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Resident Evil 4
Platform:GameCube (reviewed), PS2
Genre:Survival Horror
Release Date:Jan 2005 (GC), Oct 2005 (PS2)
Article Posted:March 2007

Resident Evil 4 was a big bet for Capcom. The Resident Evil series had become the company's primary franchise once Street Fighter had lost its momentum in the mid-Nineties. But by the end of that same decade, the Resident Evil games themselves had already started to become stale as well. Gamers were complaining, and not without reason, about quite a few things. The graphics style, pre-rendered backgrounds with a static camera was rapidly becoming outdated, the "human-tank" controls were unintuitive, the storylines and acting were sub-par. It felt like the series was running out of fresh ideas. Code: Veronica tried something slightly different by offering fully three-dimensional backgrounds, but players still had no control over the camera providing a poor solution to the existing problem.

Seeing that the future of their franchise depended on their first true sequel to 1999's Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (Code: Veronica, and Resident Evil 0 were considered spin-offs, and Resident Evil for the Gamecube was just a remake of the original), Capcom took the criticism seriously. So much so, that they started the game from scratch not once, but three whole times, to ensure that the finished product would live up their standards. Interestingly enough, the first abandoned version of Resident Evil 4 ended up as Devil May Cry on the Playstation 2, which went to become another one of Capcom's bestselling games and spawned a franchise of its own.

Back to Resident Evil 4 however, Capcom proved that they could in fact reinvent the tired formula of the RE games. Graphics became fully three-dimensional, the controls were changed to a much more intuitive scheme, the camera changed into a unique perspective, and the gameplay was filled with clever ideas. The end product feels radically different to any previous game in the series that you may have played. Not in a bad sense, mind you, as it still retains the elements that made the previous games so enjoyable, yet does away with all the annoying little things that plagued them.

The graphics are probably the first thing you will notice about the game. Although RE4 is not a recent release, as it was published in early 2005, it still looks astounding. Especially if your television supports progressive scan, then you are in for a treat. Everything, from the character models to the backgrounds is highly detailed. The only minor complaint would be some blurry textures here and there, something that is almost a Capcom trademark, but when the overall look of the game is so great, that is just minor nitpicking.

The sound of Resident Evil 4 is almost equally impressive as its looks. The music themes range from haunting to tense to anything in between, and always fit the action taking place on screen. The sound effects are also of high quality, gunshots are very realistic, and some of the noises made by some of your enemies will most likely startle you, at the very least. The only negative aspect of the game's sound is the voice-overs, which still feel overly B-movie-ish. Still, they are better than what was featured in the previous games, and miles away from the groan-inducing acting found in the first Resident Evil. In other words, there are no "I hope this is not Chris's blood" moments.

The atmosphere of RE4, as a result, is excellent. It is not as scary as the Silent Hill and Fatal Frame games, but it does not have to be. RE4 is a game that emphasizes action, but it is eerie and gloomy enough to keep you on your toes while playing, and there are still some scenes that will make you jump with fear. Especially when a certain something is after you... And the sounds it will be making while it is stalking you... Well, I think I will just let you experience that for yourselves.

The only thing that has the potential to spoil the atmosphere and your immersion into the game is the story and dialogs, even though we get to see the return of Resident Evil 2 stars, Leon Kennedy and Ada Wong. The story and dialog are bad even by Resident Evil standards. While there are several hints throughout the game of a deeper storyline and mystery, we never get to see much of it, and the end resolution just falls flat on its face. The dialogs fare no better. There are some unintentionally funny lines and some that just feel awkward and forced. This is slightly disappointing, but the game does place its emphasis on action over plot, and in light of all other improvements, this is something you might be willing to overlook.

The most important improvement in the game when compared to its predecessors, however, would be the gameplay. Previous installments were always the same in this area. You would enter a room, search for items, kill zombies using the exact same routine, over and over again. Even though that was entertaining to a point, it did get tedious after a while. That is not the case with this installment. You have a lot more options when it comes to fighting your opponents, especially with the addition of the new aiming system, which allows you to target specific body parts. You may try to aim for an enemy's head and hope for a clean headshot that will make their head explode (literally!), or shoot their arms so they will stop shooting at you for a while. You may also shoot their legs, and hit them with your knife while they are down, or perform a suplex on them. You may even use your environment to outright avoid your enemies for a short period of time if you need to reload. The sheer amount of options is staggering, and it ensures that you will never be bored fighting through the game's (numerous) battles. All of this however, would have been far less enjoyable if not for the all-new control system of RE4.

The previous RE games had been heavily criticized for their lackluster controls. RE4 is a radical departure from the previously used system, to such a degree that you may have problems playing a previous RE game again, because the controls are so much better this time around. The structure is intuitive and fluid. You always feel in control (pardon the pun) of your character's actions. No longer will that zombie be able to bite you because you could not turn fast enough. The camera also helps a lot with this, as it is fast and very responsive. It is also easy to manipulate so you can always have a clear view of things. The only thing that may bother you is the lack of a strafing option, but you learn to live without it after a while.

Speaking of enemies, gone are the slow-moving and mindless zombies of old. Your new enemies are seemingly normal villagers, who use weapons and even basic tactics, like surrounding you while you are trying to shoot one of them. They are hardly on the level of the AI found in Halo 2 or F.E.A.R., but it is a vast improvement over previous RE games. In fact, they may even catch you by surprise a few times with their actions. A subtle hint: If you ever, at any point, send something down a fiery pit of hot magma, do not try to gloat over its dead body. Trust me on this one. The only thing that may strike you as somewhat silly about your enemies is their occasional movement. If they are far in the distance, you will see them dashing towards you to bridge the distance, only to stop a few meters away from you and start walking casually again. It is hardly realistic, and almost embarrassingly funny to watch, but you do get used to it after a while. Not to mention that most of the time you will probably be too busy trying to kill them to notice how hilarious they sometimes look.

One word of caution would be that, unless action games are not really your specialty, if you are interested in the best gaming experience, you should play the game in the normal difficulty level, even if it seems too hard at first. Once you get used to the fighting system, you will have no real problems. The easy setting is far too simple. If you choose that you will lose some truly great moments of gaming. Do make a note to preserve ammunition, though, just do not be too stingy with it either, or you will end up like yours truly; at the end of the game, I had enough ammo to kill off an entire planet of ganados -the name of the villagers in the game.

It has to be said that Resident Evil 4 is a long game, by series standards. While previous installments took on average about 10 hours to complete, there are easily more than 20 hours of gameplay in RE4's two discs, regardless of the fact that the second disk feels much shorter than the first one. There is plenty to sink your teeth into here, and with a lot of boss battles to keep you entertained. Speaking of boss battles, another minor criticism on the previous RE games was the fact that the bosses were pretty typical, all you had to do was strafe and shoot. Yet again, RE4 marks a huge departure from that, since the vast majority of boss battles are really well designed and require you to use your brain as much as your reflexes. Sadly, the only exception to this would be the very final boss battle, which feels very formulaic, but then again nothing is ever perfect.

Which is to say, Resident Evil 4's greater asset is the fact that it has too few flaws. It is hardly flawless, but it is one of the rare cases where a game is polished to such a degree, it is obvious that a lot of care has gone in it.

All in all, Resident Evil 4 is easily the best installment of the franchise so far, even if it is a radical departure from its predecessors, and one of the best games in recent years. No fan of the action and survival-horror genres should be without this game.