To quote The Mighty Boosh‘s Hitcher: “Elements of the past and the future combining to make something not quite as good as either.” That pretty much sums up the current trend of the Resident Evil series. But there was a point in 2005 when it took a U-turn, that not only surpassed (in my eyes) its predecessors’ survival horror roots, but has never come close to topping with subsequent releases: Resident Evil 4.
Let’s start with the bad: Resident Evil 4’s plot is a giant cliché, and sees Leon S. Kennedy (of Resident Evil 2 fame) on a mission to locate and rescue the president of the United States’ daughter – Ashley Graham – who has been kidnapped and spotted in a remote region of Spain. Not an original set up, admittedly, but neither was Mario Galaxy‘s ‘Looks like he took her again’. This is – for the most part – about the gameplay, and what it offers puts it up there as one of the (if not the) best game of the last generation.
Fixed camera angles of days past are out of the window, as the game’s camera rests on Leon’s shoulder. At first impression it seems quite clunky and awkward to control, but after a short familiarisation, you realise the controls couldn’t be better suited. And while action is now the main focus, the restrictive movement heightens the tension that is so abundant in the game. Picture running away from a giant Lord of the Rings‘-esque brute – an El Gigante – not knowing how close or far from the creature you really are. Or dodging a centipede-like boss in a confined, burning barn – hoping you have just enough time to turn and shoot.
While I found Resident Evil 5 to be lacking in actual moments of ‘horror’ (not to say that there aren’t), 4 balances the tense action of 5 with the outright ‘shit-your-britches’ fright of the original survival horrors. Even after countless play-throughs, I still dread walking through a certain laboratory, hearing the shuffling, emphysema-like sound of the Regeneradors (an amalgamation of Nosferatu and John Carpenter’s The Thing) as they amble towards you (slowly yet disturbingly quickly, too). Another moment sees you trapped in a cage with an abomination known only as ‘It’ (God knows if I’ve seen that in a film). You are left to dodge its pincers as you frantically search for a way out. There are too many moments like this to mention within the article, though I would like to point out how perfect the ambience/music is in getting your adrenaline pumping – somewhere between a David Firth Fat-Pie animation and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.
The enemies of the game are truly a love letter to Lovecraft design. Zombies are replaced by Ganados (and yes, you’ll learn a word or two of Spanish along the way). Ganados are men and women infected by parasites, known as Las Plagas. This means they are intelligent and much faster than their brain chomping cousins – they’ll dodge bullets, rush towards you, wield various weapons, open doors and even hoist ladders up. The game gradually introduces you to different hosts of the Las Plagas, from dogs to giant insects (one unnerving scene portrays the creatures in their true form, as one bursts forth from the head of a Ganados). Creature design has always been – for the most part – excellent in the Resident Evil series, and it doesn’t falter here.
Resident Evil 5 saw a co-operative system that worked (excellently) when playing with a real-life friend, and became an annoying hindrance in single player (go ahead, take my much needed ammo). I would say a good third of 4 is spent with the aforementioned president’s daughter, Ashley. Ashley – as a tagalong NPC – isn’t too bad. While accidentally shooting her can be frustrating, and enemies will carry her away at the next opportunity, it is part of the game mechanic, and it works well as a whole. A small and excellent section of the game sees you control Ashley – defenceless and without Leon to back her up – in more of a puzzle based role, which harks back to the Resident Evils of old.
The only aspect of Ashley I find unnecessary – almost in an embarrassing way – is the over sexualisation of her character, either through cheesy dialogue (the contradicting ‘ballistics’ comment, in stark contrast to her ‘overtime’ suggestion) or the unlockable costume, which gives her (and I’m coining this) ‘camel-balls.’
Now back to the Mighty Boosh‘s Hitcher, mentioned at the beginning of the article; imagine if this odd fellow sold munitions to you, and imagine you could upgrade said munitions with various treasures you’ve discovered along the way. This is the Merchant – a shrouded cockney of many quotes (see the title of this piece). It is the inclusion of treasure hunting and weapon upgrades that will bring you back for a second play-through (or even third), and much like the Las Plagas, it is infectious. There is a lot to unlock here (the Las Plagas ‘removal’ gun is so worth that teeth clenching run-through on professional).
When it comes to picking a version, the Wii’s precision controls cannot really be beaten (although some might argue that they detract from the shaky, tense aiming of the analogue stick), while a common criticism thrown at the HD remake on 360/PS3 is – ironically – that the HD graphics accentuate its dated textures. Either way, you can’t really go wrong with whichever version you pick up.
Resident Evil 4 is a blast from start to finish, and you’ll find yourself coming back for more. It’s rare to find such a well-crafted game in (almost) every aspect: it’s Resident Evil’s crowning achievement. And if you are unlucky enough not to have played it before, the answer to the Merchant’s question, “What are ya buyin’?” should be pretty self-explanatory…