October 2, 2012
What Are You Buying, Stranger? A Resident Evil 4 Retrospective
I can remember it vividly: it was the day before my birthday, and I was babysitting at a neighbor’s house. I was 14 at the time, and after an unfortunate scooter accident, I fell, broke my wrist, and landed myself in the hospital. It wasn’t a very traumatic experience, and when I went to the orthopedist he asked what color cast I wanted. I said I didn’t care, but I did have one request that sort of baffled him at first. I asked him if he could cut some extra room around my thumb, so I had more dexterity. I also wanted my fingers to be more exposed as to move them around more. He complied, and asked why this was so, since it was a very unusual wish. I stated emphatically and unequivocally: “Resident Evil 4 comes out next week.”
2005 was that awkward period in the gaming industry (and in my life), the one where a new generation of consoles was on the horizon, and things slowed down as the future loomed bright and mysterious. The Xbox 360 had yet to be formally introduced, and publishers were releasing the last great games of the Gamecube and PS2 era. We were just coming out of one of the greatest holiday seasons ever, with Sly 2, Burnout 3, Katamari Damacy, GTA: San Andreas, Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, Halo 2, and Half-Life 2 all being released in a four month period at the end of 2004. I don’t think anyone was expecting to have their minds blown so early in the new year, but Resident Evil 4 was something that surprised a lot of people.
The franchise, at that point, has seen a slew of spin-offs and prequels. Resident Evil Zero, Dead Aim, Outbreak, and Outbreak File #2 all weren’t exactly titles that met the quality of previous installments. Expectations were high, and they always are with numbered sequels to gigantic franchises, especially the size of Resident Evil. It had been (and still is) the flagship survival horror series, but I don’t think anyone was ready for how truly transcendent RE4 would be. It’s astonishing to think that God of War came out around then too; RE4 really was at the center of a golden age of video games, and I don’t think we’re bound for too many more of them to come.
Since RE6 is out, I thought it would be a good idea to not spend $60 and instead do a Resident Evil 4 Retrospective. Thankfully, there is an HD rerelease on Xbox Live, and like a lot of HD remasters I went in expecting nothing more than a fun look back at a game I love. I planned on playing for a day, maybe saying “it was better when I played it seven years ago”, and going on with my life. WRONG. Suffice it to say, Resident Evil 4 sucked me into its world, and never let go. I was shocked to see how well it held up over time, and it looked and played like any contemporary game on the market today. But what RE4 does better than anything else is how amazing the atmosphere is. From the second it starts, every single detail is meant to grab you and shake you to your core. There is a certain ambience that hasn’t been surpassed since, and the only thing that comes close to matching it has been Bioshock. Immersion is something that’s really been lacking in a lot of games, and I feel that it can help make a good game turn into a great game.
There is an eerie sense of story that lingers throughout Leon’s adventure, one that gives an impression of events long passed. It creates a mystery that is only alluded to, and every level tells its own version of history of what happened. Doors marked with notes, villagers harpooned into walls, a castle filled with gothic architecture, churches splattered with blood, island strongholds housing the remains of experiments gone wrong; RE4 has that special feel that pushes the player forward narratively, and paints a haunting tale without shoving it down your throat. The music is somber, the level design gets progressively tighter and narrower, and the game makes you question what is around every corner. There is no safe place to hide anywhere, and that inherently creates tension within the gameplay. Every bullet counts, every herb matters. There is an amazing meta-game of resource management at play here, and it’s just another example of how RE4’s gameplay adds to the survival horror genre. It always makes any upcoming danger ever present within our minds.
The biggest difference from other Resident Evil games has been that infamously frustrating camera. It was a staple of the horror genre, to have clunky controls and an unwelcoming camera impede your character. The slower you moved and the harder it was to defend yourself, the scarier it became. Over time, two analog sticks dominated all 3D games, and with this innovation in controller design came an increase in demand for better controls. What RE4 established with its over the shoulder style of shooting was two things: that the older games were no longer a blueprint and were essentially too archaic, and there was a new need to implement more action into the gameplay. It could have backfired on them, but thankfully it gave birth to what is now the norm in terms of third person shooters. Gears, Dead Space, Vanquish, Army of Two, Transformer: War for Cybertron, Uncharted, and others all had RE4 to thank for its shooting mechanics. Even though some of those games aren’t as slow paced, and some rely on a cover system, I don’t think they would have succeeded without there being a precedent for a blockbuster third person shooter. FPS games littered the store shelves, and it took RE4 to really remind people that not all games had to be in first person.
What’s also nice about the shift in the series was the eclusion of outright zombies, and this makes the game feel so liberated from its roots. The enemies are just people, or were people, and they have this irrational horror to them, where they’ll kill their own and are part of a religious cult, and I still have no idea what is exactly going on. I love how the culmination of gameplay, and story, and setting, and atmosphere all come together to make the game scary 100% of the time. Even playing it again made me panic; enemies will crowd around you slowly, and no matter where you are in the campaign they will ALWAYS catch up to you, and this ever present tension of claustrophobia is what makes it so memorable. Memorable like all of the boss battles, the locales, the items, the guns, the cameos, it is all absolutely unforgettable and to this day I know that game like the back of my hand. It’s outstanding to think a game like that holds up so well. It’s suspenseful when it’s quiet, exciting when its action packed, and frightening when you encounter something new, whether it be giant bugs, giant monsters, freakish lake creatures, walking knights in armor, a blind wolverine type guy, a midget with two predators for body guards, or a formless mutant who regenerates limbs and never seems to die. Most games would kill for so many types of enemies, and they all behave in different ways, as to make the combat always interesting and never boring. The simple evolution of the enemies, that they’re heads transform into a whole other creature adds a lot of depth to the game, forcing you to not simply rely on upgrading weapons but changing your strategy on how you approach fights.
From the opening shootout it hooks you, where you don’t know how long it’s going to last, and a crazy man with a potato sack wields a chainsaw at you, so you climb a ladder and kick it down, but there are already people in the house, so you grab the shotgun and jump out the window. That was one hell of a way to start a game, and then the title hits the screen and you know you’re in for some shit. Every facet of this game is as intuitive as jumping to grab coins: shooting axes out of the air, lighting people on fire when they hold a torch, knifing boxes and vases so you don’t waste ammo; these things are ingrained in me, and it’s sad to think most contemporary games on the market lose these distinctive gameplays touches. No need for shoehorned multiplayer (or whatever contrived thing they put in games these days), it’s one of the few single player games that has infinite replay value, and gives you an incentive to go back through it again and again. I must have played through that game a dozen times, it really is that monumental. RE4 is so good it even makes me forget the plot is “save the president’s daughter”, which is the longest running plot for a US president in an artistic medium.
I don’t think there is a better personification of the advancement RE4 made than of the laser sight. With that sole addition, RE4 blows by all of the previous RE games. No more save ribbon nonsense, no more laughable dialogue or Jill sandwiches. The laser sight and precision aiming embody all of the steps forward the franchise was taking. Context sensitive controls, quick time events, an audacious scale, RE4 was quite ahead of its time. It was a genre blending and defying horror game, and it all worked; the game went on to sell millions and receive every award there is to receive. It deserved it all, of course, and RE4 still stands today as a seminal effort by Capcom. An influential game that garnered its significance from spooky yet smart sound design, realistic animations, wild enemies, creative puzzles, and thrills per minute, Resident Evil 4 is a masterpiece, pure and simple.
So many of RE4’s elements came together in such a terrific culmination; the art direction, the graphics, the presentation, the sound, they all were console defining back in 2005, and they still hold up today. Every detail of the levels, every secret path, the way the merchant greeted you, it all stands the test of time, and RE4 reaches a pinnacle of gaming that few other games reach. I’ll never forget the ending credits, which in my mind is still the most haunting and disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in a game. That little story of how the villagers came to become infected, and the old timey presentation, and the music, I cringe at how surreal it all is. And that’s how I feel about RE4, it’s surreal. Why can’t more developers make games like this anymore? Spend the time to craft a wholly satisfying and cohesive product, devoid of petty flaws and only giving cerebral and chilling challenges to the player? I hope we see something like this come again, and if I’m wrong, then I’ll cut off my head.