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RESIDENT EVIL 4 / Capcom / Gamecube
I'm not the world's biggest fan of Quentin Tarantino, but there's a quote of his that has stuck with me. He was being interviewed about the making of Kill Bill, and said something to the effect of "When you leave the theater, I want you to say, man, I just saw a fuckin' MOVIE."
Resident Evil 4 is a fuckin' GAME. It's what big-budget, big-spectacle AAA releases aim to be, but rarely actually achieve. I'd put it up there with the likes of Ocarina of Time, Grand Theft Auto III, Mario 64 and etc. in terms of sheer "Wow, that was awesome and I had a great time with it" factor.
Writers prone to just rolling with whatever marketing cliche pops into their head often refer to Resident Evil as "pioneering survival horror." It really wasn't, though - it just took the Alone in the Dark series (along with lesser-light knockoffs like Ecstatica and Bioforge) from the PC to the console, replaced all the Cthulu with zombies, and made everything look a bit nicer. It did *popularize* survival horror in the mainstream, but that's something completely different. Resident Evil 4, however, is the first of the series to actually pioneer something, and to feel really fresh. It's the first to implement a hybrid first- and third-person view that sees the action from directly over the character's shoulder at an offset angle. Is that a big deal? Well, apparently yeah, because not only does it work really well here and open the series up to a whole new audience that never cared much for the clunky tank controls of the previous games, so many games in the past four years have completely copied it that I can't even remember them all offhand (Gears of War probably being the most lauded of the bunch.)
Resident Evil 4 really reminds me a lot more of System Shock 2 than of any previous games in the series. OK, you're not on a spaceship and there's no malevolent AI manipulating your every move. But it has a virtually identical inventory system, a similar use of sound and perspective limitations to create a creepy environment, swarms of tough-to-kill enemies up your butt constantly that require strategy and good tactics to combat, an upgrade system that allows you to specialize in your favored weapons, and a nice balance between strategic item and ammo management and cutting you loose to engage in plenty of massively satisfying firefights.
What I also love about it is that it cuts all that Umbrella Corporation mess and just starts fresh with the story and setting. Leon S. Kennedy, one of the main characters of Resident Evil 2, returns for lead duties, but there's barely any connection at all with the previous games. A quick prologue at the beginning of the game informs us that, amazingly, the logical and reasonable thing happened to Umbrella - after the Raccoon City debacle, investors stopped paying them to create plagues that wipe out entire cities, and the United States government intervened to heavily regulate them until they eventually dissolved. This time out, the discovery of fossilized critters in a mine has caused a remote Spanish mountain village to turn into a cult of violent weirdos, headed up by a mysterious robed leader intent on expanding his power to the outside world. Leon, who has been working as a U.S. special agent of some sort since the Raccoon affair, is sent in when the weirdo cult manages to get hold of the President's daughter while she's on a trip to Europe.
The story is broken up into six chapters, two of each taking place in one of the game's three distinct environments. The outset at the Village is more like traditional Resident Evil, as Leon begins the game stumbling into the cult's village and has to hold off their shambling hordes with a limited amount of ammo and use of environmental help (you can hide out in a house, pushing furniture to cover doors and windows.) As you progress through the Village chapters, however, you eventually acquire a horde of weapons and ammo, and soon the game is expecting you to simply mow down every enemy you see rather than try to slip around them. The Castle that you eventually take refuge in is more of a non-stop Indiana Jones trapfest punctuated by a number of excellent boss battles. The Island is the only place that Resident Evil 4 starts to feel like it is overstaying its welcome just a bit, as the game suddenly takes a turn into Call Of Zombies 4: Spanish Farmers At War and is basically a massive non-stop FPS. It's amazing that the game manages to keep up an exciting and crisp pace for about 20 hours of overall gameplay time given the series' noted reliance on tedious backtracking for the sake of padding, however, and I guess a little too much content is better than too little.
A big part of the appeal of the game is that it looks wonderful, possibly the best-looking game overall on the Gamecube. There's a lot of little ambient effects like dust blowing, great detail in the backgrounds, and the character models look very real and fluid. This is partnered with excellent stereo sound (Dolby Surround also if you've got it) to make the game immersive - sound is often key to tell if enemies are flanking you while you're focused on some that are straight ahead, as the perspective doesn't give you quite the full 180 degree view you'd get in a traditional FPS.
Enemy design and AI is also a big factor. The most common "ground troop" enemies, the Ganados, are not zombies, but they behave in a similar way. They're humans infected with a virus that makes them completely amoral and stabby, mentally susceptible to the cult leader's direction, unafraid of harm and resistant to gunfire. As such they can sprint, handle weapons, climb through windows and up ladders, yell and communicate with each other, use flanking tactics to split up in a group and try to get the drop on you, open doors and etc. The only thing that keeps you in the game is that running doesn't seem to agree with them, so they don't do it all that often, and that the vast majority are armed with only farm implements such as pitchforks and hatchets. It's a credit to the game that it can have such an amazing level of graphical detail, yet also throw the mobs of enemies at you that it does (up to 20 or so at a time) while maintaining a consistent 30 fps. Even better are the boss battles, of which there are heaps, and are consistently imaginative and menacing. And enemies have a pretty good system of positional damage - head and chest shots are more damaging and likely to stagger them, but leg shots will make them kneel or completely sprawl out if you catch them while running, and shooting their arm or their weapon can cause them to drop it (especially fun with the Ganados that wield dynamite.)
This is a site with a small following, and I'm pretty sure the readership is almost entirely gamers age 25 and up who have been at this for some time and have discerning tastes, and probably see Resident Evil as an overrated and cash-farming franchise. I skipped Resident Evil 4 for four years due to this and it was entirely my own loss. This really is a great game, that seems to sincerely want to push the series forward and do better than ever with it. It's a remarkable effort, is fairly substantial for what is basically a "thrill ride" game (the story mode clocks in at about the same length of time as the shorter end of RPGs), and you get a decent bonus mode called "Mercenares" when you complete it that sort of turns the game into Timesplitters and adds some additional play value. Everyone really should have a copy of this game - the only issue with the Gamecube version is that all the other versions have an extra mode of play where you can do a few chapters as Ada Wong, running concurrently to the main story. The PS2 version doesn't look nearly as good, though, and the PC and Wii versions apparently have not-as-good play control.
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Res. Ev. 4 in a nutshell
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