Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 does away with all preconceived notions of the Survival Horror genre. Fast moving, intelligent enemies who can adapt to your every move replace the series' staple of slow moving zombies. The action varies from careful sniping to in-your-face, and the way you choose to deal with any encounter is up to you. In the midst of it all, cinematic cutscenes interwoven with gameplay and rich environments are seamless enough to make you forget that this is in fact, a videogame. For the first time in ages, a Resident Evil game actually feels like surviving through a horror movie.

Having been someone who gave up on the Resident Evil series after the second game, I was skeptical about RE4. Capcom has been known to rehash their most popular games and Resident Evil was no exception. Resident Evil was the Street Fighter II of its genre. Numerous spin-offs, builds, and alterations were done to the first game. Despite what they really were, they were playable and we bought them all. For those reasons I expected RE4 to be a Devil May Cry sheep in lion's clothing.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine just couldn't stop talking about RE4. As I attempted to decode his excited descriptions, I looked for a possible loophole – there always has to be some kind of catch – because no game can really be that good. Instead, what he described was a game where just about anything was possible. Surely this behaviour was the typical buzz that comes from playing a shiny new game. It would be over in a week.

A week later he was still going.

"My foot got caught in a bear trap."

"A bear trap?"

"If you're not looking, the girl you're babysitting can get her foot stuck in one, too."

I shrugged. "Sounds exciting."

"You have to watch her or else she gets carried away by monsters."

"Then it's game over?"

"No, then Leon can shoot the legs of the people carrying her away."

I grimaced at the visuals my mind painted. Having the absolute worst skill in shooting games, I naturally imagined what would happen if I was playing.

"What if you shoot her by mistake?"

"It happens."

My grimace became a smirk. "Awesome." I was sold.

The torch has since passed and now it's my turn to reassure you that this is as good as horror gaming gets.

RE4 takes place in a fictional remote area of Europe. The game opens with some light Spanish guitar music in the background as you, Secret Agent Leon Kennedy, are being driven by two of the local Policia to a small village in search of the President's kidnapped daughter. In traditional horror film style, one of the officers remarks that it's cold. Too cold. The camera instantly switches focus and you see the officer from another perspective; through the eyes of whatever is spying on him from behind the bushes. It's moving at an inhuman speed, cracking twigs in its path, getting closer and closer. The officer senses something amiss and looks directly into the camera for a few seconds. The camera stays eerily still in response, as though the lurking predator has been seen. The officer then turns away, dismissing everything as his own imagination. This opening sequence encompasses RE4's take on horror. Something is always out there, waiting.

Armed with a handgun, Leon enters the murky village and the game instantly thrusts you into the action. The moment you make a noise, diseased looking men and women are shouting in Spanish and pointing in your direction. Within seconds they're chasing at you with farming tools and you realize that this handgun isn't going to hold them off. You find shelter in a house, but in a scene taken from Michael Jackson's Thriller they're already trying to tear down the doors and windows to get in. You push furniture in front of the doors and windows, run up the stairs and are relieved to find a Shotgun – a weapon with enough firepower to keep masses of intruders at bay. A window breaks, a ladder outside is lifted, and the roar of a chainsaw is heard over the constant stream of Spanish curses as every possible entry point to the house is clogged with murderous people. Your ammo is dwindling so you try to be more creative and make each shot count. Defeat is inevitable. Knowing at this point in the game that players are still adjusting to the camera and controls, the action sequence abruptly ends at the sound of a bell. The streams of enemies stop what they were doing and you let out the long breath you didn't know you were holding in. The game's title graphic is then displayed onscreen as if to say, "All that was nothing, the real game is starting now."

Most players will find RE4 to be more fun than scary. This is reflected in the anti-climactic storytelling but it hardly detracts from the overall experience. The game is more action oriented – not to be confused with mindless action – and requires thinking on your feet. Weapons are your tools; it's your personal preference and judgement that determines the right ones to upgrade and use. RE4 is not about systematically mowing down an army of enemies, it's about how you manage your resources, how you make use of your environments, how you deal with the problems presented.

There are many ways to dispatch enemies and there are equally as many ways for Leon to meet his demise. Understanding your surroundings is a key factor to survival, and RE's dazzlingly realistic locations are as varied as it gets. Each area is designed as part of a whole, making the game a small, albeit crazy, world with its own rules. Each new enemy is introduced in a way that surprises, yet allows you to figure them out. You will get to know your enemies' behaviors, recognize their sounds, and learn their weaknesses because eventually you will be met with dozens of them at a time. The same goes for bosses, each has a pattern that can be found and adapted to. Adapting to patterns and learning the ropes in RE does not feel like exploiting, as the challenges are constantly increasing at a rate that keeps you playing as best you can. If anything, RE4 is a liberating experience for both Action and Survival Horror enthusiasts.

RE4 fixes many of the problems that plagued the series and deterred casual gamers. No longer are players running on empty or frustrated by being unable to pass a particularly hard battle. Previously in RE, players would be low on ammunition, recovery items and even the ability to save their game (an item was required). RE4 has a constant supply of items dropped by enemies or left lying around to loot. As Leon would say about the weapons, "there's enough to start a small war". Should your playing skill be higher than average, the amount of items made available will slowly decrease as you play further. RE4 also introduces the new feature of Continue Points, where instead of being reverted to an earlier Save Point (Save Points are numerous and no longer need items) upon death, you are placed at the beginning of the very scene you left off at. Likewise, if part of the game is too difficult and many Continues were needed, the game adjusts its difficulty so that you're able to move on.

Once the pace picks up, RE4 rarely slows down. The time spent in the menu screen has been shortened from the previous RE games, keeping your focus on the action. Items are often sorted automatically and using key items, such as finding the correct crest to open a door, no longer needs the menu to be accessed. Any puzzles that your character may come across can be solved by simple guesswork or a few button presses. In the RE of yore, doing any puzzle for the first time could take 10 minutes or longer. It's made obvious that RE4's puzzles are cheeky nods to the game's predecessors. Little time is spent guessing where to go next, as a ready-made map outlines where everything is. Although knowing takes away from some of the surprise, there's an easy solution to the easy map – don't look.

Speaking of what you can see, RE4 introduces a new camera system that follows your character. It gives you a fair idea of what lies ahead and what your character is doing. Getting used to the camera is well worth your time, because it eliminates some of the most hated aspects of the older RE games: confusing controls and obscured camera angles that can lead to cheap shots from the enemies. The RE4 controls fit like a glove; your character will be doing exactly what you want before you know it. This includes controlling Ashley, the character who you must protect for certain portions of the game. Although mostly helpless, she may point out incoming enemies, give a few hints, or shout to let you know where she is. Thankfully she's as obedient as a dog – there's no worry of her wandering into danger unless you order her.

There remains to be many differences between the Playstation 2 and GameCube versions of RE4. On the surface they are nearly identical games but the PS2 menus are not as clean, some sound effects are fuzzy, some graphics have jagged edges on close-up, and the controls have lost that lovin' feeling. The PS2 cutscenes are now pre-rendered movie files instead of realtime, which leads to characters always being displayed in their default costumes during such scenes. Loading times for the PS2 version are noticeably higher; there are new loading pauses for areas that never had any, and slight pauses when doing certain tasks. Nevertheless, both games are evened out as the PS2 offers more extras, true widescreen and progressive scan.

The extras of Resident Evil 4 are enough to make the game a worthwhile investment. Finishing the main game once unlocks minigames and new costumes for the main game. One of the extra games, The Mercenaries, is an action-packed shooting game that tests your playing skills to the limit. Each new character must be unlocked, enough to keep players busy for hours on end. The other extra, Assignment Ada, is a short game where Ada must collect samples and fight a boss. By mastering the minigames, players unlock godly weapons for the main game. The newly added costumes available only for the PS2 are interesting to say the least: a Chicago gangster outfit (including more references to Michael Jackson) for Leon and medieval armor (making babysitting a breeze) for Ashley.

The one feature that makes the Playstation 2 version shine is an extra game titled Seperate Ways. In a similar fashion to RE2 – where 6 years ago, Leon and Claire traversed Raccoon City separately – the main game of RE4 is seen from another side. As Ada Wong, you play the role of a double agent spy who must carry out her objectives while assisting Leon without anyone, including him, knowing. A far cry from Leon's all-American steak-loving do-good character, Ada's true intentions and identity remain shrouded in secrecy.

The object of Leon's star-crossed affections in RE2, Ada was thought dead until the end of the game, where a shadowy figure of the femme fatale rescued him. The ending is mirrored in RE4, leading one to believe that there's much more to Ada than we will ever know. Various questions left unanswered by the main game are explained by this extra game, and it is very possible that the mysterious organization Ada works for will be revealed in future RE games. Although her motives are questionable, Seperate Ways proves without a doubt that Ada has a sense of justice and goes out of her way to act on it – she just isn't supposed to. It's also worth noting that for the longest time she was gaming's unsung heroine. The staff at Capcom realized her potential and decided to expand on it. With RE4's release, Ada Wong outclassed big names such as Lara Croft and Samus Aran at G4TV's Videogame Vixens.

Seperate Ways boasts several additions that make it a game of its own. Newly directed cutscenes and voice tracks have been recorded for Ada, Luis Sera and Albert Wesker. Although they were key characters in the storyline, their roles were mostly unexplained and neglected in the main game. Accompanying the voices are new music tracks, sound effects and a completely new area created just for the game. This is not to be confused with Assignment Ada, a mostly non-canonical bonus game that limits Ada's actions to hit and run tactics. Like the main game, Seperate Ways can be replayed and inventory from previous games can be reused. This coincides with the image that players are given of the story's Ada: a capable woman with a vast array of 007 worthy gadgets and whose espionage skills surpass that of even Leon. Ada's character represents only one of the ways that RE4 travels the thin line between cliché and innovation.

At a time where games are defined as either flops or blockbusters, Capcom's years of experimenting to flesh out the Survival Horror genre have finally paid off. Resident Evil 4 may not be a family game but don't let that stop you from making the game a spectator sport. An audience can enjoy the game just as much as a player; even heighten a player's experiences. Potentially frightening moments are punctuated by the music suddenly picking up – that potential increases when someone else screams the time-old, "behind you!" causing you to jump out of your seat because something was behind you. RE4 is a universally entertaining game that grabs everyone and never lets go. The only question is: Are you a bad enough dude to save the President's daughter?

Game Data
Title: Biohazard 4
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom, Ubisoft
Platform: GameCube, Playstation 2
Release: 2005

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