Hiroyuki Kobayashi was right: the Resident Evil series as it existed was a shuffling, stumbling carcass that needed to be destroyed. In its place we have a fresher specimen, a barnstormer of a game rammed with action, rinsed in blood ejaculated by exploded limbs and delivered with the kind of pace associated with the most accomplished Hollywood blockbusters.
In fact, if videogame makers were still attempting to term their work ‘interactive movies’, Resident Evil 4 would wear the label more comfortably than most. Capcom’s decision to place the camera over hero Leon Kennedy’s shoulder places you closer to the action than you’ve ever been in a Resident Evil title, and the result is a heightened sense of involvement. This is amplified further when you’re backed into a corner, and what’s bearing down on you threatens to become obscured, and the level of dread and panic is ratcheted up even further.
And, more than the terrifically realised locations, the mesmerising animation of your assailants or the slam-bangery of your arsenal of weapons, it’s this relentlessness that is the game’s defining characteristic. The action may be broken up into pockets – a particularly intense encounter will often be bracketed by sections in which you can catch your breath as you negotiate a handful of locations unmolested – but you’re never more than minutes away from the threat of death once more, a rag-tag bunch of villagers pressing upon you with raised pitchforks and sizzling sticks of dynamite, or an assembly of cloak-shrouded monks lurching down on your location as you stab at reload and hold your breath while Kennedy carefully chugs a fresh batch of ammunition into a thirsty chamber.
Seeing off enemies is what Resident Evil 4 is all about. The puzzles you encounter are fewer and less obscure than in previous Evils, and the more you play the more you appreciate that, at its core, the game is simply a shooting gallery, albeit the most deliciously presented one you’ve ever seen. The exotic range of weaponry on offer goes a long way towards making it consistently feel like much more than it is, and the bond that forms between you and your favourite enemy-management tool – be it a semi-automatic rifle, a riot shotgun or something altogether more characterful in appearance and effect – is only strengthened when you begin to power it up with purchases made at the trading posts spread frequently throughout the game.
This concept, new to Resident Evil but akin to systems already proven by Capcom in the likes of the Devil May Cry and Onimusha series, introduces strategy as you ponder the relative merits of a pistol with enhanced power or a shotgun with extended ammo capacity – and whether you should in fact be saving up for that big, shiny rocket launcher instead. Along with your limited inventory it adds a pseudo-RPG slant, and doubtless many will feel compelled to play the game through a second time, only differently, to see if it really was worth buying that Killer7 weapon, after all…
And you’ll have no trouble reaching the point where playing it through again is an option, because this is not a difficult game. Capcom positively encourages your progress, with baddies that aren’t nearly as tough as their appearance initially suggests (once you identify and exploit their weak spots, naturally) and a continue system that plops you back at a point just before you messily expired, with no forfeiture whatsoever.
The absence of strafe among your controls means that combat can become, if not more difficult than it might be, then at least more protracted, as you can’t neatly circle enemies while picking them off. Instead, you improvise a system whereby you stand and shoot before running a few metres away, then turn 180 degrees to face them once more and begin the process anew. It’s not really an issue with grunts, but it does impact on boss encounters. Similarly, Capcom has implemented an aiming system that feels artificially slow, and even with the analogue stick at full lock it takes an age to sweep from an enemy approaching your left side to one just about to stick something big and sharp into the other. Doubtless the control system was pitched this way as a result of extensive playtesting, and the effect certainly serves to keep you constantly on your toes and forever ready with a finger on the trigger.
So, is this what we were expecting from Capcom – a revolution in survival horror? No. Its dialogue is as whiffily cheesy as ever, and its storyline is shot through with holes. It’s disappointing, too, to be apparently offered so much freedom right at the very beginning of the game, with its open forest landscapes, only to be firmly ushered along within invisible boundaries. And the scenery around you can be just as illogical as it ever was in prerendered form, leaving you no choice but to constantly push Kennedy up against every object in the vicinity in order to see if this or that particular drawer or cupboard can or cannot be opened and plundered.
If it is an interactive movie, then, it’s an interactive B-movie, but one filled with sights, sounds and thrills that will linger in the memory long after the content of more sophisticated titles has been forgotten. It is so mesmerisingly fraught, so keen to throw things in your face with such frequency, that it can make you feel exhausted after a few hours of consistent play. Exhausted, but with a satisfied smile on your face.