9.2

Resident Evil 4 review
A New Horror 2

Summary:

I was never really a big fan of the old style Resident Evil games. What they had in atmosphere, they lacked in solid gameplay foundations. I found it hard to really enjoy the scare factor when I was running into furniture, having to juggle several key items in an awkward item system and an inability to see where I was going half the time. Resident Evil 4 decided it had enough of all that too and completely threw it out in favour of more refined gameplay mechanics. Of course, I already knew all this as I have already reviewed the Gamecube version quite a number of years ago. Now I have had the chance to tackle the PS2 version with all its bells and whistles. So I guess we'll see how well it shapes up to the original version and whether it's worth trading up for.

RE4 is still a treat to look at on the PS2 hardware. There's definitely a sense of realism when looking at the majority of the cast, showcasing some interesting outfit designs that have a lot of care put into their creation and some element of life to the characters within the game. Animation is mostly good too, as the game shows off with some interesting displays of dashes, dives and general acrobatics, because why the hell not. There can be problems sometimes with flowy objects cutting through things as objects don't quite interact with each other as you'd expect them to, but these instances are rare and don't break the visual immersion provided.

There's a nice selection of environments to explore too. In general these are split between the rural village, ancient caslte and military island, but it's also worth noting that the areas in each section can vary greatly as well. You might be in the midst of the village, only to move onto an underground tunnel, end up exploring a church, taking a speedboat across a lake, riding a cable car or any number of other places to visit. This manages to keep the experience relatively fresh as you move around. Each location is also built up lovingly to give a real impression of visiting the European region and interacting with the somewhat hostile locals.

If there's one problem though, it's the general lack of horror. One thing I could commend the older RE games for was establishing some sense of horror, even when at times it amounted to "monsters jumping through windows at you". RE4 sadly doesn't manage that. There weren't really any moments that made me go "oh shit!" nor can I say the theme felt particularly creepy. There were a few moments in the latter third of the game but not really enough to make the game feel more than a dark themed action adventure.

It is worth noting though that the PS2 version uses pre-rendered cutscenes for its dramatic storyline event scenes instead of real-time. What it means is that cutscenes will always looks the same regardless of circumstances, like Leon won't wear the special costumes or you'll see that windows will be intact during these even if you broke them only moments ago. While not too terrible an element, I do miss how the Gamecube cutscenes properly reflected the conditions of the environment.

When it comes to the audio the music is a bit of a letdown, as most of the time it's hard to really notice anything is actually there. At the least it isn't ear destroying awful, but something a little more noticeable and memorable wouldn't have gone amiss.

Thankfully the rest of the sound doesn't disappoint. Sound effects are very solid throughout, like you really feel the force of weapon effects as you fire rounds into that enemy hoping to add an extra opening to your head. Other sounds can sometimes alert you to something, like an alarm to warn you to get your ass in gear that puts across urgency without being annoying.

Voice acting is where this shines. Of course the main cast gets quite a script to work with. Ashley can get a little annoying when she's busy shouting "LEEEEEEOOOOOON, HEEEEEEELP" so much, but for the most part you really feel like the deliveries are spot on. Better still, hearing voice clips during gameplay, such as villagers shouting out to warn others of your presence, is a nice touch.

Speaking of Ashley, it's rather hard to take the storyline too seriously. Even though the Government is having a hard time figuring out who to trust, it's difficult to imagine how Leon of all people seems to be identified as the best person to send in solo with a handgun and when you uncover the cause of the hostilities then it steps more and more into outright fantasy instead of the somewhat believeable ideas of a zombie virus.

At least we get some rather interesting characters who all bring their little something to proceedings. Even the midget Salazaar matters as players develop a sense of wanting to smash his smug face in as he pops up to taunt Leon throughout his adventure.

RE4 abandons the gameplay mechanics of its predecessors to play out more as an action shooter. The first most obvious change comes with the camera and control setup, which are far more user friendly than previously. This time the camera stays behind Leon slightly offset to the side and allows for limited movement with the right stick used for looking around. This view allows players to have a much better view of their surroundings that avoids the accidental running into stuff the older games suffered.

The controls have also been tweaked to make things go more smoothly. Strictly speaking, movement still uses the tank style input that can make manoeuvring a little tricky but it's plenty enough to make getting yourself around the place a pleasant enough experience. A proper aiming system is also in place, giving you full analogue freedom when lining up shots on the enemy and providing a useful laser sight to help with accuracy.

Speaking of which, combat itself feels a lot more interesting. By shedding the survival horror themes, this game offers a wide selection of weapons from handguns, shotguns, machine guns and explosives with which to fight off the hordes of enemies. These weapons are also upgradeable, though more in the somewhat unrealistic paying to up stats instead of finding weapon parts. Still, it allows for a sense of progression with combat choices and a certain level of freedom, as you can choose what to upgrade with the resources available.

The item system in general is very good. Leon has an attache case that makes up his item subscreen. Each item takes up a specific set of spaces (for example, the handgun takes up an area of 3x2 squares) and items can be moved and rotated about to fit them snugly in there. Additionally, key items and treasures don't take up any spaces in it, meaning you don't have to choose between that life saving ammo or the number of keys to open the big door down that path. Essentially it makes for a very effective item management system and makes far more sense than a rocket launcher taking up the exact same amount of space as a herb.

A merchant pops up throughout the game who is the main source of acquiring new weapons and upgrading existing ones. While wholly unrealistic, this does make for an easy structured means of introducing the weapons and upgrades slowly as the player progresses. It also helps to encourage players to look around everywhere as they play. Not only will you find money sitting there ripe for the taking, but treasure items are scattered about too that you can sell for more cash.

The "zombies" of this game (known as the Ganados) prove to be more capable than the Raccoon City zombies. These guys won't just shamble slowly towards you but will dash about, attempt to dodge your attacks such as sidestepping predicted gunshots and use a variety of weapons to their advantage like lobbing axes at you. Individually they're less of a threat due to the improved controls but manage to provide a harsher and more substantial threats in groups. Oh yes, and the game sure loves throwing them at you in waves. You get a taste of that early on when you first arrive in the village and find yourself attacked by a lot of enemies.

As well as shooting them you also get a few other options. A knife can be pulled out quickly for some close range damage that is mainly used to conserve ammo. Likewise, shooting enemies in a specific way will put them into a slightly stunned state and leave them open for Leon to perform a melee attack for extra damage. These options expand on combat very well.

Of course, Ganados aren't the only enemies you face. As you progress you'll be attacked by others like parasite dogs, insect-like monsters that can scurry along the walls and soldiers lugging gatling guns around. Bosses are spread throughout the game too and up the challenge as you find ways to overcome their might. The first boss is especially notable in bring so different than anything else, but in general they manage to strike a good balance in challenging the player without being frustrating.

In fact, difficulty is handled well throughout. There are a couple of areas that are unnecessarily frustrating, such as a room in the castle involving fighting living armour suits, but mostly the game is challenging but fair. Plentiful healing items and checkpoints are balanced against the difficulty of the challenges to make an experience that is fairly satisfying. The PS2 version seems to have tweaked the checkpoints slightly as well to add a few more in for a little less frustration in those areas.

The difficulty is expanded somewhat by having Ashley with you for a good portion of the game, who cannot fight and thus must be protected from the enemies. Now, the idea of building a lot of the game around what is essentially an escort mission might sound terrible, but thankfully Ashley herself is pretty smart. You can order her to follow or stay put at the press of a button and when you aim a weapon she'll either stay behind you or crouch down, depends on what you ordered her to do. Her presence generally doesn't add anything meaningful to the game but at least she doesn't make it bad either.

Sadly, puzzles are somewhat lacking in the game. A couple show up that have promise, like rotating a dial in set increments to light up specific symbols or rotating panels to create a path from point A to B, but these are too few and far between. Instead the rest of the puzzles rely more on "grab object A to insert into slot B to open door" and there's generally no thinking required for these mini fetch quests.

There are also quick time events scattered through the game, both during normal gameplay and during cutscenes. These scenarios either require you to press one of two button combinations or to madly hammer one of two buttons to get Leon to perform scripted actions such as running away from a boulder Indiana Jones style or to dive out of the way of something for Leon. The effectiveness of these vary. It's great when ingame and you can hit buttons to cleverly dive away just as that monster tries to grab you. It's less so interesting when you're watching a cutscene play out and it suddenly flashes buttons onscreen or else you instantly die. Fortunately, getting killed by these normally just means redoing the event thanks to all the checkpoints, but the game doesn't gain any benefits for having them there.

So aside from the main story with Leon what else does Resident Evil 4 offer? Well, there's new game plus where you can obtain stupidly overpowered weapons for the playthrough. Nothing quite says fun like an infinite use rocket launcher or a magnum that punches quite a hole in everything. There's also three extra game modes opened up after completing the game.

The Mercenaries is even more action orientated than the main game, as you get to play as one of five characters and are tasked with scoring as many points as possible against the waves of enemy forces that swarm into the area. Each character has their own preset weapon sets and special melee attacks to make them feel unique, such as having a special weapon or a melee attack that snaps the neck of the target. You also find yourself running around the levels picking up time extensions and bonus timers (the former of which is helpfully highlighted on the map screen). It's an excellent arcade style distraction and fun to work towards 5 star rankings on. Assignment Ada is another mode where you play as Ada in the island section. The events are are non-canon but instead gives you the chance to play through the areas with a preset weapon set and different arrangements of enemies. This too is good for a runthrough, although the lack of save points means you have to clear it in one sitting.

Separate Ways is the final game mode and is new to the PS2 version. Again the player assumes control of Ada in 5 missions that, unlike AA, are canon to the story. Here we get to see what Ada was up to during the events of the game and helps establish why some things happened as they did. It's interesting to see that, even if it produces more plot holes than it fixes. It's also a lot more fleshed out than Assignment Ada.

For one, it has save points and lasts a good while longer than AA. It also retains the merchant system of the main game, although Ada is limited to a smaller selection of weapons than Leon (she does, at least, get access to a exclusive weapon). We also get treated to a few unique traits like being able to use the grappling gun in scripted places to reach a few locations Leon can't.

SW mostly reuses the same areas from the main game, but it also adds in a few entirely new locations and challenges to test experienced players. This is in addition to redoing enemy spawns and waves in the existing areas, like taking the normally peaceful cavern leading to the church and filling it with enemy waves to deal with. Plsu you might find yourself going through areas in a different way too. I must admit that this mode isn't as interesting in its boss fights as Leon's mode though as, aside from the final boss, the others just lack the same appeal and are pretty much recycled from Leon's mode anyway. But for the most part Separate Ways proves to be very fun and extends the lifespan of the game a fair amount.

So Resident Evil 4 is an excellent action shooter that might not fit the theme of the series but serves up gameplay far more interesting than its predecessors, with only a few stumbling moves made. Should you trade up from the Gamecube version? Depends on what you're going to pay. Separate Ways is really the main incentive to do so and you're looking at about 6 or so hours of gameplay for a first playthrough. It's definitely worth playing; just not full retail price if you've already got the Gamecube version.

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