As Halloween looms upon us while October comes to a close, the final retrospective will covers what is arguably the greatest iteration of the series that popularized the Survival Horror genre. During the late ’90s and early millennium, Capcom’s Resident Evil series continued to garner the praise from both gamers and critics worldwide, with three officially numbered games released along with one spin-off title (Code: Veronica).
It seemed redundant to mess with success, but after less than stellar sales of Resident Evil 0 (the second of three RE titles that were planned as exclusive releases on the Nintendo Gamecube), Capcom felt it was time for a change. Under the supervision of series creator Shinji Mikami, the fourth officially numbered entry in the Resident Evil series would feature the most dramatic restructuring of the series in the hopes of obtaining a larger audience. Before this could happen, however, it would go down as the longest delayed Capcom title yet.
Originally conceived in 1999 for the Playstation 2, Resident Evil 4 would feature a brand new protagonist who possessed superhuman abilities, fighting off enemies while navigating a European-influenced castle. Under the direction of Resident Evil 2’s director Hideki Kamiya, the game was planned to reinvent the series norms with a much more hectic and stylish battle system. Ultimately, Mikami (who was handling production duties of the sequel) decided that the concept strayed a bit too far from Resident Evil, and was eventually recreated as Devil May Cry, another flagship Capcom game that would spawn future sequels.
After agreeing to move the fourth game to the Gamecube as an exclusive release, Mikami was signed back on as director for the title, which resulted in many different (and ultimately rejected) concepts for the sequel. RE2’s rookie cop Leon S. Kennedy was planned right from the start to represent RE4’s protagonist, but the original plan was to have him infiltrate Umbrella’s main headquarters in Europe, while simultaneously fighting off an infection that plagued his body and mind. In what is probably the most famous and well-known of Mikami’s rejected scenarios, one concept revolved around Leon’s constant hallucinations caused by the virus, forcing him to fight off paranormal entities that may or may not have existed, including a shrouded figure wielding a massive hook for a weapon (dubbed “Hook Man” by fans). This was to be the most frightening version of Resident Evil yet (and was advertised as such, with the infamous tagline of “don’t piss your pants”), but once again Mikami shelved the idea, feeling it diverted too much from the core series.
Finally, after numerous delays and four different proposed ideas thrown out the window, Resident Evil 4 was finally released in 2005 on the Nintendo Gamecube (and would soon find its way on the Playstation 2, PC, and Wii, Mikami’s head be damned). After so many revisions, did Mikami reach that desired balance between revitalizing the classic series without diverting too far from its survival horror roots?
The plot of Resident Evil 4 takes place six years after the second game. Following the destruction of Raccoon City, the Umbrella Corporation was finally defeated, not by the survivors of STARS or other mercenary groups, but by their plummeting stocks after having their funding severed by the government. Leon Kennedy, after spending his days as a U.S. Secret Service agent, is assigned to a covert operation to rescue the president’s kidnapped daughter, Ashley Graham, from a mysterious cult hiding in a remote European village. After a less than stealthy infiltration into the village, Leon finds himself in the crosshairs of the village residents, all of them driven mad by an ancient parasite called Las Plagas that infects the host’s brain, turning them into mindless-yet-obedient slaves who violently attack all intruders. After succumbing to the parasite himself, Leon is on a race against the clock to rescue Ashley, cure his disease, and stop the cult leader Saddler form unleashing Las Plagas across the world.
True to Mikami’s vision, Resident Evil 4 features many big changes, both to its gameplay and visuals. Gone are the fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds that the series was known for (minus Code: Veronica, which ditched the latter for polygonal backdrops), which have been replaced with a fully 3D perspective that puts the camera right behind Leon, which gave birth to the “over the shoulder” perspective many preceding games would adopt. While this change in viewpoint takes away the more cinematic angles from the previous games, it also offers the most precise aiming mechanics in the series; using a red laser sight attached to every weapon, players can accurately target an enemy’s vital points, including limbs and heads, which will cause them to react accordingly. Since these are mind-controlled villagers and not undead zombies, shooting them in the legs or arms will cause them to recoil in pain, offering players enough time to plan their next move; as per the Survival Horror norm, headshots are always the most effective, but a good roundhouse kick to the torso can be just as sufficient.
Drop kicking enemies is just one of many context-sensitive moves Leon can perform; the villagers are far more aggressive and resourceful than the average zombie, often chasing after Leon in large groups, attacking him with an endless supply of farming tools (including pitchforks, knives, torches, or just old fashioned bare hands), and even planning strategies (such as setting up traps, or trapping him inside a cottage). Fortunately, Leon has learned plenty of new acrobatic techniques, from jumping through windows, hopping over small distances, climbing ladders (and then knocking them down so his pursuers can’t follow), and many other survival tactics that are all carried out with the push of a button. It’s as simplistic a control scheme as you can get, but it’s also one of the most fluid and responsive as well.
As was originally planned with the first concept that eventually became Devil May Cry, Resident Evil 4’s buzzword is “action”. Weapon ammo is now in plentiful supply, enemies are far larger in number and more tenacious in their pursuit of their prey, the set pieces are larger and more interactive, and there are also more explosions (of both properties as well as heads). The trade-off, however, is that the trademark horror and tension that made the series famous has significantly diminished. While there are still those moments of ominous dread, such as wandering down empty corridors while a pulse-pounding tempo plays, they are far and few in-between; The haunted house days of Resident Evil are over, replaced with its loudest, most action-packed entry yet.
But it’s also the most entertaining. The tension players would experience from typical jump-scares (such as dogs bursting out of windows) have been replaced with an adrenaline-fueled tension of fighting off legions of enraged enemies with a variety of weapons; many of the series’ staple items make a return, including handguns, shotguns, herbs and first aid sprays, but the managing of these items is almost a game in itself; rather than using storage crates to hoard items, Leon is given an attaché case where he must arrange his arsenal in several ways in order to make room (think Tetris, only with guns). New weapons can also be purchased by an enigmatic merchant who sells his wares on the go, while existing weapons can be upgraded to store more ammo, do more damage, etc, at the cost of the village’s currency (which can be obtained by defeated enemies, hidden treasure chests, or by pawning off valuable artifacts and gems).
This is just a small sample of the enormous content offered in the game. For a sequel that’s been in development for so many years, there’s almost no end to the amount of scenarios and gameplay curveballs thrown at you throughout the campaign (which spanned two discs on the Gamecube despite the paltry amount of FMV); when not solving tricky puzzles or manipulating a switch or two in order to open the next path, there is almost always a new type of enemy to fight (including massive bosses such as a Lord of the Rings-inspired giant and a huge underwater carnivore) or an existing enemy using a new trick (bulletproof vests) to keep you on your toes. Later on, you’ll also have to protect the newly-rescued Ashley from her pursuers, issuing commands to have her hide in a nearby waste bin or to even manipulate far-off devices. As divisive as gamers are regarding escort missions, Ashley is competent enough to not stand in your way (plus her short skirt and bouncy ballistics should serve as an extra motivator to keep her alive).
As mentioned above, RE4’s visuals ditch the pre-rendered backgrounds in favor of a fully polygonal look, and the series has never looked better. The texture work and heavy amount of character animations bring about a visual polish that matches (if not exceeds) the intricately detailed static backgrounds of its predecessors. Many effects, including the illuminating heat from a lava-filled refinery or the gruesome appearance of some bosses, were impossible to comprehend back in the GameCube’s day, and still hold up to even the most current games today. The only catch involved the use of black bars on the top and bottom of the screen in order to create a faux-widescreen effect (which would later be upgraded to true widescreen in its subsequent ports). The audio also features a grimier, almost Silent Hill-inspired soundtrack that focuses more on atmosphere than bombastic music; the voice acting is also well done, but is also concurrent to the more tongue-in-cheek atmosphere, featuring some of the most quotable and ham-fisted lines since “Jill Sandwich” (whether this was intentional or not remains a continuing debate).
With a longer-than-average length, not counting the slew of bonus modes upon completion (including an extra scenario that puts players in control of the enigmatic she-spy Ada Wong, along with The Mercenaries mini-game that features even more controllable characters), Resident Evil 4 is a truly thrilling experience that surprises you at every turn. What it lacks in scares it more than makes up for in palm-sweating action and overall fun. Regardless of what genre you feel it belongs in, there’s no denying that this is one of the greatest action titles of all time, creating a legacy that has yet to be topped, even with its following sequel.