Published by Capcom
Developed by Capcom Studio 4
Platform: PS2, Gamecube (reviewed on PS2)
ESRB Rating: Mature
The original Resident Evil game stands in very select company as one of the only games to essentially define its own genre. Survival horror games owe their existence to this original zombie-blasting classic. As such, there was a good bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth when Resident Evil 4 was announced as a Gamecube exclusive. The Nintendo faithful jumped for joy, as it marks one of the very few exclusives the console has received that doesn’t feature a certain red-hatted Italian plumber or his kin. Of course, market pressures are a reality that even the mighty Nintendo can’t ignore, so the exclusivity agreement was broken and PS2 owners were promised a chance to step back into the shoes of Leon Kennedy, the unluckiest special agent on the planet.
Leon has moved on since the Raccoon City incident a few years back, and is now working as a federal agent of some sort (specifics are unclear, but his mission seems to suggest he’s Secret Service). The President’s daughter has been kidnapped, and Leon has been dispatched to a remote village in Europe (rural Spain? the game’s a bit vague on this point) to follow up the only lead on the case. From the moment he sets foot in the village, however, it becomes clear that something has gone very, very wrong. The first village to spot him charges him with a pitchfork, and before you know it, Kennedy is running for his life and blasting away at some seemingly zombified townsfolk, dodging traps, and expending a tremendous number of rounds in various calibers.
This installment marks the very best that the franchise has to offer, across the board. Gameplay improvements include a revised camera angle that puts players behind and just over the right shoulder of Leon, so you can always see whatever he sees. This is a marked departure from the previous games’ pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed (read: “frustrating”) camera angle issues. The move to a full 3D environment ups the game’s immersion significantly. This new camera makes gunplay a lot simpler and more entertaining as well, which is a good thing…RE4 also ramps up the violence quotient quite a bit. There are set piece battles involving dozens of foes that move quickly, use weapons, and utilize clever group tactics. Trying to drop a half-dozen villagers coming at you from several directions with a fixed camera would have been a recipe for disaster, and I’m thrilled they made this move to a more “first-person” perspective.
The story is a slight variation on the RE theme, involving implanted parasites rather than traditional zombies, though the difference is largely semantic. Hollow-eyed groaning shamblers are zombies, no matter what story excuse you implement to explain their condition. As Leon progresses through the region, he encounters a couple of other folks who seem to be acting against the shadowy cult that are responsible for snatching the First Daughter. From a narrative standpoint, the game does a pretty good job avoiding what I call the “Basil Exposition” syndrome (thank you, Austin Powers), so figuring out what’s really going is a bit of a challenge, to say the least. Leon is pretty much never in possession of all of the facts, glimpsing just enough in cutscenes and encounters with other seemingly benign characters to piece together the broad outline of what’s going on. This keeps the suspense nice and high for the majority of the game.
The visuals here are absolutely stunning and creepy as all hell. There is a slight graphics downgrade from the Gamecube version, an unavoidable necessity due to the constraints of the PS2 hardware. The difference is noticeable, but not terribly jarring…this game is one of the graphical best on either console. The environmental sound is also very well done, adding just the right amount of spook without becoming distracting. Music keyed to dangerous situations helps elevate tension during the shootouts, but essentially fades out when things are calm. About the only ding against the sound work is some of the voice acting. The major characters are all quite well done, but some of the villains are a bit cheesy. The muttering chants of the sinister monks during the Castle chapter, however, gave me the howling fantods.
Gameplay presents a solid balance of shooting with puzzle solving, though many of the puzzles are on the extremely simplistic end. This has always been true of the RE games, however, and with the increased emphasis on combat, I wasn’t sorry to see some of the more egregious backtracking-intensive key-finding elements of previous games go. Finishing the game unlocks a number of things, including an additional difficulty level, a set of side missions playing as Ada Wong (the nature of these missions varies from the Gamecube to PS2, with the PS2 version being a bit more involved/longer), some nice easter eggs in the forms of costumes and new weapons, and a “mercenary” mode that consists of blasting away as many infected villagers as possible in fixed amount of time. With all the easter eggs to unlock, the side missions, and the elevated difficulty setting, the game has a good amount of replayability, especially for a game of its genre.
In short, this game won a boatload of awards for a reason. It is absolutely one of the finest titles of 2005, and without a doubt the best of the Resident Evil series and the survival horror genre. With a tightly told, compelling story and excellent atmospheric presentation, it’s bound to be a memorable experience for any avid gamer, and the sort of thing most of us console jockeys complain that there just isn’t enough of in the game world these days. Pick it up ASAP and give it a spin.