Review: Resident Evil 4 (GameCube)

Resident Evil 4Platform: GameCube
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Release Date: 1/11/05
Genre: Survival Horror
Players: 1

What do you think of when you hear the name Resident Evil? For me, fond memories of my best friend and I completing the first two brilliant games in all-night gaming sessions quickly pop into my head. Following the brief trip down memory lane however, thoughts of sluggish controls, clunky fixed-perspective camera angles, cheesy voice acting, archaic inventory systems, item fetching, and copious amounts of item and switch puzzles begin to shroud my view of what started as a grand franchise but has lately grown into a tired, played-out series offering nothing but more of the same. When all hope seemed to be lost though, Capcom delivers on their promise to reinvent the series with the release of Resident Evil 4. Not only does RE 4 reinvent the Resident Evil brand as a whole, but it also redefines the survival horror genre as we currently know it, and presents one of the most viscerally intense, emotionally entrapping, and downright gorgeous gaming experiences to ever hit a home console. Look out world, Resident Evil is back and better than anyone could have ever imagined.

First and foremost, Resident Evil 4 has a great and very interesting story, in fact it’s the best one put forth in a Resident Evil to date, be it the games or the lousy films. Set six years after Raccoon City was blown to smithereens, RE 4 stars the returning hero Leon S. Kennedy from Resident Evil 2. In the time following his role in the second game, Leon has become a special Agent for the U.S. government involved in the protection of the President and his family. Ashley, the President of the United States’ daughter, has been kidnapped and Leon has been ordered to track her down and bring her back safe and sound. Leon’s search leads him to a mysterious almost Amish-style village located in an undisclosed European country, and once there all the “you know what” hits the fan as the crazed members of the village begin to attack unprovoked. Leon has no idea what’s going on, but the villagers’ strong resistance to physical pain reminds him of the terrifying zombies and the nightmarish situation he went through six years prior.

What ensues is a well-told story with some cool yet somewhat predictable plot twists, plenty of references to past games and characters, appearances by a number of familiar faces, and tons of truly epic moments that will assuredly knock your socks off. The only thing that left a bad taste in my mouth storywise was the game’s ending. I won’t say anything to spoil it, but personally I found the game’s conclusion to be far too predictable and brief, especially since there is such an intensity and emotional draw throughout the rest of the game. And of course with this being a Resident Evil there is some occasionally poor script writing, but for the most part I was totally shocked with how well everything was pulled together considering the series’ track record in this area. Neither of these personal observances hurt the game, however, they are certainly worthy to make mention of.

As is normal for any Resident Evil, the real meat of the story is told through collecting and reading files like different notes, journals and memos. But also, the brilliantly animated and choreographed in-game cut-scenes really give the game a great cinematic quality. It’s certainly no Metal Gear Solid 3 in terms of depth and overall emotional investment, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be surprised by how much you get drawn into the whole experience. And for long-time Resident Evil fans, finishing this one will make you itch to go back and play the older ones, even if they are completely dated in comparison.

Whereas the storyline is generally more of the same but a whole lot better than it has ever been, the gameplay in RE 4 feels totally different than any previous game in the series, featuring a slew of major fundamental changes gamers have been craving for years. The most drastic alteration, and the best one to me, is the elimination of the dreaded fixed camera views that have bothered countless players for some time now. In their place is a new behind-the-back/over-the-shoulder camera perspective that not only makes it easier to see the surroundings and target enemies but it also pulls you into the experience like a great first-person shooter does. Using the C Stick, you can also now move the camera view around for a better view, however, doing so isn’t permanent as once you’re done moving the stick the view goes back to the default position. Like I already stated, the move to a more modern camera style is the best improvement Capcom made when designing this game, I just don’t get what in the hell took them so long to arrive at this point.

In conjunction with the fantastic new camera system, RE 4’s controls, which actually aren’t a whole lot different than the previous games, seem more precise and easier to manage than before; the camera really does make that much of a difference. As mentioned above, targeting is extremely precise due to the perspective switch, but that is also due to very sensitive and precise aiming controls. All of an enemy’s body parts can easily be targeted thanks to a helpful sight laser equipped on every available firearm, and doing so results in realistic damage reactions. Shoot a monster in the leg, it falls down. Aim for its head and there’s a good chance you’ll blow it off. The improved mechanics make these possibilities reasonable to achieve as opposed to the guessing game required in older Resident Evils.

Another handy improvement is a quick knife switching option that allows you to have both a gun and knife equipped at all times, with holding the L shoulder used to brandish the knife and the R shoulder to ready the equipped firearm. Follow either up with a tap of the A button and you’ll be killing baddies with no sweat. My only gripe in the control department has to be the inability to move and shoot simultaneously. There is the ability to do a quick 180-degree turn, which is extremely valuable to surviving in the long run, but the game begs for at least some sort of strafing or dodging mechanism. Really though, this issue is actually more of an “it doesn’t take away from the game, but it just would have been better had it been included” type of thing.

New to the control mix this time around are context-sensitive actions and action sequences. In basic practice, these actions are simple things such as hopping over railings and other barriers, ducking behind objects for cover, pushing objects, climbing ladders and ropes, jumping through windows, activating switches, and so on. However, once you get into the sequences, everything becomes a bit more challenging and complex. The sequences normally take place during the flow of a cut-scene and they have you timing button combinations in order to dodge fatal attacks. Basic examples come in the form of rapidly tapping the A or B button to outrun a chasing boulder or to pull Leon up a ledge, but the more complex situations have you precisely timing either a combination of A and B or L and R to safely survive whatever the attack may be. A knife-fight boss battle strictly based on watching the scene unfold while pressing the right button combos when they pop up to avoid being stabbed is the prime example of what to expect. My only beef here is that the button sequences for scenes like these are random, meaning they change every time so you can’t memorize the order, and if you aren’t ready for what’s coming you’re dead before you know what hit you. Generally, keeping them random is great since it keeps things challenging, however, it also introduces some moments of trial-and-error that I could see being a bother to some players.

Another point of criticism for the series has been its archaic inventory system that has remained unchanged from day one, until now that it. Though RE 4’s inventory system functions very much the same as the previous games, yes that means you still have to pause the game in order to switch weapons and use items, there are enough improvements to the formula that will quickly make you forget about any shortcomings. A huge improvement lies in the sheer size of your inventory space this time around. Normally, Resident Evils have a set number of inventory slots to fill, which leads to a lot of backtracking once your inventory gets full. In RE 4 however, Leon’s inventory uses a grid-based system similar to what can be seen in games like Diablo on the PC or Champions of Norrath on the PS2. That means as many items as you can squeeze into the available space is doable, and better yet the inventory can be enlarged a few times throughout the game. Constantly worrying about not being able to pick up a needed item is now a thing of the past.

To increase carrying capacity, you will have to buy the upgraded cases at one of the many weapons dealers generously placed along the path of the game. Usually located near save points, the weapons dealers allow you to buy and sell weapons and items, as well as upgrade weapons. This brings us to yet another of RE 4’s added new features — a basic economy system. Over the course of the game, rare gems and valuable pieces of treasure can be collected to sell, and straight money occasionally drops from killed monsters. Earning as much money as you can is extremely important too since the latest and greatest weapons can only be purchased from a weapons dealer and prices can get fairly steep as the game progresses. And speaking of weapons, RE 4 has everything you could ever ask for: various handguns, .45 magnums, shotguns, sniper rifles (yes, they rock), machine guns, rocket launchers, a mine thrower, and a variety of deadly grenades. In addition to buying them, weapons can be fully tuned-up for better death-dealing performance. Every weapon has four stat categories that can be upgraded: Firepower, Firing Speed, Reload Speed, and Capacity. Maintaining high levels in each of these stats can be very expensive, but it is vital that you do so in order to stay alive.

Resident Evil titles have always featured tons and tons of puzzles, but RE 4 strays from that tradition quite drastically. Puzzles are mainly of the simple “find the key” and “hit the switch” school of puzzle solving. Sure, there are a couple of cerebral, logic-based puzzles, but honestly though, puzzle solving is surprisingly at a minimum here. Instead of mind-bending puzzles to cope with, pure action is the emphasis in RE 4, and man oh man is the action some of the most visceral and exciting you can find anywhere. Great gunplay is the crux of the action, and due to the new camera view and precise targeting controls the gunplay is incredible. Probably the largest contributor to the thrilling shooting action is the enemy A.I. Leon must go against. If you thought zombies and hunters were tough, get ready to be blown away. Monsters, even those at the lowest end of the spectrum, are tough cookies to deal with due to their relentless urge to kill by any possible means and the clever tactics they use to complete that goal. They are adept at dodging gunfire, out of nowhere they quickly lunge at you when least expected, they use the environments to their advantage to sneak up on you, and they are merciless in their efforts to kill, even if that requires them to break down doors or jump through windows to get at you. Enemy critters also come equipped with weapons, such as axes, various farm tools, crossbows, machine guns, flails, stun clubs, dynamite, and more. And then there are the unbelievable boss battles, which frankly are some of the best I’ve ever seen, easily rivaling those of any of the Metal Gear Solids.

They say variety is the spice of life, and in this game’s case that couldn’t be more accurate. Just when you start to grow weary of killing the same creature type, the game mixes it up and throws a completely new foe at you. The incredible boss battles I already mentioned are also full of variety. Every single boss encounter, which there are many of, serves up a different challenge to get around and a different weakness to exploit. Another great changeup element is the protecting and escorting of Ashley. Once found, she follows Leon around and as him you must do everything to keep her in one piece. This portion of the game could have brought it to a screeching halt, but the ability to give her basic orders to wait, follow, or hide and thanks to the super smart A.I. she never becomes a hassle. Heck, there is even a short playable section as Ashley that is fun.

Content is also one of the greatest strengths RE 4 has going for it. Whereas most Resident Evils can be completed in well under 10 hours the first time through and less than a handful on subsequent playthroughs, RE 4 lasts an impressive 20 hours (give or take depending on skill level). Like always, once the game is over, it really isn’t over. Depending on your rated performance, special bonus modes and items become available. Most notable is the Assignment Ada side story game and the time attack-style mini-game called The Mercenaries. But as usual you get new weapons to purchase and new costumes to outfit Leon with. While playing through the normal game, certain weapons dealers even offer a cool target practice mini-game to mess around with to earn prizes. On top of all that, experiencing the game more than once is a must-do since the gameplay is so spectacular and never gets dull.

If RE 4 has any problems, they are so minor that they are hardly problems at all. For example, there are many times where you become trapped in a room and have to kill wave after wave of enemies until the escape root finally opens up. This element is both good and bad in that it makes you have to actually kill everything instead of just running by like you can do in the older games, however, sometimes these sections can drag on and I could understand if someone thought they were a little tedious. Another possible bother to some could be the overall challenge of the game, and more specifically the amount of dying and replaying that takes place at certain tough areas. Since the gameplay is so much fun though, there is not much reason to complain.

Last but certainly not least, RE 4 is one of the most impressive technical powerhouses ever produced on any gaming console ever. Every step of the way you will be dumbstruck by the level of power the tiny GameCube is capable of pumping out and the pure gorgeousness will no doubt leave you in awe from start to finish. The character models are so detailed and realistically animated it’s scary, and the ever-changing environments combined with the wondrous atmospheric lightning are simply astonishing. Accompany that with the most realistic fire ever seen in a game, heaping amounts of blood and gore (parents keep this one away from the kiddies), and beautiful in-game cinematics that look so damn good you might think they are CG and you’ve got one serious visual masterpiece on your hands. And wait, it only gets better. The audio is equally just as impressive and entrapping as the stunning graphics. Sound effects and ambience are perfectly eerie and creepy, especially the cultist monks who can be heard quietly chanting when nearby, and the musical score, though somewhat redundant, works so well at keeping the intensity at a consistently high peak. Most shocking of all though, the voice acting is seriously quite good. Certain characters sound cheesy in that classic Resident Evil style, but nine times out of ten the dialogue comes across in a believable conversational flow backed by a solid acting performance.

What else can I say? Simply put, Resident Evil 4 is as perfect and engrossing a game as I have played in quite some time. It totally exceeds expectations, by far fulfilling Capcom’s promise to reinvent and rejuvenate the beloved and criticized horror franchise. The game delivers an intensely paced experience that throws you into the action right away and never lets up for nary a second, after which completing you feel drained as if you were actually going through the depicted situations firsthand. There are a few missing elements that had they been implemented would have made the game even better, and there are some minor annoyances here and there, but the great thing is that none of the issues negate the high enjoyment factor or alter how damn amazing this game is. I can safely say that Resident Evil 4 is the best Resident Evil ever, the best GameCube game ever, and possibly the best action game I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. With that many bests, obviously I recommend this game wholeheartedly to anyone with a Cube, and to those who don’t I say go buy one now even if this is the only game you ever get. It’s either that or wait until the end of the year for the PlayStation 2 version. Resident Evil 4 completely revolutionizes the survival horror genre just as the original classic did long ago, and it does so in an overwhelming fashion. My only question to Capcom now is what in the hell took so damn long!

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!