Resident Evil 4
Article by Rene Decoste | September 12, 2009
Resident Evil is what pushed me, a lifelong Nintendo fanboy, into buying into the PlayStation and CD media format. Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto said consumers were more comfortable with the cartridge, and who was I to argue with the likes of him? Then I saw Resident Evil on a friend's PS1. Sometimes you don't know what you're missing until you experience it firsthand. Resident Evil was my first "multimedia" -- remember that word? -- experience. It had FMV, tons of voice acting, and incredible sound design. And I don't just mean the music, either, but also its ambient sound effects. When you walked into the first room of the mansion and went from the carpet to the marble floor, the sounds of your footsteps changed from muffled padding to sharp, hard clops. Coming into this from a 16-bit machine as I had, it all seemed fantastic.
Not to mention it was a game about zombies, which was actually quite novel at the time. No, really.
The game was a cool adventure as well. While exploring the mansion, you needed to solve puzzles as well as destroy zombies. But it wasn't called "survival horror" for nothing: If you were too gun-crazy, you could run out of ammo and find yourself completely up the creek. You could play as two different characters, each of whom offered not only different sequences and companions but served as a sort of difficulty setting selection as well. Jill Valentine can carry eight items and pick up the grenade launcher. (Also, as you may of heard, she is quite proficient at unlocking. A master, you might say.) Chris Redfield sports a cool puffy vest, can only carry six items, and has to pick up small keys to get into certain locks. I was ecstatic to play this game on my new $400 PS1, and to have to play it "Upside-DownStation" style to counteract its inherent laser problems.
Resident Evil was followed two years later by its sequel, sensibly titled Resident Evil 2. This second outing sported a total of four scenarios across two discs. In a playthrough, scenarios "A" and "B" needed to be played with alternating characters. This created quite a few surprises if you were to play through again with different character choices. For many people, this game surpassed the original and was one of the top titles ever released for the PlayStation. RE2 was followed up in short succession by Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and Resident Evil: Code Veronica. Shortly after that came a RE-make of the original, along with an exclusive prequel for Nintendo's ailing GameCube platform.
It was right about here that people began to tire of Resident Evil's formerly charming quirks. The controversial "tank" controls were alienating players who had come to expect more precise and natural controls as other games built on Resident Evil's foundation with their own improvements. Furthermore, the series had been shown up by Silent Hill and its sequel; they were, you know, actually scary and disturbing, as opposed to Capcom's B-movie camp. By the time Resident Evil 0 was released, its controls and prerendered backgrounds were positively old-fashioned. Early footage of the upcoming GameCube exclusive sequel, Resident Evil 4 -- slated to be a part of the infamous and ill-fated Capcom Five -- looked not terribly different. Fan-favourite Leon Kennedy of RE2 fame was shown dicking around a castle avoiding a meathook monster. Save for boasting some then-next-gen visual horsepower and effects, it looked like a lot more of the same.
It wasn't unheard of for Capcom to scrap and completely revamp a Resident Evil title before release; the abortive version of the series's first sequel (commonly referred to as Resident Evil 1.5) remains a holy grail among beta-seeking game archivists. But no one was prepared for what the final version of Resident Evil 4 would bring to the table. Surely an exclusive release for a diminished series on a third-place console wouldn't be one of the defining games of the past decade?
But indeed it would. Game Informer magazine published an exclusive preview of a revamped Resident Evil 4 in early 2004, revealing the fact that series creator Shinji Mikami had changed everything. Essentially everything you would have associated with Resident Evil was gone, save for Leon himself and a lot of monsters with extraneous eyeballs. There were no zombies, Umbrella was out of the picture, and the tone had shifted to become more of an action game. As a long-time Resident Evil fanboy, I was shocked -- nay, appalled! -- at these changes. But the proof, as they say, is in the playing. And Resident Evil 4 played beautifully.
Tension in the previous games had come from the constant threat of not having enough resources to survive the next encounter. In Resident Evil 4, enemies dropped ammo as well as money. Resource management remained an important element of the game, but you never really had to worry about running out of bullets. The tension in Resident Evil 4 came instead from trying not to be overwhelmed by enemy hordes. In games past, players occasionally tackled several zombies at once in rare occasions, but generally speaking they faced only a couple at a time. This revamped take on the series had you tackling hordes of enemies, almost constantly.
While the game was now more “Survival Action” than “Survival Horror”, it still followed some classic RE rules. Namely, you couldn't move while shooting. Players still clicked the trigger to draw their weapon. The difference now was that the camera switched to a closed-in, behind-the-shoulder viewpoint of Leon. Instead of swiveling to aim and attack foes, players would move the analog stick to aim via laser sight. Leon's feet remained planted firmly in one place unless you disengaged and ran to another location to shoot.
If these were the hoary old zombies of yore, this would be no problem at all; you could deftly make accurate headshots with the laser pointer. Even the dreaded redhead zombies of the RE-make would have been no match for Leon's new interface. But here too did Resident Evil 4 refuse to rest on convention, introducing as a foe the Ganado, mobs of people who had become enthralled by a brain-controlling parasite called Las Plagas. They moved swiftly, worked in groups, and tried to flank players. The one boon afforded the player is that they mostly used primitive farm implements for attacking. What's more, the whole game was designed around this concept, and the increased accuracy of the new interface gave Leon several options in combat. If a Ganado was using a weapon, a well-placed shot to the implement (or the enemy's hands) would cause them to drop it. If the first wave of Ganados began to rushing you, it was possible to shoot them in the legs to drop them to their knees, thus buying a little breathing room. Or you could let them get close and take the opportunity to use a context-sensitive melee attack.
You could also pretty much just make headshots at will. Players of classic Resident Evil -- and pretty much any FPS -- will tell you that's what you want to do with any enemy anyway. This classic tactic initially worked well with the new control scheme: Players simply lined up the laser and blasted away. Dead Ganados, everywhere. After a while, though, the game forced players to rearrange their tactics. Further along in the game, some Ganados parasites became more advanced. Blowing off the head of these infected victim would cause the plagas to extend from the host's brain and whip around a bladed tentacle. The parasite could be killed with direct shots, but they were a total ammo sink, and their only major weakness (flash grenades) were often in short supply. Or maybe you didn't realize they killed plagas instantly and sold them all off. In any case, at this point it was better to try and take down the Ganados with body shots unless you were bold enough to risk taking on an emergent parasite.
It wasn't just the action that redefined Resident Evil 4, though; the exploration was an important factor as well. Backtracking was minimized, and player had an impetus to maintain a constant forward momentum. The game was divided up into chapters rather than being a single, uninterrupted adventure. Gone were the series' infamously tedious puzzles. In previous games, you'd need to find the biscuits key to open the biscuits door, or put together various pieces of the biscuits crest to put in the biscuits indentation in the wall. These elements remained for the sequel, but in most situations players had far more options to work with. A locked door could often be broken down, or the lock destroyed. If a building had windows, you could jump through them. This worked both ways. Indeed, it often worked against you, as going into a new room didn't necessarily guarantee safety from the Ganados.
While the adventure game roots of the series were somewhat diminished, Resident Evil 4 replaced them with RPG elements instead. Enemies dropped gold which could be used to buy new equipment or upgrade current equipment from the game's weird-ass merchant. You could sell him rare items (for a high price, too), and in the tradition of the merchants in the latter-day Castlevania? games, he talked like a complete freak.
Finally, the story saw an overhaul as well. Classic Resident Evil elements and characters were still present, but the world had moved on. Umbrella died off-screen, not due to the Redfields kicking their ass, but rather because of bad press in the wake of the Raccoon City incident. Umbrella had a role to play in the plot, but the main focus was directed toward the corruption of a remote town by a Lovecraftian cult. Resident Evil was never really "scary," per se, and many have said that the new action-oriented RE is even less so; yet the theme of being stuck in a remote area away from civilization with some ignorant backwoods retards has been a long horror tradition (see also: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, etc.) The village's backstory was fleshed out with the standard ubiquitous memos, and with a chilling still-image montage during the end credits. The town was a victim of Land Without Bread levels of abject poverty, and Sadler, the game's primary villain, offered them salvation, Obed Marsh style, in the form of a body-morphic esoteric religion. The game wandered back to familiar territory by the end, with castles, labs, and Wesker, but in the opening hours it felt unlike any other Resident Evil game -- or, indeed, like any other game at all.
It was tough for me not to be discouraged to see one of my favourite series revamped like this. So many times in the past, a reinvented favorite wasn't not at all to my liking; Super Mario 64, for example, has always rubbed me the wrong way. Sometimes, the old ways are best. But Resident Evil 4 was a successful re-roll for the series, playing to new strengths, keeping what worked and eliminating or redesigning what didn't... which, as it turned out, was quite a lot. It cast a long shadow as well; many games have since looked to RE4 for inspiration, such as Gears of War?'s use of the over-the-shoulder view and Dead Space's no-headshots tactical dismemberment. RE4 reinvented the genre it helped create by making a stiff, zombie-like adventure series into a taut action game. Resident Evil 4 is how you revive a franchise.