A Brand New Evil: Resident Evil 4

In gaming, there are some series of games in which you know you will not be disappointed. The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, Civilization, Splinter Cell, Super Mario Bros, and I am sure in the near future with a couple more games, Halo.

And there is Resident Evil.

The first game created the “survival horror” genre and the second one perfected it. The subsequent games, while still head and shoulders above other entries in the “survival horror” genre, never quite reached the level of the first two and as a result, some had thought the series was reaching its end – until now.

Resident Evil 4 is in every way a revolution. It has broken many of the Resident Evil staples, yet never loses that unmistakeable Resident Evil atmosphere and general feel.

You reprise the role of Leon Kennedy, a cop whose first day on the job of the Racoon City Police Department is played through in Resident Evil 2. Six years have passed since that event and Leon has been given special training as part of the Secret Service. He is sent to a village in Eastern Europe to investigate rumoured sightings of the President’s kidnapped daughter and bring her back.

Sounds simple but of course nothing in Resident Evil is.

One staple of Resident Evil is zombies.

Resident Evil - A team is sent in to determine what happened to the first team sent in to investigate reports of murders and strange going ons inside a spooky mansion. Turns out bizarre experiments were conducted and zombies created and let loose.

Resident Evil 2 – The zombie-creating virus spreads to nearby Racoon City and mayhem ensues.

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis - Zombies again, including a super soldier zombie – the Nemesis. Takes place in and around the events of Resident Evil 2.

Resident Evil: Code Veronica – More (sort of) zombies.

Resident Evil 0: A prequel to the events in the mansion with zombies of Resident Evil.

The development team felt that zombies were getting old and gave them the boot. These enemies are not zombies.

These enemies are smart. Kick down a ladder and they will put it back up. Jump through a window and they will follow or find a door. They duck, they dodge, they run to close the distance between you and attack. They are smarter than zombies and in some ways perhaps more dangerous…. You will see for yourself later in the game what happens and thus why the ever-reliable headshots become a lot less effective. All motion captured and all facial expressions animated frame by frame by hand.

Axes, sickles, scythes, morning stars, flaming torches, pitchforks, dynamite, spiked shields, crossbows and bazookas are all things you will find the enemy swinging, throwing, firing, and thrusting in your direction. And let’s not forget the chainsaws and chain guns – seriously. Oh and watch out for the bear traps that have been set for you.

Another staple of Resident Evil is the graphics and visual style. It has always been 3D polygon characters on 2D pre-rendered backgrounds (except for Code Veronica which was the first Resident Evil game to move to 3D but didn't look anything like this). Even the jaw-droppingly beautiful remake of the first Resident Evil for Gamecube and the Gamecube exclusive prequel Resident Evil 0 still had the pre-rendered backgrounds (though for the most part you would be hard pressed to tell).

Resident Evil 4 is fully 3D – no pre-rendered backgrounds here. It is a fully 3D world and is easily the most beautiful looking game I have played on the Gamecube, if not on any console - I don't think even the graphical powerhouse X-Box has turned out anything to this quality as yet. Day, night, rain, and fog – every environment in every condition is stunning to look at – from the mists in a graveyard to the spatter of rain on Leon’s shoulders to the detail on the walls of an old castle.

Resident Evil has always had a fixed perspective on things with the 2D backgrounds. It is a fixed perspective and thus camera issues have always plagued the games. The camera, as it follows Leon from behind, works fine for the most part. Only a couple of times, when close to walls or obstacles, did I find myself not really being able to see where I was aiming but these were minor issues. You do have a control to move the camera up, down, left and right but as soon as you let go it reverts back to its original position and thus is of little use in combat. That said, the camera issues of previous games are now but a distant memory.

Leon also now has full analogue aiming – gone is the horrible high-medium-low aiming of past games. This is a godsend and well overdue. With all the different hit zones on enemy bodies you can now hit them in the arm to disarm them, put a bullet in their lower leg to drop them to their knees, then run up and suplex them, shattering their heads on the ground with the aid of the context sensitive Action button.

Not really a new feature, but the action button will allow you to climb ladders, leap through windows, pick up items, open doors, help Ashley (the President’s daughter, down from and over objects and obstacles, hit switches etc. However it does have a couple of additional uses.

Throughout the game there will be moments where you will need to repeatedly mash a particular action button to attack certain enemies, run from boulders hurling towards you, turn a lever, pull yourself up from a precarious ledge etc

At other times you will need to press two buttons simultaneous (either the shoulder buttons or the action buttons) to avoid attacks or obstacles or perform some sort of action. This can happen even during cut scenes so it is just best to not put the controller down at all until you are in your inventory or a save screen.

Sometimes these dual button presses add a nice touch of timing to the game, other times you are just pressing both combinations repeatedly as quickly as possible to drag whichever combination is flashed up on screen so instant death and a forced replay doesn’t result.

Saving your game in Resident Evil has always involved finding ink ribbons and using them to save your game at the various typewriters scattered around the place. Now, thankfully you can save it at any typewriter without the need for an ink ribbon.

The inventory system for Resident Evil was at its worst in the remake for GC when playing with Chris Redfield who had a massive six inventory slots. Weapon, extra ammo, key, health item, and you had two spaces left for items that you might need to solve puzzles or get past obstacles. Of course it meant a lot of running back and forth to storage boxes when puzzles required more than two items and was just a cheap way to extend playing time. Leon, however, has a nice attaché case that can be upgraded throughout the game to hold even more.

Probably my favourite addition is the weapons merchant. Treasures you find and pick up off enemies can be sold for cash, which you can then use to buy and upgrade weapons. You can also find objects that you can place valuable stones and jewels in to increase the value of the whole to more than you could get by selling the pieces individually.

There are a range of pistols, shotguns, and rifles throughout the game and each can be upgraded to improve ammo capacity, shot power, firing speed and reload speed. Each weapon also has an exclusive upgrade that drastically improves one aspect of the weapon – for example the automatic shotgun, whose exclusive upgrade increases ammo capacity from 28 to 100 rounds. There is not enough cash (or inventory space) for you to upgrade all the weapons on your first play through so there is the incentive to play through again with your saved character (keeping all cash, weapons and non-puzzle items) and starting from the beginning.

Of course not everything has changed.

Atmosphere, for me, has always been the key factor of Resident Evil. It was what let you know you were playing a Resident Evil game. And atmospheric doesn’t begin to describe this latest one. Forget Doom 3 (whose atmosphere K.O’s you initially but is soon dissipated by the boring gameplay mechanic of “Enter room, kill monsters, hit trigger, kill monsters that your triggered, exit room and repeat”), this is atmosphere that grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let go. There is that feeling of dread as you move from one area to the next, never really knowing what you are in for.

One moment you are in a creepy cabin asking a local for help, the next you are have axes and pitchforks and chainsaws coming your way, and then after an intense battle for survival, it is over as suddenly as it began and you can continue with your mission.

The gore is also still in tact. This game is as gory as hell. Enemies’ heads explode in great detail amidst crimson mists of red spray and juicy chunks of brain matter and skull fragments, blood flows freely from gunshots and knife attacks. Oh and it is worth saving your game and then letting one of those chainsaw-wielding enemies get close. Just sit back and watch the show.

The soundscape is also excellent. A real panicked tune sets in when you are under attack and there is excellent use of your surround speakers throughout the game. The buzzing of the giant insects, the chanting of enemies, the gunshots – everything comes together superbly. You try not to panic as you hear the thudding footsteps of an El Gigante coming closer in your rear speakers. The voice work for the most part is excellent with only one or two instances of cheesiness.

The bosses are of a good variety. From a big water monster to a half man half-Thing mayor, to something known as El Gigante, to a scorpion-like It, to a creature that is like a cross between those things from Mimic, a Xenomorph and the T-1000, and from a giant plant/tentacled thing to a half man half spider – the bosses are varied, tough, and ugly.

One thing this game needs is a strafe button. The fixed perspective screens of previous Resident Evil games have meant that you could get away without a strafe button. However, being full 3D, a strafe button really should have been included. Not to say the game is impossible without one, but it was on more than one occasion did I find I really wanted the ability to see around a corner before needing to fully turn around the corner.

Apart from that, there is not much else I can say that is bad about this game. It will take about 20 hours to play through but even then you will want to play through on another difficulty level or to try out some of the other weapons.

But if not, you also get some bonus games to play. You will meet up with a woman named Ada Wong (whom you also ran into in Resident Evil 2) throughout the game. After finishing it, you will get the Assignment Ada subgame where you get to play though what she was doing while you were running around with Leon.

You also get the Mercenaries game, where you pick a character (only Leon is initially available), pick a level, and then kill as many enemies as you can within the time limit to score points and earn ratings to unlock other characters. Excellent bonuses that are a nice addition to give you more game for your buck.

If you don't own a Gamecube, then go and buy one so you can play this game. If you do own a Gamecube and don't own this game, you might as well have thrown your money in the bin because you are wasting it. Even if you are not a fan of Resident Evil games, you are doing yourself a disservice by not playing this. Give the series another go. Play this game and you will be very pleasantly surprised.

(A hat tip to IGN and their excellent Resident Evil coverage for a refresher on what happened in previous games)

(cross-posted at The Asylum)

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