|The one that changed everything about the series. But was it for better or worse?|
I've made it rather clear that the survival horror gaming genre is one of my favorites, which when brought up in conversation usually leads to "oh, so you like that Resident Evil series," which I do like, but I will often debate its status as a "survival horror" game. The qualifications for "survival horror" in my book usually includes an everyman/everywoman protagonist, with little to no combat training thrust into a nightmarish situation that may or may not be supernatural. Resident Evil's highly trained police officer/military officer protagonists kind of ruin the sense of horror and helplessness found in games like Silent Hill or Clock Tower, which in my humble opinion qualifies the game more as "action horror". Make no mistake though, the elements of horror are there, such as a spooky atmosphere, limited quantity of healing items and weapons, and horrific monsters straight from your nightmares.
Until this point the Resident Evil series was (in)famous for its awkward controls, frustrating inventory system which required you to leave excess items behind in a chest which you then had to return to in order to retrieve said items, its hilariously AWFUL voice acting and writing, and of course TEH ZOMBIES! Then 2005 saw the release of Resident Evil 4 which dispensed with practically everything that the Resident Evil games were well known for, and for some it was a relief, while for others it was BETRAYAL!
Its been six years since the incident in Raccoon City in which an experimental virus made by the Umbrella Pharmaceuticals corporation transformed the small city into an undead filled hell-hole which only a few people survived. One of those survivors, Leon Kennedy has become a special agent for the U.S Government and for his first mission he is sent to a mysterious town in Spain to find the President's daughter Ashley, who has been abducted by a mysterious cult known as Los Illuminados. After a harrowing encounter with some locals Leon is captured and injected (along with Ashley) with a special parasite known as a Plaga which will turn them into the puppets of the cult's leader Osmund Saddler. Leon and Ashley must find the cure for their condition and defeat Los Illuminados while also unraveling the mystery of a third party manipulating these events which include certain familiar faces.
The story for the most part is disconnected from the plot of the previous games, which is good since newcomers can jump into this game with little knowledge about its predecessors and not to mention that the overall plot of the Resident Evil games is a bit stupid, and has so many retcons that would make even DC blush. That being said, the plot in this game is rather basic and not really engaging; in fact it so cliched that even the characters make jokes about the situation being like a Hollywood movie. And finally the dialogue in this game is rather...badly written, with horrible one-liners, horribly translated phrases such as "THE Los Illuminados" and head scratching phrases like "your right hand comes off,".
Visually, this game looks great; the backgrounds are full of detail and are nicely varied (if all a little bit brown) and consist of a creepy village, a castle, and a military base. Character models are also well made with several realistic physics to them like hair blowing in the wind, and limping when injured. If there was any game to show of the power of the Gamecube's graphics, it was definitely this one, as it out-does several PS2 and Xbox games from the generation.
Music is absent most of the time and mostly serves to acknowledge the presence of enemies, which naturally takes the form of very tense, grating tunes that will haunt you as the game progresses. Voice acting in this game varies from passable, to rather bad, but that can also be blamed on this game's horrendous script.
As stated before, this game changed practically everything about the gameplay of Resident Evil. Gone are the awkward moving controls and fixed camera angles, which are now replaced with a 3rd person, over-the-shoulder view. Combat has also undergone several changes, and is actually now the superior (and usually only) option when encountering enemies in stark contrast to previous games which focused on resource conservation. Leon aims his weapon with one of the shoulder buttons which uses a laser sight to target specific enemy body parts with different effects such as making them drop held weapons, or stunning them; also introduced in this game are melee attacks, which can be performed on stunned enemies and inflict additional damage, as well as knocking the enemy back giving Leon some precious space.
Speaking of enemies, the baddies in this game are far different from the zombies and B.O.Ws encountered in previous games. These new baddies known as Ganados retain their human appearance and intelligence, but are infected with a special parasite that increases their strength, and durability while stripping them of their humanity and subjecting them to the will of the queen plaga holders. So unlike zombies, these guys like to work together to kill Leon and recapture Ashley and will use weapons such as axes, scythes, and even chainsaws (which results in a violent instant death), but are not above attempting to strangle Leon. Popping their head open is the quickest way to dispose of them, but it also may reveal the plaga controlling them which functions as an enemy within the enemy.
In addition to Leon defending himself from Los Illuminados he also must protect Ashley (whom has her own health bar) once she is rescued in the 2nd chapter, and while the idea of a game-length escort mission may put a lot of people off, I have to say that it actually is nowhere near as frustrating as it sounds. Ashley will mostly hang out behind Leon out of the line of fire, and will even duck if she is caught in the middle of a battle. Her actions are rather limited to helping Leon with two person puzzles, unlocking doors with a boost from Leon, and waiting in place or hiding depending if there is a hiding place in the area, while hiding Ashley is practically immune to all damage and cannot be found (incredibly convenient), she can also operate machinery so Leon can fend off attackers in tense situations. Ganados will typically not try to hurt Ashley (though she may accidently get a throwing axe to the face) instead opting to grab her and carry her out of the area; if a Ganado manages to carry her out of a door or her health is depleted then the game is over. And even after my doting if you still hate escort missions, she does get abducted in-story many times and will not need to be protected for a long stretch of time.
Alongside the revamped and action focused gameplay we also got a newly improved inventory system to accommodate the vast amounts of items you'll be receiving. Leon's inventory is represented by an attache case with several squares of space, so in order to take an item, be it new weapons, ammunition, or healing herbs and foods, it must fit into your attache case which means it is imperative to keep the case organized and clutter-free to maximize your space. If you're first instinct is to preserve ammo and healing items for dire situations (like any seasoned horror gamer) then you may have some trouble as the game practically gives you boxes upon boxes of ammo for each gun, as well as the series' signature green and red healing herbs (along with a new health-bar expanding yellow herb) which makes it safe to go all out, but not be wasteful in combat.
We also have a currency system in which Leon can encounter a mysterious arms dealer throughout the game and spend pesetas (the currently decommissioned currency of Spain) to obtain new weapons, expand the attache case size, and tune up owned weapons, making them more powerful and increasing their ammo capacity. To get money, you can loot enemy corpses for spare change, or find several of the game's hidden treasures to sell to the merchant for a high price (made even higher if combined with certain other treasures).
Now its time for me to point out the one skeleton in the gameplay's closet, the quick time events, or QTEs. Throughout the game, be it in a boss fight, or even in certain cutscenes, the game will prompt you to press either L and R or A and B to dodge enemy attacks, and failure to do so will more often then not result in a nasty demise for Leon. Its been said over and over that QTEs ARE NEVER FUN, they practically take the game out of the players hands, and break up the action more than enhancing it. Plus when you're involved in a cutscene or engaged in a fierce battle, it can be rather hard to catch the button prompts since your attention will be on other things.
Finally we come to the point where I just absolutely GUSH on this game, as it has one thing that practically every other horror game almost NEVER has; excellent replay-ability! While many horror games do have a new game+ option which gives the player a new difficulty level and maybe a hidden weapon and/or costume, almost none of them compare to RE4's new game+. Upon completion, not only do you carry over all of your tuned-up weapons, and increased health-bar into a new game, but after fulfilling certain requirements you can also purchase several new hidden weapons which (pun intended) are a real blast to use, such as the Infinite Rocket Launcher, and the Chicago Typewriter (AKA the most awesome Tommy gun EVER). We also get two mini games such as the incredibly addictive Mercenaries game which allows you to play as one of 5 different characters killing Ganados as quickly and effectively as possible, and the Assignment Ada mission in which you play as Ada Wong in a small little story point behind the scenes of the main game.
Now comes the major issue, is this a horror game, and did it set the franchise on a downward spiral? Yes, I will indeed argue that this is an "action horror" game, the atmosphere is undeniably creepy, and even though you're still incredibly well-armed, the threat that Leon faces is immense, unyielding, and incredibly monstrous and frightening. Plus I'm pretty sure everyone who plays this game will be cowering in fear when they hear the chilling rev of Dr. Salvadore's chainsaw, or are caught in a cage with the brutal Garrador.
I also do not believe that this game put RE on the downward spiral in terms of quality, in fact I'd call this game the absolute high point of the franchise since it not only revolutionized the gameplay of the series, but of 3rd person view games in general! While this game did introduce the QTEs that plague current RE games, it was mostly Capcom's attempts to further streamline the series with Michael Bay style thunderous action and explosions that ended up angering the fanbase starting with RE5 (which we'll get to later). This game is the magnum opus of the franchise and possibly one of the best games that Capcom has released in their extensive tenure. I highly recommend it for both horror fans, and for those action-loving COD players who need to be introduced to other games.
QTEs and weak plot aside, this game is sheer fun, and excitement! And since its on many last-gen consoles for a low price AND available for download on Xbox live, there is no excuse for having not played it!
This review was based on my experience playing the Gamecube version. I may post a follow-up if I play the PS2 version.