Review by Blactor
"Capcom's Love Letter to Demented Spaniards Everywhere"
Although I played "Alone in the Dark" for the PC years ago, it was not until I shook hands with "Resident Evil 2" years later--and drew back a stump--that I became seriously hooked on Survival Horror. Since then I've gone retro to RE1 (umm...sequel was MUCH better), skipped ahead to Code Veronica, went wild with Dino Crisis, and even visited Silent Hill two or three times. No, I didn't stay there. In fact, to be honest, I've never stuck with or finished ANY survival horror game outside of RE2.
Until now, of course.
RE2 kept me hooked with its fascinating blend of stunning graphics, an involving storyline, lots of tension and suspense, some truly startling moments, respectable difficulty, and of course lovably atrocious voice acting.
But this, obviously, is a Resident Evil FOUR review. What about RE4 makes it, IMO, the most addictive and praise-worthy title since RE2?
The answer is Evolution.
Sweet Lord, look at those graphics. This is one of the most beautiful "ugly" games you'll see in a while. Decrepit blood-thirsty monters and sewers have never looked this good. The game boasts well-done character models along with distinguished and detailed environments, all produced in real-time. There are no prerendered back drops, just a lot of very well-done texturing. Add in some impressive light-sourcing, smoke & particle effects, and other details such as realistic rain, fire and water, and you have one graphically impressive title. In a new move for the series, Capcom has placed the camera not at odd angles in various rooms, but right over the shoulder of the protagonist, which helps to further immerse the gamer in the world they're traversing--you're basically seeing everything as your character sees it; it's an EVOLUTION of the old formula.
See how I'm tying that in? I even capitalized it this time.
As expected, the CGI animation is crisp and attractive, and Capcom is moving toward more life-like expressiveness in its story-telling. For example, there were a few instances when, during a character's close-up, a quick movement of their eyes told me what they might be thinking. Leon S. Kennedy, the game's protagonist, though stoic and Keanu-like as he is, actually reveals a lot through his eyes, which is impressive and realistic, as opposed to the overblown gesturing and physicality that usually plagues videogames.
Or maybe I'm just reading too much into things. Either way, all you need to know is that the game is Rosario Dawson-good looking. And that's HOT.
The audio in the game is also a nice plus, and serves the game's atmospheric agenda very well. The music is sparse, only playing when appropriate, and runs the gamut from blood-pumping to shudder-inducing. Truth be told, though, you probably won't pay THAT much attention to the music, though that's not to take away from its quality--it's good, it's just that you'll be too busy playing the game.
The sound effects are well done, with footfalls changing according not only to surface, but to the acoustics of a particular room as well, which is a nice nuance. Atmospheric things such as wind or trees rustling in the forest are also nice touches, giving the impression that something could pop out at you at any moment. The weapons sound realistic, the sounds of a head exploding or of a blade sinking into flesh are cringe-inducing, and the cries/chants/other speech of the various enemies you come across can be genuinely frightening. As they tend to like to surround you, having at least a stereo set-up can help you determine which direction a threat is coming from. Good stuff.
The voice acting. As we all know, not all actors are created equal. If on one end you have, say, Metal Gear Solid, and on the other you have....uh, the original Resident Evil, RE4 definitely falls somewhere in the middle, though more toward the MGS side in quality. Part of the reason some of the acting is not great is because of the writing (after one character says he's going to send his "right hand"--obviously meaning his menacing-looking henchman standing, as irony would have it, on said character's RIGHT SIDE--to kill Leon, Leon replies "Your right hand comes off??"). There are some interesting characters that are voiced by fine actors that make it bearable, though, and the actor playing Leon (I believe Paul Mercer?) is not bad. It may not be, say, EVOLUTION-worthy, but it's a step in a better direction.
You see that 8/10 up there? This is one of the reasons. RE2 had an engrossing story involving everyone's favorite corporation, Umbrella. The game unfolded as a mystery, as gamers tried to figure out just what was going on, while trying to survive. In essence, the game really had two objectives--find out as much info as possible, and stay alive. It kept me hooked.
Without spoiling anything, I'll say that this game's story is vey straight-forward. You know who the villain is, you know who the good-guys are, you know what they're trying to accomplish. There's no real mystery here, and that's a huge flaw in a genre where NOT knowing what's going on or why it's going on is key in generating suspense and tension. As a result, in the end there's a resolution, but nothing is revealed, and there are no new questions raised--not a good way to set up a sequel. Worse, the few interesting characters in the game (with Luis Sera in particular being a true standout) don't really play a huge part in the narrative.
The story also wastes its potential in terms of political commentary. Whereas games like Metal Gear dictate an anti-nuclear message that's extremely relevant, and probably will be for a long time, RE4 flirts with the issues of terrorism and US-foreign relations, but never expounds on them. In fact, it abandons them for a by-the-numbers story by the end. I think it's a great shift...an--EVOLUTION, if you will--to expand the series beyond Umbrella and its crazy experiments, to weave a mature and engrossing tale that can deliver a strong message. If only gamers 17 and up should be playing this anyway, I'm sure they can comprehend such things.
But meh, who am I kidding? One can't deny, however, that a strong story is integral to these types of games, and Capcom has fumbled a bit here.
GAMEPLAY...aka DA MEAT
Fortunately, the game itself is strong enough to make up for the lackluster story, and the gameplay is where RE has made its hugest strides.
First off, this game is almost ALL ABOUT ACTION. There are lots of enemies, lots of shooting, and lots of you having to heal or dying outright. Even within the first ten minutes of the game, it's already throwing a LOT at you, and on a first play-through learning to adapt and formulate strategies on the fly to stay alive is challenging, visceral, and ultimately fulfilling. You absolutely MUST play smart, because the enemies are numerous and they WILL gang up on and kill you.
Speaking of the enemies, in another step forward...an EVOLUTION, if you will...the enemies in the game--which aren't officially zombies but behave like such--can actually give you a hassle. Whereas the zombies of old could usually be dogded and were usually too slow to pose too much of a threat, the enemies (which range from villagers to monks to soldiers to...other things), in a "Dawn of the Dead" update sort of way, will run for you, climb over things to reach you, open doors, come through windows, sometimes dodge shots, and attack in groups. Many are also armed, with anything ranging from pitchforks and cattle-prods to maces, scythes, and CHAINSAWS. Heck, some even toss dynamite every once in a while. They can also toss blades at you, and you'll run into a sniper or a hundred along the way.
These guys are no joke.
Obviously, with so much to kill, the old system of "hold L to aim at something I can't see and hope I hit it" will not work. Thus, Capcom has implemented a nice psuedo-first person aiming mechanic that, coupled with the new over-the-shoulder camera, allows gamers to accurately target and shoot wherever they so choose, with the aid of a laser pointer. Where you shoot determines what will happen--if there's a group of villagers headed for you and you've only got a pistol, don't bother trying to plug them all. Just aim for their shins with one shot and they'll immediately collapse for a short time, buying you some extra time while saving ammo. Trust me, knowing you can do things like this comes in handy.
The game controls pretty well, still basically utilizing the same control scheme that's been used since the series' inception. Because of the new camera, it's nowhere near as intrusive. While a quick-turn feature is in, I would have liked to have a "dodge" button, a la RE3. It's not a huge complaint though...some would argue that if you play smart, you won't put yourself in a situation where you'd have to dodge.
Well screw you.
Actually, while I'm whining, a strafing function would've helped out a bit too. But I digress.
On the subject of pistols, there's several. In fact, there's a BUNCH of guns. Part of RE4's replay value stems from trying out different weapons to see which appeals to you most. Message forums are ablaze with debates as to which guns are best, and it's a testament to Capcom's design that such arguments even exist in the first place; while there are one or two crap guns, the rest of them are extremely usable and it's really up to the gamer to decide which ones he wants to use. Hell, even the crap guns can be fun to use, just for novelty's sake. Another complaint though, as the game is very combat heavy, is the inability to switch weapons on the fly. You DO have your knife always readily available, which IS nice (the knife can be extremely useful, actually), but having to go the menu 938935189389234 times during a fight really destroys the flow. When you consider that the Z button isn't used in the game at all, it makes you wonder why Capcom didn't just designate this a "Quick Select" button.
Another new addition to the series is the ability to purchase weapons from merchants strategicaly sprinkled about the game, with money you can earn by killing enemies, selling rare items, or just finding it. Not only can you purchase and sell weapons, you can upgrade them as well. This is where a lot of debates spring up--it may be a better idea to just keep an upgraded THIS than to sell it to buy an initially weaker THAT. However, upgrading the THATS may or may not yield better immediate results. Get the picture? The game forces the player to make some decisions about their character's stopping power.
But for all these weapons, there's gotta be some ammo, right? Right. And there's a LOT of it. If you like 9mm handguns, this is your game. This is one of the few downsides, though, as the game will nearly always keep you stocked with loads of ammo. In fact, a little ammo saving early on can yield a SURPLUS of SELLABLE ammo later in the game! It sure is easy SURVIVING when you've got 300 handgun rounds and 100+ shotgun shells. This diminishes the game's difficulty and some of its tension (though you can unlock a much harder difficulty upon beating the game). It's hard to dread what's around the corner or through the next door when your inventory looks like an armory, full of grenades, guns and ammo. It should also be noted that there are plenty of health items as well, to further exacerbate the lack of real danger.
While I'm here, I may as well discuss the inventory system. This is a HUGE...you guessed it...EVOLUTION in the RE series. As opposed to having a certain number of slots (usually never enough) in which to store things, RE4 gives you an attache case in which you can arrange things to fit. It's much more realistic--a first aid spray isn't going to take up as much space as a handgun, and guess what--in this game it most certainly doesn't. You have the option to rearrange and discard any items you wish at any time. Further alleviating the inventory stress problem is the fact that essential items like keys are kept in a seperate...uh...sack or something, so you don't have to worry about them cluttering space you could be using for herbs or (even more) ammo. Better still, you can purchase bigger ones as the game progresses. This is IMO, simply the best way to handle inventory in a game of this kind. Don't get me wrong, though--if you get too greedy you'll still have crowding issues, so it's not completely unbalanced.
Alright...you're just slain 9859832958 villagers, found the key, and unlocked the door. You relax and put down the controller, taking a breather from the intense fight you just barely escaped. A cut-scene begins. In that scene, you get CUT. GAME OVER! RE4 further draws you into its world and keeps the pressure on you (and your reflexes) with interactive cut sequences, requiring you at times to push a combination of buttons at the right time to avoid death. These "Action" prompts also occur in the main game, prompting you to mash buttons or dodge fatal attacks. Since the buttons you're actually going to press are randomized in most sequences, they still keep you on your toes in subsequent play-throughs--no anticipating here, you have to pay attention just like the rest of us. One of the best sequences occurs later in the game, where you and another character are engaged in a knife fight. The other character attacks you many times, prompting you to have to dodge; one missed cue, and it's Game Over. All the while, he's spouting precious plot-deepening tidbits that you don't want to miss. You find yourself in the exact same position as Leon, absorbing this new information while trying to survive against a formidable threat.
There are some points where the feature could've been better implemented, however--sometimes the buttons seem to flash onscreen too fast for anyone who isn't Peter Parker to react to, causing a cheap death or 15 during the game. These are infrequent, but MAN does it suck when it happens.
As you can probably tell, there's a LOT going on in this game. There's rarely a dull moment; I haven't even mentioned the boss fights, which are hair-raising in some cases, but ultimately not too entirely taxing. While this focus on action is addicting, well-done, and fun, it DOES diminish one important aspect of survival horror.
...and that is the horror.
RE2 contained some incredibly startling and shocking moments (Licker through the interrogation window, anyone?). These carefully placed moments, coupled with the brooding atmosphere and lack of ammo, created an immense amount of dread and suspense. "I don't know if anything is going to happen..but something MIGHT...and if it does, how will I survive it?" Unfortunately, while RE4 contains a small handful of "jump" moments, they are too few and far between to have any true impact, and most of the time you're armed to the teeth anyway, so dealing with a possible threat becomes no real dilemma. Consequently, the biggest problem with RE4 is that it's just not that scary. There are a few chilling enemies (such as monsters called Regenerators which make unsettling hyperventilation noises) and some bone-tingling musical cues, but overall it's just not as effective.
See that 8/10? Yeah, that's another reason.
Will you want to play this again?
I think so.
The main game's action elements are fun and addictive, and beating the game with a combination of different weapons (or maybe even just one weapon!) makes for some experimentation replay value. Also, once you beat the game you unlock Professional Mode (basically hard difficulty), extra costumes, and TWO mini-games! Well, actually one, since one of them is really more of a side-quest than anything else. The other is called "Mercenaries," not a new concept for gamers who've played RE3--you pick a character, and kill as many things as you can for points. There are several unlockable characters for this mode, and each comes complete with different weapons and abilities, making this a fun way to kill an hour or two by experimenting with each character. It's VERY addictive.
I should also add that you can unlock a few new guns by playing these games as well, further boosting the replay value.
In the midst of my long-winded review, I covered a lot--graphics, sound, general gameplay and extras got the thumbs up, the storyline got a thumbs down, as did the diminished fear factor, and lack of some movement/combat options, and cheap deaths got the middle finger. It's a very playable game, and hugely addictive, and is a huge step forward for the RE series--I can only hope that subsequent sequels take what's right about this--cuz there's a lot--and fix what little is wrong. I give it an 8/10. It's not perfect, as some have been raving, but there's no reason NOT to at least look into it. It's still a very fine game.
And by the way...if you were wondering, WAAAAAAAAAAAAY back in my first paragraph, I did indeed use a veiled "Captain Hook" pun.
Also, for any of you wondering about my tagline, the game takes place in what many believe to be Spain. And the inhabitants in this Spanish place want to kill you, and thus are demented.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 03/03/05
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