Review by DarthVegita

Reviewed: 02/18/05

The Tao of Gaming

There are certain games that rise above others, not because of their graphics, or sound, or storyline but simply because they are so fun. It sounds so simple, but like any work of art, its harder then it seems. Great movies, paintings or novels, the ones that stand out, they only come every so often, and each should be cherished and studied, for everyone to stand in awe of their perfection.

Resident Evil 4 manages to achieve that plateau. Like few games before it, like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, like Chrono Trigger, like the original Legend of Zelda, it transcends genre and creates its own category. Perfection. Its not a title I give lightly. As I mentioned, there are few games I would call perfect. So its understandably hard to describe why I give this game a perfect score.

Perfection, as so few understand it, lies in simplicity, not in complexity. Its not only knowing what to put in, but also what to leave out. Playing this game is akin to achieving a higher state of existence, where one no longer acknowledges the outside world. There is only the gamer and his game, the perfect union of man and machine. Its this union that is the essence of gaming. A level of consciousness where one is completely lost in the game, where the world is stripped from around you until you are completely absorbed into what is on the screen in front of you. This experience is what gamers live for. It is a feeling I first felt it when I played The Legend of Zelda, one that sealed my fate as a gamer.

Back to Resident Evil, the story, the graphics and ambiance, while they are all spectacular, I eventually stopped paying much attention to them. After my third or fourth time through, I would instead listen to my CDs and simply enjoy playing the game with the volume down. The fun never dies, or even diminishes. I feel “in tune” with the game, much like I did when I played The Legend of Zelda as a child, or Symphony of the Night.

So, in a sense, I refer to this game as the spiritual successor to Goldeneye. Not because this is a first-person-shooter, which it obviously isn’t. But because this is the first time, since Goldeneye, in which I was able to play a game endlessly without growing tired. Six times through it, and I still feel like I’m playing it fresh. Like when I watch my favorite films or read my favorite novels, each subsequent time through gives me something new to appreciate about it.

One thing that helps in any game is making the controls as easy as possible while making the most of each button. It is a balance that is not easily maintained, but one that Resident Evil 4 has managed to find. Controlling Leon is natural, almost fluid. With the touch of a button, the knife is automatically in hand, ready for action. Before in the series, the knife was practically useless. Now, it actually causes real damage, momentarily stuns the enemy. It blows me away how effective, yet necessary these little touches are.

The first time I realized the extent of what Capcom has accomplished is very early on in the game. After a going through a few skirmishes here and there, you stumble upon a village full of enemies. While most games have a separate section of the game dedicated to teaching the player, Capcom marvelously incorporated it right into the game itself. I call this first part of the game Survival 101. An endless amount enemies are thrown at you for a specific amount of time, and you simply have to stay alive.

Accomplishing this is harder then it seems. If you run into a house, they will break open the doors and windows. If you climb the bell tower, they will climb after you or throw up torches to literally smoke you down. Escaping to the rooftops does no good. They have ladders.

So to survive, you have to fight.

You quickly (or, after a few deaths), learn the rules of survival. Rules that stay with you through to the very end of the game. Don’t let them surround you. Keep a wall to your back when making a stand, and run when you have to. Kick the ladders down to keep them away if you are on an upper level. Shoot them with the handgun, wear them down, then blast them with the shotgun when they get too close.

Moments like this are thrilling because they leave the player breathless, and survival means you learned something without the annoying instructions that just pop up onscreen, like other games have (though they do exist in memo form). You learn how to stay alive through effort, work and trials. The simplicity in which this is executed still amazes me.

In relation to the previous Resident Evil, I’m amazed at how Capcom knew the genre so well that they were able to make such astounding, yet simple changes that keeps the series the same, yet different. The controls haven’t changed, like so many gamers were complaining and hounding them to do. They simply kept the camera behind the player. Now, the player can aim, strategically targeting different body parts for satisfying action. The addition to a laser sighting on each weapon makes targeting easy, and simple. This isn’t just a step forward, or even a leap forward for the genre. It is a Launched-Out-Of-A-Cannon sized evolution.

No longer are you conserving ammo. Handgun, Rifle and Shotgun ammo are thrown about like cheap candy. Only Magnum ammo is given sparingly, for good reason. That’s the Dirty Harry of your weapons. Use only as directed. You able to upgrade your weapons as well, so the meaning isn’t lost on us. Capcom wants us to kill everything that moves (other then Ashley and Luis). This is a welcome change. You can upgrade the space needed place items as well. Even that has gotten a revamp. Using a grid-based storage system, you can shift items to fit the space needed, much like what was used in Deus Ex.
Another interesting aspect is the ability to purchase and upgrade varying styles of weapons. This RPGesque feature is an interesting dynamic that allows you to customize your experience through the game.

Despite all this, the game is still very much a Survival Horror. While more action oriented then most, the feeling that death is only a few steps away is always present. Forgetting the “rules of survival” for only a moment could mean certain death. The game keeps you so absorbed in what is going on in front of Leon that you have to constantly remind yourself to keep your back clear. I found myself instinctively hugging the walls and corners to keep my back clear at all times. The lack of a strafe button does not hinder the game at all. In fact, it keeps the game very grounded in reality, which keeps it scary in its own way. You’re playing a human being. Leon is very skilled, but he’s not Batman.

The game also adds another dynamic with Ashley Graham, the girl you are sent to rescue in the story. Through much of the game, you are force to escort her in an effort to escape the horrors you are facing. While most “escort” games are very frustrating and boring, Capcom wisely kept it to a minimum and made it easy to play. Ashley follows you closely at all times, and never gets “stuck” at places or fails to follow you. That is, unless you order her to stay put (Stay and Follow are mapped easily to the X button). Keeping her alive is as easy as keeping between her and the enemy. I found it very simple to do this, keeping mostly to corners, and most of the times she has been killed has been due to trial and error. In addition, there are lots of times where you can hide Ashley, letting you run around and clear the area so she isn’t carried off or killed behind your back.

As I mentioned before, perfection is knowing what to leave out. For example, you’ll find the story simple to follow. There are no real twists, no major surprises. Sometimes, a simple story is for the best. I just want to kill zombies (or, in this case, cultists… like there’s a difference), not debate politics or discuss the meaning behind war and terrorism. Unlike previous Resident Evils, there is very little backtracking. Most of the time, you know exactly where to go next, and little exploration is implemented. I am thankful for this, because it allows me to focus more on the action and not what to do next, a problem I had with the previous games in the series. Another interesting note is the distinct lack of a soundtrack. Aside from some background drums and haunting, yet faint music you get when being attacked, the game is very silent. I found this invigorating. Just as rousing orchestrated music can send certain games to new heights, for a game like Resident Evil, the lack of any background music can give you a very creepy feeling. The best kind of terror is psychological, and this gives accomplishes that beautifully.

As well as being an artistic achievement, the technical achievements merit mentions as well. This game looks beautiful. Its atmosphere is second to none. This is especially true after the first boss encounter, where the rain is pouring down and the villagers are after you carrying torches. It is bewildering what the Gamecube can accomplish when a developer really sets his mind to using all the bells and whistles. As well, the voice acting is very good. Obviously it is not on the level of Metal Gear Solid, but this is supposed to be a B-movie type of game. It would feel wrong if you were listening to The Godfather meets Alien. Keeping the game in a letterbox view allows for a very cinematic experience. I’ve so far experience no slowdown whatsoever, despite having a dozen different characters on the screen at once, explosions and all. This is a technical milestone by anybody‘s standards. I would like to meet and shake the hand of every developer involved in this game to congratulate them on such a wonderful achievement they pulled off.

If I were to find anything wrong with this game at all, and believe me, it took me some searching, its perhaps the reliance on the sniper rifle in certain areas that I don’t like. There are times when you don’t quite need it, but the lack of a rifle will make the game unreasonably tough. And given that the rifle has to be purchased makes it very infuriating when you don’t really want one.

So in the end, I thankfully have another game to set apart from my large collection add to my small, but much loved gathering of truly perfect games, the games I can play endlessly and cherish for a lifetime. If you have not played this game yet, I strongly urge you to do yourself a favor and buy it. Now.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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