There, it has been said – that’s my stance on the latest in Capcom’s self proclaimed ‘Survival Horror’ genre. Action games, hell, most games in general will feel sluggish, dull and ultimately underwhelming after the onslaught of this games opening salvo (the first 20 minutes will become the stuff of gaming legend) and with this, the Gamecube shows that there is life in Nintendo’s “little purple box that didn’t” yet.
It’s clear from the start that Capcom have made huge changes to the series. Immediately, it’s obvious that this is one of the best looking games you will see. The character models are full of emotion and are superbly animated. A washed out, brown palette features heavily, making it look like classic shock-horror films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Incredible detail has gone into everything, no matter how trivial. Trees blow in the wind, fire looks wild, dangerous and bright, making the world look alive. It is also fully 3D now, rather than the pre-rendered backdrops of the past, allowing for a new perspective on the action. Gone are the fixed cinematic camera angles, replaced by a close up, over shoulder viewpoint, which creates a feeling of claustrophobia and leaving you vulnerable at times, but is custom designed for placing shots clean between the eyes of your enemies, who are no longer the slow, shuffling legions of undead that have been a staple of the previous games. You now face the Ganados – literally hundreds of rural Spanish folk who have been infected with a parasite that subjects them to a murderous rage. They are smart, they are ruthless and, perhaps most importantly of all, they are quick.
That represents the biggest difference between the other titles and Resident Evil 4 – the change of pace. The older games, although being classics in their own right, plod along at the pace of a damaged tortoise. The combat was purely functional, allowing you to aim at enemies high, low or directly in front of you. The cramped environments only allowed for a handful of zombies to attack you at any one time. Here, the pace is unrelenting. Every aspect of the previous games has been taken, streamlined and added one overriding ingredient – a sense of fun. You now have the ability to aim freely, allowing for a more varied experience when in combat. Want to slow down a running opponent? Take out their knee and watch them fall to ground in agony. Need the quick kill? A well placed rifle round to the face will remove the head from the shoulders with a satisfying crimson mist.
Good thing the gunplay has been vastly improved, as you are going to need it. The Ganados will attack you en masse, swarming around you. There are a few ‘siege’ sections, where you must fend off hundreds of them at once, whilst running, locking yourself in rooms, pushing shelves in front of doors and diving through windows just to survive. One of these events takes place right at the start of the game – a true baptism of fire – and it is a panic-inducing moment. However, as the game progresses and you hone your skills, you find yourself welcoming confrontation, even actively seeking it, just so you can try out a new weapon or a technique. The satisfaction in unloading a shotgun blast into several enemies at once hasn’t been this satisfying since Doom 2, and the double barrelled beauty.
You will hardly ever find yourself wandering around lost, either. There is still a large element of exploration; you just won’t have to stroll from one side of an area to another, then back again, just because you need a crank. There is just no wasted motion this time around, and it makes for a more enjoyable experience. You feel like you are constantly moving forward, constantly heading towards the next set piece or enemies and bigger, better rewards. Even something as simple as the inventory has been given a tweak, rotating and moving objects around so you can squeeze that one extra weapon in to it is like a mini puzzle game. It’s just another area of the series where tedium has been replaced with pure gaming fun.
With all of these changes, is it still a Resident Evil game, I hear you ask. Well, for a start, you play as Leon S. Kennedy, the rookie policeman from Resident Evil 2, who is now a bodyguard for the President – the daughter of which has been kidnapped by what appears to be a terrorist group and taken to the Spanish countryside. Yes, it has a hackneyed Resident Evil plot too. The voice acting, whilst decent with fantastic lip-synching, has some of the most embarrassing dialogue this side of a coked up Top Gun nightmare, all macho bravado and sinister “I am the dark lord” hisses. The supporting cast of characters are the usual freaks and weirdoes the series has built itself upon. From cult leaders, ‘Johnny Depp’-alike gunslingers to muscle-bound commandos in the form of the knife-happy Krauser, the silliness dial is, at times, turned up to 11. One of the best characters is the Merchant. The definition of ‘a shadowy fellow’, clad in a long trench coat and a hood, he turns up at regular intervals throughout the game and using his brilliant voice sells you new weaponry and upgrades to your current arsenal using gold you pick up from the Ganados you defeat on your way.
To make more gold, to buy the more impressive high end weapons you will have to hunt for treasure. As you guide Leon around the villages and castles you will find expensive gemstones and jewellery which can be sold to the merchant. Some of these artefacts are worth holding on to, as you may find another piece later on in the game that attaches to it and increases the value tenfold. It’s a fun little adventure in its own right and a collectors dream, as there is a lot of treasure to be found.
There’s that word again – Fun.
Even things that, in lesser games, are horrible, horrible chores, such as escort quests; Resident Evil 4 handles them with ease. Ashley, the aforementioned kidnapped girl, is far from the liability you expect. She’s smart – she’ll hide from enemies, call for help if attacked and, crucially, duck and cover if you point your gun at her. What about the notoriously clunky controls that make you feel like you are controlling a tank, rather than a special forces operative, that have plagued the series? They are still here, but the new view makes them work. Tweaked to be more instinctive, with the combat knife always available on the L trigger, for close encounters, it’s up there with Nintendo’s best when it comes to hardware/software harmony.
A new feature is the inclusion of a few Shenmue-esque QTE events. Pushing the button displayed on screen for a second will trigger a cutscene, usually allowing you to get the upper hand in a battle or avoid sudden death, with failing to do this causing energy loss, missed opportunities and in a few situations, an instant game over. No problem though, as the loading times are practically non existent. No more waiting around, no more of those infamous “door opening” loading screens. Bliss.
Want more? What about replay value? RE4 has this in bucket loads. As well as the RE standards such as new weapons and alternative outfits, you can also unlock the Mercenaries mode, where you can play as some select characters from the series in a survival battle against legions of unlimited enemies, with the highest scores unlocking even more content! This mode is practically a game in itself, more like Robotron than Resident Evil, but still fantastic. Fantastic fun.
Bad sequels are usually little more than lazy rehashes, with little more than a lick of paint to try and hide the fact the developer has done nothing to warrant the purchase of the latest update. Good sequels are an evolution of a series – improving on everything the previous incarnation did yet keeping what made it enjoyable in the first place. Resident Evil 4 is even more than this. It is a revolution, bigger than just it’s older brothers and sisters. It’s bigger than survival horror. It has not only completely revitalized Capcom’s aging series, but given a rocket up the backside of everyone making a sequel in the gaming world - This is how you do it.
I said Resident Evil 4 is the best game on the Gamecube, and I’ll be honest, that’s not totally true. Resident Evil 4 is more than that. It’s the best game of this generation, across all three major formats and will take some beating well into the next one too. After all the glamour and graphics are taken away, one thing remains - games are supposed to be fun, and this one offers more fun than any other.