Review by MalachiX
"Better than Anyone Could Have Hoped"
Some people hate delays, feeling distraught that the game they've been waiting for over the last year or two has once again been pushed back. Others of us see delays as good thing knowing that a great product takes time and are willing to wait until said game is perfect. In 1997, Shin Mikami, the creator of the Resident Evil series, decided to scrap his currently version of Resident Evil 2 out of fear that it was too close to the original game. He pushed the release date back to early 1998, started the game over again from scratch, and created what many consider to be the finest chapter in the series. Resident Evil 4 was already an incredibly anticipated and delayed game. It seemed that Capcom did everything in their power to put off releasing it: They developed a very intriguing side chapter known as Code Veronica for the Dreamcast and then spent time making a director's cut for the PS2. They experimented with some new gameplay ideas only to turn that early build into the action game The Devil May Cry. They even re made the original Resident Evil for the Gamecube with new gameplay and graphics and then released Resident Evil 0, a prequel to the whole series, rather than releasing Resident Evil 4. But even this still wasn't enough. After an excellent reception at E3 which cause fans to drool with anticipation, Mikami decided to scrap his current version of RE4, where protagonist Leon explored an old mansion with a flashlight and pistol, and start over from scratch. The new RE4 that replaced the old build was something that hardly looked like a Resident Evil game at all with full 3D action gameplay, no zombies, and little relation story-wise to previous chapters. Many where very concerned about this, not only because of the changes but also to see what may well be the most elusive game of all time get yet another major delay (this was further exacerbated when the game was pushed even further back until early 2005, some six years after RE3 was released). Some of us however, remembered all the good starting from scratch did for RE2 and were hopeful that lightning would strike twice. Now that RE4 is finally upon us, I can safely say that I am very glad that Mikami and his staff decided to take the time to give us the sequel we deserved as RE4 is the game that finally tops RE2 as my favorite chapter in the series.
Perhaps the first shakeup that people will notice about Resident Evil 4 is the story. The game takes place six years after the last main chapter in the series and is the first not to deal with the evil Umbrella Corporation (for the most part) and its countless bioweapons. In fact, we're told in the opening to the game that Umbrella is long gone. This departure from passed traditions has irked some fans but I think it's definitely for the better. The series had gotten into quite a slump, simply doing the same type story over and over (I think we were up to five different evil viruses by the time RE0 rolled around) and it was time to move forward. Players assume the role of Leon, the hero of Resident Evil 2. He's now part of a special task force that works for the president and is assigned to rescue the president's daughter who has been kidnapped. He tracks her down to a little village in Europe and goes to investigate. Upon entering the village, Leon is attacked by the local villagers who proceed to kill his police escorts. The villagers appear human yet they can withstand an incredible amount of punishment and seem to be under some one's control. As Leon progresses through the game, he finds that a sinister cult and some pretty bizarre creatures play a part in a much larger plot than a simple kidnapping. The story is fairly interesting for a Resident Evil game. It keeps the player guessing, has a few nifty twits, and never slows down. The only real sour note is the dialogue which, when attempting to be funny, feels incredibly forced.
This generation, I've found I've been saying the same thing over an over in regards to story telling: a fully 3D camera is good. In the 32-bit era, most of the most cinematic, story intensive games, featured 3D characters overlaid on 2D backrounds in order to keep the detail level up. This was often a problem. Because of the long time needed to re-render a background for a camera angle change, most cut scenes featured a boring and static camera with only the occasional pre-rendered FMV to really make things interesting. Toward the end of the 32-bit days, a little game called Metal Gear Solid was released which presented a cinematic experience with a fully 3D camera and backrounds and no rendered cinemas. Most would agree that, despite the arguably melodramatic nature of its story, it was the closest anyone had come to delivering an interactive movie and many felt the loss in visual quality was well worth the sense of style. This generation, we've seen most of the major series that have long embraced static backgrounds to eventually make the jump to full 3D and Resident Evil 4 follows the precedent set by Final Fantasy and Onimusha. Resident Evil experimented with this once before in Code Veronica and, as in that game, the 3D is used to good effect and gives the game a much more cinematic feel. Also like Code Veronica, the cut scenes in RE4 are far more action packed then past entries and the game has a feel reminiscent of John Woo action films. Thankfully, RE4 is not hampered by the poor voice acting that hurt Code Veronica. RE4 easily has the best voice acting to come out Capcom this generation or any other. In fact, the great voice acting makes the often-poor dialogue feel that much more out of place. Overall, RE4's story should keep you entertained.
Ok, now that's the story is out of the way, let's get to what makes RE4 so amazing: the gameplay. It's best to start off by saying to forget what you know about past RE games because RE4 plays like nothing you've ever seen. The camera follows Leon over the shoulder as he battles with the villagers, cult members, and a host of other bioorganic monstrosities. When aiming his weapon, Leon remains stationary and is unable to strafe. While some may complain about this, it actually makes the combat very precise. Leon can't just circle strafe around his enemies or run strait at them firing like crazy as in other games. Also, the villagers cannot only take a lot of damage but they're smart. They move fast, work in groups, and will try to dodge attacks if targeted. Success in RE4 comes with being tactical. Shooting a villager in the hand will make them drop their weapon. Shooting them in the leg while they're running will trip them giving Leon time unload the rest of his clip into them as they try to get up. Shooting them in the face stuns them, giving Leon a chance to run up and deliver a spin kick that can not only damage numerous foes but may also take off their heads if enough damage has been done. If a villager throws a weapon at Leon, he can shoot it out of the air or, if they're holding an explosive, he can shoot it and cause it to explode, taking out a whole bunch of villagers (grenades can be used to similar effect). It's interesting that we've had head shots in action games for almost a decade but RE4 is the first game to make body specific damage really count from a gameplay standpoint.
Another point of strategy is environmental interaction. When Metal Gear Solid 2 came out, the game's creators boasted that everything in the game could be shot and manipulated. The most famous example was when the player would shoot a box of ice and the ice cubes would spill out realistically then melt with lone cubes melting slower than clusters of cubes. While things like this were pretty nifty, they didn't really affect the gameplay. In RE4, nearly every little cool thing Leon can do in the environment has a purpose. The A' button is context sensitive and can do a number of things such as knocking over ladders, jumping through windows, ducking behind crates, and using a melee attack on stunned villagers. When surrounded by villagers, of whom there can be over a dozen at once, Leon must use his environment to his advantage. He can climb a ladder then push it down as the villagers try to climb up. He can make his stand in one of the many cabins and try to hold off the villagers as they funnel through the doors and windows. He can lure them near and exploding barrel and then shoot it to take out a large group of villagers. Leon is also rewarded for closely exploring his environment. Healing items, ammo, money, and treasure are frequently found in destructible crates and barrels that litter the game. Villagers also often drop such items when killed so it's often worth it to kill everyone in sight rather than running away. RE4 also takes a page from Metal Gear Solid 3 in that Leon can shoot fish and snakes for food that heals him. He can also, if patient, wait for one of the chickens in the village to lay an egg. The longer the chicken is left un-disturbed, the better an egg it lays. This is not only a nifty little thing to watch, but it adds to the gameplay.
Another thing that adds to the depth of RE4 are the merchants. Over the course of the game Leon will find certain cloaked individuals who are willing to sell him goods and services. Leon can sell the various treasures he's found over the course of the game for cash (and can also sell other items such as useless guns or ammo if the player is willing to part with them). The merchants not only sell Leon new weapons but also allow him to buy upgrades for them, increasing their firepower, their ammo capacity, their fire rate, and their reloaded speed. This offers a healthy dose of RPG elements to the game and also gives the player more freedom in how they want to approach the coming confrontations. Some players may prefer close quarters combat and spend all their cash upgrading their shotgun while others may want to upgrade their sniper rifle and simply pick off villagers from far away.
As you can see by now, the variety of options open to the player when approaching any given battle is simply amazing and often the player will want to fight the same group of villagers over and over again just to see what the most affective strategy is. This is really what separates RE4 from any other chapter in the series: the combat is REALLY fun. For once in the series, the player wants to get into fights and, thanks to the large amounts of ammo found in the game, they'll rarely have to run away. RE4 also fixes several other nagging flaws that have long plagued the series. The item system has been totally revamped with a new Diablo style-configuration where items take an amount of space relative to their size and the player can twist and turn the items to get the most out of the space. Players also don't have to worry about making space for puzzle items or treasure, which take up no inventory space and will also not have to worry about managing ink ribbons as Leon can save at any type writer as many times as he wants. Also, for those who don't save often, the game uses a check point system that stops the player from losing too much progress when dieing (usually they'll just be put back at the start of the room or the last cut scene). Speaking of dieing, it's also worth noting that this is easily the hardest chapter in the series. With smart enemies and a difficulty that is auto-adjusting, the player is going to die a lot but none of these are cheap deaths and the puzzles and fetch quests, a previous RE hallmark, have been reduced to a minimum.
Ok, so we've established that the game is a blast to play, but the question many will be ask is how is it scary? It's true that RE4 doesn't rely on claustrophobic camera angles, a lack of ammo, and things jumping out at the player to provide scares as past RE games have. Rather, the fear in RE4 comes from the combat and the atmosphere. When fighting villagers, the fear comes from their sheer numbers. As mentioned before, there can be over a dozen of them in a given encounter and facing such an onslaught is quite nerve-racking (especially when a chainsaw maniac who has WAY more health than any other villager and can decapitate Leon with a single swipe shows up). Other enemies equally frightening. There are some which can turn invisible with the player only to see their breath, others which spring from seemingly dead bodies, and others which I won't even spoil for you. The level design also manages to keep things intense. In one memorable sequence (and a clear homage to Night of the Living Dead), Leon and a friend must try to survive the night in a cabin as nearly 50 villagers pour in through the doors and windows. RE4 also takes a note from Shenmue in its cinemas. During the cut scenes, the player may be prompted to press a random button to get Leon to perform an action. While this is used for some pretty impressive sequences, it also does a good job of making the player never feel safe. Finally, I have must mention the bosses which are absolutely fantastic and most of which pretty huge. For the first boss for instance, Leon drives his boat out into an open lake looking for a key. As he drives, something large passes under the boat. The water is murky and it's hard to make the creature out but it's clear that whatever it is, it's huge. Suddenly, the creature surfaces and we see that it is every bit as horrific as we feared. The best way to describe the bosses in Resident Evil 4 is that they're like Zelda bosses, only scary. Each one has a specific pattern of attack and weakness that must be figured out in order to defeat it. These boss fights are some of the best moments in the game and the most frightening.
I also should mention Ashley, the presidents daughter. It was known long into the game's development that Leon would team up with her and a large portion of the game would involve her following Leon, controlled by AI. Many were afraid that this would give the game a tedious baby sitting quality that many recent titles with team-mates have had. Thankfully, Ashley works very well in the game. Normally, she'll follow Leon when needed and is smart enough to move out of the way if Leon points a gun at her and generally not obstruct combat. If needed, Leon can tell her to stay put in one location as he clears out enemies or have her hide in a box until it's safe. Ashley also has the good sense not to follow Leon into boss encounters. The game walks a fine line by using Ashley as a vulnerability for Leon, thus upping the fear factor, but never lets her become a cumbersome pain in the butt (as Yorda was in Ico). Finally, the player really doesn't have to deal with Ashley as much as previously thought. While you find her early, she gets lost and kidnapped many times during the game so there is never too long a stretch of having to protect her.
It's worth pointing out that even if RE4 were as brief as other survival horror games, it would be worth playing through over and over again for the extraordinary gameplay. What's really surprising however is how incredibly long the game is. Expect to take 20-25 hours your first time through depending on how much time you spend looking for treasure and fighting battles. Even if you players rush through the game, it should still take them over twice as long as any other chapter in the series. RE4 also has a pretty hefty amount of replay value. There's a secret chapter staring a certain old friend of Leon's to be unlocked upon completing the game. The player can also play through the game a second time with all their old weapons, items, and upgrades and new weapons available (as well as a harder difficulty). Finally, the battle mode from past Resident Evil's returns here and, for once, it's really great. While in past games it felt like more of a gimmick because of the games were never geared toward combat, RE4's wonderful gameplay makes the battle mode a blast. The player chooses one of four maps and then gets to work on killing as many enemies as possible within the time limit. High scores not only unlock extra weapons but also new characters to play in battle mode. These extra characters start out with different weapons than Leon and also have special abilities. Simply put, RE4 backs far more play value than anything else in the genre.
Of course the thing that really got Resident Evil 4 noticed by critics and a lot of gamers as well was its graphics (sad but true). Simply put, RE4 is the best looking console game around. The characters are have some of the highest polygon counts ever seen in a game and there are dozens of them on screen at once. If you want to get technical, Leon is made of a hefty 10,000 polygons; that's roughly five times as Chris or Claire in Code Veronica, the series last 3D outing. The villagers are made up of about 4,000 polygons, the same as the ultra-high polygon model of Snake in Metal Gear Solid 3 and there can be over a dozen villagers on screen at once with no slowdown (that I've seen at least). The game also boasts some very detailed textures (no plastic skin like Ninja Gaiden) and some very impressive special effects (fire in particular is quite impressive). What this means, without all the technical jargon, is the game simply looks amazing. So often during cut scenes, I would begin to think that I was watching a pre-rendered cinema, only to remember that all the FMVs were real-time. When reading the prologue book which has pictures from all RE games, I couldn't help but notice that Resident Evil 4's in game graphics look VASTLY better than the CGI graphics of RE2 that impressed the hell out of me all those years ago. The only visual downer is the fake wide screen which places black bars on your TV screen but still won't work with wide screen TVs without a zoom feature. This was obviously done in order to slightly lower the resolution so to keep the frame rate at a solid 30 fps. Still, with graphics like these, it's hard to blame them.
The sound manages to be almost as impressive and is also a shakeup for the series. While past chapters have relied and very powerful tracks to evoke fear in players, RE4 uses a much more understated score. The music is generally creepy and surreal and would not be out of place in a Silent Hill game. It fits the game perfectly and does wonders for the atmosphere. RE4 also continues the series tradition of creepy sound effects with everything from the creak of doors to the sound of villagers snarling enhancing the palpable sense of fear. As mentioned before, the voice acting is, for once, quite good and actually adds to the game (helping us get through some of the bad dialogue) rather than detracting from it.
RE4 is the antithesis of most of the by-the-numbers sequels we saw last year. There are more new features here than found in Halo 2, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and Metal Gear Solid 3 combined (no wonder so many critics have said this would have got their Game of the Year award if released a few weeks earlier). While many of the new features have been pioneered by other games, RE4 uses them to create a unique and fantastic gameplay experience. It takes a little bit from The Devil May Cry, a little bit from Metal Gear Solid 3, and creates something much better than either. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that Resident Evil 4 is to Resident Evil games what Castlania: Symphonia of the Night was to other Castlevania games. The bottom line is that RE4 is not only the best survival horror game ever made but also the best third person action game I've ever played.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 01/27/05, Updated 02/05/05
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