The Resident Evil series didn't invent the notion of horror-themed video games (you can thank Infocom's text adventure Lurking Horror for that), but it legitimized the genre in a way titles like Night Trap never could. Since the release of the original Resident Evil blockbuster for the Sony PlayStation, survival horror has become a staple of console gaming as ubiquitous as platformers starring mammals with attitude. But by the time Resident Evil Zero was released for the Nintendo GameCube, it was clear the series was out of gas. While there was yet to be a bad RE, the series had been lacking inspiration for about five years, and Silent Hill had taken its crown as the king of horror games.
That's all changed. Resident Evil 4, the first true sequel in the series since 1999's Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, is not only the best survival horror game ever made – it completely reinvents the form. No other game is even in second place.
The protagonist in the fourth installment is Leon Kennedy, whom you should remember from Resident Evil 2. After Raccoon City was nuked at the end of that game, Leon took a job with an unnamed government crime-fighting agency. Now, the president's daughter has been kidnapped and Leon goes to a remote European village to rescue her (Why is he sent alone, you ask? Shut up). Things seem subtly amiss right away, such as when Leon's provincial police escorts are impaled and burned at the stake, and a horde of crazed locals attack him with pitchforks, axes, torches, and what appears to be an insatiable appetite for his brains. Don't you hate when that happens?
In many respects, Capcom has gone back to the drawing board with RE4. They've ditched the static "cinematic" camera angles of past games and instead implemented a third-person over-the-shoulder view that moves fluidly and allows Leon a freer range of motion. Character movement is so intuitive and dynamic in this game (as opposed to previous Resident Evils) that fans of the series will feel like they're taking flight. You still can't run and gun – as before, Leon must be stationary in order to fire his weapons – but the combat system has been overhauled.
In RE games past, there were three options when aiming at enemies: straight-ahead, down, or up. And while it was great fun to pulverize zombie skull with a flurry of buckshot, in Resident Evil 4 Capcom has opted for a nuanced hit-zone aiming system a la arcade light-gun games such as Time Crisis. The resulting combat system is remarkable. Holding the R trigger brings the camera in tightly behind Leon's right shoulder and arms his current weapon. Though he's rooted to the spot, the left analog stick allows him to aim anywhere in a 360-degree area, and every weapon is equipped with a laser sight that takes the guesswork out of aiming. As a result, there's no shortage of possible battle tactics. You can kneecap your foes, temporarily dropping them to the ground and allowing you to focus on other threats, or blast them in the face at close range with your shotgun. You can even shoot the hats off their heads and the weapons out of their hands – in fact, blasting the torch in a villager's hand will often set the poor fool ablaze.
The action experience of the game is carefully calibrated to kick maximum ass. You may recall playing previous Resident Evil games and treating each bullet almost as a museum piece, knowing that one spent shell now is one fewer round when you need it the most. Running from enemies was often the prudent choice; not so in RE4. Ammo is everywhere: in crates and barrels, on shelves, and even on the bodies of your slain foes. You are, in fact, supposed to rain fiery justice onto the head of every fiend you see.
The result is one show-stopping action setpiece after another. During the course of Resident Evil 4, you will find yourself barricaded inside a farmhouse, Night of the Living Dead-style, while under siege from dozens upon dozens of possessed villagers; battling a gargantuan lake monster from the safety of a dinky motorboat; engaging in arena combat with a 15-foot-tall ogre (or two); covering an ally from long range through the cold, clear lens of your rifle scope; dodging flaming balls of death launched at you by catapult from a castle's outer walls; and so much more that I could never hope to describe in this space.
The epic and discrete nature of each enemy encounter makes the game feel more akin to Metal Gear Solid than to classic Resident Evil games (in fact, there's even a communications system that appears to have been ripped directly from Metal Gear – except it's used sparingly). Yet Resident Evil 4 is still scary as hell.
Although the evil villagers lurch around like zombies (and do appear intent on devouring your sweet brains), they're not undead. They move quickly, dodge your fire, and work in teams. Early in the game, surrounded on all sides by the bloodthirsty Spaniards, I spied a nearby ladder, climbed up to a rooftop, and knocked the ladder to the ground. When the villagers collaborated to raise the ladder back up to the roof, I can't really describe my reaction except to say that if abject terror and childlike delight had a baby, that's what was going on in my brain. This is to say nothing of the demonic priests and man-sized insects that will plague you later in the game. It gave me nightmares. (That's not an exaggeration or a figure of speech. After playing until 2 a.m. one night, I dozed off to dreams in which I battled hordes of spiders the size of golden retrievers.)
The graphics are extraordinary. Although the visuals are letterboxed in order to maximize the GameCube's graphical capabilities, the smooth frame rate, ominous art direction, and superior fire effects are well worth the trade-off. One enemy is a large, Rasputin-looking bastard, and his gaze is pure evil. I don't know how you render evil using ones and zeroes, but Capcom has done it.
Capcom has also added some RPG elements that make you feel as though you're progressing upward as well as forward through the game. For instance, Leon's life meter can be extended by using new yellow herbs. The inclusion of a weapons merchant, though, is another inspired move that elevates Resident Evil 4 above the competition. Through that purple-clad stranger, you can upgrade the firepower, capacity, and reload rate of your current weapons, or just buy new ones altogether. Currency is found in houses and on corpses, and you can also dig up treasures to sell to the merchant (here's a helpful tip: the treasure map is always worth the investment once you make it to a new area). By the end of the game, Leon is much more powerful than at the beginning, and you really feel like you've earned it.
Capcom has done the impossible here. They've redefined a genre and created a game that has the depth of an RPG, the high-intensity action of a shooter, graphics and sound that match up with the best on any console, and the chills we've come to associate with Resident Evil. The result is life-altering.
Is it too early to declare Resident Evil 4 the best game of 2005?
Score: 10.0 (out of 10)
Issue Date: January 21 - 27, 2005
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