Even in these days of a booming games industry releasing hundreds of titles a year, there remain relatively few absolute “must-play” games – games that are so lauded that any hardened gamer feels compelled to give them a go even if they are in a genre that he or she wouldn’t normally bother with. For me, Resident Evil 4 was such a game. I’ve never been a horror fan and zombies in particular just aren’t my thing, so I never played any of RE4’s predecessors, but then Capcom changed direction a bit with RE4 and the game got so much praise lavished upon it that I decided to allay my suspicions of the survival-horror genre and step into the Resident Evil world for the first time. What I discovered was a generally very well-designed game, a game that I enjoyed more than I feared I might, but less than I hoped I would.
It’s probably more accurate to describe RE4 as action-horror rather than survival-horror. The game plays pretty much as a third-person shooter with a few puzzle and platforming elements thrown in and your mission is not just to survive but to rescue the President’s daughter from the evil clutches of a sinister Spanish cult called the Los Illuminados. In attempting to do so, you discover a potentially devastating conspiracy that, inevitably, you end up playing a key role in destroying. So far, so clichéd. OK, that’s a bit harsh. The storyline is actually quite good and does keep you interested with a few mysterious plot developments, but I can never quite take these lone-hero-saves-the-world-from-some-demonic-catastrophe stories entirely seriously. At least with the likes of James Bond, it’s done tongue in cheek, but here the mood is much more sombre and grave. There’s no real attempt to inject any sense of knowing irony, much less humour, into the game such as you’d find, for example, in Grand Theft Auto. You’re meant to take it seriously and unless you really buy into horror as a genre, you might find that a little difficult.
Accepting horror’s limitations, however, RE4 does a good job overall. It certainly makes you feel tense, nervous and at times genuinely scared. Indeed, personally, I found it a bit tiresome feeling tense so often and frequently wished the breaks from the tension were a bit longer and better signposted; but then the constant feeling of anxiety is a feature that other gamers will enjoy. Playing RE4 is certainly an intense experience, though it’s not always pleasant.
The character design in RE4 is very good. The main protagonist, Leon S. Kennedy, a kind of secret service/special forces dude, looks the part in his predominantly black outfit and moves with the graceful muscularity of a prowling panther. Quite why Capcom felt the need to give him a boy band hairstyle with floppy fringe, I don’t know, but this fortunately doesn’t detract too much from his heroic stature. The President’s daughter, Ashley, is suitably preppy and annoying, while other individuals that intersect with Leon’s story, like Luis Sera, a mysterious Spaniard (as he’s advertised in the game), and Ada Wong, a lithe female agent, are also well-designed. As for the baddies, although the zombies are gone, they have been replaced with other enemies that, while more interesting than the flesh-eating undead of voodoo legend, nevertheless remain firmly in the realm of B-movie villains. The majority of your opponents are humans infected with a parasite that controls them and there is much shuffling and groaning and lurching towards Leon with arms outstretched, but, to be fair, they make a good, and challenging, set of adversaries. Some are armed with axes, crossbows or even dynamite that they can throw or shoot at you, while others do a good job of outflanking Leon or dodging his attacks. Then there are the ones that, when you’ve ‘killed’ them, sprout parasitic monsters from their heads that can seriously inconvenience you given half a chance.
Being a Japanese game, bosses obviously play a significant part in RE4 and they’re generally pretty good, although you might find yourself dying quite a few times before you work out (or, perhaps more likely, stumble across) the way to defeat them. Sensibly, Capcom ensured that you never go back far if you die in this way, but it can still be rather frustrating to have to fail several times just to see enough of a boss’s behaviour to be able to beat them.
Technically, RE4 is superb. There really is no other word. It looks amazing, runs smoothly, and not only is the sound crisp and realistic, but it plays a major part in both setting the tense tone of the game and informing you that enemies you can’t yet see are around. The voice acting is pretty decent overall, even if the chief baddie, Lord Osmund Saddler, is something of an anomaly (his name suggests he’s English, yet he speaks like an American trying to do a Spanish accent). Being a horror game, the colour palette is rather drab and I became a little tired of all the browns and greys, but then Capcom could hardly have thrown in vivid blues and pinks everywhere without destroying the feel they were going for, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.
Much of the praise heaped upon RE4 has been for its technical excellence, and this is fully deserved, but what of the real meat of the game, the gameplay? One thing I realised as soon as I started playing RE4 was that Capcom do things differently than most other developers. Instead of aiming with crosshairs, there is a laser sight. Instead of using a conventional third person view or even a first person perspective, they use an over the shoulder third person view. Instead of designing the game to be played in 4:3 aspect, they did it in widescreen. Instead of having a free-moving camera you shift with the right analog stick, it pings back to behind Leon’s shoulder the moment you let go of it. Capcom deserve credit for innovation certainly, but even once I’d got used to the game’s little foibles, I still found some of them occasionally annoying. Many people may disagree with this, but even having completed the game and got used to the unusual perspective and camera restrictions, I still kind of feel that the game maybe should have been designed with a first person perspective. It is, after all, predominantly a shooter and there is no reason why the few puzzles and platforming bits there are couldn’t have been done in first person just as well and easily as in third (like in Half-Life, which this game reminded me of in a number of ways). Ultimately, I guess, first person/third person is a matter of personal preference (and the Japanese, of course, generally don’t go in for FPSs – just ask Hideo Kojima!) and the perspective Capcom chose works well enough… but a few things about it still irked me. Like, why is Leon defaulted to look at a patch of ground about twenty feet in front of him? This makes it hard to see any distance or very much above head height, a problem which is exacerbated by the widescreen format. And why is the camera not free-moving? Your vision is at times severely impaired as a result. This artificial restriction of the player’s field of vision may heighten the sense of suspense, but it doesn’t help gameplay and can be rather irritating. The aiming too took a little getting used to, but eventually I was pretty much won over. The laser system works well in general, although it can be a bit too easy to miss at short range with a handgun (not helped by the fact that Leon turns just a fraction too slowly, I think).
In truth, though, there are no major problems with the gameplay in RE4, just a few niggles. The way you access your weapons, for example, is to press Start to open up your attaché case (by the way, I’ve never seen an attaché case that could accommodate a rocket launcher, but I’m being picky now) and select the weapon you want to use from there, but this obviously breaks up the flow of combat. Why Capcom didn’t decide to employ L2/R2 or the D-pad as a weapon changing function I simply don’t know – but I’m told the inventory systems in the RE games have always been overly fiddly to use. On the plus side, halting the game mid-combat does buy you some time and this can be something of a lifesaver when the action gets particularly hot.
And there are certainly unequivocal gameplay successes in RE4 too. The use of sudden button prompts in general play and even some cut scenes to get your character to dodge some deadly attack is especially good and keeps you on your toes. Then there is the context sensitive use of the X button to, for example, leap across a gap or open a door or operate a piece of machinery. The ability to upgrade weapons and choose from a variety of guns is also great and allows the player to customise the approach he takes to combat to some extent.
RE4’s greatest strength (aside from its technical excellence) is its overall level design. This is intelligent, imaginative and, as far as such a combat-heavy game can be, varied. Often, you can (indeed need to) use the environment to help you defeat your adversaries and this prevents the game ever descending into simple, dull ‘run and gun’. There are quite a few genuinely memorable encounters and it is hard to get too tired of the spectacular sight of blowing an enemy’s head clean off their shoulders. What puzzles and platforming sections there are are very good and provide a welcome change from the hectic rounds of fighting for your life. Indeed, I would have liked to see rather more of this, both to increase the variety of gameplay experience further and to provide greater breaks from the edgy intensity that permeates the game.
Capcom have also done an excellent job with their positioning of continue points. RE4 can be quite a challenging game until you work out how to get past certain sections (usually battles involving either bosses or hordes of regular enemies). It’s quite easy to die (or at least get through ridiculous amounts of ammo and health restorers) when you stumble into the middle of a particularly nasty situation, but Capcom sensibly ensured that if you do die, you don’t go back far, and also that you can quickly reload a tricky section that’s going pear-shaped and start it again with a better idea of how to deal with it. This allows the developers to make RE4 a pretty testing game without making it infuriating as a result. The downside to this is that the game lacks flow first time through as you die or reload quite often (at least I did), but that’s preferable, I guess, to the game being too easy. Oddly, I ended up suspecting that the game might be more enjoyable second time round when you know what’s coming up and so are able to keep a better flow going. It would certainly help in shaping the game as a complete experience rather than a series of connected encounters.
To play through RE4 twice, however, would require more time than most people with families and work to do can spare. The main game is pretty lengthy (over twenty hours first time through) and once you’ve finished that there are six sections to play through as Ada Wong (each at least an hour long) and, if you fancy it, a shooting mini-game too. It would perhaps be harsh to criticise Capcom for making RE4 such good value, but (here I go anyway…) I did feel that the game could have been a good 20% shorter and not suffered as a result. By the latter stages, I was beginning to experience a little fatigue at having shot quite so many baddies, which is a shame, as the ending to the main mission is excellent.
So, all in all, what’s to be made of RE4? In many ways, it is an extremely impressive piece of work and it lacks any major flaw. I can certainly understand why so many people love it and rate it so highly. Yet, personally, I never managed to become truly enamoured of it. Partly, this was because of the niggles I mentioned above, but mostly it was because at some level I just didn’t buy into the whole thing. I’d be pretty sure that the vast majority of the game’s most ardent devotees are horror fans and I suspect that you need to be one to really love it, even if, like me, you like action games. In terms of the enjoyment I personally derived from playing RE4, I honestly couldn’t say I’d rate it as more than 8/10, but at some level it seems a tad unfair to give it that. So, donning my objective hat, I guess I’d have to go for 9/10 as a final score. It is a very good game… although my head says that more convincingly than my heart.