Review: Resident Evil 4

Publisher: Capcom | Developer: Capcom | System: GameCube | Genre: Action

The Resident Evil series has been one of the defining franchises of the post-Sony era in gaming. If the original PlayStation marked the time when consoles came out of the kid’s bedrooms and into living rooms across the world, few games have been as indicative of that change as Capcom’s baby, the seminal “survival horror” game. Many people will cite the time that the dog jumped through the window in the original RE as one of the key moments in their gaming life, when they realised that there was more to games than the cutesy platformers that flooded the 16-bit market.

What’s ironic is that as times have moved on, expectations have changed, and this former revolutionary has been stuck in the past, clinging to what many felt was an outdated formula. Dual-analogue setups have given us fluid controls that make the human tanks of the RE series seem every bit as ungainly as they are, and the token gestures for the sake of progress – a quick turn here, a dodge button there, maybe some polygonal backgrounds – have only served to highlight the need for an overhaul.

Original Image © GameSpot

Whereas the other games in the series, good as they were, made these small concessions to progress, RE4 is one of the most fundamental updates to a popular series that I’ve ever seen. Leaving the gameplay as it was would have sold and gained acceptable reviews, but Capcom elected instead to start almost from scratch. Zombies? Gone. Umbrella? Gone. Tank controls? Gone. It’s been updated to the point where the few remaining hallmarks of the series – herb mixing, typewriters (minus the need for a ribbon for every save), cheesy dialogue – feel almost anachronistic. If it wasn’t for the name and some of the characters I doubt you’d even make the link between this and the rest of the RE canon.

Change is all well and good, but is the game actually any good? Thankfully, yes. Capcom have delivered what is possibly one of the finest action games ever made, and a definite early contender for Game of the Year. From start to finish (around 15 hours) the game gives almost relentless action that feels constantly fresh, and indeed repeated plays with the various unlockables are almost a requirement as the same encounter can play out completely differently on a second run. The new perspective that allows you to stay constantly attached (both literally and figuratively) to Leon and get right into the pinpoint accuracy of the combat only serves to highlight how tired the old fixed perspective and pre-rendered backdrops were.

The focus has clearly been shifted from the atmospheric horror of previous games into the action genre, as scares take a back seat. Off-hand I can only really think of one moment that was played for shocks and although the atmosphere is often macabre and oppressive, the abundance of ammo means that you rarely feel overwhelmed. If anything the game’s greatest flaw is that combat can seem to be a glorified shooting gallery with endless enemies to drop with a shot to the knee followed by a quick blast or three to the head. That perhaps sounds more negative than it should because such consistently exciting combat is rare in a game, but I’m having to clutch at straws to find anything of note to criticise.

Original Image © GameSpot

Graphically the game is astounding, and proves that there is still a lot to be found in the GameCube hardware. The amount of detail in the environments approaches that of previous RE titles and I can’t recall a single instance of slowdown, even amongst copious effects, architecture, and enemies. I have a feeling that when we see the PS2 port we’re going to be shown just how underused the GC actually is, because there’s simply no way that Sony’s console will be able to handle it. My only complaint that the widescreen viewing area, I suspect as much an allowance to hardware limitations as artistic integrity and peripheral vision, doesn’t support a true anamorphic display. The game still looks great on my widescreen TV but the detail loss in zooming it in is obvious and very occasionally distracting.

With the new Legend of Zelda game to follow RE4 later in the year, the GameCube could yet outshine the expected graphical might of the Xbox 2 to be the console to watch in 2005. It may not have the volume of games, but if there is more to come that even approaches the quality of RE4 it’s going to be worth digging it out of the cupboard or spending that ?90 that you’ve been sitting on.

5 Stars