Resident Evil 4 review
A New Horror

The good:

Intelligent Enemy
Controls no longer so awkward
Merchant Aspect

The bad:

Certain Button Reaction Sequences
Iffy plot
Controls still a little stiff


Resident Evil started life on the old PlayStation (back when it was still abbreviated to PSX) and pretty much helped to establish the horror genre at the advent of the 3D era. It's playability could be questioned but it did what it set out to do, which was to create an atmosphere befitting of a game in such a genre.

Fast-forward to the next generation of consoles, where Nintendo struck a deal for the series to grace the Gamecube. We've been graced with a remake of the original, a new game based around the remake's engine ad several re-releases. What comes forth now is a new entry to the series, and it is vastly different to what the series has delivered so far.

From a visual standpoint RE4 continues to deliver jaw-dropping graphics that we saw from Remake and Zero, only with even more polish and skill that makes the game so amazing to look at.

Character models look pretty realistic. Everything from creases in their clothes to a certain roughness to the skin (thank goodness someone understands that no human complexion is perfect) has been done very well. They have a lot of detail to them too, such as you can see Leon's knife tucked into its little holder and neat touches like seeing grenades packed onto his belt when he's armed with them.

Oh, but this isn't just for the starring cast. Everything from enemy beasts, towering monsters and even the generic Ganado villagers all look just as great as our lead hero Leon. The storyline dictates that they haven't washed in weeks, and the visuals match that theme perfectly.

The way characters move is another triumph for Capcom. Everyone moves convincingly and fluidly. When Leon fires a gun you can see the recoil from it, or he'll actually be knocked back or forward if struck. Enemies will also provide dodging moves, although sometimes it looks a little weird when they try to duck while you're several feet away and can easily adjust your aim.

There is plenty of nice effects on show as well. One section inparticular really shows this off. Without giving away storyline details, Leon finds himself exploring part of the village at night. In one part there is quite a downpour of rain, while torches that somehow stay lit despite the rain light up patches of the area. It looks great.

You also have various other things too. Explosions look terrific, or you have shattering glass, exploding heads (pretty much a RE mainstay) and lightning flashes. It's not overkill; instead working to complement the visuals.

Of course, the areas you explore are wonderfully designed as well. The game is mostly split across the village, castle and island. Each area pretty much looks as you might expect them too as well. The textures for the environments look very detailed and quite seamless at the edges too. There are a lot of elements too, like in the farm you have the barn, a wheelbarrow, a well, various barrels and cupboards etc. These aren't just half-assed stages cobbled together quickly.

RE4 also does well when providing sound effects. The sounds of weapons-fire works very well, with each noise fitting well with the weapon onscreen. Other sound effects like smashing windows or a chainsaw all sound just right.

Voice acting is also in the game, and it is done very well too. Some of this is via cutscenes as Leon interacts with various ingame characters. The voices are pretty convincing too, although I wish Ashley didn't have to sound so whiny.

During play you will also hear the enemies shouting things. Of course, unless you happen to know Spanish then you're not going to understand a word, but hearing them shout warnings and other things about is great.

A shame really, then, that the music soundtrack is just so underwhelming. There isn't a whole lot of tracks to begin with, and what is played is so unremarkable that you would have trouble remembering it. It is the kind of music that slips into the background to be forgotten.

Some games can work this so that the music becomes supportive without being intrusive. Not so here, as the music doesn't enhance the experience at all.

That leads us nicely onto one of RE4's biggest failings - a notably reduced atmosphere. For all their failings there was one thing past RE games did well, and that was to establish the horror atmosphere perfectly. You were always on edge as you walked down that passage or rounded that corner. RE4, sadly, doesn't have this. The monsters in the game feel more out of some medieval fantasy akin to Lord of the Rings as opposed to a more realistic bio-weapon end result.

This surrealism is bad enough for the horror aspect, but the truth is that the game just isn't scary. The enemies come at you but they aren't trying to hide around corners. Music fails to build suspense. The end result is that you have an action game with a dark tone, but not something I would put in the horror genre. Things do get a bit more promising in the last third of the game, but it's a typical example of too little, too late.

Plotwise the game also feels a little silly. Six years after the events of RE2 and RE3 we join Leon Kennedy, who has since become a government agent. Shortly before his assignment the President's daughter was kidnapped. A leak is suspected in the agency, so Leon is sent in alone to a rural village to investigate if Ashley is really there.

It's never really explained how Leon was quickly considered a trustworthy agent in all this and so the idea that he becomes a one man army seems a little far-fetched. Then you get to the cause of the hostile welcomes you get, which makes the whole thing look more like an alien invasion than anything.

There's some decent character interaction later on, but let's just say that storyline progression isn't your reason to be playing this game.

Resident Evil 4 plays out as an action shooter, where Leon must fight his way past hordes of monsters and zombie-like enemies to rescue Ashley (several times, as it turns out). Now, if you've been following the series at all then you'll notice that RE4 possesses a completely different interface than its predecessors. Gone are the days of fixed camera angles and the subsequent running into furniture, and the gameplay is all the better for it.

This time the camera maintains a position behind Leon, combined with analogue movement, precise movement is offered. Not only do you get a better view of the area layout but you can more accurately move around that environment. This has always been a major problem of past games in the series, so it is nice seeing it finally fixed for this release. That said, the game still does resort to "tank controls" which can make swift turns and dodges a bit tricky, but at least the change in camera angle makes things less frustrating.

Combat has also been significantly improved from the previous games. When Leon goes into an aiming stance the camera zooms closer to an over-the-shoulder view, and a handy laser sight also pops on-screen to assist in scoring those awesome headshots. More importantly, aiming is also now analogue, which is miles better than the bizarre 45 degree digital aiming of previous games, which really never actually helped much unless you happened to be at a staircase.

Although headshots are now plausible targets instead of random chance occurrences these enemies aren't zombies. Headshots are still the best way to go about things, but here a headshot doesn't always instant kill an enemy. In fact, if it wasn't for the older games having a ridiculous control setup then the enemies here would be harder to contend with.

Aside from not instantly dying from headshots these freaks all have their own collection of tricks to work with. The basic Ganados won't just stagger towards you groaning. These enemies are clever, as they wield weapons like axes and sickles. Some will even throw these at you if you try and keep your distance. They will also charge at you, or duck and dodge about to make shooting them together. They also tend to attack in groups and from different places. Even these normal run-ins can result in firefights.

But the Ganados are the least of your concerns. There are other nasties lurking in the various areas that pose their own threats. RE fans may find some familiarity in the dogs that come to attack. Not content with half-dead mutts though, this game gives them tentacles and a lot more agility than previously. Some odd insect-like creatures will walk all over the floors, walls and ceilings while using some kind of cloaking ability akin to the Ghost in the Shell stealth camouflage.

Bosses pose their own problems too. These tend to be high damage beasts, often of the towering kind as well, that will act as real ammo drainers. As per typical of bosses, each tends to have a weak spot that must be exploited, and while some of these fights are pretty generic (although still great to play through) there are some that put a nice twist on things. Your first boss battle puts you in a boat with limited steering and an infinite supply of harpoon spears against some huge sea creature. One of the later boss battles of disc 1 involves freezing the boss to cause heavy damage.

Thankfully, Leon has a plentiful supply of weapons to fight them with. He starts out with a mere handgun. The basic shotgun is obtained early on, either by finding it in the main village part (normal and pro) or starting with it (easy). There are generally four main weapon types, categorized as handgun, shotgun, rifle and magnum. Each category has at least two weapons on offer. It's worth noting that later weapons aren't necessarily the better choices, and some will depend on what you are looking for (eg, power or speed). There are also a couple of special weapons, such as the TMP, a rapid fire machine gun.

Leon also has some other weapons as well that can be used. The knife is Leon's only weapon that doesn't take up room in his case, and is also accessed differently. Instead of R the player holds L to bring out the knife. It is designed for no-ammo close range attacks, and becoming proficient with it can help conserve ammo tremendously. Since most non-boss enemies tend to flinch even by this then it is a good option to use. Leon can also pick up grenades and even powerful rocket launchers. These RLs can instant kill bosses but you only get one free and further ones are costly.

If an enemy is hit with a weak weapon (as in, one that does blow them off their feet) then they may be stunned if hit in either the head or the leg. In either of these instance Leon can run up to them and press A for a melee combat action. Those standing will be struck with a roundhouse kick, while those dropped to one knee will be victim to either a low kick or a suplex. These moves are great for extra ammo-free damage. The kicks can catch nearby enemies too and knock them down, while the suplex has a chance of smashing a skull open on impact. The best thing is that Leon is invulnerable while performing these actions, although be carefully when they have ended as Leon can be hit again.

RE4's weapon system differs greatly from past games for other weapons though, which is where the merchant comes in. Making absolutely no sense in terms of the storyline this strange fellow turns up in various places and offers to sell goods to Leon. Most of these items are weapons, although there is sometimes a map, healing item or case on offer. The available items increases as Leon progresses in the game.

In addition to selling items the merchant will also offer to upgrade weapons. Only weapons that fall into one of the four main weapons types, the TMP and the Mine Launcher can be upgraded. Each weapon has four stats that can be upgraded. Firepower is the damage dealt by each shot. Firing speed indicates how fast you can empty a weapon clip. Reload speed is how fast you can exchange that empty clip for a new full one. Capacity determines how many shots you can get out of a single clip.

Like the weapons themselves the upgrades aren't available right away, so you have to progress to unlock them. Once a weapon has been fully upgraded and you have progressed far enough for that specific weapon then the exclusive upgrade becomes available (except for the Killer7, which has no exclusive upgrade). This upgrade is more unique to the weapon and some add a special trait to the weapon. The handgun increases the chances of a fatal headshot by five times. The shotgun gains effectiveness at longer ranges.

However, the merchant isn't a charity. Buying and upgrading cost money, which in this game is pesetas. Some of this is gained by finding actual sums of money or gold around the place. In addition to this, Leon can find treasure items and sell them. Some treasures can be combined with others to form more valuable items. Generally, an item's description usually clues you in as to whether that item can be combined with any other. Leon can also sell items he has no use for, like fish that take up too much room or weapons if he's purchasing a different model of the same type.

Weapons use up ammo, of course. Ammo needed is determined by the weapon type rather than the weapon itself. Handgun ammo can be used by any weapon in the handgun class, for example. Despite the existence of a merchant you can't properly buy ammo (technically you can get him to refill the weapon by upgrading the capacity, but that's not really the same thing). If there's one fault with RE4's weapon system it is perhaps that it is too generous with this ammo. Even on the professional setting I rarely found myself struggling for ammo. This is especially true once you've become adept at using the knife, as it can cut ammo consumption by a great deal.

The way items are stored is also a massive improvement on past games. Before this each character has a number of item slots, and each item took up one item slot regardless of what it was. Quite how a rocket launcher took up the same amount of room as a knife is anyone's guess.

RE4 ditches this system and introduces a new one. Leon now has a case made up of a grid of squares. Each item has its own size measured in squares. The handgun takes up 6 squares in a 3 x 2 formation. The size of even the basic case lets Leon carry more than characters of previous games, and it can even be upgraded via the merchant. What's even better is that key items and treasures, as well as Leon's knife, do not take any room up in this case either. The knife doesn't appear in any item screen and the others have their own subscreen and slots. Players are also able to move and rotate items around the case in order to maximize on the space they are given. One thing to bear in mind is that storage chests don't exist, so Leon can't store items for pickup later. His case is all the storage he gets, but it works well anyway.

Living(ish) creatures aren't the only threats to Leon's life though. RE4 has plenty of traps throughout that threaten his life, including the traditional ceiling spikes that lowers or bear traps scattered throughout the village. In addition are the button reaction moments.

The what? At various points in the game the player is given a button prompt to perform, even during cutscenes that you would normally just sit back and watch. Failure usually means death, like having a knife planted in his chest or his neck snapped. The player either has to press the onscreen prompt in time (typically either A + B or L + R) or mash the appropriate button repeatedly (usually A, but sometimes B is used instead). These actions are also integrated in normal play scenes too, like when fighting the first El Gigante it will sometimes pick up trees to swing at you, where a button reaction causes Leon to duck under the attack.

These scenes offer a fresh level on interaction that extends beyond the normal context-sensitive action button present in oh so many games. It's not perfect though, as some moments can lead to frustrating restarts from checkpoints, especially in areas that hold multiple instant death button reaction moments with no checkpoint inbetween. The knife fight on the island is the worst offender of this.

That brings us nicely onto the next point. In past games death means restarting from the last save, and since you had to use ink ribbons to save that could have been a while ago. RE4 is a lot more lenient in this respect. Not only do you no longer need any specific item to save (you can just use a typewriter without anything) but the game now offers checkpoints, and lots of them. Typically, anytime you enter an area that needs to load you have reached a checkpoint. In one sense it does make things a little easy as you can just keep restarting in any specific area if you happen to do badly. On the other hand, it does mean RE4 doesn't punish mistakes quite as badly.

It does seem that the general difficulty is lower in this instalment though. Part of this is due to having a proper control interface, although while that has made things easier it was definitely a needed change so I won't fault Capcom for that trait. Rather, the problem tends to stem more from the generous nature of item pickups. There is simply too many ammo, healing and money/treasure items available, even on the hardest setting. Having a plentiful supply takes away the demand the older games managed to put on you. Well, I suppose too much is better than too little.

RE4 offers three levels of difficulty (or two if you're an American gamer). Normal is the default mode, which is designed to offer a moderate challenge. If normal happens to be too much then non-American gamers were offered an easy mode. Enemies were toned down but several areas of the castle segment were also blocked off. Professional is unlocked by beating the game once, and is designed to offer a more substantial challenge.

Well, having three settings is a bit pointless. Easy's problem is that it isn't the full experience since areas get locked off and some traps aren't activating. Then the difficulty gap between normal and professional isn't actually that high. Generally speaking, if you can clear normal than professional probably won't give you any problems either.

Actually, keeping Leon alive is the least of your concerns. At certain points in the game you get to babysit Ashley. She's the typical helpless girl, and will be the source of this game's frustration. See, Ashley is the game's ultimate objective. If Ashley dies or is carried off by an enemy (outside of scripted events you can't do anything about) then the game ends in failure and you'll have to restart from the last checkpoint. This wouldn't be so bad if Ashley wasn't such a failure at life. That, and her constant shouting and whining is enough to cause some "accidental" friendly fire at times. Yes, restarting from the checkpoint would be totally worth it just for the pleasure of killing her personally.

It is possible to give simple orders to Ashley. These usually consist of orders to stay or follow. Sometimes there is a container Ashley can be ordered to hide in (can't I just leave her there?) to avoid enemy detection. That's about it though, as it is meant to be basic.

In an attempt to make Ashley seem like more than dead weight there are times that the two must work together to progress. This is touted as an important element, but it's surprisingly underwhelming in play. There's about three notable sections I can think of where Ashley is doing some work, and the rest of the time she's either following you or not there.

There's one section in the game where you actually control Ashley, but it's easily one of the most boring sections. Ashley attacks by throwing lamps at enemies (shame her aim is so horrible), flicking switches and doing a few button reaction moments. It's just nowhere near as interesting as when Leon is working.

If the main game starts to get boring then there are two extra game modes to play in. Assignment Ada puts you on the island with some slightly altered content. There is no Ashley or merchant here. The goal is to collect five samples and then escape. While appearing to parallel the main story arc it actually doesn't. The story here isn't canon as such.

Unlike Leon, Ada only has an unchangeable set of weapons, consisting of the punisher, SA Rifle and TMP, along with a few extra items like grenades and healing items. These weapons are already partially upgraded too, but since there is no merchant she can't upgrade further. Ada doesn't even have a knife, meaning she has to shoot crates open. Like Leon though, Ada also possesses context-sensitive melee attacks (both are kicks), so help her conserve ammo.

Which is really the point of this game. Unlike the main game, ammo is not so plentiful here, so it is a much better test of making the most use of your ammo supplies. That said, Assignment Ada is fairly short (it doesn't even bother with a save option) as it's really only meant as an extra. It's fun to blast through a few times though.

The other game is The Mercenaries, and despite being an extra will probably see more playtime than any other part. The goal is simple. You're up against the clock trying to score as many points as possible. No merchant so each character only has the weapons that start a level with, upgraded partially as before. Time extensions can be picked up to increase the time you have to score points, as can score multipliers that offer extra points within a 30 second window.

Random killing is fine, but the real key is combo killing. When you kill a target an invisible timer of a few seconds ticks away. If you manage to kill another target before this expires then you add one to the combo and that timer resests, ready for the next kill in the combo. Combo kills are worth a lot more than normal kills.

Play here is split amongst four stages. Three are based off the locations in the game (village, castle, island), while the final stage is a new one that somewhat resembles buildings at a pier. Each stages offers a lot of complexity, as you can enter buildings, climb ladders and hurl yourself through windows.

There are five characters to play as here, although initially only Leon is available. The others must be unlocked by getting four star rankings on the levels (as a nice touch the title screen adds in imagery for each character you unlock). Leon has the same melee options as his main game self but is locked to the Riot Gun and Blacktail. Grenades are surprising rare for him. Ada is the same as her AA self, aside from some upgrade changes. Krauser has the best durability and a special instant kill attack but is slow, especially with his unique bow weapon. He's also the only character other than Leon to possess a knife. HUNK uses a custom TMP and plenty of grenades, and also can perform an instant kill neck snap on staggering enemies. Wesker possesses the most damaging melee attacks (both can catch nearby enemies and one is an instant kill) and a variety of weapons.

Overall RE4 is somewhat of a departure from the series, and a much needed one at that. Granted the game just lacks the scary atmosphere that previous games are known for, but it is definitely way more playable, which is the main point of a video game. I'll gladly take being playable over being scary any day. The extras help to extend the lifespan massively too. This is a game all Gamecube owners should have in their collections.

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