Review by Halron2

"Survival horror makes way for survival action"

In the era of 3D gaming, few series, if any, may claim to be as iconic as Shinji Mikami's survival horror creation, Resident Evil. While probably not the first game of the genre it officially 'kicked off' (at least as a trend), and not even being the most terrifying of them, the saga of a few select people fighting against the big Umbrella corporation has struck a cord within the game community, probably because it managed to balance innovation, technical quality and commercial sense the best, overall. Anyway, the main Resident Evil games have spawned sub-series (such as the light gun games and the Outbreak titles), as well as a forgotten (and forgettable) portable game, apart from two not-that-good, not-that-successful movies, that are nonetheless far superior to most game-based films of the past.

The main series, however, was absent for a while. The last entry had been Resident Evil 0, for the Gamecube, which was, as the name states, a prequel to the main string of games. Considering the third title came out in 1999, it took Capcom six years to release a proper sequel (not counting Resident Evil: Code Veronica, that is), and here we are with number 4, at last. The weird thing is, Resident Evil 4 is, at once, the first really different game in the main series as far as gameplay is concerned, and a logical step forward when you look back at the direction in which the third title pointed.

Well, first things first. Old series fans will definitely be thrilled to play the role of one of Resident Evil 2's stars, ex-cop-for-one-day Leon S. Kennedy. The guy now works for the US government and, as the game starts, his mission is to search for the president's teenage daughter, who has been kidnapped. She was last seen in Europe, so Leon arrives at a sinister Spanish countryside to look for the girl. Not much more is known at the beginning of the game, but anyone can guess what's going to happen: legions of bizarre creatures are waiting for Leon, determined to make his life hell and to prevent that he accomplishes his mission. And, yes, it all has to do with some weird bio-weapons and world-threatening conspiracies. Well, the game is a Resident Evil title, after all.

Right from the start, one thing you can tell about this game is that it delivers the horror setting with perfection. The environments are all very threatening and evil, and there's just an absolute feeling of tension hanging in the air as you walk through deserted barren roads and crazy Spanish townsfolk decide that it's their duty to dispose of you. The decision to set the game in an European country (and not in an urban setting) actually enhances the weird felling of the environment, and it's pulled off very nicely, with villagers screaming sentences in Spanish as they spot you and go for your throat. The only complaint that could be made is the fact that, well, the main baddies speak English with a pretty ridiculous accent, which makes me wonder why these guys went out of their way just to learn the language so that players didn't have to read subtitles.

That's not the only complaint to be made, actually. One big issue I have with Resident Evil 4 is that it embraces the 'Hollywood big budget movie' status too fondly and deeply. Shinji Mikami's direction certainly highlights that sense in every opportunity it gets, and the game is just full of flashy explosions and post-Matrix slowed-down action videos that, while being very well done, just ruin the actual terror mood of the game, since you just get the feeling that your victory is assured by the big action movie aesthetics. Apart from that, Leon has turned into too much of a tough guy since we last saw him, meaning he is always giving humorous answers to his enemies' threats. Bottom line is, he is just too confident in himself to be a horror game character. And, quite frankly, he isn't a horror game character, he is an action hero: when you, the player, realize he isn't afraid of anything, there's no reason why you should be, either.

Anyway, apart from using all of the classic Resident Evil areas, such as mansions, labs, sewers and the like, the game also adds different environments, which make this game feel a lot larger in scope when compared to the previous games. Just wait until you see stuff like little countryside roads, a lake, a monastery and the such: it really adds to the overall feel of the game. The game also offers a new gallery of villains, which, well, aren't really that great overall. With Resident Evil 0, Capcom had already set a somewhat 'fantastic' tone to the series' setting (in the form of the main bad guy), and it's developed further here, not only in terms of design but also as far as explanations go. While I'm not a big fan of that direction myself, it still works nicely in providing new excuses for blowing up enemies' heads along the way. And the game also offers some familiar faces and concepts so that old players will have their references and not feel cheated.

The thing is, as said before, Resident Evil 4 can hardly be considered a survival horror game in the strict sense of the expression. Just as Resident Evil 3 had been a step towards a more action-based gameplay within the boundaries of the series' basic rules, the fourth title expands the action notion so much that, to some people, it will barely qualify as a Resident Evil title at all. Sure, the tense atmosphere is there, and it's got some pure Resident Evil elements, but as a game, well, you may like it, depending on what you got your satisfaction from. Just as there is tension in this game, it just isn't very scary. It's 'horror', sure, but you'll hardly (if ever) be scared by this game. The developers made this game much more gory than really scary: in the end, this is much more 'Texas chainsaw massacre' than 'The shining', much more blood than fright. Playing this game with the lights out won't reinforce the mood of terror. And, well, that's where the game loses most points with me.

Just as this game was stripped of most of the previous titles' scary moods, it also completely forgets the puzzle-solving elements that were a Resident Evil trademark. Well, it does contain puzzles, but, hey, these are the most stupid stuff I've seen in a long time. It's always obvious what you have to do and where you have to go, and the game is even more linear than what came before it, and that's not a compliment in any way. The inventory issue is practically absent this time around, since the 'key items' don't occupy inventory space. Sure, there's no item storage boxes lying around, but your inventory is so big, it just isn't needed. Apart from that, the Resident Evil 4 gorefest comes packed with a huge amount of two things: ammo and healing items. Unlike other games in the series, there is basically no strategy involved in saving up stuff here. I did it, and it left me looking feeling pretty stupid when I cleared the game with almost ten first aid sprays in my inventory, apart from the mixed herbs collection.

So, we're left with the killing, and overall wanton destruction. The question is, is that such a bad thing as my review so far seems to say? Well, no, it's not. In fact, Resident Evil 4 may not be a 'pure' survival horror game, but as an action-based horror-themed game, it works, and it works wonderfully. Old fans of the series may well be surprised in the beginning of the game, as a huge amount of 'zombified' villagers attack you from all sides, as opposed to the approach of the previous titles, when each enemy seemed to be an event into himself. And the fighting this time around is pretty exciting, and much more diverse. First of all, when you point your weapon at the enemies, Leon can fine-tune the aiming to hit specific parts of his enemies: all of his weapons have a laser-guided aim, and it works wonderfully. Not only this is tied to one of the most realistic damage-inflicting and receiving physics engines ever created for games (you gotta love shooting the villagers' legs), this accurate aiming is also a necessity for getting rid of most of the game's enemies. Better than that, the controls are excellent, and getting the hang of the aiming is a very intuitive task.

Leon also has a wide variety of weapons at his disposal throughout the game. One of the greatest things about it is that not only there are different kinds of weapons (such as handguns, shotguns, magnums), but these basic types of weapons actually have different variations of them to be found and bought through the course of the game. Oh yes, one of the new additions here is that you actually collect money as you advance and kill bad guys, and there is a merchant (pretty bizarre character, by the way) who appears from time to time offering new stuff and also buying whatever you can spare to sell to him. Apart from getting new weapons from him, he also sells special stuff such as a bigger inventory space and attachments to specific kinds of weapons. Last but not least, this guy can also upgrade the weapons you have, enhancing their firepower, bullet capacity and firing and reloading speed.

The best thing about it, though, is the fact that the game is intelligent enough to benefit from the variety of weapons it offers, meaning most of these weapons will prove useful against different kinds of enemies. And, still, you won't be able to carry every kind of weapon available, so you'll have to decide which is best for your personal tastes. There is a big diversity of enemies and situations with which Leon will be faced, and it just keeps the action of the game fresh as you advance. Quite frankly, the game never gets tiring, because the enemy and level design is so inventive that you'll rarely be faced with the same challenge for a long time. The boss battles also take center stage in this game, providing some of the most exciting moments of the whole experience. There is a good number of them, much more than on previous games of the series, and all of them are nasty, gory monsters that require more than straight-ahead shooting to beat.

The action of the game isn't limited to shooting and blowing stuff up, however. The game is littered with small mini-games in specific scenes or when fighting certain monsters. Most of these mini-games are triggered by the newly included 'dodge' command (when the game prompts you to press either the L and R or the A and B buttons), but some require that you press on a button repeatedly. While this may seem pretty stupid on paper, it works very well in the game, and provides many exciting moments, specially since you'll have to think really fast to survive in some occasions. One specific boss encounter, particularly, is a dodge-fest and a very exciting one at that.

Resident Evil 4 also offers a decent amount of bonus stuff. There's one minigame that can be played as you advance through the game, and that's the shooting gallery, where you can earn small figures of Resident Evil 4 characters. As you find new shooting ranges in the game, the challenge will increase and you may get new figures for your collection. After you beat the game, though, the game offers other bonuses, such as the Mercenaries mode (last seen in Resident Evil 3), in which you'll have to kill as many enemies as possible in a limited time, to get the most points. This mode can also be played with different characters, so long as you unlock them, which brings back some old classic faces from the series. There's another mode of play, where you get to play as Ada, an old acquaintance to veteran fans of the series, previously seen in Resident Evil 2, in Leon's scenario. You'll also be able to restart the game with all money, items and upgrades you had when you beat it.

With that said, I must state that this game is one of the greatest technical achievements of the current generation of consoles, without a doubt. The graphical quality of Resident Evil 4 is astounding, stretching what was believed to be the limits of this generation's possibilities a little further. Character models are very impressive and all animations are just perfect. It's just so good that the game doesn't make use of pre-rendered videos even in key plot moments, since the 'basic' in-game graphics are more than enough to get the action across. The enemy design is also pretty impressive, even though the common villager models tend to get a bit repetitive after some time. Even then, the bosses more than make up for it, with really wild design ideas incorporated into their looks. All of the enemies have this gore-oriented design to them, which fits with the direction of the game perfectly.

The backgrounds are also a huge achievement, and the environments really set the tone for the killing spree that you have to undertake in the game. The new area types included in the game benefit from that treatment and such moments as the lake or the monastery are all the more memorable for it. One key graphical difference with this game, however, is that there are no pre-rendered backgrounds anymore, as opposed to the previous games. The developers opted for a camera that follows Leon from behind, just like most third-person action games out there, with the difference it isn't placed right behind him, but gives an over-the-shoulder perspective. While that also eliminates much of the horror mood of the series, it must be said that, in terms of technical and artistic quality it doesn't owe anything to the series' previous incarnations. The game just looks absolutely fantastic.

Sound has always been a key element to Resident Evil (and survival horror games in general), and the fourth title doesn't disappoint. The series has always had great sound design and tradition is kept alive with the effects and music setting the mood for the game perfectly. Actually, the music is the element that resembles old Resident Evil games the most, since it keeps with the generally melancholic and solitary moods when you're not in the midst of the action, with the difference that the fighting themes play a lot more this time around, since you're pretty much killing stuff all the time. And, well, you just have to love those Resident Evil save room themes, and the new one is a new classic.

While sound effects were of utmost importance in the previous games of the series, the new action-oriented gameplay actually moves them from the center stage a little, since in many occasions the game can get a bit noisy. The heavy presence of silence has also been toned down quite a bit this time around, even if it's still there in between the action-heavy moments. Anyway, the quality of the sound effects hasn't faded a bit since the last game, even if they aren't as evident as they once were. Still, the particular sounds each type of enemy makes is a great sign what's coming ahead of you.

The voice acting keeps up with the generally good quality of the series (not counting the first, obviously). The main characters all have fitting voices and pretty good acting, even if the main villains sport this weird accent that's not really that convincing. The greatest thing about voice acting in this game is definitely the Spanish shouts and mumbles the general bad guy will use when coming for you. If you speak Spanish, it's great to understand out what the crazy villagers are saying, and if you don't, well, I imagine it enhances the weirdness of the overall setting quite a bit. Still, I'd rather hear the main baddies talking in their native language, so I guess that option should have been included in the game, because it would definitely enhance its mood.

So, overall, Resident Evil 4 is basically one hell of a great game, even though I'm not too keen on the direction in which the series is moving right now. The change of focus bugs me, since I really loved the scarier side of Resident Evil above all else the series had to offer. Still, as a third-person shooter-oriented horror-themed action game, this is probably the best you've ever seen, bar none. This game is a great achievement, and a definite fun ride, full of thrills and outstanding technical quality. If you're mildly interested in action gaming, or Resident Evil, or gory horror movies, go ahead and get your copy of this game. Hell, it's a safe bet to give it a try, anyway. You won't be seeing a well-rounded, fun and consistent game as this one in a while.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 01/05/06

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