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Resident Evil 4 (PlayStation 2) artwork

Resident Evil 4 (PlayStation 2) review

"In RE4, you are armed to the teeth, but your enemies’ insistence, their thirst for your pain, and their sheer numbers create more compelling and dire circumstances than a few zombies or “nurses” after an unfortunate pipe-bearing player ever could."

Gamers who have heard the deafening buzz for Resident Evil 4 and have not been enticed probably belong to one of two schools of thought: they either don’t like Resident Evil games in particular (preferring say, the Silent Hill games), or they don’t like survival horror games in general.

I fit in with the former group. And after my thoroughly enjoyable time with RE4, I wonder if I fit in with the latter group as well.

Because RE4 isn’t the survival horror we know. It doesn’t have clunky, tank-like controls. It isn’t a slow build. It doesn’t use disconcerting camera angles, bloody backdrops or cheap scares. And perhaps most notably, it doesn’t render us powerless in order to effect its dreadful atmosphere.

Survival horror, up to this point, has been all about ensuring that the player is suitably ill-equipped to deal with the enemies he faces. Whether we are outfitted with a steel pipe or an underpowered handgun with precious little ammunition on hand, the genre was all about making us feel vulnerable. What ensued was always panic, as we were forced to dash headlong through some areas, and sweat through others, employing clumsy melee weaponry while monsters swarmed. That was the old brand of fear.

Welcome to the new. As Agent Leon Kennedy, out to rescue the president’s daughter, held captive in the backwoods of Spain, we are permitted an impressive arsenal; from handguns to submachine guns, from shotguns to rifles, from grenades to rocket launchers -- we are very well-equipped. So fear works differently: we aren’t outgunned, we’re simply outnumbered. By scores upon scores of enemies.

And they don’t plod about, moaning, waiting to fortuitously happen into you. They stalk, circle, and rush you; wielding pitchforks, dynamite, crossbows and chainsaws, while yelling utterances equally unintelligible and chilling . In RE4, you are armed to the teeth, but your enemies’ insistence, their thirst for your pain, and their sheer numbers create more compelling and dire circumstances than a few zombies or “nurses” after an unfortunate pipe-bearing player ever could.

And as if our weapons weren’t exciting enough, we often run into a shopkeeper who allows us to sell off the jewels we find while adventuring, for money to buy new weapons and upgrades from him. Fancy a scope for your rifle? He’s got it. Your Red-9 handgun feeling anemic? He’ll help you upgrade its power, firing speed, reload speed and capacity. The game keeps big spenders in check though; you can’t buy ammo, you can’t stock up on life-restoring First Aid Sprays, and you can’t have everything on offer, as there is only so much room in your Attache Case.

Having Leon handle his equipment (snicker) is as good as it sounds. Quite possibly, RE4's greatest strength is two-fold: how it makes sure you're killing things -- lots of things, a never-ending stream of things -- and how it makes sure that doing so feels satisfying. Sometimes it's subtle: you're on a rickety bridge above foggy ether and a gaggle of zombies cautiously creep toward you. Blow out the lead zombie's knee and watch him topple sidelong off the bridge while his companions hesitate. Just a little.

Or there is that time in the crisp, dry air of the black village, where that troublesome old zombie is tossing dynamite at you through an open window of a house as rundown as he. You know he's not alone in there, and he's making it difficult for you to get close enough to mow down his freakish family through the dark of the frame. The first time it happens, it's by accident -- you let off a shot that causes him to drop a lit stick of dynamite and blow himself up, taking everyone in the room with him.

Up to this point you've been making do with your handgun, but with the rifle comes greater subtlety still. I remember riding cable cars as a kid, high up above the fairgrounds. RE4 has cable cars as well, and you will ride one. Fortunately for us, there are zombies in cable cars coming at us -- they represent oncoming traffic. Adept use of the rifle will fill cars with severed heads. This is what the scope is for.

Later the scope will be fitted with an infrared device to reveal hot spots on an especially frightening, parasite-driven zombie type. If you don't hit the spots, they don't stay down.

Yes, sniping is a joy. Headshots are instant kills, and quick aiming with the scope makes your life easier -- and a whole lot more fun. But RE4 has thought of everything. Rifle rounds are not found in abundance, and enemies later on not only feint a lot more, but they begin wearing masks and helmets to negate the headshot possibility altogether!

As their skills and equipment improve, so too must your killing efficiency. Difficult enemies can be felled with leg shots, brought to their knees so that you can set up your action button attack -- a roundhouse kick which can be counted on to knock nearby enemies around, and will often decapitate the actual target of the kick. If he's still breathing from his prone position on the ground, hunker over him and slash him with your knife… until he isn't.

RE4 can be subtle. But it can also be visceral, nasty. It can drop you in a mine cart and send you on your way, filling the cart with a downpour of zombies as it lurches forward. And when a chainsaw-wielding creature wearing a potato sack over his head begins revving up six inches away, only a shotgun blast to his midsection will do. That the blast will push back his entire entourage in the process, is a gratifying cherry on top.

The only things not so gratifying about RE4, are the lack of a run-and-shoot option, and the fact that the screen furnishes a view that is slightly too high. The run-and-shoot issue isn't one that bothers me much, as I tend to dash from one ideal vantage point to another, always sniping and moving. Certainly it's a slight snag which could be addressed in a follow-up. The panorama offered the gamer at any given point however, seems as if it could benefit from being a few degrees lower, to give us a better feel for running about and seeing where we're going.

These criticisms are almost negligible though, and in the face of extras such as unlockable missions involving the sexy Ada, and a cast of death-dealing studs in "The Mercenaries" -- they are washed away by a deluge of positives. The highest compliment I can pay to the already highly lauded Resident Evil 4 is this: it makes all other games in its genre seem utterly pointless. Post-RE4, every sin committed by every Silent Hill installment, every wrong step taken by even RE4’s own predecessors -- appear unforgivable.

Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (April 20, 2007)

There was a bio here once. It's gone now.

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