A revised version of this article, with pictures, can be found here.
"Forget everything you know about Resident Evil"
: Resident Evil 4 (Japanese title: Biohazard 4
(PC conversion by SourceNext
(PC version published by Ubisoft in Europe and North
: January 11, 2005 (US), January 27, 2005 (Japan), March 18, 2005
(Europe) (All dates for Nintendo Gamecube version
: Nintendo Gamecube
, Playstation 2
, Windows PC
"Resident Evil 4, to sum up, is the best game on the Gamecube.
But it's not just the best game on the Gamecube.
It's the best game of this generation, it's the
"It's the best game."
Mr Robert, Consolevania Series 1 Episode 7
It’s easy to be cynical. These days, when any moderately entertaining game with a big enough
marketing budget is hailed as the Game of The Year, superlative-spattered reviews start to ring
hollow after a while. Which makes it all the sweeter when a game like Resident Evil 4 comes along.
Look the game up on Metacritic, and you’ll see review after review desperately trying to salvage some
semblance of sober objectivity through the use of trepidatious and insincere qualifiers. “Best
survival horror game”, “best GameCube game”, “one of the best”, “possibly” - no.
It’s the best game. Even now, two years later, it’s fair to say that Resident Evil 4 still represents
the state of the art.
Resident Evil 4 presents a fresh new model for action games, while respecting classic game design
sensibilities. The game has a comfortable, familiar feel which has more in common with classic arcade
action games such as Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts than any of the previous Resident Evils. It’s a timeless
formula: slow, steadily progress through varied, interesting scenarios at the macro scale, while
‘jamming’ with a fluid, tactile control system in each micro encounter. It gives a game a groove - a
characteristic shared by Streets of Rage 2, Wonderboy III, Super Metroid, Castlevania Symphony
of the Night and countless others, including your favourite game. Probably.
But Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts is the game it brings to mind again and again: each area is completely
different from the last; movement is deliberate and precise; you can pretty much survive two serious
attacks; hell, you even occasionally break open containers and get attacked (albeit by snakes rather
than magicians). Though thankfully Resident Evil 4 isn’t quite as unforgiving as it’s forebear.
Resident Evil 4 isn’t really a game about narrative. It has a premise which serves as a framework for
presenting the player with a lots of cool, just-about-plausible and internally consistent stuff to do,
which is how it should be. The characters are fairly one-dimensional (but deftly designed within the
confines of that single dimension), and the script is packed with big, dumb melodramatic moments and
cheesy dialogue. The game isn’t interested in messing with your head with oppressive atmosphere and
psychological tricks (see Silent Hill, et al), instead opting for a mix of rollicking action and
hokey body horror, as might result if Indiana Jones were to gatecrash a seedy 80s splatter flick.
The player is put in the role of Leon S. Kennedy (previously seen in Resident Evil 2), a brash
young government agent tasked with investigating the disappearance of the President’s teenage daughter,
Ashley Graham. Leon’s search leads him to a village in a remote part of Europe where she was last
seen. (This is generally thought to be Spain, based on the architecture and language used, but is
never officially referred to as such by Capcom.)
On arrival, Leon quickly finds that the inhabitants of the village have been turned into mindless,
bloodthirsty savages (referred to in the game as Ganados, Spanish for ‘cattle’). They’re not
zombies - they’re alive and still have sufficient cognitive functions to speak, organise themselves
and use tools. They’ve also developed a taste for killing and eating outsiders and a laissez-faire
attitude to self preservation. As Leon makes his way through the village and surrounding area, he
learns that the villagers are in the thrall of a mysterious cult leader called Lord Saddler who had
kidnapped Ashley to further his own nefarious ends. As the game progresses, Leon gradually discovers
more about the source of Saddler’s mind-controlling powers (Las Plagas) and the unspeakable horrors
it has unleashed, and crosses paths with a few other interlopers with their own agendas.
Resident Evil 4 makes a clean break from the “survival horror” formula laid down by the previous
entries in the series. The static camera angles, awkward controls, and drip-feeding of crabbed,
panic-inducing encounters, staples of the genre that have gone unchallenged since Alone in the Dark,
are no more. In their place are the workings of a slick, modern third person action game. Combat is now
more often cathartic and empowering than a desperate battle with groggy controls (which isn’t to say
that the demands of “survival” are any less acutely felt). Environments are wide open and invitingly
interactive. The action is carried forward through a composition of cinematics and novel situations
woven together with the effortless confidence of a development team in complete control of their craft.
The game is able to layer on so much rich and varied content thanks to some very bold decisions about
the design of the interface, which laid exceptionally solid foundations for Capcom’s planners. They
realised that while the classic Resident Evil interface had to be abandoned, the most obvious
alternatives (the standard ‘dual stick’ systems used by console FPS and third-person
action/platform games) weren’t suitable either. Therefore it was necessary to create a new system,
combining turning on an axis (as opposed to strafing - think Tomb Raider rather than Super Mario
64), sensitive cursor-based aiming, and an eye level over-the-shoulder camera which allows the player
to be aware of the relative position of Leon while having a clear view of (and shot at) nearby and
distant enemies. Leon can’t attack while moving, so when the player holds down the right trigger button
to ready his weapon, the controls and camera become fully dedicated to aiming and firing.
All the game’s content has subsequently been designed and rationalised based on exploiting the
strengths (while downplaying the weaknesses) of this interface. Most of the enemies Leon faces are
quite slow moving, slow to react, and armed with rudimentary projectile weapons at best - but they
generally take a lot of shots to neutralise, and attack in groups. The player quickly learns that the
real hazard in the game is getting surrounded, as Leon’s weapons are dramatically less effective at
short range, and the Ganados’ melee attacks nuke Leon’s health and leave him prone for seconds at a
time. Another neat instance of this design is that the plot stipulates that the baddies are trying to
capture rather than kill Ashley, removing a lot of potential frustration from the escort mechanic at
A lot of the reason that this doesn’t leave the player feeling hopelessly vulnerable and frustrated is
down to the weapons being such an utter joy to use. This is one of those modern games where pistols
continue to be useful even after the player has got their hands on the shotguns, uzis, rifles, grenades
and rocket launchers. They’re varied enough to make it possible to play the game in very different
styles depending on your preference. I won’t describe them all in depth beyond saying that the
shotgun is easily the best shotgun in any game since Doom, and all of the other weapons are at a
So this is all well and good for traipsing around and shooting things, you may be thinking, but surely
if Leon can’t strafe, jump, duck or dodge at will he must surely be like the player characters
in the previous Resident Evils - a cumbersome walking tank endlessly ice-skating against walls and
generally being thwarted by his environment? Not so. Leon’s repertoire of moves is extended massively
through the use of a context-sensitive action button. This button allows the player to (among other
things) jump through windows, kick open doors, knock down (and raise up) ladders, leap gaps, Give, Pick
Up, Use, Open, Look At, Push, Close, Talk to and Pull (hmm…).
At certain points in the game, there are ‘action events’ (much like the Quick Time Events in
Shenmue) where a combination of controller buttons will flash up on screen, and the player must
quickly hold them down or repeatedly tap them to prevent Leon from being
flattened/skewered/eaten/decapitated. In that order. The only other interface elements are the
inventory screen (which is completely effortless to use), the map and various status screens showing
the documents and treasures that Leon has collected. Oh, there’s also a couple of buttons for issuing
commands to Ashley (allowing Leon to leave her in a ’safe’ place while dealing with the immediate
The lion’s share of playing time it given over to combat situations with small groups (meaning at
most dozens, rather than Dead Rising’s hundreds) of intelligent enemies. Every enemy in the game
manages to pose a threat. Even the comparatively weak and slow-moving villagers can still surround
Leon, catch him unawares with a rusty farming implement or suicidally whip out a stick of dynamite at
the wrong moment.
While the combat scenarios are extremely varied in themselves (the player needs to employ significantly
different tactics depending on the environment, enemies and objectives involved), they are also
punctuated with radically different sections including boss battles, simple puzzles, vehicle rides,
timed sequences and treasure hunts. At every turn the player is presented with a substantially new
activity, none of which are repeated or outstay their welcome. (A marked contrast to the approach taken
by popular airboat simulator Half-Life 2, where each new contrivance was relentlessly forced on the
player long after they had outstayed their welcome.)
The game’s boss sequences are an unexpected pleasure. Each is completely unique (foes range from
mutated humans to giant lake monsters to T-1000-meets-the-Alien insectoid killing machines) and
usually involves some specialised forms of interaction that aren’t found elsewhere in the game and yet
feel completely natural. Many also include mini Quick Time Events, for instance requiring the player
to quickly press specific buttons to dodge an attack, or to rapidly tap the action button to hack at
the boss’s exposed weak point.
Although I’ve been dismissive about the role of narrative in Resident Evil 4, Capcom have done a
great job in realising a set of characters and a self-contained Lovecraftian
mythology that make it easier for the player to emotionally invest in the game. The game’s story
wouldn’t stand on it’s own as a piece of entertainment, but it does a good job of sustaining a tense
atmosphere and introducing new elements often enough to keep things from dragging.
Leon’s a great player character, simply by dint of the fact that he’s not yet another smirking, morally
ambiguous anti-hero. He’s extremely chivalrous and dedicated to duty, but neatly avoids coming across
as a boring do-gooder by being, well, a bit of a nob. Most of the conversations in the game involve
him trading witty retorts with the main villains - or at least what pass for witty insults in
particularly unchallenging Saturday morning cartoons. (”Huh! Monsters. I guess after this there’ll be
one less of them to worry about.”; “Rain or shine, you’re going down!”)
(In the bonus materials of the PS2 and later versions, Ada Wong earnestly describes Leon as being
“practically a genius”, amusingly.)
Ashley isn’t your typical ‘damsel in distress’ character (or at least not completely), being able to
fend for herself and assist Leon at certain points of the game. For large parts of the game Ashley tags
along with Leon as an AI-controlled escort, and manages to never be irritating. She doesn’t get in
the way when you’re shooting, or run off and get into scrapes, and she hardly ever talks, aside from
calling Leon a pervert whenever he inadvertently (ahem) looks up her skirt.
The game’s big boss, Osmund Saddler, is basically Count Dracula. While Saddler is ostensibly the
mastermind behind the evil goings-on in the story, Capcom have created a far more memorable villain in
his protege Ramon Salazar, the creepy progeriac dwarf Castellan who antagonizes Leon
throughout the second act of the game, set in and around his trap-laden ancestral home.
The cast is rounded out with a handful of memorable supporting characters including the mysteriously
helpful Spanish sleaze ball Luis Sera (”I used to be a cop in Madrid. Now I’m just a good for nothing
guy, who happens to be quite the ladies man.”), femme fatale Ada Wong (another returning character
from Resident Evil 2), psychotic mercenary/Metal Gear refugee Jack Krauser, and last but by no
means least, The Merchant.
The Merchant is incredible. A nameless freelance arms dealer with a Dick Van Dyke cockney
accent (”Wot are ye selliiin?”) and a purple longcoat stuffed with weapons, items and upgrades, he’s
encountered in the unlikeliest places throughout the game and is never acknowledged or commented on by
any of the other characters. He even operates a chain of shooting galleries in the bowels of Salazar’s
castle (offering ‘bottlecap’ action figures of all the characters in the game as prizes). Any other
game would have gotten caught up trying to concoct some plausible mechanism for Leon to be able to
trade in treasure for equipment, and would have ended up with something less effective (not to
mention less hilarious).
I’ve managed to resist waxing lyrical about the game’s presentation up until now because I’m worried
that I might not ever finish this write-up if I start. The game is split into three main acts (the
village, the castle and the island), each of which is arranged as a broadly linear series of
areas. Through technical wizardry, attention to detail and sheer, audacious smoke and mirrors,
Capcom have managed to make all of the varied locations of the game feel incredibly atmospheric and
plausible. Scenes that the GameCube (let alone the puny PS2) shouldn’t be able to render are so
frequent that you eventually become desensitised, only to dip into your save games at random months
later and gawp helplessly. During my current playthrough I’ve picked out the storm outside the
church, the Lava Room, and pretty much everywhere inside the castle as standout moments.
Once the main quest has been put to bed, there’s an extra chapter played from the perspective of Ada
Wong (which isn’t present in the original GameCube release, unfortunately) which is up to the standard
of the main game, although it demystifies some of the events and characters a tad too much.
There’s also the incredible Mercenaries (time attack) mode, which drops the player in an enclosed
map where they must fight off endless respawning Ganados before the time runs out. This mode presents
a fiendish dilemma: there are time bonuses scattered around the maps, and more time potentially means
more kills, but also increases the risk of being overwhelmed. This mode is a masterstroke. Every game
plays out differently and there are a bevy of levels, characters and a couple of weapons for the main
game to unlock. (The only downside is that one of the levels has a blind spot which can be exploited
indefinitely to rack up risk-free kills.)
Due to unfortunate circumstances (the fact that it debuted on a relatively unpopular hardware
platform, and the perception of the Resident Evil franchise and adult-themed games in general)
Resident Evil 4 hasn’t been heralded as a landmark title quite as conspicuously as some other
important games of recent years (such as Doom, Half-Life, Grand Theft Auto 3, Halo and World
of Warcraft). It hardly seems to have made an impression on the wider public consciousness at all.
(Whereas endless column inches continue to be squandered on the dumb shiny bauble that is Second
Nevertheless, the mere existence of Resident Evil 4 should give anyone who cares deeply about games a
reason to celebrate. Maybe the way the games industry is structured is deeply flawed, and games like
this really shouldn’t have to be so rare. But at the very least it proves that there are still good
reasons for developers to be allowed to work on big-budget projects - being gifted a comfortable amount
of time, money and expertise doesn’t excuse developers for making vehicles for flashy graphics built
around derivative, threadbare design.
In an ideal world, the huge swarm of camp followers that has in recent years flocked to the edges of
the games industry - the ARG marketeers, the Second Life groupies, the purveyors of
gem-matching/restaurant-wrangling casual games, the pen-and-paper RPG bores, perhaps even the
contemptible, dead-eyed human fungus responsible for so-called “Serious Games” - would be forced to
play through Resident Evil 4 and then consider at length whether what they’re doing, or the directions
for the industry they suggest, could ever result in something even remotely this fucking cool.
Ultimately games aren’t about stories, or messages, or artistic worthiness. They’re a device that
players can use to mould their own unique experience, and to share their creators’ ingenuity in
defining the parameters and potentialities of this experience. They create an imprint on the memory
unlike any other kind of media. I’m certain that Resident Evil 4 will stay in the memories of
everyone who plays it for a very long time, and will have a lasting influence on action/adventure games
Resident Evil 4 is simply the best single investment that anyone who likes games can make.
It’s the best game.
"Writhe in my cage of torment, my friend!"
- Osmund Saddler, 2004
What you need to know
If you haven’t played the game already, perhaps you should make it one of your short-term life goals?
The GameCube version should be your first choice and absolutely justifies the (now presumably quite
heavily discounted) cost of the machine. The Playstation 2 port includes some additional bonus
features but at the expense of longer loading times, muddier visuals, looser controls and prerendered
cutscenes. The core gameplay is largely intact, but the many sacrifices firmly classify it as a
The belated PC port has been lambasted online for being inferior to either of the console versions,
but this isn’t entirely fair. Most of the criticism of the visuals has been based on the original
release of the game, which (unbelievably) was shipped with lighting and fog effects almost entirely
absent. A subsequent patch brought the graphics back up to a generally acceptable standard, although
some of the nicer visual effects of the GameCube version (such as reflective water, depth of field
and explosion shockwaves) are still absent.
The patch doesn’t alter the sad fact that this port was based on the Playstation 2 version’s assets,
which means that the GameCube’s beautiful real-time cutscenes are once more replaced with
512×336-pixel prerendered junk. This looks even more jarring on a monitor than on the PS2, and is
severe enough for me to urge that players steer well clear of the PC version unless they’ve already
completed the single player game on another platform. Cutscenes aside, the game plays as well as the
other versions, and the higher resolution makes it easier to pick up some of the finer (and grislier)
graphical details that are hard to spot on a TV. Naturally, the game does not offer mouse support,
and should be played using a joypad. Anyone who complains about this is a fool.
There is also version of the game for the Wii (released later this month in Europe), which combines
the GameCube version’s engine and assets with the bonus content from the PS2 port and implements a new
control scheme tailored to the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. Early indications suggest this will replace
the GameCube version as the definitive one.
So apart from making sure they get the GC or Wii version, first-timers should also be aware that the
‘Easy’ mode actually removes some sequences and areas from the game, and so should opt for ‘Normal’ or
above to avoid missing anything. (Other frustration-avoiding tips include: Cover the foetid well before
shooting down that shiny pocket watch; don’t sell things without examining them for possible
combinations; use the knife to save ammo; and remember that flashbangs kill exposed parasites.)