Finally, I’m back on familiar ground. Up until I started this retrospective, Resident Evil 4 was actually the first and only game from the series I had played. And what’s funny about that is while I enjoyed it immensely back when I first played it, it’s taken this retrospective for me to fully appreciate just how brilliant this game actually is. For the most part anyway.
Like I said in the previous part on Code Veronica, I’ve always wondered why Resident Evil 4 was so different from the previous entries in the series. Thanks to doing this retrospective, I’ve come to find that the series was simply in dire need of a change. At the time of Code Veronica, Resident Evil’s clunky controls and, at that point, archaic design were beginning to feel really outdated. As a result, Resident Evil 4 took all of the elements that just didn’t fit in a modern gaming world and either threw them or redesigned them in such a way that they were able to work even better than they used to.
In fact, the game wastes no time in showing off just how different it is from its predecessors from the moment you push start. Within its first hour, the game shows off so many new elements, both in gameplay and overall tone, that are intrinsically not Resident Evil that, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think it belonged to a different series entirely.
The most obvious of these new elements is the game’s switch to over-the-shoulder 3rd person action which, while still slightly clunky with its own version of tank controls, feels incredibly satisfying to play with. It gives you a refreshing sense of control over your actions, allowing you to aim precisely at enemies and specific pieces of the environment, as well as dodge and weave the many hordes of foes that the game will throw at you. Ultimately, it just feels a lot more satisfying to have improved control of not only yourself, but also the camera. This actually helps facilitate the overall experience of Resident Evil 4, unlike in previous series entries in which this lack of control would just get in the way.
On top of this, you’ll also find that there’s now no zombies in sight, as the game states right after your first kill. You now have unlimited saves; a clear indication of your health and ammo count; a chapter-based progression of the story; enemies that drop health, ammo and money; and even an actual use for the combat knife that every game in the series so far starts you with. There’s a new element of strategy when it comes to how big you make your arsenal thanks to the new grid-based inventory system which forces you to make tough decisions about how many weapons, ammo boxes and health items you should be carrying around. Of course, this decision is eventually made easier by the helpful Merchant character, whom you can now purchase new weapons, upgrades and larger inventory spaces with the money you get from enemy drops and treasure you can find hidden around the game’s environments. Even a decade later I still think his “what are you buyin’?” line is still one of the most un-ironically entertaining pieces of dialogue in gaming history.
Return of the Cheese
But with all these changes, Resident Evil 4 has at least brought back a series staple: pure, hilarious cheesy moments. Of course, even that aspect has been given a bit of a makeover, now replacing the so-bad-it’s-good level of cheesiness from the first couple of games with that of pure, unadulterated American action movie cheese. I’d wager that almost 80% of the dialogue from main character Leon are “badass” lines, jokes and comebacks – all delivered in such a way that even Schwarzenegger would cringe. Hell, the whole premise of the game carries its own level of cheese, with Leon being the only “bad enough dude” to rescue the president’s daughter and stop an evil terrorist organisation from destroying the world.
Oddly enough, however, despite all these radical changes, Resident Evil 4 still feels somewhat like a Resident Evil game at its core. Granted, that core is mostly hidden by a game that’s chock-a-block with various over-the-top, adrenaline pumping action setpieces such as running away from giant boulders, a mine car shootout, a knife-fight Quick Time Event, and even a scene ripped straight out of the first Resident Evil in which Leon dodges fields of death lasers.
But, while only small inclusions, there’s still just enough of the original games for fans of the classics to latch onto, such as the new take on inventory management and the classic page-flipping method of reading in-game documents and memos. And even though it does away with attempting any actual scares, Resident Evil 4 finally brings back the tense atmosphere I’d been missing from the series. This is primarily done by forcing you into situations in which you’ll need to think fast and strategically while also paying attention to your surroundings. And Jesus, you really need to pay fucking attention.
Resident Evil 4 can get brutal as it goes on, incredibly so. If you don’t pay attention to your surroundings and play cautiously, Resident Evil 4 is going to slap you up-side the head for it. Because despite being an action-heavy game, Resident Evil 4 still carries the series tradition of forcing the player to be conservative. Using your guns to solve every problem you come across, whether they’re a group of enemies or hidden traps, will only leave you running around in blind panic looking for droplets worth of ammo during big fights later. Even trying to expand your arsenal of weapons too quickly in the early game is a bad idea, as they take up a large portion in your inventory, leaving very little space for necessary ammo and health supplies. It’s just as well the Merchant gives you some breathing room over the course of the game by offering larger inventory space.
That being said, if you manage to catch onto the harsh rules Resident Evil 4 wants you to play by and approach it with caution and a more conservative approach, you’ll find yourself playing an incredibly rewarding experience. Not only will you be able to save your ammo and health items by using the environment against the game’s enemies – such as using their own traps and weapons against them – you’ll also find yourself coming across hidden caches of supplies and swimming in cash to spend at the Merchant. You can even end up killing one of the game’s tougher bosses in one hit if you can figure out when to shoot. As long you play by the game’s rules and use them to your advantage, Resident Evil 4 will reward you by turning a nail-biting and tense experience into a fun thrill ride that makes you feel like the most baddest of dudes. You may even end up finishing the game like I did, making Leon a walking grenade farm that turned the final boss into a joke.
Now you may have noticed that this retrospective is up a little late this week, but the honest reason is that I was so engrossed in this game that I just couldn’t put it down. Even a decade later, Resident Evil 4 is still a wonderfully designed game that’s still incredibly satisfying to play. I’ve actually been considering grabbing the brand new HD re-release that came out for modern consoles just so I can play it all over again with an even smoother frame-rate. Really my only gripe with the game is that a good 40% of it is an escort quest with an unhelpful AI partner, but in my mind that’s a small dent in an otherwise stellar game that has managed to withstand the test of time. For better or for worse, this was the game that thrust the Resident Evil series back into the modern gaming consciousness.
But now that my time with Resident Evil 4 has come to an end, it feels somewhat bittersweet to move on to the next game in the franchise. Sure, I had an absolute blast playing it all over again, but now I realise I’m on the home stretch of the main series games. Resident Evil 4 is probably one of the only modern games in the franchise that was widely recognised as a good game. I’ve now travelled with the series from its beginnings, playing along with its improvements and new strides. Sure, there have been a few fumbles here and there, but I always knew that no matter what, Resident Evil 4 was coming up.
But now I’ve past that point. I’ve reached what could be the peak of the series. And now I’m staring downhill at what turned a series that I’ve now come to know and love into the apparent hot mess it’s become today. I’m suddenly worried, not for what I’ve seen in these games so far, but rather what’s to come next.