Resident Evil 4 (PC) review
"Resident Evil 4 might be a carefully balanced, ingeniously designed and admirably self-assured game, but on the PC it's a woeful, miserable, inconceivable mess of code. It's very possibly, depending on your mindset, nestled within the highest echelon of videogame design - but it's an experience tailored only for the consoles. On a computer, it's often barely playable, which is more troubling than a village full of zombified religious extremists could ever be."
It's worth prefacing by saying that Resident Evil and I aren't exactly on good terms.
Brief commentary on the nature of reviewing, then. The strange thing about gaming journalism is that there's an assumption of a "correct" judgement. This, inevitably, is because we also assume there's a correct approach. Ultimately, though, it's unrealistic to expect everyone's tastes to be quantifiably equal, even within a single area. Is it really so unreasonable to suggest that a survival horror fan might not be entirely engrossed by one of the great pillars of the genre?
It's from this perspective that I approached the early Resident Evil franchise. Survival horror - good. Resident Evil - not so much. So with the fourth iteration's notorious shift away from the - let's face it - somewhat clunky mechanics of its predecessors, the arrival of a PC version grabbed my interest.
Immediately, it's different. Gone are the cinematic camera trickery and lush, two-dimensional, pre-painted backdrops. Replacing them are a fully 3D environment, an over-the-shoulder perspective, and a more obviously action-oriented design structure. It's also largely outdoors, in broad daylight, and there's not a traditional zombie in sight.
Most impressively, the tension remains. The new camera means you'll often see enemies from a great distance, as they skulk around before noticing you, then slowly begin to edge their way forwards. It's still intentionally clumsy, in that readying a weapon, aiming it and firing it is a lengthy process, but now it feels fairer, more sensible. Resident Evil 4 isn't restrictive in the same ways as before; it's restrictive in a more tangible sense. You don't reload your gun in a split-second because, well, you don't reload guns in a split-second. No longer is wrestling with the camera and controls the primary source of the suspense - it's the actual, reasonable methodology of preparing for a fight that keeps the heart racing.
Hordes of drooling enemies surround you at any given opportunity, far more so than before. After lurching forward for a while, they break into a sprint, chasing you with pitchforks and shotguns and whatever else they can lay their grubby palms on. It teases you into playing as a twitch-shooter, but it won't let you. It won't shift from its slow, sluggish, real-life pace. It's extremely effective, and means that Resident Evil 4 never has to rely on cheap shock tactics to deliver its palpable fear. It's just something that hangs in the air, berating you at every moment with the knowledge that, in a very real sense, you might not be quick enough next time.
Still, there's a feeling that the same result could have been achieved through slightly refined methods. For example, though not being able to run and shoot isn't anywhere close to being a deal-breaker, you find yourself wondering why Capcom didn't just drastically reduce your aiming skills while on the move. Actually being forbidden from firing a shot as you run is something that might make sense from the perspective of someone carefully maintaining the horror reigns, from from a player's perspective it's the sort of thing that can really break the atmosphere. From being totally invested, you quickly remember you're playing a game, and the magic is lost.
But at the same time, Resident Evil 4 is all about the knowledge that you're playing a game.
Though it's been updated to loosely resemble something akin to a modern shooter, there's something intrinsically, traditionally game-like dripping from its design. So sure, there are occasionally multiple routes around levels. But the levels are so self-contained that it almost feels like an arena fighter. A glance at the map shows that each section is part of a larger game world, but it's a mere illusion. You begin a section, you get from point A to point B, survive an onslaught along the way, and get ready for your next battle. It's shaken up every so often by a cut-scene, a quick-time event or a bit of a change of pace, but ultimately, it's structurally as videogame-like as you'll find.
Though the setting riffs off religious paranoia, political strife and various other modern-day issues, the story remains as camp as it gets, too. Resident Evil is still about the contrived dialogue, the ludicrousness of the escalating plot and the videogame-cliche character set. While it's a divisive presentation, it's one that's distinctly Resi's own, and the masterful balancing act between old and new works remarkably well. It's the proverbial bridge between two ages of survival horror, in its forward-thinking conservatism and in-depth understanding of all the genre's segments and influences. In this respect, it's an absolutely shining example of what videogames have achieved, and how they will continue to develop. For that alone, it's worthy of as much praise as it can get.
The problem, then, is that all these wonders of Resident Evil 4 are down to the game design. On the PC, they struggle to push past the thick veil of inadequacy that plagues the conversion. It simply doesn't work.
There's no mouse control. That goes for both the menu system and the game itself. Navigating the options involves clumsy keyboard work, and navigating the game itself is an absolute nightmare. Yet more problematic is that customising controls is done entirely out of game, and the in-game prompts aren't specific to the PC. Being told to "Press 3" during a quick-time event is so unhelpful it hurts, and most of them become instant-death traps until you've formulated a list of which number refers to which command. Many scenarios even instruct you to wiggle the left or right analogue sticks. Last time I checked, my keyboard didn't have either.
With a 360 controller plugged in, it's infinitely more playable. But relying on a third-party peripheral that's not even designed for the machine in question is inexcusable. It's not just that the PC controls are badly optimised; they simply aren't adequate for playing the game. There's not enough scope, and there's rarely enough time to dart from one side of the keyboard to the other in some of the more extravagant sequences. This isn't a PC version. It's a console version that launches on a PC.
It even manages to look hideous and perform worse, despite the PC's advanced processing power. There are no shadows, the lighting effects regularly stop working, and the frame rate frequently gets tangled up in itself. How about this for the killer: from the main menu, there's no option to quit. There is an exit button hidden away somewhere, but I only managed to stumble upon it by accident after about five hours of play, having previously had to task-manager my way out of the program every time I got bored of wrestling with the inadequate control mechanism.
That happened a lot. Resident Evil 4 might be a carefully balanced, ingeniously designed and admirably self-assured game, but on the PC it's a woeful, miserable, inconceivable mess of code. It's very possibly, depending on your mindset, nestled within the highest echelon of videogame design - but it's an experience tailored only for the consoles. On a computer, it's often barely playable, which is more troubling than a village full of zombified religious extremists could ever be.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (July 27, 2009)
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