On January 11, 2005, one of the most critically acclaimed video games ever made was released for the Nintendo Gamecube. It was originally a Nintendo exclusive - series creator Shinji Mikami had developed a close working relationship with the company after their work on Resident Evil 0 and the Resident Evil remake, both for the Gamecube - but Capcom had other ideas. Resident Evil 4 was destined for bigger things.
Before the year was up, Resident Evil 4 was released for the PlayStation 2. Most recently, the game has been released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and 11 years after its initial release, Resident Evil 4 has been released on over 11 different platforms so far, making it one of, if not the, most ported video game of all time. Its success and phenomenal popularity has refused to waver, even a decade after its original release. So what is it about Resident Evil 4 that makes it so damn great?
Resident Evil 4 is a departure from the tight passageways and city streets we’ve come to expect from the series. The rural, European village in which your journey begins isn’t worlds apart from your generic cabin-in-the-wood horror flick, but it doesn’t stick around long enough to become boring. Over the course of your journey, you’ll venture through a giant castle, mines and old ruins; each new location being substantially different to the last. Whether it’s the rotting, autumnal tones of the village or the tall, dark walls in the castle towers, every area in Resident Evil 4 creates a constant feeling of horror and isolation; something that no other game I’ve played since has managed to achieve.
The biggest change in the Resident Evil formula was its new over-the-shoulder camera style, the success of which would pioneer the expectations of every third-person-shooter to come afterward. Aiming was now done freely with the help of a red-dot sight on your weapons, and this new combat style added whole new levels of intimacy to the series. No longer were you confined to watching your enemies slowly approach from a distance. Resident Evil 4 puts you right in the action, and despite having complete control over your weapon movement for the first time, there’s a certain irony to the game.
Aiming your weapon also means standing still: you’re completely locked to the ground. In Resident Evil, the ability to defend yourself comes at the cost of leaving yourself completely exposed. In previous titles, with predictable enemies slowly drudging towards you down narrow corridors, this wasn’t too much of a problem. But in a game where enemies can ambush you at enemy time and from various directions, Resident Evil 4 keeps you completely on your feet.
The game’s opening sections in the village are a perfect display of this. Despite an array of houses to hide in, enemies will break through windows and climb up ladders and work together to surround you. Resident Evil 4 keeps pushing and pushing, its relentless intensity echoing its key principles that nowhere is safe, especially when matched the ferocious rhythms of the game’s soundtrack.
Despite its survival horror roots, the game is well-paced, thanks to balanced combination of typical Resident Evil elements with the introduction of faster-paced action segments; usually explored in the game’s real-time cut scenes, where you’ll find yourself hammering a variety of buttons to escape from life-threatening situations. The pace of Resident Evil 4 is something that its future sequels missed. It's a generous mix of action and survival horror, with neither sticking around long enough that they would become boring.
Of course, enemy new combat system means new weapons, and Resident Evil 4 had plenty of them. With the focus on now engaging your enemies in combat rather than outrunning them, a variety of different handguns, rifles and shotguns meant that players could now choose their tools of destruction in accordance to their playing style. Power over speed? Take the Red9 over the blacktail pistol. Prefer leaving your enemies in a bloody mess rather than kneecapping them to the ground? Take the Striker shotgun over the TMP.
Weapons could still be discovered in certain areas, but you would find yourself purchasing the vast majority of them. For the first time in the series, you could buy, sell and upgrade weapons through encountering "the merchant," a shady individual who pops up at various points throughout the game.
Effective utilization of your weaponry and techniques was necessary to counter the game’s various enemies. Whether it’s gangs of villagers, mini-gun wielding madmen, El Gigante or sisters with chainsaws, you had to think about what you were doing. Aimlessly firing bullets was a sure way to deplete your ammunition supply, leaving you to fend off swarms of enemies with nothing but your knife.
A sure tactic and, indeed, an absolutely necessary one on harder difficulties, is to kneecap enemies to the floor and then rush them with your combat knife. The adrenaline rush that Resident Evil 4’s enemies provide is unparalleled; I’m sure I’ll never find anything that matches the intensity of the first encounter with the chainsaw villager in the game’s opening level.
The ability to purchase and upgrade weapons added a new sense of exploration to the game. Enemies drop money and/or treasures. You can also find treasures hidden in a variety of locations through the game. This focus on exploration encouraged you to invest time in the areas around you. The merchant hides 15 blue medallions in the first half of the game. Finding them rewards you with a new handgun: the punisher. Never did I expect that I would be treating the Resident Evil series with the same intensity I treat RPG’s, yet here I am 11 years on; making multiple runs around every area, delving into every corner to be sure that I haven’t missed any spinels or yellow herbs.
This is my fourth time purchasing the game, and there’s a beautiful sense of familiarity in revisiting the game’s many areas. Like many of the millions of people who have played it, I feel a strong sense of attachment to Resident Evil 4, and despite my numerous playthroughs, I’m yet to grow tired of any of its areas - despite how punishing that water room is in the castle.
So here we are, 11 years after its initial release, and Resident Evil 4 is still as fun as ever. This must be the tenth time I’ve finished the game, and I’ll be running through it again on professional mode shortly. Capcom delivered with Resident Evil 4, and, although no one was crying out for many of its features (why are there shooting galleries in European castles?), they’re features the series needed.
Fans were crying out for a breath of fresh air in the series and Capcom gave it a gust. We got more than we ever asked for; more than we ever expected. Resident Evil 4 reinvented the wheel: it was a pioneer for both third-person-shooters and survival horror titles, and even if we see another rerelease of the game (Nintendo NX?) I truly doubt it will ever become boring. If there’s ever been a game that shows no sign of aging, it’s Resident Evil 4.
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