought possible. There are times when you will simply shake your head in awe at the imagination and effort that has gone into this game. If you can only buy one game this year, then make it RE 4.
You will not regret it.
Review by James Long 2005 © www.theorderofmidnight.blogspot.com