"To most people, Resident Evil 4's very existence is surprising, even moreso that it came out for PS2. Coming in at the tail end of what had so far been a consistent series of flops (except for possibly the remake of Resident Evil 1 on the GCN), no one really expected Resident Evil 4 to be that great - until they actually played it and saw that Capcom finally learned from their previous mistakes. "
To most people, Resident Evil 4's very existence is surprising, even moreso that it came out for PS2. Coming in at the tail end of what had so far been a consistent series of flops (except for possibly the remake of Resident Evil 1 on the GCN), no one really expected Resident Evil 4 to be that great - until they actually played it and saw that Capcom finally learned from their previous mistakes.
The main difference between Resident Evil 4 and every other RE game is the focus of the game. All the prior Resident Evils concentrated on using cheap visual scares that just weren't scary. Sadly, it took eight games spanning two generations of consoles for the developers to understand that no one wanted another washed-up flop of a survival horror game, they wanted the good stuff - Silent Hill and Fatal Frame. RE4 eschews the cheap horror for action and gore, and manages to bring it together and make it work.
RE4's magic begins at the very start of the game. After skipping the boring cutscene with irrevelent plot information, you watch as Leon, a special agent from the US government sent to Spain to find the President's daughter, gets dropped off by a police van at a poverty-stricken Spanish village. You lead Leon into a small hut, and watch as he questions a villager - who promptly grabs a pitchfork and starts shambling twoards Leon with all the speed and grace of an eighty year old with Parkinson's. Blasting the villager in the head with Leon's pistol elicits not much more than a scream from the enemy. Only after you've emptied an entire pistol clip into the enemy's face does it fall over and melt into a puddle of bubbling ooze. The game progresses, and just as you start getting bored of picking off villagers with your pistol, in comes another villager - this one with red eyes. You stick to the usual pistol blast to the head, and eventually the villager's head explodes. It's all good until the headless body sprouts a tentacled parasite and charges at you - such unexpected events are what gives RE4 a great atmosphere without having to rely on cheap scares.
Resident Evil 4 also adds in a new system for weapons - buying and upgrading. Rather than just magically finding a shotgun before a huge monster comes out (ala every other RE), you go to a red-eyed merchant with a bad Australian accent and buy one using money obtained from killing enemies or from finding and selling treasure. The reason this system is so great is because it theoretically allows a player to go through a game with the weapons they like, rather than limiting them to the weapons that still do damage to enemies, as seen in the previous games. Sadly, there are not very many weapons in the game, even including the ones obtained after beating the game once - there's only a handful of weapons to choose from on the first playthrough, and most of them are exactly alike, except for a slight variation in their starting stats. The weapons do lend some degree of replayability, however, as it's impossible to fully upgrade every weapon on the first playthrough, and there are other unlockable weapons that come from finishing the game and the extras.
Another definite plus to RE4's gameplay is the multiple paths you can take through the game, and the dynamic difficulty that changes those paths. For instance, one of the paths you can choose in the first area leads to a rehash boss fight against El Gigante, a hulking mammoth of a zombie. Most first-time players would groan and fight the thing again, wasting much of their ammo. What those first-time players don't know is that instead of fighting the monster, you can shoot one of the locked doors open and proceed on without ever wasting a single bullet on Gigante. Another perfect example is a room in the Castle that drops a cage around Leon, and puts a giant blind monster with claws that would put Wolverine to shame in with him. At first, your only option seems to be dispatching the claw monster as quickly as possible, but a second glance reveals an easier way - shooting the lock on the cage door and giving yourself more room to fight the beast. However, there's another beauty to this - if you die enough times, you'll go into the room and the giant claw monster will be replaced by some cultists, resulting in a much easier fight. RE4 is full of this sort of thing, which makes it far easier on first-timers to the RE series but still rewarding to those who have figured everything out.
One of the only things wrong with RE4 is a very small issue - the controls. Leon can't actually move and shoot, he has to aim and take potshots. The problem with this is that in aiming mode you turn very, very slow. Naturally, this causes problems where you'll find yourself blasting a zombie in the head, only to have one come up behind you and you can't turn fast enough to kill it before it hits you. Also, the controls for the knife are so bad that they make it practically useless, because like the guns you cannot move and attack. There are many situations where the knife could have been useful, but Leon's inability to move and attack ruins it.
Aside from the controls, there is only one other kink in the entire game - Ashley. For about half the game, you get stuck dragging her around, and she's completely and utterly worthless. She can't fire a gun, she can't do much of anything, and her AI blows. Supposedly you have total control because she either follows directly behind you or stops when you tell her to, even hiding in various environmental objects if you so desire. The problem is, she just winds up getting in the way, or causing you to lose for no reason. Take, for instance, the first part of the Castle area. You'll probably wind up leaving Ashley behind - which makes sense to do. You go up and destroy every cultist that's dumb enough to cross your path, and then eliminate a bunch of cultists manning giant flame-spitting catapults. Then, somehow, the cultists grab Ashley, and there's nothing you can do but lose because she's halfway across the map. Even worse is when you inadvertently forget to tell Ashley to stop, and she wanders into the middle of a firefight. Instead of showing decent AI and maybe running away, she just sits there, even if she's directly in your line of fire. But by far the worst part about Ashley is how annoying she is - when she's not jumping in front of your shotgun she's screaming for help in a pitch that would make Ocarina of Time veterans run for cover.
One of the main complaints before RE4 was released for the PS2 was that the graphics would be crap, because of the difference in graphics processing power between the Gamecube and the PS2. Fortunately, this complaint is null, because RE4 still looks great on the PS2. Sure, it doesn't look quite the same as it did on Gamecube, and there are parts where it shows - many a time you'll come across jaggies caused by the fact that Capcom was too lazy to leave in any kind of antaliasing. Still, the visuals manage to retain their purpose of keeping up the atmosphere. The best example of the game's visuals has to be when you play for just a moment as Ashley, who has to sneak through several rooms and has a very difficult time killing the same enemies that Leon can dispatch in two hits. She goes down into the basement, past all these huge suits of armor. The cellar is pitch black, and Ashley's flashlight barely works. She does a couple simple puzzles, and just as she grabs the item she needs, the suits of armor suddenly come alive as you run past them. They don't attack (yet) but they add a suitably creepy feel to the whole area. Such displays are commonly seen all around, and definitely add to the atmosphere.
RE4's sound is quite noteworthy for doing exactly what it should - adding to the creepy feeling the entire game has. The best example of this is the Regenerators - tall, lanky grey humanoids that regenerate as fast as you can blow their limbs off. Before you even see a Regenerator, you'll know it's there, because of their heavy breathing. The visual cues work perfectly with the audio - the breathing gets closer and closer until you turn around and see a giant monster about to strangle Leon.
Most gamers know that just about every Capcom game has things in it that require a second playthrough - from Super Dante in the Devil May Cry games to the hidden characters in Viewtiful Joe. The problem is, very few people bother to actually beat the game on every difficulty just to unlock some pointless extras - it simply isn't worth the time, something RE4 changes completely. After you beat the game the first time, you unlock three new modes - The Mercenaries, Assignment Ada, and Separate Paths (which is unique to the PS2 version). The Mercenaries turns the ammo-deprived RE4 into an all-out killfest starring RE characters both past and present. Separate Paths and Assignment Ada both view the game from the eyes of Ada Wong, a returning character from Resident Evil 2. Remarkably, Ada's game is completely different from Leon's - Ada has very weak weapons and not much ammo, causing most of her game to be spent running from the monsters rather than killing them. Added together, the extras add as much gameplay time as the main game itself.
Resident Evil 4 is, simply put, the best game of 2005. If you can't afford the "new game" price tag on the PS2 version, go ahead and get the GameCube one, they're virtually the same, except for the extras added in the PS2 version. At any rate, it's a must-buy.
Community review by timrod (November 18, 2005)
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