Review: Resident Evil 4 HD

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Back in 2005, just as the Nintendo GameCube was entering its “All My Children” stage, the cats at Capcom dropped a big bomb on Big N’s little square box: Resident Evil 4, a game that stood most of the survival-horror series’ conventions on their head and gave the genre a parasite-infected shot to the jugular.

RE4 was a big deal for several reasons, and most of them have to do with the real estate agent’s best friend: location. It was the first ResEvil game to shift the action from the tired urban decay of Raccoon City to, quite literally, a location in the middle of nowhere. More specifically, somewhere in the wilderness of rural Europe, where the terror’s only amplified by the fact that the hostile, Las Plagas-addled locals don’t even speak your language. Good thing Leon S. Kennedy, our wispy-coiffed hero, isn’t dense enough to mistake “Voy a matar!” for “Dude, nice vest!” It was also the first entry in the series to plant the camera over the hero’s shoulder, locking you into a third-person view. (This turned out to be both a good and a bad thing.)

In the ensuing six years, RE4’s already infected several other platforms, including the PC, the Nintendo Wii and, infamously, the PlayStation 2, obliterating its original status as a GameCube exclusive. Thanks to the ResEvil series celebrating the big 1-5 this year, it’s available yet again in a new HD version on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. While the action’s just as creepy as you remember it, a high-def sheen can’t conceal the fact that parts of this zombie-fest haven’t aged particularly well.

RE4 still rocks the can’t-move-while-you’re-shooting approach. Even though we’re now totally spoiled by having nimble, almost Nightcrawler-like mobility in our run-‘n’-gun survival horror games—see Shadows of the Damned for the most recent example—this tack still makes survival-horror sense. It both encourages you to think creatively (acquiring long-range weapons to blast enemies from afar, honing your shots, avoiding trapping yourself in a corner) and sets up those uber-tense encounters when a menacing Los Ganados is padding slowly toward you, hatchet raised, as you frantically try to line up an arterial shot that won’t force you to spend four precious bullets taking him down.

It’s far less easy to embrace the persistence of RE4’s nausea-inducing X-and Y-axis camera look, which still jerks back to face forward the second your finger slides off the right analog stick. In a game that demands careful movement (hello, copious trip wires and bear traps) and keen environmental awareness, having to fight with the camera to see where you’re going and whether your knife angle will smash the barrel or whiff thin air is frustrating. The game’s HD graphical sheen also appears to have been liberally applied to Leon S. Kennedy’s pretty-boy coif and the gore that pops out of the villagers and monks when you pop a cap in them, but not so much on the dingy, woodland environs. Hope you’re able to remember where all the hidden stashes of jewels and herbs are, because you’re likely to miss them in the grey-brown blur of the forest. And good luck lining up your red laser-targeting reticule.

It’s easy to forget that, along with God of War, RE4 was one of the games that helped usher in the era of the timed button-mash event. Of course, it’s always amusing to note that in RE4’s copious context-specific cutscenes, Leon is able to dodge boulders, croc monsters and death-dealing battleax strikes like Keanu Reeves in the original Matrix; the second you return to the normal action, he trudges and lurches like the very zombies he’s blasting. At least Kratos was consistently nimble.

Now that Resident Evil 5, Chris Redfield’s excellent African adventure (the Gold Edition of which is coming to PSN next week and is available on Xbox Live Games on Demand), is our most recent console taste of the Umbrella Corporation’s shenanigans, it’s timely to resurrect the point at which this series shifted from kitsch into full-blown, bloody horror. If you’ve somehow managed to miss playing Resident Evil 4, this is the best-looking opportunity to rectify your oversight and discover what the fuss was all about. Those who’ve braved the darkened woods and churches with Leon before will discover that without the scares and surprises, the game’s shortcomings are harder to overlook than a chainsaw-wielding Los Ganados all up in your grill.

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Pros:
+ Storyline still creepy and engaging
+ HD adds a nice graphical sheen to the zombies and gore—not so much the environments, though
+ Chance to revisit a landmark game in the survival horror genre

Cons:
– The camera controls feel even clunkier than they did six years ago
– If you’ve played previous versions, the thrill is effectively gone

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360 via XBLA; also available for PS3 via PSN
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Release Date: 9/20/2011
Genre: Action/Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.