Genre : Survival Horror
Release Date: December 31, 2004
Resident Evil 4 has to hold some kind of record for the number of times a single title has been scrapped and reinvented. Industry rumor has it that the first version of the game mutated on the drawing table, into what would become Devil May Cry. A second version was shown in a trailer at E3 2003, but that was reportedly canceled by the series’s producer, Shinji Mikami, for being too derivative of its predecessors.
He had a point. The last few Resident Evil games have all had a central hook that built upon the same foundation as the rest of the series. In each game, you’d be exploring a desolated location while controlling a character via the “tank” control scheme. Solve a few easy fetch-quest puzzles, conserve ammunition, find the same five weapons that you found in the last game, and eventually, you’d get to blow large holes in a monster the size of a bus. Then something exploded, your character flew away in a helicopter, and an anticlimax happened. See you all next game!
Resident Evil 4 does not play like that. In many ways, it’s a total reinvention of the series, as most of its framework has been abandoned and rebuilt. You’re still playing as a single person, outgunned and alone against an unfathomable and inescapable threat, and yes, you’ll still be using herbs to heal yourself. At the same time, though, the game plays entirely differently, thanks to a over-the-shoulder perspective, the ability to freely target an opponent in front of you, and a variety of new abilities.
RE4 is set in 2004, after the destruction of the Umbrella corporation at the hands of the American government. Leon Kennedy, one of the handful of survivors of the T-Virus outbreak in Raccoon City, is now a government agent. His current case is to find the President’s daughter, Ashley Graham, who’s been kidnapped.
Leon’s search takes him to an isolated village in Europe, a place on no maps where no roads go, and where the people may not be people at all. They aren’t zombies; they exhibit a kind of crude intelligence, they use tools, they’ll try to avoid injury, and they work in groups. Still, they attack Leon without a word, they don’t seem to feel pain, and there are worse monsters lurking in the wilderness.
The basic tone of Resident Evil 4 has shifted, to some extent. Before, the games were all George Romero movies, with hordes of slow, shambling zombies. Now, the series has apparently moved forward into the realm of Italian zombie flicks, such as those made by Lucio Fulci. Those films, and thus RE4, are unapologetically and gleefully gory, above and beyond anything you’ve seen in mainstream games to date.
That’s assisted by the game’s graphics, which are as good as you’ve been told. Seeing the game in motion is kind of strange, as it takes the confining atmosphere of the previous GameCube REs and spreads it out across an entire village. Faces contort with pain, eyes blink, clothing wrinkles, and blood flies, all rendered with the same engine in amazing real time.
Leon himself has gained a few new tricks since his last entry into the World of Survival Horror™. You’ll spend most of the game looking over his shoulder, as he aims his weapons at whatever fresh hellbeast has popped up to block his path. When you draw a gun, you have free reign to point it wherever you like; you can kneecap a villager, go for the easy body shot, or blow his head off, each of which will have predictable and tactically useful results.
For style points, you can shoot incoming projectiles out of the air, such as a villager’s thrown scythe, or knock a monster away from you with a fast roundhouse kick. During the course of the game, you’ll be able to use a variety of actions with the A button, ranging from necessary to useful to simply cool. You can vault railings, dive through windows, kick open doors (!), knock over ladders to foil pursuit, and swim, among many other things.
Leon’s arsenal includes a handgun with a laser sight, a pump shotgun, a machine pistol, harpoons, and hand grenades, each of which have visible effects upon the world around him. If you see a monster through a window, you can break that window and shoot it; the same applies to some of the weaker doors, which will slowly disintegrate as Leon fires a shotgun through them.
These weapons, and knowing when to run away, will keep you alive against the villagers, which may be the most tenacious opponents in a Resident Evil to date. They aren’t really human per se; you can tell that much from the first time you meet one, and he absorbs half a dozen 9mm slugs to the chest without really seeming to notice. They can still use tools, communicate with each other, set ambushes, and try to dodge your bullets. If they corner you, they’ll surround the area and slowly cut off your avenues of escape, while simultaneously trying to break in via doors and windows.
About fifteen minutes into the demo, the thought of zombies actually made me feel somewhat nostalgic, and I didn’t even see anything worse than the villagers. The downloadable trailers feature, among other things, a man wielding a chainsaw, a giant creature that can only really be called an ogre, and some kind of aquatic monster that Leon fights from aboard a motorboat.
There are still a few odd things about Resident Evil 4. Leon can collect money, for example, although there weren’t any shops around to spend it in in the demo. Questions about the story persist, from the seemingly flimsy premise to the decision to have Umbrella, the multinational corporation which has been the real villain in every Resident Evil to date, destroyed offscreen and dealt with in what amounts to a footnote.
Finally, the gameplay, once Leon pulls a gun and starts shooting, still feels a bit stilted, more suitable to a rail shooter like <I>Area 51</I> than an adventure game. It’s actually easier to shoot a flying blade out of the air than it is to dodge it, which seems wrong to me somehow.
The point still remains that Resident Evil 4 is that rarest of things: a complete reimagination of a franchise that desperately needed it. It’s going to be somewhat controversial among the more fanatical members of its fandom; I’ve already seen quite a few people online decry it as, inexplicably, “not being Resident Evil.”
Underneath the improvements and the redesign, though, this is still a worthy entry into the horror genre. For the first time in a long time, I actually felt scared while playing a Resident Evil game, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final build.
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