have to admit, when I first saw early screens of Resident Evil 4, I was a bit skeptical. I’ve been playing the games since day one and like so many gamers out there, change scares me. I had grown used to the clunky controls and cheesy plotlines; they were worthy sacrifices to make in light of the usually stellar gameplay at hand. Well, after having run through the entirety of Resident Evil 4 I can safely consider myself one of the converted. Blending masterful storytelling with spot-on controls and gameplay, Resident Evil 4 is not only the best Resident Evil game ever made, it stands as one of the best video games ever made, too. If you’re a die-hard fan, prepare to experience the next level of survival horror. And, if you’ve never touched one of the previous games, prepare to get a lesson in how to do things right.
As you probably know, the game opens with Leon Kennedy being charged by the President of the United States to track down his kidnapped daughter. Leon learns that she may have been taken to a remote part of Europe and ultimately finds himself in a sleepy little village in the woods. Unfortunately, the inhabitants aren’t too happy to see him. They lurch around in a bizarre stupor; not quite zombies but not quite human. And to make matters worse, they attack Leon upon his arrival in an unrelenting frenzy.
Enemies make it a habit of teaming up on you
As you make your way through the game you’ll face off against even more bizarre creatures, including some of the most impressive boss fights ever put in a game. In fact, the seemingly possessed villagers end up being the least of your worries. Relentless and sometimes truly terrifying, the enemies set a new standard for not only a Resident Evil title but also for the survival horror genre. They’re fast, cunning, and actively seek you out when you run for cover or take them head-on. It’s this humanistic (or sometimes animalistic) chain of behavior that takes contact with them into realms never before seen in a game.
Leon, however, is no pushover. At first he’s outfitted with a standard handgun, but can eventually acquire a host of different weapons by purchasing them from local merchants. Money can be found from defeated enemies (or just lying about) and these credits are the life-blood of staying alive. Merchants appear pretty frequently, usually adjacent to save points, and stock a wide array of different items for your shopping needs. Shotguns, machine guns, magnums, rifles, and even rocket launchers are up for purchase, as well as a host of accessories like gun stocks and scopes. The merchants also serve as handy gun enhancement shops and with enough money, you can upgrade your firearms to fire faster, deal more damage, reload quicker and hold more bullets. If you don’t have enough money for the goodies, don’t fret. Scattered throughout the game are rare and valuable treasures, ranging from precious stones to more ornate items like antique chessboards and headdresses, each of which usually fetches a premium price from the merchant.
Stronger weapons make scenarios like this more frequent
One of our most favorite features, and coincidentally it’s a new one, is the revamped inventory management system. Finally getting in touch with the real world, Leon’s inventory is determined by what size attaché case he happens to be carrying around. Each case is comprised of a certain number of spaces. And, how you decide to fit your items into each case is in your control. In the inventory screen, you can move and rotate items around, placing them where you like and squeezing every last inch of inventory space that you have at your disposal. Later on in the game you’re also able to purchase larger cases that expand your inventory capacity greatly. While a seemingly minor feature, this really ends up being one of my favorite new additions. First off, item management is now realistic. Previous games were pretty illogical in the fact that a small green herb would take up as much inventory space as your handgun. Now, each item is prioritized by size. Herbs and first aid sprays are small and thus, take up little space. Weapons like shotguns, rifles, and handguns are large, and naturally take up more space. But more importantly, the new system has that sort of interactive flair that makes you feel like you’re really in control of your actions. Being able to pack your case like a pro is, in my opinion, an art form and is not only an essential skill to learn, it’s also one that’s a blast to experience.
Perhaps one of the most obvious aspects of the game that you’ll notice is its strong focus on action, and this is probably most evident in the game’s weapons. In previous Resident Evil titles, weapons were necessary to stay alive, but came at a cost. Ammunition was usually sparse and needed to be rationed. This time around, however, you’ll notice that ammunition is incredibly plentiful. If you got sick of running away from zombies in previous RE games, prepare to get your trigger finger primed for a serious workout. Most enemy encounters require you to fight, so there’s very little running away and ammo conservation. And, since enemies now actively seek you out with surprising fervor, you’ll often find yourself fighting it out in those times that you opted not to. Enemies drop ammunition and it can also be found lying about in random crates and barrels that dot nearly every inch of the Resident Evil 4 world.
The most basic weapon that Leon has at his disposal is his survival knife. Pressing the L trigger on the controller with cause Leon to draw his knife, at which point you can press the A button to slash with it, as well as use the analog stick to either direct the blow high or low. The knife is also handy for breaking open item containers and thankfully. In our previous builds of the game, the knife was only able to be equipped by jumping into the inventory screen, so it’s a major blessing that it’s now been mapped to the left trigger.
Leon’s other main weapon is his handgun, which usually packs a pretty good wallop at close range. But most creatures are quite hardy and can take quite a few direct hits from the handgun before going down. That’s where you need to bring in the heavier firepower. The shotgun packs a tremendous punch and can remove the head of most enemies in a single shot. The rifle is more about pinpoint accuracy and, when equipped with a scope, allows you to snipe at distant enemies. The machine gun, or TMP, is a virtual arsenal in and of itself with tons ammo, allowing you to spray out bullets at an alarming rate. To make combat a bit more precise, each weapon also comes outfitted with a built-in laser aiming device, making those necessary but difficult head-shots all the more easier to pull off. As you make it further into the game, merchants will also begin stocking more powerful versions of the regular weapons, which are usually a good buy. These enhanced weapons usually bring to the table more powerful damage, high clip capacities, and better aiming stability.
So with your new weapons in tow, it’s time to fight, right? Enemies inhabit nearly every single square inch of Resident Evil 4 and even the most pedestrian and simple ones can prove to be monstrous. Take the first level, the village, for example. In the village you’ll face off against townsfolk without weapons (who lunge and bite at you), those that toe around axes and either throw them at your or chop at you, terrifying women villages who slash at you with butcher knives, old men with pitchforks, and even a burlap sack wearing villager who wields a chainsaw and packs a one-hit kill move. Keep in mind this is just in the first 15 minutes of the game. Later on you’ll face off against enemies that wield flaming crossbows, spiked clubs, stun batons, rocket launchers, sickles, large Wolverine-like metal claws, and even Gatling guns. Long gone are the days of mindless swarms of zombies that lurched around and tried to grab you. In their place is a cast of terrifying and dynamic adversaries the likes of which have never been seen in a survival horror game.
Meet El Gigante, the lovable ogre
This idea is supplanted even more so in the boss encounters, which needless to say, are both capable of dropping your jaw and filling your trousers. The first fight takes place in a small lake and has Leon piloting around a small motor boat. As luck (or lack thereof) would have it, the boat’s anchor gets ensnared on a monstrous aquatic creature and poor Leon, with boat in tow, is dragged along the lake. Luckily, you have an unlimited supply of harpoons to skewer the beast with, but the entire scenario is made that much more hectic thanks to the fact that the creature makes numerous attempts to swallow you whole or ram your boat into debris in the water. Later on, you square off against El Gigante, an ogre of enormous proportions (you’ve probably seen him in recent screenshots and game movies). Using his brute strength as his main weapon, El Gigante likes to make it a habit of snatching you up and trying to squeeze the life out of you, or taking the more direct approach of smashing you underneath his gigantic feet.
Needless to say, the boss encounters in Resident Evil 4 are leaps and bounds ahead of anything that you’ve ever seen in a previous RE game. Heck, they’re probably more than you’ve ever seen in any game, period. They’re not only massive but they’re also impressive in scope. While most boss fights are simply about putting as much lead into the enemy as possible, they’re also now heavily about real-time interaction. Using the game’s new, much-touted Action System, you’ll take control of certain actions during key points in the game by using the buttons on the GameCube controller. For example, say a boss makes use of a particularly heavy and damaging attack. While powerful, it also comes with a pretty strong telegraph of when it’s about to hit you. You may notice during key moments like this that button combinations (such as A and B, or L and R) will flash on-screen. When they do you have a split second to press them and avoid the attack, or fall victim to it. The Action System also plays heavily in non-boss encounters. Some villagers might try to ensnare you in a classic Indiana Jones-esque trap and you need to try and avoid it. During the cut scene that follows, you’ll find yourself smashing buttons in order to try and avoid the attack. There are even more pedestrian uses for the system, such as interacting with objects and maneuvering around the environments, but the real draw comes in those adrenaline-packed scenarios that have you mashing buttons as if your life depended on it.
When I first saw the Action System awhile back, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical. First off, it seemed like more of a gimmick than anything. But after having played through the game I can safely say that the Action System is probably the most fulfilling and interactive system in a video game that I’ve ever experienced. True, it’s not all that life-like to smash on buttons to avoid attacks or interact with environments, but it’s that feeling of do or die finality that take the scenarios to new heights. Later on in the game, there’s an entire cutscene/scenario that is filled with Action System sequences, and in my opinion, is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a game in my entire life.
With so much change, it’s not too difficult to accept the fact that the game’s entire environmental landscape has been completely altered, as well. First off, you already know that the game starts off in a creepy and mysterious village. What you don’t know is that the game centers heavily on these outdoor environments. It seems that Capcom has eschewed the idea of the clichéd Resident Evil mansion in favor of more dynamic and variable environments. And frankly, I welcome this change. Much of the game takes place outside, and initially, one would think that the locale would lessen the tension the game has to offer. Actually, it ends up being quite the opposite. In the mansions of the past, the biggest problem you usually had was being trapped in a hallway with zombies on both sides. Now, you can be attacked from a 360 degree swath around Leon, making it far more difficult to keep track of the usually large number of attackers out to kill you. Also, the relatively open environments are normally filled with small buildings and rooms that make for handy spots for enemies to get the jump on you. You do get some help, though, mainly in the form of a number of environmental objects that you can exploit for your own use. Explosive barrels make for great means of killing large groups of enemies in a single shot and sometimes the general layout of a level makes it easier to herd enemies together for easier management.
Taking a bit of inspiration from Resident Evil 0, Leon will eventually rescue Ashley, the President’s daughter, creating some unique team-based gameplay. When in custody, Leon needs to make sure that he does everything he can to protect her. She’s light in the health department and can’t wield any of her own weapons, so she’s prone to getting injured easily or being hauled off by enemies. If either of these things happens for a prolonged period of time, it’s game over. But, Ashley is no slouch. She has a number of different roles to play in the game. First off, if you aim a gun near her she’ll duck, which is helpful for shooting enemies that may be approaching her from behind. Secondly, she has can perform a number of different actions, such as hiding in dumpsters or crawling under furniture. Leon can even give her voice commands such as “wait” and “follow” for those precarious moments when you might not know what lies ahead of you. There are also some team-based Action System scenarios involving the two, but I’ll leave those as a surprise. While much of the game is really focused on controlling Leon, the bits where you’re teamed up with Ashley add a completely new dimension to the game. Keeping yourself alive is hard enough, but keeping Ashley alive as well gives a whole new meaning to survival horror. She’s weak and nearly helpless and that creates one heck of a gameplay experience dynamic.
Visually Resident Evil 4 is hands-down the best looking RE game to date, and arguably the best looking GameCube game out there. The character models are exquisitely detailed from the way that Leon reloads his weapon or the way an enemy cackles and points out your location the moment it spots you. The environments also take center stage, with some of the most detailed, claustrophobic, and impressive areas you’ve ever seen. From the squalid village in the beginning of the game to the more intricate indoor environments, you’ll never get bored with the world around you. Detail is the name of the game and you’ll see it in everything. It’s pretty apparent that Capcom spent a great deal of time making sure that everything looked stellar. The biggest visual feature in the game has to be the new locked third-person perspective. And while I admit that it takes a little getting used to, it eventually becomes almost second nature and really adds a ton of atmosphere to an already nail-biting experience. While it does make things a bit harder to see every now and then, it’s done so for a reason; to scare the living crap out of you. And, it does just that.
Bosses are visually impressive and usually gigantic
Aurally, Resident Evil 4 is probably the hallmark of the entire series, mainly due to the fact that you won’t have to listen to that same mindless “ugh” that zombies were known for. Enemies now emit a wide variety of noises, such as the villagers in the beginning that scream out at you in some foreign tongue, scaring you while also alerting their comrades as to your location. As you make it even further, sound becomes even more integral. You’ll listen to eerie cultish chants and hear the earth shake during the impressive boss battles. If ever a game did an exemplary job at making sure the sound drew you into the experience, Resident Evil 4 is it. There’s also quite a bit of voice-over dialogue, none of which is cheesy or hackneyed. This really helps to give each character quite a bit more depth and personality. And perhaps taking a nod to games like Silent Hill, the music is dynamic and will change when enemies appear, creating a more tension-filled soundtrack.
Overall, Resident Evil 4 is one of the best games I have ever played on any console. Capcom has managed to pull off the impossible: deliver a gripping survival horror experience while also taking the RE series in new directions. The sheer scope and depth of the gameplay is absolutely astounding. You’ll see and hear things that will literally drop your jaw in disbelief and the scary thing is…this continues the entire game. So much of what’s to be experienced is absolutely mind-blowing, it’s amazing that they managed to fit the game on two discs. If you’ve never played a RE game before, Resident Evil 4 is the perfect reason to start. And, if you’re counting down the days until it releases, all we can say is that no matter how much you think you may know about what’s to come, you haven’t seen anything yet.