Sixteen years ago in January of 2006, I bought a copy of Resident Evil 4 from my local Gamestation. It was the first time I had bought a steel case edition of a game: The embossed detailing and generally cool cover lent it a totemic quality. As my Dad drove us home, I looked at the cover as though I was looking at something more than a game. It was special to me and I had no idea why. Probably just good marketing on Capcom's behalf.
We all have favourite games that have left a mark on us; changed or influenced us in some way. Resident Evil 4 was one of those games for me. It's true that the older I get, the fewer are the games that impress as much as those in my childhood; but there were fewer games to choose from then; and of course, time has a habit of cooking up complexity; of making it more difficult to be original.
As you can see, the joust between logic and nostalgia is ever waged, regardless of age. There's no true or false here, and whilst I don't intend to dwell upon this, I do want to explore my instinct further, and my instinct tells me that Resident Evil 4 was more game than most games will ever be.
In a sale before Christmas, I repurchased Resident Evil 4. I had nothing to play so settled for the updated version of an old reliable.
First Things First
Though the story is predictably told and reliant upon tried and tested techniques, is it not true that page-turners, like a Netflix series, are frequently more readable/watchable, from an escapist perspective than say, a canonical novel. Entertainment doesn't have to be serious or accurate; it relies on the simplicities that make us human; the base emotions that govern our worldview. These are often brought out more readily through the use of genre tropes.
At the outset of the game, I was mildly intrigued by the show despite its obvious flaws. Its imperfection then was what lured me in; its presentation is unfamiliar when compared to current trends in gaming.
This seemingly bland, very brown, stereotypical world/narrative/game so surprised me that by the end, I wondered how such an old game could be this good. I appreciate the enhancements; but this isn't a remake, it's a remaster and therefore retains the qualities of the original experience.
When I first took control of Leon I immediately thought how stupid I was to have bought the game again; and that I should have left it in the past. With Resident Evil 4 Capcom had decided to depart from the fixed camera angle of its predecessors in favour of an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective.
The lack of an alternate free camera is extremely disorienting at first. For those who haven't played the game, the character is moved solely with the left stick or D-pad. Though the right stick can be used to move the camera, it merely tilts the camera and springs back when the player ceases to input the control. The right stick doesn't enable the player to turn.
Resident Evil was a scary game to play. Its combat reinforced terror by being so unwieldy and inaccurate. There's a real sense of detachment that then imparts fear precisely because the player is rendered useless. In Resident Evil 4 the shooting is more dynamic and intended to be a viable means for the player to exert some control over their game.
This is a Story About Control
As I struggled to control Leon, I vaulted out of an upstairs window and encountered my first pack of villagers. Their intention is to overwhelm the player. Unlike traditional zombies they run and behave in strange ways; a deliberate consequence of the change in perspective. Plodding zombies would be no good here for they would be too easy to nullify.
There are no crosshairs and the guns don't shoot accurately every time. A red dot marker is included with all the weapons in Resident Evil 4, which gives the impression of further control to the player. Whilst it certainly helps seeing where the bullet will hit, this crutch is mitigated by Leon's shaky aim and the onslaught of enemies the player must deal will. Factor in the restrictive movement and a claustrophobic experience is more than guaranteed.
Though many criticised Resident Evil 4 for moving away from its survival horror roots, I believe this instalment successfully replicated the fear - albeit a different kind - that the original games excelled at. As the villagers approached me, I shot at them, mainly missed and ran away in search of ammo. Headshots kill quicker in most games, but Resident Evil 4 was a bit smarter than that.
I don't recall playing many games where the shooting truly mattered. In modern titles, the headshot is the most efficient way to neutralise targets; it's also a great way of testing reflexes or skills; and saves ammunition if that's a necessary component of the game. In dire circumstances, a spray of bullets in the general direction of the target also works.
Using my knowledge of shooters I frequently aimed for the head in Resident Evil 4, and continued to miss as I panicked under pressure from the Los Ganados. It took me many hours to realise that the enemies are more than just fodder.
They communicate and warn one another when they see you. They shout out in Spanish and threaten you with death - ¡Te voy a hacer picadillo!. Each of them approaches you differently: One may run at you, whilst another ducks and shifts their bodyweight to throw off your aim and some will veer to your flanks. You're left with an assemblage of choices: Each of them represents an option.
Any weapons they may be carrying can be shot out of their hands, and their limbs can be targeted to delay their advance. The gun battles often become more akin to Tetris than they do a shooter. You can buy time by relocating to a better vantage point, or by using a throwable in an uncomfortable situation. Enemies can be wisely lined up for multiple head explosions, or in the shotgun's case, crowd control.
Playing this game in 2021 felt even more revolutionary now than it did when I first played it in 2006. I was doing things I would never have attempted in recent times. We're often told that games adhere to our whims; that we're in control of the narrative; the game world is our oyster, and are continually led to believe our decisions count. In reality, I've rarely experienced any of that lip service we're offered by developers.
What I experienced in Resident Evil 4 then, to me at least, felt unique. The sandbox nature of combat provides real freedom for creativity. I used different guns for different situations; not just the most powerful or my favourite one. I varied my strategies in order to preserve what little ammo I could find; this is a game where ammo matters and just when you think you've got a good stock, the game will find a way to deplete that. I was also forced to make decisions based on weapons upgrades and what to spend my pesetas on; these decisions are made more important when their outcome matters.
Creativity and Inspiration
At the beginning of the game, Leon is accompanied by two men who speak with a peculiar accent, one that is an entanglement of both Spanish and Slavic accents. This Spanish Europe the game is based on is merely an interpretation of what Europe is perceived to be. This isn't a potshot at Capcom or their creative team; it's a compliment. Interpretation like this fuels inspiration and originality.
Dark Souls is unashamedly inspired by the locales of Europe and Medieval history. It doesn't resemble anything I know in England or the rest of Europe but it takes what it needs and exaggerates it to the point of fantasy. If only the castles and cities of this country were truly as grand as Lothric.
When I play a game, I accept there is a disassociation between my world and the game world. To be blunt, it's escapism. Therefore, I don't particularly want to play a game that tends toward an accurate representation of the real world, unless such a setting is warranted.
The story and the game mechanics themselves are beguiling in their apparent simplicity. Beneath its veil is a game made by a hyperaware team. The narrative is cheesy and yet becomes engrossing as it plays out; the gunplay and shooting mechanics are some of the best I've ever experienced, even though the developers play with the character's sense of control at all times; the level design is seemingly innocuous, yet it's intentional and thrusts the player through the game as though it were a slide.
As I stated at the beginning, the story itself is rather lame when taken on its own. If it was written as a novel it would be the equivalent to a story written by a schoolchild and yet narrative and action go hand in hand in Resident Evil 4. Both of which are elevated by their synchronicity.
There are some ridiculous moments in the story: for example, when Ashley stumbles into a wall in the castle, she's conveniently positioned to be held in place by restraining devices on her hands and feet. The stupidity of some instances of the story only adds to the game's charm. It's all for the sake of entertainment.
As I worked my way through the brown European villages, through a labyrinthine old castle and secret laboratories, the main objective - to rescue the President's daughter - propelled me into action at an uncomfortable pace that actually felt rewarding. The urgency of the story fuels the gameplay. As I progressed I found myself using all the tools available to assist my mission. I frequently consulted the in-game map to double-check on my objectives; both for comfort and to predict where enemies may be located. I eventually began using the quick turn function, which enabled me to better navigate combat. I was always learning to play faster. It made me think that Capcom had speed runs in mind.
Considering their reliance on each other, it's no surprise that the story grips you more and more as you progress through the game. Additional characters are introduced and side plots are revealed, so it ends up being more than just rescuing Ashley. Though I think the rescue mission storyline is unoriginal, it provides a framework for excitement and creativity within its confines.
This is what a game should be. Resident Evil 4 is simplistic in its approach; entertaining; has some of the best gameplay of all time; a strange but intriguing setting; exaggerated characters who are often just stereotyped themselves, which provides many amusing scenes; and it doesn't take itself seriously.
As with any medium, video games require a balance of ideas. Nothing in Resident Evil 4 is taken too far. The most entertaining games, like films and books, are the ones that captivate our attention with a breadth of expression that encompasses all facets of humanity.
After completing the story, I was left wanting more. I didn't want the end to arrive. When it did, I was relieved, for it does ramp up the tension towards the conclusion; but I felt empty, knowing it might be a while before I play another game that would entertain me as much.
It's wise to remember that Resident Evil 4 was a GameCube exclusive for around nine months; considering the furore that currently surrounds exclusivity, it would be easy to assume that it's a recent issue. By analysing and playing games like this it makes me wonder how much innovation has taken place since then. Technologically, the leaps are admittedly humungous. Technology though doesn't innovate. It seems where game fidelity has taken one step forward, game design has taken two back.