Resident Evil 4
I can't help but think of Doom 3 and not just because both that and Resident Evil 4 revolve around the themes of fright and mass death/murder. It's more because both games feature control design that has sparked debate. On the one hand there were those left flabbergasted, and indeed annoyed, by developer Id's decision to prevent players from using the torch and a weapon simultaneously. "Any normal person would tape the torch to the gun, or simply hold one in each hand!" - that's more or less what was being said. Personally, I never understood the argument. Control design is a delicate art. It's about defining and dictating how the player interacts with the game environment. This of courses varies upon the game in question. Control very much defines the nature of a game; what control is not about is authenticity. After all, how realistic can a simulated experience of shooting people be when all you're actually doing is sitting in a chair and pressing some buttons? Gran Turismo may be very realistic on several levels but at the end of the day who drives their car from 10 feet behind using a joypad?
Some games of course do strive to create the illusion that their controls really do mimic the possibilities of real life. The first person shooter and the idea of interacting with another world from inside the head of one of its inhabitants brought with it the desire for naturalistic controls. The ability to duck, to lean round corners, to lay prone, to swing your fists when you're without a weapon - all are integral to FPS's and all are designed to mimic the possibilities open to you were you to be in the same situation in "the real world", whatever that may be. Now, there's nothing wrong with this but it does frustrate me when gamers presume that just because realistic controls in Halo very much benefit Halo, they will also do so for every other title.
People have moaned about the controls in Resident Evil for years but they really are missing the point. Imagine if the sluggish "turn-on-the-spot" control mechanic used in Resident Evil were replaced with ability to jump backwards, roll out of harms way and strafe around opponents. It wouldn't be Resident Evil anymore; it would be Devil May Cry, which incidentally is also a Capcom game, so they obviously know how to do both. The reason is that whilst the controls in Devil May Cry are great, so too they are in Resident Evil. Devil May Cry is about over exaggerated combat, combos and showmanship - all of which are facilitated by the controls. Resident Evil is about an impending attacker, about the struggle to survive, about entrapment and about horror - all of which again are facilitated by the controls. Slow, plodding zombies are simply not scary if you can roll out of the way and strafe quickly behind them. Think of it like one of those dreams where you're trying to get away from something but can't get your legs to move quickly enough. Would you remember the dream if you simply jogged off to safety?
The point I'm slowly plodding toward is that I simply don't understand the people who criticise the controls in Resident Evil 4. Of course, you're granted neither the first person control of Halo or the acrobatic freedom of third person Max Payne. However, the fact is that if you were then it would simply become an entirely different game, much more like all the other third person action titles that litter the shelves of your local games shop. Rooting you to the spot whilst aiming and not allowing you to strafe creates a far tenser experience that lends itself perfectly to a Resident Evil title. The action takes place just behind the shoulder of Leon, the main lead. A laser sight on each weapon allows you to aim clearly and accurately at any attacker. You're able to run in the direction you're facing and turning 180° on the spot is a doddle. Now, envisage being stranded in the middle of a market square with over a dozen enemies approaching from four different sides. Trust me when I say that it's a lot more intense when you're not able to shoot two as you forward roll toward a wall, jump off it 10 metres into the air and pour lead onto all below before you land and roundhouse kick the remaining group. The restrictions placed on you in Resident Evil 4 are there to create an atmosphere. And what a fantastic job they do too.
Whatever you may or may not think of the controls, however, it's hard to deny that Resident Evil 4 is a magnificent title and probably the greatest in the series to date. The plot sees you controlling a government agent set out to rescue the missing daughter of the President named Ashley. It is a little unfortunate that Ashley herself is possibly the weakest female character outside of Barbara from Night of the Living Dead but at least your main lead, Leon, manages to evade the dry snobbery of Solid Snake or glum brutality of Sam Fisher, instead settling on a comfortable heroic yet mildly humble middle ground. Additional characters fighting both with you and against you are perfectly acceptable and in the case of a few of the zombie-folk actually quite sound and compelling.
Though of course, we're not dealing with zombies this time. In another diversion from what we've grown to expect of the Resident Evil series, your assailants are instead disease ridden murderous villagers, driven to follow the desires of assorted treacherous vile sources. So, the shuffling moaning of zombies past is out and what we have instead are developed communities that will work together to take you down. On an individual level characters make short bolts toward you, duck out of the way of your aim, encircle you and even climb through windows to try and catch you unaware. Think of them as zombies for the 21st century, more akin to what you'll see in the remake of Dawn of the Dead as opposed to the original. These guys like to work together too. If you're spotted taking one out then their mate will call for reinforcements. As if tackling their pre-laid traps wasn't enough, get caught in a corner and they'll attack from assorted avenues. As well as approaching from all angles (and heights) and from all entrances to a property, beware too of firebombs or other forms of long distance sabotage. More hectic moments can see over a dozen foes advance from all directions, often at very close range - tense in the extreme.
Their extra dexterity demands too that the player is equally equipped to survive. Luckily the laser sighting of your weapons allows for precise shooting; the result is incredibly satisfying and more importantly a lot of fun. An approaching enemy can be tackled in several ways. Most direct is a straight shot to the head, resulting in a satisfying explosion, quick kill and still staggering torso. Instead you may choose to shoot an enemy in the foot and then fill them with bullets as they wriggle on the ground. If they wield a weapon why not shoot it out of their hands, or even out of the air if its hurtling toward you? If not, just aim for the body and shoot until your clip is empty whilst you watch enemies clutching the part of the body you've aimed for. If anyone gets too close then a prompt appears on screen; manage to respond quickly enough and Leon will engage in some hand to hand combat, either wiggling free or sometimes even roundhouse kicking anyone too close for comfort. Many of the cutscenes require you to respond in the same manner. Sometimes you'll be required to escape a rolling boulder by hammering the A button as quick as you can, other times you must enter various button combinations quickly - succeed and on screen you'll see Leon avoid a punch or tackle an opponent effectively; fail and it's game over. Even if this does happen though, sensible checkpointing will ease the frustration of retrying troublesome sections.
Along with the main levels there are plenty of other distractions. Though it is very much action based there are a sprinkle of puzzles, though most don't ask that much of the player. There are also a few ongoing minigames throughout the main quest such as shooting a number of scattered pendants in an effort to unlock weapons. Speaking of which, there is a good range of weapons ranging from your standard pistol to shotguns, sniper rifles and machine guns. All weapons are upgradeable as well; doing so not only improves their power and speed but also their resale value - invaluable when purchasing more meaty sidearms as you progress through the game. Smashed crates and fallen enemies will also reveal cash, all of which can be traded with regular merchants lining your path through the game offering supplies like grenades, first aid spray and ammunition, along with all the guns.
As if the stages themselves aren't gripping enough, the boss battles are largely very memorable. El Giganto is a cross between the Rankor from Jabba's Palace and the Balrog from the Mines of Moria whilst the beast of the swamp is like the Loch Ness Monster on steroids. All are huge, all require skill to take down but all are manageable once you understand their attack patterns and develop your skills enough. Added too are further touches, all of which really help you engage with the gaming world. Early on you encounter a dog caught in a bear trap. Ignore him if you like, but if you decide to help you may find yourself assisted later on. Completing the game takes anything up to 20 hours on your first go but there's plenty of reason to revisit. Not only do additional game modes become available upon completion but beat these and you're rewarded with various additions to the main game such as new costumes, or more enjoyably, additional foolishly powerful weapons.
Visually things are truly tremendous. Whether you're trudging through the muddy streets of a barren village, stalking enemies through a rain drenched sunless graveyard or sneaking cautiously through a heavily fortified castle, the graphics are superb - arguably the best on the system to date. I will be very interested to see if the PS2 can reproduce anywhere near the graphical standards of this Gamecube version. The odd bit of slowdown in heavily populated levels is easily offset by the joy of seeing fragments of your shotgun pellets splash in the water metres behind your assailant, or the atmospheric subtle lighting gently encompassing Leon as he advances through a dimly lit tunnel. Maybe it's no surprise that not only are very few titles anywhere near as gorgeous as Resident Evil 4 but very few come close to creating the level of atmosphere. No part of the game feels replicated (other than the endless abundance of enemies) and every room or area you enter feels as individual as the last. Add to this a remarkably solid third person camera that rarely annoys or draws attention to itself. Its movement to the side is limited (in a deliberate fashion, much like the control restrictions) but follows you loyally and rarely wanders unnecessarily. Not bad really for a series famed for its static camera.
Of course, nothing is perfect and there are some niggles, though they are genuinely minor. Although it lacks a proper widescreen mode, the game itself is presented in letterbox format, though on a standard 4:3 signal. This means that if you have a widescreen TV you can happily zoom into the image to give a full screen display, albeit with a minor loss of quality. If however you have a standard TV then you'll unfortunately have to cope with massive bordering akin to the days of Street Fighter II on the SNES (though at least without a distorted image). In game the often dark environments can make the numerous bear traps the villagers have scattered around a tad hard to spot. Yes, it makes you more nervous but when you fail to spot one for the tenth time you'll be feeling more violent than tense! For much of the game you'll also be escorting the President's daughter. Your control of her only stretches as far as commanding her to follow or stay put. Although she is needed to overcome a handful of obstacles, often she tends to serve as little more than an annoyance. She's incapable of doing anything for herself other than occasionally die and end of game for you or get captured and scream a bit. Of course, her conclusion is designed to add further tension to the game and act as a distraction but I mostly I found myself simply leaving her at the entrance to an area, clearing it out and then calling her back to my side - not something that generally enhances the gameplay.
Yet all of this is knit picking in the extreme. Resident Evil 4 is one of those games that really demands the attention of all gamers, not just fans of the genre. The fact it is an excellent action horror game is secondary to the fact that it's simply a brilliant game. It's so well crafted, so brilliantly realised and so sublimely toned that anyone who enjoys good quality gaming will be both impressed and entertained. It's reason alone to own a Gamecube and reason alone to give the series another go. In my opinion it's the best in the series since the first and Capcom's finest release since Viewtiful Joe. You simply have to play it.