I never played any of the Resident Evil games before Resident Evil 4. From what I can gather, they were slow-paced with a weird camera system that made combat nearly impossible and a fairly bizarre story centered around an evil virus and zombies. The hype around RE4 was that it was different. Most of the rather enthusiastic press waxes lyrical about the new graphics engine and camera, the new combat system, and the interactive cutscenes. Every review also seems to make a point to claim that the game has no zombies. After playing through most of the game, I can agree with some of this, but anyone who thinks there are no zombies in this game must be partially undead in the brain.
Zombies, Lots of Zombies
Let’s get one thing straight. This game is full of zombies. They may look like “villagers”, or wear funny hats, or babble in Spanish. Most of all, they may not actually be dead yet, but they are still zombies. Strictly speaking, the story revolves around some sort of evil that has turned a huge number of otherwise normal people into mindless automatons of death. But don’t let this fool you. They are still zombies. They shuffle slowly, they surround you, they grab you and wack you with weapons and most of all, when you shoot them in the head they explode in a rain of guts and blood and gore while they shuffle off to their ultimate fate. Then they fall over and turn into money.
You Shoot, Slowly
Here is how the game plays. You walk slowly into an area. You can only walk slowly, unless you hit the B key to move faster. You have to wonder about a game that dedicates an entire button for nothing but “move faster”. Haven’t they ever heard of an analog stick? You know, an input device that provides a smoothly varying set of outputs over a large range, which you could interpret as, I don’t know, how fast I want to move. On the up side, the third person camera is fairly well done. It only gets in the way when you try to see around corners. The rest of the time it sits behind your shoulder, letting you peer into the creepy environments while still allowing scary creatures to surprise you from behind.
Anyway, you show up in an area, and some number of zombie bad guys appear. They shuffle slowly towards you. You stand in one place and slowly aim your gun. I gather that the aiming system is a lot better than the previous games. But it is still awkward, and I wish you could at least strafe. If the zombies were moving faster, or actually had any intelligence whatsoever, you’d be dead while you aim. Luckily, the game spares you by having most of the enemies move very methodically in your direction, allowing you to peg them repeatedly with the shotgun until they die. This process is a lot of fun, especially when you make heads explode in interesting patterns.
The game avoids becoming overly repetitive by changing up the nature of the combat once in a while. There are a few different kinds of scary beasts that chase you faster than the standard zombies. There are a few snipe and dodge missions, a couple of shoot things while rolling on rails sequences, and some stupid escort missions where you have to lead a girl around while she screams a lot. The hardest sequences in the game involve killing a lot of zombies while keeping the girl alive at the same time.
The game also does a great job of balancing fun and challenge. You find ammo and health packs when you need them, and there is this creepy merchant creature who follows you around the game and sells you new weapons and weapon upgrades. While the zombie hordes are always menacing, they are hardly ever completely overwhelming. This means that you get to spend most of your time blowing up zombie heads rather than worrying about resources, or replaying levels because you are dead. This means you spend most of your time having fun.
In summary, the meat of the game is the combat, and while it is awkward and sort of stupid, the combat is good enough to keep you coming back for more. But, this doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t do some stupid things.
A Lack of Puzzling Puzzles
Once in a while you have to solve a puzzle. There are basically two kinds of puzzles in the game: easy and stupid. The easy puzzles are of the form “find the key, unlock the door”, or “turn a couple of knobs, unlock the door”. The only trouble here is finding the right key or realizing which knobs are turnable. The stupid puzzles are annoying combinatorial problems that are not so much hard as just busywork. There is even a “move the 8 tiles around the 9 spaces” puzzle. Luckily, I came to the game late so all of the walkthroughs have the stupid combinations in them already.
Interactive Cut Scenes
One of the more interesting gameplay conceits in RE4 is the combination of cut scenes and action sequences. You’ll come into an area, and a cut scene will start playing and suddenly the game will tell you that you have to mash the A button furiously or be crushed by a rolling boulder. For the most part, this mechanic provides a way to make you play the same cut scene over and over and over again until you mash the buttons in just the right order. As such, it is stupid and evil. There are a few places in the game where this mechanic is used well to provide a general sense of creepiness. But, I think Capcom were a little too proud of themselves, and the scheme is overused, especially in the boss fights.
You are not the Boss of Me
In between the fights, and the puzzles and the cut scenes that kill you are, of course, the bosses. Generally, the bosses follow the familiar pattern: the boss is big, the boss has a pattern of attacks, the boss has a single fatal weakness which you must read the walkthrough to discover and exploit. So, the boss fights go like this: run, run, dodge, run, dodge, shoot, shoot, die, die, get bored, read the walkthrough, run, dodge, shoot, kill the boss.
Some of the boss fights borrow the “mash this button combination or be destroyed” mechanic from the cut scenes. This can be annoying, since it’s hard to do the button mashing if you are already holding down the right trigger and B to use your weapon and the buttons you have to mash involve either the B button or the triggers (which they always do). This is one of the ways that the boss fights ensure that you must repeat them at least 3 times, thus padding out the length of the game.
Even with all these complaints, there is at least one pretty original idea for a boss early in the game. And, there are a couple of boss creatures later in the game who are fun to kill with a single shot.
But ultimately these are still bosses, and bosses are stupid. So mark one more negative point.
Stupid Inventory System
The game has an annoying inventory system that allows you to carry a ludicrous amount of stuff, but not everything you find or buy. So you get to waste a lot of time shuffling things around in your box, and you get to waste money buying bigger boxes once in a while. Happily, this is only a minor annoyance, but you have to wonder why they bothered.
Back to the Good Stuff
While I have spent a lot of time whining about the stupid things in the game, I have to say that overall RE4 is excellent in spite of itself. In addition to the zombie killing, it does a lot of other things right. The environments have a great sense of scale, small or large, and at times they manage to generate an atmosphere of general creepiness and dread. This is pretty impressive considering that the game is well balanced enough that you are usually not in great danger of dying quickly (except for certain boss-like meanies). The rendering is stunning; as good as anything on the Xbox. There are even some pretty awesome lighting, fire and water effects. The game is courteous enough to attach a virtual flashlight to the back of your head so you can see while running around in the dark. The light isn’t really there, but a certain glow does follow you around so you can see things. This is a nice touch. Finally, even with all the eye candy, load times are fast.
Overall, I have found RE4 to be a game that is superbly balanced, superbly produced, and a lot of fun. The fun that it provides more than makes up for the things it does wrong. If you have a GameCube, go buy it now. The upcoming PS2 version will probably play just as well, but it will look like ass.