Not for the Faint Hearted
No one knew a game of this calibre was possible from a Gamecube. Grimy caves, gloomy forests and acrid lava pits - all horribly real and crawling with eerily lifelike villagers and grotesquely unlifelike monsters, dripping from their lolling head to their shambling feet with clammy fear.
Everything looks perfect - from spot effects - dripping slime, pluming flame (the best I have ever seen in a game), filthy brown rain and putrid sewage, to context sensitive enemy damage - falling from ledges, off ladders, sliding down hills, crippled to their knees by leg shots, all happening in an environment so real you could touch it (though you would probably need gloves). This game looks better than anything, on any console this generation and the rural village where Leon Kennedy begins the game is perhaps the best opening location in gaming history.
Charged with rescuing the President’s Daughter, Leon is sent to sleepy old Europe (aka Spain, though it is never mentioned), to follow up on a reported sighting. Its all a bit silly, with cartoon villains, a truly awful script, and plot holes that gape wider than a shotgun exit wound, but as always with Resident Evil, it’s the atmosphere created by the locations and enemies in front of you rather than the b-movie back-story that draws you in to its sweaty grasp.
Not your Ideal Holiday Destination
The game throws you straight into the midst of a rabid horde of villagers. Having had only a handful of enemies to use as target practice - and you will need it, without a training mission to hold your hand - Leon is quickly surrounded by gruff townsmen and kitchen knife-wielding housewives and forced to take shelter in one of many nearby houses. The game seamlessly sets this up, allowing no time for forward planning - only intuitive thinking to block doors, find alternative escape routes and defend the besieged house. Capcom are eager to stress these are no mindless shuffling zombies, but creatures with teamwork and intelligence, as well as all the usual qualities zombies so proudly display: clawing, stabbing, biting, eating human flesh, that sort of thing. This soon becomes obvious as they scramble up ladders and across adjacent roofs to smash through upstairs windows. The game prompts you to ‘Knock Down’ as you approach the top of the ladder. Why, yes please. Yet immediately 3 villagers are there to push it back up again, more fall in through a second window, then you hear the cupboard barricade downstairs smashing. Running soon seems the wisest option.
Early on, when ammo is in relatively short supply, flight seems like the sensible alternative to fight. Before long, however, the rewards of holding ground and piling up bodies becomes apparent. The majority of felled enemies leave health, ammo and cash pickups, rather unsubtly highlighted by glowing coloured rings on the ground, with tougher enemies leaving bigger prizes. While breakable wooden barrels and boxes also hold these items, the biggest source is from dead foes. Clearing a room means more money to spend on new weapon and upgrades. This is a nicely implemented feature - though hardly innovative: RPGs have included such systems for years - allowing improvement to qualities of certain weapons (power, reload speed, shooting speed and capacity), while leaving other weapons on the shelf. It is quite possible to complete the game with a maxed-out shotgun without once using a sniper rifle, and vice versa, depending on whether you prefer decapitations at touching distance or in the distance.
Sound effects, from the slow scrape of a heavy metal axe pulled along a concrete floor, to the hissing gush of pus spraying from a dismembered body, to the frenzied revving of a rusty chainsaw, are all gloriously gut-wrenching. Even small improvements to a handgun power setting can be detected, for those with eagle ears. Tiny details in the grand gory scheme of things, but vital in pinning the player captive in its wonderfully coherent, (un-)living, (heavy-)breathing world.
The boss battles, of which there are many (and they will not be spoilt here), are awe-inspiring. The level of interactivity with such large moving monsters is incredible, and most of them thankfully tear up the old ‘stand-here-and-fire-all-your-best-weapons’ blueprint using their massive... well, I won’t say. The camera direction in these set pieces is superb, it must be said, and really captures the size and scale of the beasts facing Leon.
The new all-singing, all-dancing, all-action direction the series has taken is typified by the inclusion of a harmless cutscene will suddenly prompt the player for a button press or two to avoid danger. Failure to enter a button quickly enough usually means a painful death, although thankfully the game is generous with its frequency of restart points, and you will not have to wait long to try again. This turns what would be un-involving scenes (given the acting) into must-see viewing, as you look for danger in every corner of the screen before it rains down on Leon’s head.
Despite the gargantuan leaps taken by the series, the game still retains a few old ideas that have always made some of the simplest actions - movement and weapon selection - more awkward than they need to be. One of the few action games not to include a sidestep function, Resident Evil 4 sticks to a ‘turn-and-go’ system that, while effective in creating a claustrophobic tunnel vision of your surroundings, and functional against dumber enemies, later in the game, where tactics are needed in combat, the simple task of using cover and returning fire becomes arduous.
The lack of an in-game ‘change weapon’ button also leads to atmosphere-breaking pauses in the heat of battle, as menus are accessed. It somewhat undermines the situation when the player can stop an arrow in mid-air to change to a loaded weapon and shoot it down. This also means after a long battle involving several different weapons, the task of reloading all in preparation for the next encounter means a repetitive trawl back and forth from the menu screen, which, by the end of the game, you will unfortunately be able to do in your sleep (probably induced by this process).
Worth Buying a Cube For
It is a testament to how hard the first level smacks you between the eyes (with an axe) that you will love the game enough from the very outset to forgive it any of these faults. It clocks in at around 16 hours of initial gameplay - that includes messing about, completing subquests, finding everything, though many reviewers report nearer 25 hours - a body count approaching 4 figures (helpfully recorded at the end of each chapter) and a host of unlockable content. This game is a triumph for Capcom, the biggest leap forward in the survival horror genre in years, and genuinely a reason alone to buy a Gamecube. Putrid never looked so polished. Also, look out for the Capcom RE4 Chainsaw Controller as mentioned in the News page earlier.