Review by Combat Crustacean
"When evaluating a game that is part of the series, it is important to not view it as an extension of the games before it."
I'll be the first to admit that my experience in the Resident Evil series is shallow at best. I've played a little bit in each cardinal game of the esteemed survival-horror lineage, but never for particularly long as it was generally at my friend's house. Resident Evil 4 was the first RE game that I ever deigned myself to actually purchase. After viewing many heated debates on the boards about what a "Resident Evil fan" is comprised of, it's difficult for me to say whether or not I can call myself as such. RE4 is such a wild departure from the rest of the series in many imaginable aspects, so much so that some of the hardest of the hardcore fans have maligned the game as a false successor among the others. In my opinion, this is a stance that is completely without merit. Resident Evil 4 does not betray or bastardize its genre, but instead reinvents it. It brings about a new incarnation to a series steeped in stagnation, full of rehashes and ports, and with the game's evident critical and popular success most view this as a good thing.
But it would be a hopeless cause for someone mostly uninitiated in Resident Evil such as myself to talk too deeply about change. The important part of what I'm getting at is that this herald of change in the Resident Evil progeny managed to bring people like me, previously uninterested in the series, to pick up this game and say "Hm. This is damn good." Resident Evil 4 is so competent, professional and adept at everything it attempts that it would do the game injustice not to give it a try. One might also look at Final Fantasy XI for another popular example; many devoted Final Fantasy players blindly shunned the game because it took the series to an open-ended online world, but the game still managed to find a solid foothold among many MMORPG fans. I can sit here and speculate and draw parallels all day, but it would still spell out the same thing. Ultimately, Resident Evil 4 is a game that deserves to be viewed with its own merits and successes, not compared and contrasted with Resident Evils of the past and future.
Capcom must have known that if they wanted to prevail in "reinventing" the series, they would have to do a really good job with Resident Evil 4. Though that attitude reflects in most every aspect of the game, it is most quickly apparent in the graphical presentation. The care that they put into this game's aesthetics oozes from every zombified, rotting green pore; there are no other titles on the Gamecube that pay so much meticulous attention to visual detail. Feast your eyes on the seamless, realistically-animated character models; gasp in awe at the gigantic explosions as you set off an exploding barrel with a stray bullet; take note of the beautifully smooth motion capture as you watch Leon tumble through a complex grid of intense lasers. I vividly remember the first time I watched Leon get his head cut clean off by a chainsaw-toting madman -- I only realized that I'd have to restart my progress after I finished marveling at my character's headless corpse, prone and bleeding on the ground. The cutscenes, all of which are rendered in the game's engine, are directed with stunning aplomb and full of cinematic splendor.
Those very same cutscenes in themselves present another dynamic facet of the gameplay: during particularly action-packed moments, the screen will prompt you to press certain buttons at certain times, on penalty of injury or even death. This manages to keep you on your toes, focused on what's happening on screen and not wandering around to make yourself a sandwich. When you have to repeatedly tap A on a moment's notice to keep yourself from being pancaked by a highly aggressive boulder, that really immerses you in the gameplay far more. And similarly, what would normally be a cinematic plot-heavy knife-fight with a powerful adversary turns into a struggle for survival that keeps the player on tenterhooks. It sort of reminds me of Indigo Prophecy's elaborate stick shifting sequences during all of its cutscenes, except implemented far more naturally. That is how you enrich a game when it's out of the player's control, ladies and gentlemen.
To add icing to the cake, though, Resident Evil 4 doesn't limit these death-defying button inputs only to cutscenes. As a matter of fact, during nearly every boss fight you will also have to employ them to protect yourself from rather unattractive amounts of damage. The commands are seamlessly woven into the actual combat, so you'll find yourself shooting up your foe with a weapon of choice, dodging a fatal attack from some nasty bladed appendage, and after regaining your footing you can proceed with the bullet barrage. Capcom effectively manages to prevent the combat from becoming overly repetitive or tedious by using this; grand-scale battles are not an issue of point-shoot-dodge-repeat, but instead keeping you aware of that painfully minimal window of time before you end up with a poisonous stinger in your skull. It adds even more intensity to Resident Evil 4's gameplay, already an adrenaline-pumping experience.
This is to say nothing of playing the game outside of a boss battle or a cutscene, which is perhaps the most rewarding and enjoyable part of all. You take on the role of one Leon Kennedy, a police officer-cum-government agent dispatched to rural Spain in order to rescue the President's kidnapped daughter. In survival horror fashion, things go very wrong very quickly when Leon approaches a local in his house and is almost immediately vivisected by means of axe. His transport drives away suddenly, and Leon looks out the window to discover that he is surrounded by a handful of these crazed country bumpkins. Now what's a dashing young fellow strapped with a pistol and combat knife to do? Blow their heads off, natch. Resident Evil 4 handles like a cross between a first and third person shooter: while you have control of Leon, the camera is always trailing right behind his left shoulder. To prepare yourself for combat, you hold down the R button and press A to fire off a few slugs into your miserable foes. Pressing B will reload your gun. If you find yourself pressed for ammo, whip out your trusty knife with the L button. You can whip out your briefcase with a press of the X button and putz around in there to find something that may help you in your infection-slaying quest, be it a healing herb or an incendiary grenade. The control scheme is blessedly simple and incredibly intuitive, which makes slaying the hordes of infected bloodthirsty villagers that much more fun.
The situations that you're thrust into aren't always that simple, though. Many times Leon will find himself in situations where you have to manipulate every part of your environment simply to survive. Consider, for instance, a combat against a blind but very attentive brute of an opponent. He may not be able to see you but his sharp ears pick up every sound you make. To compensate, you can try making a distraction by throwing items in your inventory like a grenade, or you can ring the bells in the creature's dungeon to preoccupy him for a bit. One misstep spells out certain death for poor hapless Leon, so you have to be not only quick but dead-on precise. Another of these incidents happens earlier in the game, where you're taking on a village full of Saddler's shambling grunts. With such an overwhelming force -- possibly 20 versus 1 -- you have no choice but to duck in and out of houses, hide behind stables, jump from the rooftops and play sniper from a belltower simply to survive. Resident Evil 4 makes a very smart decision by having such strategic moments early on; it teaches the gamer not to grow complacent and to make the best of his surroundings, lest he get his little head ripped off by the irritable Ganados.
What ARE the Ganados, you may ask? 90% of your foes throughout the game comprise of the Ganados, who are once-peaceful villagers infected by some sort of unusual virus or creature called a Plaga. Upon infection, they become violent and merciless, charging down anyone not belonging to their ranks. Of course, these are just one of the many sinister creations housed in Resident Evil 4 -- the character design within the game is nothing short of brilliant. Your main antagonists are absolutely unforgettable characters, such as a creepy little man with a serious Napoleon complex or the intimidating Saddler himself, leader of whatever cultish goings-on are happening in this neck of Spain. You may even see a few familiar faces lurking around. Needless to say, all of them are out for your life, and the results can be grisly at best. Many of your adversaries see it fit to send some really vile creatures after you, and if those fail to deter you then they transform themselves to downright intimidating effect. I praise the sick mind who was behind the monster design in this game, because his nightmarish creations add a heaping helping of atmosphere to a game that is already dripping in it.
If I had to pick one department in which the game suffered just a little, it would probably be the plot. As if Capcom knew that many of the fans of this new game may not be initiated in the previous Resident Evil titles, they removed it almost entirely from the previously-created canon and gave it its own separate plot. Many may well view this as a disadvantage, because from what I can see the ongoing Resident Evil storyline is very rich and cohesive. (How else could you justify an 800 KB plot guide encompassing all of the games in the series?) That's not to say that this game's plot isn't good...it is, but in kind of an unadorned way. To be honest, there really aren't very many shocking storyline surprises lurking around the corner. The twists are few and far between, generally predictable, and some tend to only have much weight if you've played the Resident Evil games of the past. A great deal of the plot is divulged in files lying haphazardly around the village/castle/island that you'll be traversing, which makes me wonder why Saddler doesn't keep a closer eye on his personal documents. (Or, as a matter of fact, why he writes out all of his master plans in painstaking detail and then leaves them for the player to find.) To me, I chalk it up to the developers' inability to really integrate all of this plot into the game's cinematics; Resident Evil 4 favors gameplay and white-knuckle intensity over half hour cutscenes spilling forth all of the storyline. Personally, I view it as a double edged sword, because while the gameplay remains fast and uninterrupted, the delivery of the plot feels lazy at best. And let's be honest -- our subject matter is nothing special. Agents of death with a vendetta against America infecting a figure of relative power as well as many innocent people in order to catalyze their ultimate goal? Yeah, yeah, cool.
The prize lies in the delivery, just like the rest of Resident Evil 4. Without trying to gush too much, this is one of the most well-balanced, entertaining and flat out fun games of the next-gen console trifecta. And though the game might not have intended for this effect, I have developed a raging interest in other games in the series; I intend to pick up other Resident Evil titles available for the Gamecube as well. Resident Evil 4 is a work of gaming art, instilled with immeasurable effort and painstaking care by Capcom. It has reached a level of quality previously unmatched by just about every other video game on the market, and is fully deserving of its gigantic sales figures and widely positive critical acclaim. If you own a Gamecube, or even a PS2 now that the game has been ported, there is no reason whatsoever for you not to pick this game up. Even if you're not a fan of the survival-horror genre, you owe it to yourself to give this a try -- if anything's going to change your mind, it'll be this game.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 07/31/06
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