Resident Evil 4 was originally released for the Gamecube in 2005 and was both critically acclaimed and adored by fans. It was lauded not only for its stellar graphics and creepy sound design but also for perfecting the moment-to-moment gameplay akin to the “Halo Minute” from the Halo series by Bungie. Resident Evil 4 is never less than tense, imposing, thrilling and player-empowering. To say it betrays its survival-horror roots would be to do it an immense disservice and there’s no doubting that locations such as a rural spanish village, a gothic castle and a secret laboratory on an island combine to form something of a trinity of “horror” locales but the game is undoubtedly action focused. However it is a game made by the creator of the series, Shinji Mikami, and if you play it having played previous Resident Evil games then I don’t think you can be left in any doubt as to whether Capcom remember what Resident Evil used to be. For the time I feel like Resident Evil 4 is a near-perfect triumph of games design, with fantastic gameplay – including some of gaming’s most memorable boss battles -, gorgeous visuals and nearly peerless pacing. Nowadays games have surpassed some of its individual merits but I feel that few, if any, have surpassed it’s overall package as a 10 hour single player experience.
The story for the game is a classic action movie-type story, with the player taking the role of Leon S. Kennedy, a veteran of Resident Evil 2 and the events of Raccoon City, who has since been assigned to a presidential protection detail. Before he joins, the President’s daughter is captured from her university campus and transported to rural Spain by the mysterious Los Illuminados cult. The game opens with Leon dispatched to the village alongside some local police (who are quickly killed off in brutal fashion) and Leon discovers a far larger and more insidious plan than simply holding someone for ransom. There is a small cast of characters with some, such as Ada Wong, returning from previous Resident Evil games while new ones such as Luis Sera, Ashley Graham and Osmund Saddler make their RE debuts. Each character is slightly flamboyant and deliberately so as the game is self-aware of how cliche many elements are and the final boss even makes something of a fourth-wall breaking comment on this in their pre-death monologue.
In classic RE fashion you can find notes littered around the locales of the game that fill in some of the backstory with the disgusting and pre-historic Las Plagas parasite, discovered deep in the mines beneath the village and the neighbouring castle, as well as discover parts of the larger plot of the RE universe. However RE4 is very “new-player” friendly as a short introductory cutscene brings you up to date on relevant series lore and the game is largely self-contained in the larger tapestry of the series. While the Plagas have gone on to appear, in some form, in Resident Evil 5, even Leon’s subsequent appearances in the series don’t dwell too much on what happens. This is both a good thing and a bad thing because it means that if RE4 is your cup of tea as far as the RE series goes then you have a complete game and story in one package, but it also offers a few hooks to try and get people interested in the larger series with returning characters and plot elements. In contrast to Resident Evil 5, it is never a game that takes itself too seriously and tries to offer anything other than a fun and exhilarating experience, which is something I’ll try and talk about when I get round to writing my RE5 review.
One of the key features of this “HD” version of RE4 was a promise of 1080p/60fps support on PC and by large Capcom absolutely deliver on this front. The comparison shots show a genuine and marked improvement in texture resolution and this is visible in-game and while it sometimes clashes with comparatively low-poly models, the heavy use of photo-based textures help make the game’s incredible texture work shine through. There are occasionally some bizarrely low-res textures that look at home in the SD picture above and while they look ugly and clash in comparison to the 1080p textures, they are few and far between and don’t mar the overall experience too much. 60fps is easily achievable on PC and you can choose to have a locked 30fps experience or a locked 60fps experience. Playing at 60fps feels silky smooth and quite incredible as the apparent responsiveness helps while aiming down scopes etc, and there are only a few caveats. One of these are that several animations, such as some reloading animations or smashing barrels and crates, are frame-locked at 30fps and represent a brief slowdown in the game, but while it is noticeable it doesn’t really get in the way of the experience because it only occurs for a second or so at a time. The other problem is equally small-scale but far more obtrusive. RE4 was one of the mid 2000s games to popularize QTEs or Quick Time Events, and while these are always used to good effect, such as a tense QTE knife fight, there are two instances, roughly halfway through the game, where they are glitched on PC. Two QTE sections, no more than ten or fifteen minutes apart, seem to have animations locked to a 30fps frame rate, but the input-window for the button presses are not locked so you end up having half the time to input what is essentially twice as much button presses.
While some claim to have succeeded I found these sections impossible and was forced to quit to the main menu, losing twenty minutes of progress, before locking my game to 30fps and then replaying those sections. It worked just fine at 30fps and are the only true downsides to the 60fps option and hopefully it’s something Capcom can patch because once you’ve played it at 60fps you will be convinced that it is the only way to go in regards to Resident Evil 4. It’s a shame and nothing that’s not easily rectified but we shouldn’t have to settle for even this minor inconvenience while playing the game. The lighting remains impressive in creating a foreboding mood and areas such as the infamous “water room” in the Castle remain something of a sight to behold. Of course age has caught up with RE4 but in areas like textures and lighting, it only serves to show what an exemplary title the game was on its original release. The Island is the only area of the game to have its visual design suffer somewhat as it largely looks quite generic for a lot of the 21st century, AAA titles, however after crafting two unique and stand-out areas, Capcom can perhaps be forgiven for not playing too fast and loose with the design of the game’s final area. Another and slightly smaller benefit of the HD upgrade are the items you find. While the guns you wield look sufficiently high-res and impressive, text on ammunition boxes and grenades are now clear and legible, rather than the semi-blurry mess of a 480p game on Gamecube. Apart from the aforementioned one or two instances of low-res textures it is clear that Capcom have put a lot of effort into the photo-based textures of the original game and it pays dividends overall.
The moment-to-moment gameplay thankfully remains as strong as ever. I had not played RE4 since the Wii version several years ago and I was impressed that the quality of the gameplay was still there. RE4 constantly presents you with new challenges with no repetitious revisiting of previous areas only to clean out the SAME group of enemies time and again, as the only times you will backtrack through a certain area, the game makes sure to completely change the mood and atmosphere as well as the enemies you face. For instance you go through a small farm at the spanish village early in the game and it’s just after dawn, a slight mist/fog in the area, farm-animals cluck and moo while various Ganados enemies go about their routines on the farm. They will attack you with axes, pitchforks and the like if you startle them with a gunshot, or you can sprint past all of them and into the next area. When you come back later, as the story dictates, it is the dead of night, a storm rages overhead and the inky-black darkness is peppered with torch-lights, oil lamps and the eerie red-eyes of Plagas infected Ganados. You have a range of guns available to you, some of which you find throughout the game but a few will have to be purchased from “The Merchant”, who seems to be a purely fourth-wall breaking character who doesn’t exist in the RE world but serves as an interaction for the player, through Leon, to upgrade their weapons and buy new gear. You pay with the local Pesas currency which can be scavenged from dead ganados, or acquired by selling jewels and relics discovered around the game-world. It creates an interesting and addictive system as you work out your favourite guns as while there are statistically best guns, especially through upgrades, the only enemies that could be classified as absolute bullet-sponges are the bosses and thus almost all weapons are viable.
The progress at which you upgrade your weapons and buy certain gear (like inventory capacity upgrades) is gated in relation to progress in the story and the game is thusly balanced around the idea that someone has roughly upgraded their weapons to the current max available level. This avoids the sense of being overpowered to the point of boredom, while ensuring that the player feels empowered through an armament that could consist of a armor-piercing Handgun, a riot shotgun, a thermal sniper rifle and a mine thrower to name but a few of the weapons you can acquire. The weapons the enemies use throughout the game do change and upgrade, as while the village sees you attacked by Ganados with pitchforks, sickles, pitchforks and other rural farmyard tools, the castle sees you confronted by zealot cultists who use mace and shields or crossbows while parts of the Island see you going up against mercenaries using guns, maces, riot shields and the like. The rhythm and flow to the combat rarely looses it’s magic as the game never really throws enemies at you for the sake of it and always has interesting set pieces. While you could go for headshots or body shots, you could make an enemy stagger before delivering a roundhouse kick to the face or spear-tackling enemies and delivering crushing, violent deathblows.
While the Castle has set pieces such as navigating a maze while being hounded by infected hounds, or the Island has a set piece such as storming a mercenary camp while being provided covering fire by an over-zealous helicopter pilot, the standout moment of the game remains the “Cabin” towards the end of the Village part of the game. After travelling across a bridge in the dead of night, Leon and two allies are forced to take shelter in a miner’s cabin as they are surrounded on all sides by a hundred-strong mob of Ganados. You are then forced to desperately fight for survival as they pound on the door, smash through windows and scale ladders to do whatever they can to enter the house and kill you. It remains a tense set piece to this day and is arguably the game’s single standout moment as it strikes just the right balance between swamping you with enemies so you feel the tension and thrill, but not throwing so much at you that it becomes a chore as you wait for the stream of Ganados to end (It actually ends once 40-50 have been killed after a period of three minutes or so) and is thus a short but oh-so-sweet moment that doesn’t outlive its welcome but stays wormed into your memory for a long time to come.
Ultimately, I’m not sure if RE4 is the right game to win new fans of the RE series as, for the time, it was so atypical of the series as a whole, and in subsequent installments Capcom have taken the games too seriously and forgotten some of the things that made RE4 just so enjoyable. However standing on it’s own, RE4 remains a replayable and immensely enjoyable game to this day. The controls and graphics may be dated but they are not too detrimental to the player’s enjoyment of the game, and the moment-to-moment gameplay has lost none of it’s excitement, and the variety of the game throughout it’s 10 hour duration help ensure that its pacing is practically peerless, with no sequence outstaying it’s welcome or being obnoxiously frustrating and going out in a veritable blaze of glory.