The phrase ‘a new kind of evil’ has been devalued over the years by marketing folk given little to work with. But not by Resident Evil 4. Not in its parish where clucking chickens scamper at the feet, cows lazily chew cud in their stalls, men tend the crops and women stoke a communal pyre on which trespassers are burned alive. In the parochial mob, Shinji Mikami and Production Studio 4 found something scarier than the common squad or gang, driven not by money, duty or delinquency but by pure, unbridled hate.
For the first time in its history, one of the series’ games lives up more to its western title than its native Japanese one, Biohazard. Despite the familiar themes of infection and possession, there really is a new kind of Evil at work in its obscure corner of the globe: an indigenous, human kind. It burns in the eyes of Los Ganados as they stalk their victims, simmers in the contemptuous glares of their neighbours, the zealots of Los Illuminados, and even contorts the face of El Gigante, its ogreish standout boss.
How easy it was when it was just zombies, shambolic and relentless, so clearly driven by rudimentary code and so simple to predict and dodge. There’s a reason why your first encounter with Los Ganados, a creepy cutscene and one-on-one fight, mirrors the controversial ‘head-turning’ sequence of the very first Resident Evil. Just as the bar was being set back in 1996, the implications terrifying for those still adjusting to combat in 3D space, here it’s being reset for a new generation. When that villager’s head snaps towards you, shooting you a glare full of crooked intellect and feral rage, it’s the first time in nine years that you empty a clip out of fear.
With earlier sequels having worked Resident Evil much like a burglar cracking a safe, tweaking its dials back and forth in tireless search of the right combination, this game sounds the triumphant click. Less forgiveness, more action, less backtracking and a whole lot more gristle are its magic numbers, which it manipulates to often devastating effect. Survival? Try the feel of your heart pounding as you’re smoked out of a bell tower, into the murderous crowd. Horror? Try the sight of a Regenerator, immune to all but the most accurate shot, slowly filling your rifle scope. Laxatives? Try the sound of a chainsaw.
Subversion is Resident Evil 4’s secret weapon, the very best of its scares powered by reversals of expectations. It doesn’t occur to you at first, but never before has the series cast you as ‘un forastero’ – an outsider. Having seen Leon Kennedy through his role of Racoon City vanguard in Resident Evil 2, defending his hometown against the T-virus outbreak, now you join him as a heretic in a world that’s dropped off the knife-edge between rural tranquillity and abject barbarism. Everything from the man-traps and slaughter apparatuses to the pervasive rust and fog suggests a place that, from mortar to flesh, has mobilised against you.
No matter the tools you acquire (rocket launcher aside) it will always outmanoeuvre you, tightening its noose as effortlessly as a Robotron or Geometry Wars. Having drilled the same rules of engagement deep into your head over several games, it switches them with malicious glee: headshots trigger dangerous mutations, enemies hide their weak spots, paces quicken and slow to disrupt your tactics. It’s as though Capcom had always meant to drag its feet a bit with earlier titles, encouraging just the right smidgeon of complacency to creep in before delivering its knockout blow – and doing so, remarkably, without any apparent sacrifice.
Still a quintessentially Japanese production, Resident Evil 4 is self-aware, happy to bring down the fourth wall and packed with all the usual otaku fetishes: a Lolita girl sidekick, a lipstick mercenary, heavy weapons and pantomime villains. And it’s still a Resident Evil game, pulling off the near-impossible by retaining almost all of the mechanics of its ancestors, yet somehow working them to its advantage. With its enemies employing all kinds of strafes and subterfuge, shifting gears and making moves with devilish cunning, it validates perhaps the series’ biggest gamble of all: the retention of its archaic tank controls. In the absence of circle-strafing, it’s the same old game of trepid steps, urgent retreats and panic-inducing turns.
Except the same old game has brand-new players. Ganados and Los Illuminados footsoldiers won’t merely amble into your sights, they’ll run outside of them, duck as you take aim, sidestep, run, or sneak up behind you and laugh. Groups will slowly advance while those at the back take aim and fire arrows, throw knives, sickles and makeshift spears. For once, you have all the high-tech weaponry in the world, while your enemies are medieval throwbacks. And what difference does it make? None at all. For the first time since joining the Racoon City Police Department Leon S Kennedy actually has to be something of a policeman, and learn all about crowd control, switching between targets to keep a horde at bay rather than simply pouring ammo into a bigger beast.
To be celebrated as a videogame you have celebrate being one – and Resident Evil 4 scores huge in that department. The decision to ditch the series’ ubiquitous storage chests but not its personal inventory system, that obstructive block puzzle of objects and slots, seemed absurd until Capcom willed it to succeed. The carnival target shooting stages are as incongruous to Ramon Salazar’s castle as a pub quiz machine, but there isn’t a player out there who’d see them removed. And the merchant is the most traditional device the series has ever used, his repeat appearances following no logic known to man. Would a more po-faced game have included The Mercenaries as an extra, producing the greatest bonus mode ever? Doubtful.
Would a more po-faced game have included The Mercenaries as an extra, producing the greatest bonus mode ever? Doubtful.
Simply put, any game with so much as a dash of either action or adventure must experience Resident Evil 4 and learn its lessons. Many of its students are already out there, shooting their action over the hero’s shoulder, fully exploiting the widescreen frame and, if they’re Gears Of War, wearing their love for it on both sleeves. If it’s the details that make a game special and the dynamic that makes it great, then Capcom hit such a high standard of both as to near as dammit make the sixth Edge 10. It’s a momentous, bloodcurdling epic.