Review by MSuskie

"The living dead will take a breather, but no one else will."

In just about every Resident Evil game to date, the living dead have moaned, groaned and clumsily limped down dark, foreboding hallways, their arms outstretched, their hands open for the grab, and their tongues thirsting for the sweet taste of human flesh and blood. And for nearly a decade, we've fumbled with cumbersome controls, aimed blindly at enemies we couldn't see, ran past monsters to conserve our ammo, and wandered through singular, confined environments searching for that one key to unlock the next door. And we've been scared. The Resident Evil series was the one franchise that brought the concept of survival horror to consoles, and for years we've enjoyed the jump-in-your-seat scares and gorgeous graphics the games can provide, but at the same time, we've had to deal with lousy controls, bad camera angles and other various shortcomings. That is, of course, until the fourth numbered entry of the franchise arrives and changes the way we look at the genre. It's still survival horror… But it's survival horror of a different kind.

Resident Evil 4 places you in the role of Leon Kennedy, who was also the main character of Resident Evil 2. Leon has quit his former job as a S.T.A.R.S. member, and is now working as a top-class agent for the CIA. His latest mission has taken him to Europe (presumably Spain), where he's been spent to rescue the president's daughter, Ashley Graham, who's supposedly being held captive there. What Leon doesn't know is that her captors consist of a group of vicious and aggressive cult members who will do anything they must to kill anyone that crosses into their territory. They're not zombies, as they look human, act human and altogether seem human. However, there is undoubtedly something very evil and inhuman about them, and as you delve deeper into their territory you'll discover more and more of their terrible secrets.

RE4 marks the first time the series has truly taken a major step forward for the sake of gameplay since the original Resident Evil on PSX. For years we've had to deal with tiresome controls, pre-rendered environments (complete with rigid camera angles), a faulty aiming system, slow-paced and sometimes monotonous gameplay and design, and dumb enemies that will boringly walk right into your line of fire so you can blow their pitiful heads off. I'm here to tell you that this has all changed. Everything about RE4 – save for a few tiny areas – shows a complete and utter redoing of the franchise for the best. RE4 is not only the best game in the series, but also the best survival horror game yet.

The first thing that you'll notice is that RE4 looks good. In fact, it looks absolutely outstanding. Whereas most previous games in the series used CG cutscenes for all their storytelling needs, in RE4, all of the cutscenes are happening in real-time using the in-game engine. Not that you'd notice – RE4's character models are so frighteningly (no pun intended) realistic that you'll almost forget you're looking at a game. The amount of extraordinary detail that goes into every frame, every second of movement is just fascinating. This is, without doubt, the best-looking console game to date, and I've played quite a few Xbox games seeing as how I own the system. What's more, the game (in the style of Beyond Good & Evil) is at all times presented in letterboxed widescreen, which gives RE4 a very cinematic look and benefits widescreen TV users. Capcom really went all-out as far as visual presentation goes.

And that's only the first thing you notice! RE4's gameplay is perfectly realize and controls like a dream, for the most part. All environments are now fully rendered, and the camera, rather than being a hassle, is actually quite good, as it goes for a sort of over-the-shoulder perspective that always gives you a good view of the action. The basic controls are still the same and manage to kick up what may in fact be RE4's one shortcoming, and that is movement. Movement still feels a little on the clunky side, and that's mainly due to the lack of analog control. You can use the analog stick to move, but there are only eight directions of sensitivity. What's more, you still have to hold the B button to run, which gets a little annoying. Still, considering how amazing the rest of this game is, a few control problems are a small price to pay.

I mentioned before that the primary enemies of the game were the mysterious cult members that inhabit the area. They're no zombies, and that's something you can thank them for. Zombies are boring enemies in a game because they have to brains, provide little challenge and will simply stomp forward as you proceed to blow their heads off. The enemies of RE4 aren't human, but seem far more human than any zombie – primarily because they're so damn smart. Not only will they talk in a mix of Spanish and complete gibberish, but you'll actually see them talking with each other and planning their attack in ways far more intricate and difficult to counter than any old zombie battle.

The biggest addition to the game, then, would have to be the targeting system. Past entries of the series have featured a downright laughable targeting system with only three directions you could aim – up, down and somewhere in between. When you pull out your gun in RE4, the camera pulls up to right behind Leon, and you're treated to a full analog aiming system that rivals most first-person shooters. Rather than a crosshair or cursor to aim with, most weapons feature a helpful laser sight that highlights anything that can effectively be shot. Not only is this a flat-out better system, but it allows for surgical precision when it comes to attacking the onslaught of enemies.

If an enemy is rapidly approaching you, you have several options. Of course, you can always just aim for his chest and keep on firing until he drops dead. But, given the precision that the aiming system allows, you can target any part of his body. You can go for the famous headshot, which will result in a very satisfying “exploding melon” animation. The enemy may be holding a weapon of some sort – a knife, pitchfork, torch, etc. You can shoot his arm to make him drop it. Or, if he throws it at you, you can shoot the weapon to make it drop to the ground before it hits you. And if you're running low on ammo, you can shoot him in the leg, making him drop to the ground and allowing you a safe passage for a moment.

The difference between the enemies of the past and the enemies of RE4 is that these guys are smart, aggressive, and come in numbers. Not only will they throw weapons at you and try to dodge your shots, but they'll sneak up behind you and use a variety of other tricky maneuvers. One of the game's first big sequences involves you storming a small village that's crowded with these strange people. Standing out in the open is a no-no, so you'll have to barricade yourself inside of a house nearby by pushing furniture over the doors and windows. They'll continue to smash through until they're in, and they'll use ladders to try to get in through the second-story window. To hold them back, you'll have to head to the second floor and repeatedly knock the ladder down, shoot at them from up high, jump onto the rooftops and pick them off one by one, or toss a grenade into the middle of a group to end their pitiful existences. Not to mention there's one chainsaw-wielding maniac running around that can slice your head off in one hit…

The point is that the game throws you into all sorts of sticky situations and redefines the term “survival horror” because the series is no longer relying on the same jump-in-your-seat shock that it once did. In RE4, you're constantly on the run for your life, and a good deal of the scares that come from this game and from the enormous amount of tension that's constantly pumping through your veins. And thankfully, given the number of different weapons at your disposal and the diversity of the artificial intelligent, no situation in this game will play out the same even if you've played through five times. You're continuously forced to use your head. Simply standing in one place and shoot at any enemy you see no longer works. You must constantly be on the move and must put to use your full arsenal of equipment if you want to survive.

To put even more weight on your shoulder, throughout a good deal of the game you're going to be assisting Ashley, the girl you've been sent to rescue. It's not long before you actually rescue her. The trouble is keeping her alive and well. While enemies are solely interested in killing you, they want her alive and will therefore try to capture her. You must always protect Ashley and ensure that no enemy takes her away, and to do so you must constantly be watching your own back as well as hers. Occasionally you can tell her to hide somewhere while you sort out all of the area's baddies. There are also some moment in the game where you'll be separated by a distance, and will have to use a long-range weapon to keep enemies away from her. To even things out, there's even a chapter in the game where you'll take control of her, completely defenseless, and will have to rely on your wits to survive.

To add even more greatly to the sheer number of options you have with every scenario, there are a variety of weapons you can utilize, from handguns to rifles, shotguns to magnums, and even rocket launchers and mine throwers. Throughout the game, you'll run into various friendly merchants who happen to be selling an assortment of weapons and such… for a price. You can save up money you've found on your journey or sell any treasures you have, and then use your cash to purchase various weapons and even upgrades their status to turn them into even more powerful killing machines. Thankfully, this system balances it out, as there are far more weapons and upgrades than you'll have the money to buy. On my first play-through, most of the weapons I never even tried using, which increases replay value. Also, inventory has been redone so you can manage a physical space. If you've just found a new weapon but can't fit it into your pack, you can move things around and make room for it.

To add to the ease at which this game plays and is laid out, all of your basic actions are represented by a very Ocarina of Time-like action icon at the bottom of the screen. Not only does this let you know when you can open a door or pick up an item, but it allows for a variety of moves we've never seen before. For example, Leon can now jump over small obstacles and through windows when he feels the need. Also, if you shoot an enemy and they sort of stumble back for a moment, you can walk up to them and, with a carefully-timed button push, kick them back, further damaging them and possibly ending their lives completely. This feature is intuitive and perfectly utilized.

But one of my favorite new gameplay concepts that Capcom has put into play is the brilliant use of context-specific button pressed in certain events and even cutscenes. In some cutscenes, if a character lunges at you, you've got to push the buttons displayed on-screen. If you're successful, Leon will dodge the attack and the game will continue. If you fail, Leon dies cinematically, and it's game over. In another such scene, an enormous boulder is bearing down on you and you've got to tap the B button rapidly to run out of the way. What's more is that these moments work their way into some scenario's in game, such as if you're running across a collapsing bridge and must hit A and B together to jump at the right moment and save your life. It's tricky and rewarding.

Easily one of the high points in the game, though, is the set of boss battles and how incredibly well these context-sensitive moments are fitted into them. The boss battles in RE4 are some of the most amazing and fun I've ever experienced, and stray far from the simple formula of shoot-it-till-it's-dead. Bosses are huge, imaginative and know nothing of mercy, as they will constantly give you their worst. A boss you'll encounter several times through the game is one called an El Gigante. This enormous, hulking beast will stomp toward you and attempt to squash you, and will even pick up a log and swat at you, which you'll have to dodge by pressing R and L when you're queued. After pelting it with attacks until it drops, you'll then have to climb onto its back with A and continuously press the B button to slice away at it with your knife. And if it grabs, you've got to wiggle the analog stick to break free. And that's just a taste of what's to come.

But it wouldn't be survival horror if there was no horror. RE4 certainly places a much bigger emphasis on action than previous games in the series, to the point that the game itself seems to have a policy in which “if it moves, it must die”. It important to note, though, that RE4 is still very scary, if for some mostly different reasons than past entries. As I said, you're constantly on the run for your very life and the threat of death is constantly in the air, even in broad daylight, where some of the game's earlier moments take place. Many of the game's biggest scares, though, have to do with the general freakiness of the creatures you'll run into – something the other games sometimes haven't been very good at (what's so scary about a giant scorpion). Without ruining anything, the enemies you'll run into are some of the freakiest and most twisted creatures you've ever seen and are incredibly imaginative. RE4 does, however, have its share of classic jump-in-your-seat scares, including one on the second disk that's already regarded as a classic moment.

Pros

+ The evolution of the franchise and the genre as a whole.
+ Amazingly lifelike graphics that will blow you away.
+ Smart, varied enemies will think and act like humans.
+ Brilliant targeting system allows for surgical precision.
+ Tons of customizable weapons.
+ Tense situations and classic shock moments.
+ Awesome boss battles.
+ Great extras and mini-games.
+ Good voice acting.
+ All presented in letterboxed widescreen!

Cons

- Movement is still a little clunky.
- Lack of a strafe feature might annoy some.
- No way to quickly switch weapons.
- Letterboxing is no match for true widescreen.

Overall: 10/10

Resident Evil 4 is one of the most jaw-droppingly amazing games you'll ever play, and specializes in that because it causes those jaws to drop for so many different reasons. If you're willing to look past this game's tiny list of minor flaws and accept the fact that the series will never be the same again, then you absolutely must play, own and love RE4. In my short, pathetic existence as a “critic” here at GameFAQs, this game marks one of the few times in which I've personally been left speechless. The design is so brilliant on so many levels that it deserves to be ranked among the greatest games of all time for years and years to come. Yes, that's what I'm saying: RE4 really is that damn good.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 08/16/05, Updated 11/02/05


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