Resident Evil 4 is like the Citizen Kane of games – it’ll always be near the top of those ‘Best Games Ever’ lists. We last played it on the GameCube 11 years ago, but after all this time, does the game deserve the praise it gets?
So some backstory, for those not in the know. You play as Leon S. Kennedy – rookie cop star of Resident Evil 2, who not only survived Raccoon City’s zombie outbreak, but is also tragically afflicted with a centre parting and a bad case of the too-cool-for-school attitude that define Japanese gaming heroes. You know the sort, all moody looks and cheap one-liners that are written cool and come off cheesy. He’s on a mission to save Ashley Graham, the President’s daughter, who’s been kidnapped by a Spanish cult.
The game opens with Leon’s hammy voice-over narration, a melodramatic reading coupled with a ridiculously over-the-top montage that kinda sorta explains the events of the previous game – ending in Raccoon City’s nuclear obliteration. It’s a fitting metaphor for a game so unlike its predecessors. For traditional RE fans, Resident Evil 4 represents a dramatic shift for the series. In fact, you could make a very strong argument that this is no more a true Resident Evil game than Mario Paint is a Super Mario game (it’s also the core reason why we have the unexceptional Resident Evil 5 and the abysmal Resident Evil 6). Gone are the fixed camera angles, the door openings that hide load screens, and the zombies. Instead, what we have here is a third-person action-adventure that pits you against hordes of brainwashed villagers intent on punching, chopping and chainsawing you to death.
Beyond that, the narrative is pitched somewhere between pulpy and campy: You’re chasing down the US President’s daughter, who’s being used as a toy in the machinations of a warped cult leader who wants to control the Leader of the Free World using Las Plagas, a parasite that can control the mind of its host. The characters are good here, perfectly fitting the exaggerated tone of the game, from the pint-sized nobleman Ramon Salazar to Ashley, who plays the role of perpetual damsel in distress. Along the way to defeat the Big Bad, you’ll ally yourself with NPCs Luis Sera and series favourite, Ada Wong – a woman who so bitingly ice-cold she makes liquid nitrogen seem warm and inviting. Cue plenty of overacted dialogue – another favourite from the series – in between taking down seriously grotesque (and well-realised) monsters that are Resident Evil’s hallmark.
Given its remastered status, the game looks…pretty good. Or at least, not bad. There’s a confident style to the designs, but the graphics look like what they are: A moderate facelift of a decade-old game. Characters appear waxy, as if their flawless skin has been crafted from brushed marble and, up close, textures and models can seem a little flat and blocky, which reveals the game’s true age. Resident Evil 4 probably could one day benefit from a very faithful remake, that retains the core gameplay, but gives it the graphical overhaul it deserves – not to mention sorting out the controls and the stiff camera that offers little in the way of peripheral vision.
This is, perhaps, the biggest issue with the game – it’s frustrating, rather than fun, to control Leon (we felt so totally out of control that we wondered whether we, too, were affected by Las Plagas). The fury you’ll feel will subside eventually; you will get used to the controls, but until that point, RE4 is an unintuitive endurance exercise, as you battle to move, direct the camera and aim your gun using all the wrong sticks. There is a limited button configuration menu, for those who prefer the older control scheme, but they still feel fairly clunky, and we ended up relying heavily on the D-Pad to maintain control.
The over-the-shoulder camera places you firmly in the action, with a tight laser-sight used to line up your shots – finally you can accurately aim for the head, ironic given that this isn’t a zombie game. But being unable to move when shooting feels odd. Sure, the immobility adds tension to the proceedings, as you struggle to move Leon into position, desperately reloading and taking aim while enemies plough towards you. But it can also feel dated and sluggish in a game that wants to up the action ante.
That’s not to say Resident Evil 4 doesn’t have moments of pure terror, reminiscent of its survival horror roots. The warning wails of the villagers, known as Las Ganados, aren’t just haunting in themselves, but foreboding in what they portend – a swarm of vicious villagers angered to the point of homicide by your presence. And the level design, particularly Salazar’s opulent castle with its deadly hedge maze, stirs up an atmosphere of dread. You feel you’re not only in unfamiliar territory, but you’re isolated a long way from home. Even those awkward controls help create a feeling of vulnerability, crucial to success in the genre.
Ultimately, though, the game is dead-set on providing an action thrill-ride. You can see it from item placement alone, which was notoriously stingy in the original games – in just the first 20 minutes, we amassed four green herbs, around 40 handgun bullets and a shotgun that didn’t require solving a puzzle to acquire. Another addition that emphasises the new focus on action comes in the form the mysterious Merchant. Here players can purchase weapons upgrades for the battles ahead. The options available to you here are generally unsurprising, however it adds an extra dimension to your adventure, encouraging you to hunt for coins and consider your playstyle.
This is a Resident reinvention, remastered and ported from the PC, and running at 1080p, 60fps. It looks OK for its age, but doesn’t handle as well as later games in the series. Having said that, we point out its flaws without malice, but with a sense of affection. Resident Evil 4 completely shook up a staid survival series, and we found the gameplay still fun and furious after all these years. That’s why it still tops those ‘Best Games Ever’ lists.
Resident Evil 4 is available from the Xbox Store, priced £15.99.
The shooter that changed the festering face of Resident Evil
Pros: A fine remaster with gameplay that’s still as exciting and high-octane as it was first time around. A game that’s confident it knows what it is and how to achieve it.
Cons: Shonky control system feels dated, and the graphics aren’t so flattering as they were in 2005.