I peed my pants.
Until a few days ago, I would have described myself as anti-Resident Evil. I rented the first game in the series for PlayStation back when it was fairly new, played through most of it, and didn’t see what the fuss was about. Then I heard that the sequel was much better, so I rented that too. RE2 was an improvement in many ways, but I was still annoyed almost as much as I was entertained. With a considerable distaste for the series now established, I avoided the following sequels, even when the series went GameCube-“exclusive”. But the promise of many changes in RE4, along with its stunning real-time graphics, eventually made me decide to give it a shot. Thank goodness.
Resident Evil 4 is one of the best games on GameCube. It is also, if I may be blunt, the best looking console game of all time. It is its franchise’s redeemer. It is a masterpiece of video game storytelling. It is genuinely tense and occasionally even scary. It is one of the best action games ever released. It is worth buying a GameCube for.
With all of that out of the way, perhaps I can control my enthusiasm enough to expound upon the game’s merits in greater detail. RE4’s most urgent task was to fix this series, which had become stale and antiquated, the butt of many gamer jokes. Mission accomplished. The controls are relatively unchanged, but now work much better due to the new camera angle. The stupid zombies are completely gone, replaced by much faster and smarter Ganados, whose true nature I will not spoil. The save system has finally been relaxed, allowing for unlimited saves at any typewriter and at the end of each chapter segment. The endless inventory management has been tightened up considerably, thanks to a separate storage area for key items and the elimination of item storage boxes. And yes, the famously awful dialogue and voice acting are immensely improved, so much so that RE4 actually pulls off a convincing, involving storyline with some of the best cut-scenes I’ve ever seen. The dialogue is legitimately dramatic and, at times, (intentionally) funny.
Aside from all the individual improvements, RE4 just plays much better than any of its predecessors. The pacing is perfect. Scene after scene builds up tension, backed by chilling atmospheric music and unintelligible screams. RE4 does not lean on the crutches of scarce ammo and limited saves and poor control, as did its forebears. Its spookiness is honest, painstakingly mapped out and perfectly timed. Despite a few traces of genre formula, you really never know what’s coming next, or when it will come, and RE4 uses that to its advantage over and over again. Your only escape from this tension is to face your enemies head on, using the new and intuitive manual aim system to lay waste to the creeping marauders. Instead of destroying the game’s atmosphere, the heavy new emphasis on action actually makes the game more harrowing. The enemies are up in your face; you’ve got cool guns and plenty of ammo, but these guys are so tough and so numerous that you’re still freaked out. That especially goes for special enemies like the chainsaw man, who is scary as hell no matter what gun you’re holding.
While playing through this game, my friends and I developed a slogan: “No breaks.” That’s because the action is relentless, and even when you enter a cut-scene, you have to stay alert. RE4 has numerous interactive cut-scenes, sort of like the old Dragon’s Lair games. Buttons will very suddenly show up at the bottom of the screen, and you usually have about half a second to press them. If you don’t, it usually means a grisly death. Although it may seem like a cheap gimmick, it lets the game present detailed action scenes, such as a close-quarters knife fight, while still putting you in control. The buttons you need to press are somewhat random, too, so you have to pay close attention and be ready at all times. How’s that for atmosphere…even the cut-scenes are tense.
Manual aiming isn’t the only big change to the RE gameplay. Also new to the series is a merchant, who appears in various locations and is always ready to sell Leon new guns. He will also buy off valuable treasures and tune up your weapons to be more powerful. This all means that money is quite important, and you’ll want to search for it high and low. Leon’s gradual acquirement of more powerful weapons gives RE4 a simple but effective role-playing streak that fits right in with the series.
No review of RE4 would be complete without a ritual gushing over the game’s graphics. This is one astounding visual work. The key feature is hi-res textures, which are used liberally on nearly every object in the game. The textures are so detailed that you can walk up to a wall and just stare, marveling at the obsessive work put into it. The character models are extraordinarily complex, especially Leon’s, and they all animate with impressive realism thanks to extensive motion-capturing. Leon’s many context-sensitive actions all look fantastic, partially because each one is contained inside a tiny cut-scene that plays seamlessly into the action. All of this eye candy is pulled off without a single hitch in fluidity, excessive fogging, or horizon pop-in. How did Capcom manage to make a game engine so vastly superior to pretty much everything else on the GameCube? I’m almost afraid to ask.
Resident Evil 4 isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn close. Capcom has created a game that offers the total package; every facet of the game is so well done, so surprisingly polished, that you can’t help but be amazed while playing it. As a good friend of mine said, “It’s Zelda good.” I can’t think of any higher compliment.