“Welcome! Got some rare things on sale, stranger!”
Resident Evil 4 is a game that breaks with and remakes its own tradition. After a generation of fixed camera angles and limited ammunition that stretches back to the genre’s grandfather, Alone in the Dark in 1992, Resident Evil 4 rebooted itself with a new control scheme and new gameplay – and still delivered tension and scares.
Originally released in 2005 after six years in development hell, and completely revised in the end by original series creator Shinji Mikami, Resident Evil 4 casts the player as Leon Kennedy, survivor of the Raccoon City zombie infestation, here dispatched to rural Spain to rescue the US President’s daughter, kidnapped by the Los Iluminados cult. In spite of the plot, the brilliance of Resident Evil 4 is in its ability to unsettle the player, both in frights and in gameplay terms.
“What’re ya sellin’?”
Resident Evil 4 is defined in the opening minutes. The game layers on an atmosphere of dread, as you are attacked by a hatchet-wielding villager, then become quickly outnumbered in a village of parasite-infected ganados. The gameplay set down in this introductory set-piece is the core of Resident Evil 4.
The village is a merciless “training mission”. While other games would give the player time to adjust to the new control scheme, Resident Evil 4 dumps you into a struggle to survive. The controls are simple – Leon can walk, dash, aim and shoot. Intentionally restrictive, you cannot “run-and-gun” or sidestep enemies. The player has to get creative about positioning (when to stand, and when to retreat) and weapons use.
Though technically not zombies, the ganados fulfill the same function. In the village sequence, Leon has to take aim and fire, run and retreat – hiding in buildings, barricading doorways, running up ladders and kicking them down to prevent villagers from following. After a chaotic few minutes, a distant church bell will summon the villagers away. Survive this and it only gets harder from here.
Resident Evil 4 is all about crowd control. One or two enemies are manageable. For greater numbers it is vital to fire off a few headshots, move in for a roundhouse kick, and retreat. There is a retro, rhythmic quality to the gameplay which is more in keeping with old-school shoot-‘em-ups – once stunned by a straight shot to the head or leg, enemies are vulnerable to a context-specific kick (or suplex), which can knock down more than one ganado at a time if executed correctly. Retreat and repeat for greatest effect.
The gameplay is outstanding, but there are a few minor issues: the dreadful dialog; the stale storyline; Ramon Salazar, the campy castellan; and unforgiving quick time events. Perhaps most problematic is the game’s rural Spain setting. Beyond the ganados’ unnerving cries of “¡Ahí está!” and “¡Un forastero!” there is little sense of place.
“Stranger, stranger… now that’s a weapon!”
In gaming terms though, Resident Evil 4 is a superb reinvention. Gone are the fixed cameras, replaced with an over-the-shoulder widescreen view which immerses the player in the action. This viewpoint is now industry standard. The inventory system is more user-friendly. And while more ammo leads to more on-the-nose action, the game’s deliberate pacing allows you to soak up every set-piece.
Resident Evil 4 delivers one intense action scene after another, challenging the player to discover creative ways to cause the most amount of damage. The weapons are satisfying – especially the crack of the TMP Uzi and the shotguns – and grenades (in three flavors of regular, flash, and incendiary) are this game’s smart bombs. The Wii version’s motion controls offer greater immediacy, and a flick of the wrist will cause Leon to smack another round into your weapon of choice.
The player is aided and abetted by the merchant, a mysterious cockney shopkeeper with an extensive arsenal for sale:
The merchant acts as a welcome safe haven, and an update of the classic gameplay mechanic of buying new items at level’s end. Weapons can be traded and upgraded in exchange for the treasure you collect.
“Is that all, stranger?”
Each player will have their own memorable moments, as Resident Evil 4 is packed with set-pieces. There is the first frightening encounter with chainsaw-wielding villagers (expect instant death). Las Plagas – the tentacled parasites controlling the villagers, erupting out of enemies’ heads. A classic horror genre set-up in which you mount a frenetic defense of a farmhouse against an angry mob. Harpooning Del Lago, a lake-dwelling leviathan, one of the game’s gripping boss battles. Ganados stalking you through a misty cemetery. The cultists’ incessant chanting. An intense mine cart chase. And the regeneradors, vulnerable only through precision sniping with an infrared scope.
The graphics are excellent – at their best in the opening sections in the broken-down village, with the murky greys and browns of ramshackle buildings creating a sense of foreboding. The animation is impressively realistic, and the music bolsters a tense atmosphere.
“Ah! I’ll buy it at a high price!”
Originally released by Capcom on Nintendo GameCube, then ported to PlayStation 2, Resident Evil 4 has been rereleased on Wii with excellent motion controls, and an HD version is available on PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.
For all its advanced graphics and animation though, it’s the old-school gameplay at the heart of Resident Evil 4 that stands out. An intelligent shoot-‘em-up wrapped in the conventions of survival horror, Resident Evil 4 is a taut and exciting modern classic.