By Marshall Garvey
Release date: January 11, 2005
Developers: Capcom Production, Studio 4
Genre: Survival horror
Mode: Single player
Systems: Gamecube, Playstation 2, Wii, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
The decision of which game to christen as my number one has eluded me for years. I of course don’t mean the undisputed “best of all-time” (a title I have enough trouble deciding with regards to film and music, where I’m substantially more knowledgeable than gaming), but rather what personal favorite I hold above all else. Even so, I realized the criteria should extend beyond merely appreciating a game personally and nostalgically. It should also encompass the game’s innovation, particularly if it’s in a genre that has a standard formula. The game should have an enrapturing atmosphere and feeling that stays with you even if it’s been years since you’ve played it. It should have strong characters and enemies to bolster both the story and the action. And if the game is part of a series, it should not only stand tall next to other installments, but also succeed as a standalone game and be accessible to newcomers. When all was said and done, there was one title that fit all of these qualifications and more unlike anything else: “Resident Evil 4.”
Indeed, seven years after picking it up during the slog of my junior year of high school, “Resident Evil 4” (or RE4 for short) remains such a dynamite experience that even familiar moments felt as challenging and invigorating as the first time around. Granted, this was hardly surprising, as many of the game’s most indelible scares and thrills remained fresh in my mind for reference even when I was far removed from playing it. And its aforementioned accessibility on its own is crucial to all this, for while RE4 doesn’t mark my only excursion in the realm of Umbrella, the rest of my exposure to the franchise (a brief spell borrowing the first from my cousin, mere minutes of playing RE5, and some playthroughs of “Umbrella Chronicles” acquired during a spendthrift mood at the mall) is decidedly limited. Of course, you don’t need familiarity with any “Resident Evil” canon, or even a single survival horror game for that matter. For anyone simply craving a challenging actioner, “Resident Evil 4” delivers an immensely fun dose of white-knuckle adrenaline that’s arguably unmatched in gaming history.
The story trades Raccoon City and the U.S. for a rural setting in Europe. Special agent (and former Raccoon City police officer) Leon S. Kennedy has been tasked with protecting the U.S. President’s family, just in time for the commander-in-chief’s daughter, Ashley Graham, to be kidnapped and whisked overseas by a mysterious cult to the countryside of Spain. While the Raccoon City zombie outbreak is now six years behind him, the memories of devastation and chaos are ever-present for Leon as he unravels the network behind Ashley’s kidnapping. He’s initially greeted by hordes of deranged peasants who adhere to a religious cult called Los Illuminados, who have locked Ashley up in a nearby church. He rescues her, only to encounter the cult’s demonic leader, Osmund Saddler. As it turns out, Saddler’s faith, assisted by local despot Ramon Salazar, has revived an ancient plague known as Las Plagas, which has been spread to the villagers through the water supply and other means.
This plague enables anyone carrying the virus to be subject to Saddler’s control, a terrifying reality for Leon and Ashley after they’re knocked unconscious and injected with a sample. Ashley’s kidnapped again, thus forcing Leon to race against time to rescue her before both permanently fall sway to the control of Saddler and the Illuminados. He receives occasional assistance, chiefly from the debonaire Spaniard Luis Sera, another ex-cop who works as a researcher for Saddler and seeks to create an antidote to the virus. Additionally, Leon’s former companions Ada Wong and Jack Krauser are also deeply involved in the matter, assigned to acquire a Plagas sample for Umbrella executive Albert Wesker. And of course, Saddler is intent on using the power of his virus and cult for world domination, and has no shortage of obstacles and creatures to stop Leon in his tracks.
Like many of the other best titles in video game history, RE4 excels in a multitude of respects. But the foundation of its success lies in its gameplay, which singlehandedly revolutionized the first-person shooter formula. In lieu of the standard first-person view, the camera is positioned in a third-person perspective behind Leon’s (and other characters’) shoulder, zooming in when the player aims. Additionally, the combat is far more open and intense than previous “Resident Evil” games, pitting the character in open areas with swarms of enemies likely to attack from all angles. But the game is far from a mindless, rote shoot-’em-up, mixing in a healthy dose of puzzles and a limited (but upgradeable) attache case of weapons and ammo that forces you to tactfully strategize how to deal with each scenario.
The innovation isn’t limited to gameplay proper. Even the cinematic cutscenes, often at unpredictable moments, will suddenly prompt the player to push buttons to interact with the action. Even those with the quickest reflexes will likely miss a few times, thus turning the scene into Leon and others’ demise. Granted, this feature is widely familiar now, but upon the game’s release you’d be hard-pressed to find a gamer who didn’t leave for a sandwich or bathroom break during a seemingly innocuous cutscene, only to return to the sight of the macabre “You Are Dead” screen engulfing their television. (Best summed up by this vintage gem of a video.)
As a result of the fluid gameplay and cinematics, “Resident Evil 4” is a masterpiece of pacing and action. The intensity of the battles, coupled with a balanced mixture of puzzles and changes of scenery, makes it an addicting play without ever being repetitive. Just as superb are the boss battles, which are as innovative as they are exhausting (Think you’re tops for beating a tree-wielding giant? Try taking down a massive Plagas fish using only hooks, or a blind, sharp-clawed dungeon beast named Garrador whose razors make Wolverine’s look like butter knives.). And with little reprieve, each level of RE4 hurls one insane scenario after another in its roughly 22 hours of gametime: Chainsaw-wielding elderly women, a minecart ride with Ganados constantly dropping in, outrunning a giant walking statue of Salazar, sniping Illuminados monks as they try to kidnap Ashley, and traversing a hive of invisible giant flying insects are but a few of the edge-of-your-seat detours in a bewildering ride.
Any action and horror game should feature a stellar lineup of characters, a necessity RE4 meets significantly well even though it’s less built around pathos and more around action than some of the premier survival horror games. Leon stands out as a charismatic lead hero, and is given a particularly impressive voice characterization by Paul Mercler (although a good number of his lines are cliched action hero clunkers). While Ashley is a prime example of the cumbersome companion during gameplay, her chemistry with Leon in the story is surprisingly genuine and grows on you as the game progresses. Luis Sera and Ada Wong provide robust support in their periodic appearances, while Saddler and Salazar are convincing antagonists (especially when they, er, embrace their inner Plagas…).
No one, however, approaches the level of entertainment brought by the bizarre weapons merchant (known most popularly as simply the Merchant). Cloaked in a black trench coat loaded with odds and ends, he inexplicably (but thankfully) shows up everywhere with weapons, healing aids, and upgrades for Leon. Better yet, he bellows every line with a hoarse Cockney accent, in such a manner that elicits endless imitation. After playing a spell, don’t be surprised if you start yelling out “Strangaaaahhh!!!”, “What are ya buyin’?”, “What are ya sellin’”, and “Come back at anytime!” at opportune moments. (Take the imitation too far, however, and you could very well have a run-in with the law.)
Even better than the human characters is the enemies gallery, which with no disrespect to “Silent Hill” may be the best in survival horror history. The most common are the Ganados, the rural peasant villagers under the control of Sadler and the Illuminados cult. Even more terrifying are the Los Illuminados monks themselves, a cult of porcelain-white zealots who walk around slowly and utter morbid chants endlessly. (On a bonus note, these enemies buck the trend of RE4 being yet another zombie game, as they’re infected with a living, centrally-controlled virus rather than simply being undead.) Nothing, however, will send a pure, unbridled jolt of fear through your system like the Regenerators. Not only are they first discovered in decrepit experimental labs reminiscent of an “Alien” film, but their presence is marked by a creepy breathing noise. Even worse are their kindred spirits dubbed Iron Maidens, who have all the same traits while also covered in sharp spikes that can instantly extend a great distance. Oh, and did I mention they can both instantly regrow any limbs you shoot off and keep stalking you like the T-1000 with asthma?
Likewise, the game packs a chilling atmosphere that’s augmented by meticulous detail and carefully designed environments. Even almost a decade later, the scenery throughout is impressive. From the overcast Ganados village and church to the gothic interiors of Salazar’s castle to the horrific science labs on the last island, each setting builds on the last and creates just the right feeling of suspense and dread. Consequently, “Resident Evil 4” manages to be genuinely frightening even when the scares are easily predictable. A perfect demonstration of this comes in a sidequest with Ashley (during the only time she’s playable) that requires her to foray deep into a dark tomb with no lights, and rows of ominous knight statues lining the walls. It doesn’t matter how much you prepare yourself for the inevitable after grabbing the token item in the dungeon; you’ll need a moment to compose yourself before turning back to face that sudden clanging of metal in the dark.
Playing “Resident Evil 4” fresh for this Hall of Fame review (and an unofficial coronation as my #1 game), I realized that my critique would feel insufficient in several regards. First, it’s simply such a resplendent game that were writing not a task based on restraint, I would be tempted to devote even more passages to its innumerable strengths. Second, covering it relatively close to its 10th anniversary next year, it would be fitting to assess how it compares to its oft-reviled successors RE5 and RE6. (I’m aware of some of the decisive shortcomings of RE5, but will leave it to a reviewer who’s played it extensively to properly assess it.) But as stated earlier, “Resident Evil 4” succeeds so impeccably on its own that one doesn’t need to fret over sequels and prequels to fully grasp it. Hell, in a time when the gaming market continues to glut and gamers spend exorbitant amounts for repetitive and sometimes inferior sequels, it’s a game worth buying and re-buying for every system you can play it on. Quoth the enigmatic Merchant himself, “Aaaahhhh! I’ll buy it a HIGH price!”
Author’s note: I based this review on playing the Playstation 2 version. I note this for two reasons. First, this release came months after the game’s original debut on Gamecube, and includes a separate campaign entitled “Separate Ways,” where the player fulfills Ada Wong’s role in the plot (in addition to other bonus modes, all later ported to the PC and Wii versions). Second, many prefer the Wii version above all for aiming purposes. In any event, the game simply needs to be experienced regardless of which console one chooses.
Original E3 trailer for the game, 2004: