Being a Resident Evil fan pre-2005 was a relatively satisfying, if somewhat predictable existence. For the majority of followers, it wasn’t exactly hard to second guess Capcom’s next effort: an inevitable viral outbreak, poor innocents becoming mindless walking corpses, and an armed-to-the-teeth hero heroine slogging through yet another nightmare. In terms of gameplay evolution, only a few incremental upgrades were brought to the table every few years, giving naysayers plenty of mud to sling at Capcom for perpetuating what many accused to be a rapidly decaying experience. And yet despite the series’ obstinate refusal to spread its wings beyond ‘90s horror conventions, it worked bloody well, with the franchise continuing to sell like hotcakes as fans lapped it up year after year. As a fan since 1997, I’ve no problem admitting I gobbled up each new title with supreme anticipation, while conceding the action remained an enjoyable, if slightly perfunctory survival-horror romp. However, this all changed when series mastermind Shinji Mikami, while developing the fourth entry in the lauded horror series, decided to take a chainsaw to a promising-looking beta and tear our pre-conceptions to bloody great chunks.
This was a totally disparate beast to what we had become accustomed to since ’96. Gone were the pre-rendered backgrounds, instead replaced by fully 3D locales and a behind-the-shoulder camera. Zombies? Out. Monotonous door/stair loading sequences? A thing of the past. Creeping around claustrophobic corridors scavenging for ammo? Not in this blast-a-thon. Yep, 2005’s Resident Evil 4 was a major shot in the arm for the series, and for me personally marked the point where Capcom bisected fan following into two distinct paths – those fond of the classic formula, and those who sided with this new direction. Indeed, this bifurcation sparked a bitchy rivalry between both camps, and one that continues even to this day. I’ll admit that I was part of the witch hunt that initially demanded Mikami’s head after turning my favourite survival horror fest into an all-out actioner. Nonetheless, its success could not be ignored, and it’s safe to say the game was responsible for attracting a new legion of fans, and putting plenty of dough in Capcom’s pockets to boot. This was Resident Evil, reinvented for a new generation, and now it’s been dug up and resurrected for the HD era on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. But with the rose-tinted glasses firmly off, how does 2005’s Game of the Year hold up under the scrutiny of 1080p specs?
RE4 kicks off in 2004, six years after the destruction of Raccoon City depicted at the conclusion of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. With the nefarious Umbrella Corporation now on its last legs, the action shifts from urban viral outbreaks to the remote countryside of Europe, where now-government agent Leon S. Kennedy is on a mission to rescue President Graham’s daughter, Ashley. Floppy-haired Kennedy – who players should remember from RE2 – arrives in a seemingly innocuous village, and, after having a quick (and almost fatal) chinwag with a local house owner, finds himself battling for his life against hordes of the settlement’s pitch-fork wielding residents. Lob that in the pot with a bucket load of claret, heaps of deadly weapons, a pinch of bad puns and a power hungry midget (you’ll see) and you’ve got the recipe for one of the most enjoyable, balls-to-the-walls action-horror fests of the past few years.
As mentioned previously, RE4 takes place from an over-the-shoulder perspective, making hitting enemy limbs a cinch. Bad guys come in all shapes and sizes, though Kennedy will mainly be getting into a ruck with infected villagers, cultists and military types. Regardless, the bread-and-butter combat is as visceral and satisfying as it was six years ago, making for some stomach-knotting battles. The rudimentary human baddies—known as the ‘Los Ganados’—aren’t really a threat in small numbers, but get a large group together and you’ll be fighting tooth and nail to survive. As with RE5, you’ll be able to utilize melee attacks on ‘stunned’ foes, as well as whip out a trusty combat knife for dire ammo situation. Three grenade types also show up, namely standard, incendiary and flash. Add all this up and there’s plenty of diversity to scraps, more so when you start coming up against tough buggers like the chainsaw-wielding Dr. Salvador, the insect-like Novistadors and the slobbering, humanoid Regenerators. And then there’s the bosses, many of which are impressive both aesthetically and from a gameplay perspective, requiring you to exploit a specific weak point in order to dispatch them, injecting a rewarding, strategic edge to the comparatively straightforward blasting of regular gun fights. Highlights include the water-bound Del Lago, a mammoth salamander-type beast that tows you around in a small boat forcing Leon to lob harpoons at its backside, and the lumbering, troll-like El Gigante that wouldn’t look out of place in J.R.R. Tolkien novel.
The controls may irk some, though anyone who has played RE5 won’t be in for any shocks. You’re still rooted to the spot when you aim, and you’ll need to hold down the X button to make Leon sprint. R1 readies your weapon, square shoots and that’s about all you need to know. It’s archaic by today’s standards, but manages to accentuate the fear factor without becoming too problematic—the fact Leon’s left side is effectively a blind spot had me constantly apprehensive to remain in one spot for too long. More unfortunate is the lack of an instant weapon swap option, as you’ll have to access your inventory—kitted out in the guise of an attaché case—to switch up weapons and other equipment. It’s a pain in the arse to say the least, and has a habit of occasionally breaking the immersion of a heated scrap.
As you press on through the game you’ll accumulate a fair bit of wealth, either by currency dropped from dead enemies or fishing around in numerous barrels, boxes and other item-giving objects. This can be spent at Merchants, where you can plonk down the cash for new guns, First-Aid Sprays, extra inventory space, and upgrade your existing weapons’ basic attributes such as shot power, reload speed and capacity. You can even flog various treasures you’ve collected to earn more dough, some of which can be kitted out with small jewels to increase their overall value. It’s an incredibly satisfying system, and there’s a fair amount of decision making on the player’s part; for example, do you keep your trusty standard Shotgun and spend your wealth pimping it out or cough up the cash for a shiny new Riot Gun? Needless to say, you’ll need to spend heaps of cash and a few play-throughs if you are to max out each and every gun on offer.
While it’s fair to say you’ll be spending copious amounts of time blowing holes in foes, there are still a couple of other distractions along the way. This is Resident Evil after all, so expect to solve a few riddles here and there. Then again, the phrase riddles might be giving them too much credit, as these elements are far from the cerebrally challenging puzzles of past games, requiring little more than shoving a key or elaborate object into the right lock/hole, and presto. There’s little sense of accomplishment to be had here, and while some puzzles do require a little more thought, it’s never anything too taxing. If anything, the riddles only seek to expose the game’s linearity, as these events rarely give you a chance to explore and investigate your surroundings , with key items largely placed inconspicuously in each area as a minor stop gap before your next blood-drenched gun battle. Those that do, however, offer a welcoming change of pace.
These sections, combined with various QTE sequences—which include everything from outrunning and dodging boulders during gameplay or saving Leon’s bacon during interactive cut-scenes—help to punctuate the meat-and-potatoes of gunplay immensely. Equally impressive are various set-pieces too, such as fending off hordes of marauding villagers from a small cabin, to an adrenaline-fueled mine cart ride. You’ll also have to protect Ashley at various points in the game, and Kennedy will have to help her out now and then by boosting her to higher terrain or catching her as she jumps off a platform. However, there’s no comprehensive partner system here; players can only issue barebones commands like ‘Follow Me’ and ‘Wait,’ and while she’s completely hopeless in a fight, you can easily have her hide in containers or simply cower behind Leon as he goes all Rambo on attacking enemies. Crucially, Ashley never outstays here welcome, as the whiny-voiced bint happens to be highly susceptible to enemy ambushes and traps every few chapters, meaning you’ll be flying solo for a nice chunk of the game.
Visually the game’s art direction certainly makes RE4 easy on the eyes, even if some of the textures are pretty wince-worthy up close – it’s evident that the HD makeover is better in some areas than others, which is a bit of a disappointment. Character models are the most obvious area to benefit from a 1080p paintjob, with the villagers in particularly looking even more warped and twisted after a bit of spit and polish. Fortunately, locations are still brimming with atmosphere, be it the moody and dilapidated village, the glowing aristocratism of Salazar’s castle or the tech-savvy Island labs. Not so pleasing is the game’s aural component, which comes off how I can only describe as very muffled and of poor quality. Cut-scenes are fine, but in-game dialogue and general sound effects aren’t as sharp as previous versions of the game (and I should know, having played the GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Wii editions). Interestingly, certain effects seem to be higher in the mix, so you’ll hear the rambling of cultists and ominous patter of distant footsteps as if they were right next to Leon, despite the fact they’re quite some distance away. It’s a little intrusive, and makes it exceedingly difficult to discern which enemies are nearby and those that aren’t. Meanwhile, the script is archetypal Resident Evil nonsense, though the performances themselves are actually quite decent, and make the most of the cliché narrative.
Resident Evil 4 is a pretty meaty package, and you get a lot of bang for your buck. Outside of the 12-18 hour campaign, there’s extra difficulty levels, new costumes for Leon and Ashley, bonus weapons (the Tommy Gun being a highlight) and two new mini-games—Assignment Ada and Separate Ways. The latter is like a bite-sized campaign in its own right, chronicling super spy Ada Wong’s exploits as she carries out missions for blonde baddie Albert Wesker in events that run concurrently to Leon’s adventure. New bosses crop up here, as well as new locations, weapons and cut-scenes, and you’ll still be able to gobble up an assortment of treasures and cash to spend on upgrades and equipment. Add all this up and you have what is possibly the most complete version of a game that’s admittedly been milked more times than I care to remember. Sure, there are a few flaws dotted throughout, and the HD revamp isn’t quite as polished as it should have been, but these issues are pretty inconsequential in the long run. At the end of the day, what you’ve got here is unequivocally one of the greatest action-horror outings of all time, and an absolute must-have for Resi fans and newcomers alike.