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Resident Evil 4

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Capcom's Venerable Survival Horror Series Gets a Makeover

Released in January of 2005 for the Nintendo GameCube, Resident Evil 4 proves to be the most extensive retooling of Capcom's venerable survival horror franchise since its inception almost a decade ago. For years, gamers have awaited each of the myriad Resident Evil releases, hoping that each new title would bring with it the basic changes to control and game play that would bring the franchise into the modern era of gaming, only to be disappointed at each turn. Sure, there have been good games in the series, but that certainly doesn't excuse the fact that there have been almost no improvements in the functionality of the games. I assure you, fans of the franchise, the wait is now over.

One of the first things that longtime fans of the series will notice is the complete retooling of the story behind the game. Gone are the old familiar standbys like Racoon City and the Umbrella Corporation. Gone is the battle against the T virus--there's a new danger in town. Actually, it's you who is new in town. Taking control of Leon, you have been assigned to travel to a small European village to find the President's kidnapped daughter and to return her safely. Yes, Leon is now a government agent out to stop the evil plans of an unknown enemy. Of course, it is never that easy for poor Leon. It becomes clear quite quickly that all is not right in the small, isolated village, and that in order to complete his mission, Leon will have to find out what is really going on. Oh, and there aren't any zombies to be found, either.

Graphically speaking, Resident Evil 4 is certainly one of the best looking, most detailed games to be found on the GameCube, and not just in the pre-rendered background sense the series has been know for. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of this new graphical focus is the character models. Not only are they nice to look at, but they also look good in action, with movements that are animated fluidly. Effort was also spent improving the ambient effects as well. Of note are the fire and explosion effects that are utilized early and often in the game. The textures used throughout the game convey the mood of the game flawlessly, while also looking detailed and varied as Leon moves through the various locales that his adventures lead him to. Resident Evil 4 presents all of this eye candy, and at a slick 30 plus frames per second to boot.

So now the real question needs to be examined: How does it control? Are we stuck with the same old archaic crap left over from the dawn of gaming, as usual? Thankfully, the answers to these questions are a very well and resounding "NO!!" It would not be accurate to say that the controls have been completely changed since they are largely the same as in previous Resident Evil games. What has happened; however, is the refinement and evolution of those controls. One example of this is the addition of a run button. This addition improves on the usual plodding movement of the characters by allowing you to move about quickly. Another example is the action button. This addition allows Leon to perform context specific actions such as jumping over a fence, or pushing ladders down from a window. The action button gives the feeling that Leon is agile and capable, not a lumbering target. Refinements in movement and the action button really give the gamer a sense that he is controlling a special agent--one with all the skills that would be expected.

One thing that will become evident to players of Resident Evil 4 quite quickly is that it really is more of an adventure/3rd person shooter style game than a traditional survival horror style game. Of the elements that attribute to this change of pace, two are key. First and foremost is the ample supply of weapons and ammunition that Leon is supplied with. They're literally everywhere. The environment is littered with weaponry. Enemies drop it when they die, and the weapons can be purchased and any of the many vendors placed throughout the game. The second is a change in camera angle. Resident Evil 4 presents the player with a camera angle more in line with third person shooters and adventure games than its traditional, poor camera. This simple change in viewpoint allows the use of force as a much more attractive strategy by increasing the ease in which the player can manipulate the targeting system.

As in every game that depends heavily on atmosphere, sound plays a major role in Resident Evil 4. Luckily for us gamers, the sound was obviously a point of attention. It is, in a word, excellent. From the sounds effects of the weapons to the ambient music, the sound found here is well done and adds to the atmosphere of the game. It is also very useful. Listening for ambient footsteps and yells from the villagers can alert you to sneak attacks from the side or behind before you are hit. This is definitely a good thing. Another high point is the voiceover work: it is competent, well written, and helps to move the plot forward (unlike the generally mediocre work found in some previous incarnations of the series). Overall, this is definitely a game that would benefit from a quality sound system, should you be in possession of such.

Although there is a lot to like in Resident Evil 4, there are also some things that are not quite as stellar. The first of these issues deals with a long-standing tenant of gaming: the escort mission. Why Capcom felt the game would benefit by making almost half of it a long escort mission is beyond me, but I assure you it does not increase my esteem for the game. It actually lowered my enjoyment of the game with every scream or hit the girl made or took, knowing my success could be wiped out because of a stupid A.I. decision. That is very frustrating, and the fact that it goes on for so much of the game is unforgivable.

Another issue is control. Although control has been improved immensely over its predecessors, Resident Evil 4 still moves at a rather slow pace. It can be difficult to turn quickly when not using the quick turn button and at times this makes combat feel cumbersome. Combat is also hurt by the exclusion of a strafe button. This would have improved things a great deal, especially during some of the more crowded and cramped encounters. This leads right into the lack of a method to change weapons and use items without having to access the inventory screen. This is very noticeable during combat, when an on-the-fly ability to change weapons would have made the game much more seamless and user friendly. It isn't that the inventory screen is difficult to use, it is just that it should not have to be used so much. It is an outdated method for manipulating items and takes the player out of the game instead of allowing combat to be a fluid and seamless experience.

Long-time fans of the Resident Evil series should rejoice at the coming of Resident Evil 4; it is, without a doubt, the new, modern Resident Evil game they have been waiting all these years to play. But how is it for the rest of the gaming world? It is very good, perhaps even great. It's certainly good enough to make you want to buy a GameCube to play if you don't have one, and probably good enough to play through a couple of times if you are a fan of either one or both of its parent genres. There are still some control issues and some general design issues that may be more a matter of taste than dire errors, but they should have been addressed at some point in development. Instead, they detract some from the experience of the game. Having said that, they should not be enough to keep anyone from enjoying what is surely one of the best gaming experiences of 2005.

4 out of 5

Posted on May 11, 2005.

Copyright 2004-2005 Ronnie Richardson. All rights reserved.