Resident Evil is a games franchise that needs little introduction these days. Beginning its existence relatively low-key on the Saturn, a PSone conversion lead to record breaking sales, and a string of success-story sequels. The series had reached it’s pinnacle by the late 90’s and aside from Capcom proving how a remake should be done with the original Resident Evil and then following it up with the totally original Resident Evil 0 on the GameCube, the series appeared to move from blunder to blunder, with the wholly under whelming Resident Evil: Dead Aim and the offline “online Resi”, Resident Evil: Outbreak. Now 2005 is upon us, and so is the latest instalment in the series – but number 4 promises to break new ground. The Press Releases have been inundated with comments about “revolutionary new gameplay” and “astounding graphics”, but is Shinji Mikami’s new vision for the series enough to pull it away from the “rather dated” industry opinion of the series?
To begin with, Resident Evil 4 feels totally unrecognisable as part of the Resident Evil series. Gone are the door-loading sequences, ink ribbons and fixed cameras. There are no pre-rendered backdrops, no magical item-teleporting boxes and no zombies… yes, no zombies. Yet, often the gameplay feels incredibly familiar. The controls remain intact with the usual about-turn on the analogue stick and a 180-degree spin by tapping down and B, and you will come across the occasional find-a-circular-object-to-put-in-the-circular-hole puzzle, however they are far fewer than in previous editions. The story follows the path of Leon Kennedy – the new-recruit to the L.A.P.D from Resident Evil 2. Now working for the US Government, he’s been assigned to locating the President’s daughter, who’s being held in some mid-European country (you’re never told quite exactly where). Obviously, all is not quite as it seems, and a few visits from familiar faces and horrible gribbly monsters soon ring the new story home.
Resident Evil has been criticised often, as a series, for not moving with the times, decidedly sticking to its original formula. Much like my current belief of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, Capcom’s survival-horror beast was deemed necessary of an overhaul as opposed to another update. Though the mechanics of the game remain largely untouched, they are now very cleverly disguised. Each and every set-piece of the title feels like part of the whole, with the game launching you into particularly-un-Resident Evil-esque sub-games and optional extras without losing form or manner. Throughout the game’s grand scope you are never left with a feeling of inability, always positive of your next step, aided also by a very helpful Map Screen. The new camera angle, although feeling unforgiving at first, is clearly developed to add to the perception of your surroundings, and does so eloquently. The devices used to close the distance between the player and on-screen avatar are astounding and, although never appearing to be the game’s selling point, are the most substantial pull once you start playing.
Soon after beginning the title you will realise that the game relies on your perception. Techniques such as mist gathering to disorientate, realistic item placement (for the most part) and the new camera angles quietly but determinedly add to the feeling that this is not Leon Kennedy’s adventure – it’s yours. It’s the hook that pulls you in, making you want to explore every last nook and cranny for that Yellow Herb or Shotgun Shell you desperately need – constantly keeping you in fear or the dreaded “you are dead” screen. However, in reality, the game no longer punishes you for dying so harshly, as retry points have been set in place prior to every incredibly well orchestrated set-piece.
Other new additions, such as the storage case and Merchant add a little new spice, whilst the Shooting Galleries will at first seem a misconceived idea, but eventually become a touch of refreshment from the intensity at exactly the right moment. Pacing is obviously crucial to a title so dependant on user involvement, and Mikami’s team have hit the nail right on the head.
The game pushes forth more boundaries as the graphical touches are taken into account. Leon’s hair flows with movement and the real-time lighting is awe-inspiring. Hundreds of enemies crawl around hugely expansive environments and special effects such as fire and water are never less than dazzling. Throughout the many boss encounters, none is more stunning than Salazar. Mutating into a thirty-foot slimy pink thing with a DragonBall-esque white blob on its back and two sets of teeth, I would dare anyone to show me anything a mainstream CGI company has come up with that is more impressive – including DreamWorks and Pixar.
While the graphics are clearly revolutionary, the sound isn’t particular shabby either. Offering compatibility with Dolby Pro Logic II for that true 5.1 feeling, the wind will hiss through the trees, fires crackle in the distance and… is that the sound of a chainsaw starting? Screams will often denote the correct route to your location and your first meeting with Luis begins via a loud thumping from a room nearby.
During the mid-90’s games developers seemed to want their products to be known as “interactive films” and Resident Evil 4 claims the spot as front runner for the field. The title will do little to sell itself to those not already involved with the Resident Evil series until they actually get a chance to play the game. As an onlooker, much remains untouched, with the exception of the gorgeous scenery, but in play, Resident Evil 4 hasn’t just revolutionised the series, nor has it merely raised the bar for adventure games, Resident Evil 4 has rewritten the rule book for interactive story-telling.