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Resident Evil 4 Review (And more general points about Survival Horror as a Genre)

Posted by Kenny (more from this author)
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - 3:55 am (EDT)
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“Resident Evil 4” and I have a complicated relationship. The first time I tried it in 200X (I don’t remember the precise year I first played it), I enjoyed it a great deal. I got into the second chapter then got angry at the game for turning into an escort mission and being unsure where to go. The second time I tried to play it was last year- I despised the game’s control scheme and couldn’t get past the opening fight against a town of the game’s Ganados enemies. Last week, I finally got around to playing the game from start to finish. 12 hours and 38 deaths later, I finally finished the game and found myself having mixed feelings about the whole experience.


“Resident Evil 4” is a survival horror game. Loosely defined, genre conventions dictate that the game must be centered on making the player feel alone and helpless against overwhelming and terrifying forces, and restrict ammunition amounts and test the player’s commitment to exploration and ammunition conservation. Many games in the genre also have the rather perplexing tendency to make the controls for the protagonist utter rubbish. RE4 conforms to only the lattermost of these core genre tenants, as the game refuses to be scary and ammunition counts are reasonable assuming the player uses it wisely.

RE4 was a drastic departure from series tradition in a number of ways. The previous games had relied on a static camera that observed players from fixed positions in the environment. This enforced a much slower style of gameplay because whenever the game “cut” to a new angle, the player was left momentarily disoriented due to the new perspective. Aiming any kind of weaponry was also next to impossible due to the awkward perspective, and locational damage was nonexistent. Resident Evil 4 switched the camera system to an “over the shoulder” perspective and allowed the game’s hero Leon S. Kennedy much more control over his aim. Enemies would lurch and flinch differently depending on what part of the body was hit, and it was even possible to blow the heads off zombies. Despite the perspective switch, Leon’s actual movement control was still atrocious, having the turning circle of a semi and requiring Leon to stand still to shoot at opponents. The series’ returning quick-180 turn helps keep Leon ready to turn the tables on threats from behind, and new button prompt actions allow Leon to kick down opponents to render them easy pickings from an equipped firearm.

Resident Evil 4 also introduced a much larger degree of interactivity with the game world. Leon could knock down and raise ladders to climb structures, he could jump through windows repeatedly without incurring damage, and he could hop fences and small gaps with the grace of a parkour runner. Merchants were camped out all over the game world, allowing Leon to use in-game currency to upgrade his arsenal and restock supplies at will. Series-traditional healing herbs were only available on the game maps and could not be purchased at shops, and currency was often difficult to come by- Leon had to locate and sell local treasures such as pendants, pocket watches, and crowns to come up with the money to get new upgrades. Some weapons can also be found in the environment for free, provided the player puts in the time necessary to look for them. Metroidvania this is not, however, as Resident Evil 4 is very much a linear game. Most of the hidden treasures are generally strewn about the path in out of the way or hard to spot places, earmarked with an unsubtle glowing effect on valuable objects.

Leon faces stiff opposition once more with series-tradition slow-moving cannibals. RE4’s zombie stand-ins, the Ganados, had revamped AI. However, the AI’s actual intelligence varied depending on how heavily scripted a given sequence was. A memorable sequence at the beginning of the game featured Leon taking shelter in a manor house in the game’s opening sequence while the zombies collaborated at setting up ladders on the second floor and generally being aggressive at trying to break into the building at any cost. The ganados could also quickly dodge to a side to prevent Leon from drawing a bead on them, and they could utilize melee weapons in combat. Among the game’s most frustrating enemies were the Ganados with chainsaws- they took many shotgun blasts to down and the chainsaws were an instant kill on Leon if they connected, decapitating him with remorseless speed. Boss character designs were varied and colossal, ranging from a mountain troll capable of swinging trees to a lake monster ten times Leon’s size. Survival against these monstrosities required Leon to exercise spatial awareness unbecoming of his control scheme, running about the level waiting for a chance to unload his weapons into a weak spot and mashing buttons when a quick time event popped up in order to avoid dying. The entire first boss fight against Krauser was one gigantic quick time event, which admittedly was a high point of the experience for me because I didn’t have to wrestle with the game’s inflexible camera controls.

Sadly, the overhaul in the game mechanics did not extend to the series’ notoriously bad writing. In this installment, Leon is an agent for the U.S. Government, assigned to bodyguard detail for the President’s daughter, Ashley Graham. Unfortunately, Ashley was kidnapped before Leon was even assigned to the detail, so he is sent to track her down. Leon travels to an unknown village in Eastern Europe with two local Spanish policemen. Once Leon moves into the town to ask around about Ashley, the local villagers promptly reveal their more psychotic tendencies and brutally execute the policemen and destroy the bridge they accessed the area with, leaving Leon all on his own in the sleepy town against a conspiratorial clergy and a terrifying new biological weapon threat. Can Leon survive, let alone save Ashley?

Of course he can. Just about any tension in the game’s narrative is immediately defused by the incredibly corny dialog. Other than the occasionally eerie soundscape work and the annoyingly difficult-to-kill Regenerator enemies, all of the frights in the game are mostly jump scares and body horror. The villains have completely cliché accents that seem ripped straight out of a cheesy B-movie, with the advantage that the cutscenes are generally very short and, barring the quick time events, relatively painless to sit through. Ramon Salazar, one of the main antagonists, is about half Leon’s height and voiced with the clarity of a prepubescent. (I’ve taken to calling him “Zombie Napoleon” due to his manner of dress.) Sadler, too, seems to play up his Bond villain-esque role in the story, with a zany scheme worthy of the label. Only Jack Krauser seems to take himself seriously at all, and considering that Leon’s second fight against him is one of the game’s toughest sequences, Krasuer is one of the few serious threats to Leon in the game.

My main problem with Resident Evil 4 was how it was universally lauded by the press for having great controls. Admittedly it ditched series norms and re-oriented the camera to not be stuck framing the action from the next county and not allowing precision aiming, but Leon’s turning speed is atrociously slow outside of the quick-180. His precision aiming mechanics are ruined by requiring players to use the movement stick to aim his weapon and by forcing him to stand in place while doing so. His knife does barely any damage outside of opening boxes, and can’t be used for anything more complicated than a simple slash, despite Leon’s insane knife-related acrobatics against Krauser in a quick time event sequence. There is a C stick on the Gamecube controller in addition to the left stick. Why was there not a dual stick, move+aim setup? Is the survival horror genre permanently shackled to terrible controls to build tension and make the player feel helpless? Dead Space had much better aiming controls, and Isaac Clarke could move while shooting, however slowly. Condemned: Criminal Origins even did away with the shackling third person view and successfully pulled off an immensely terrifying experience with a first person melee combat system that worked. And yet, Resident Evil 5, RE4’s immediate sequel, released four years later, merely aped RE4’s combat mechanics with little in the way of meaningful changes. Silent Hill continues to stagnate as a series despite dual analog controls eventually being implemented in Homecoming. The series generally boiled down to either having a creepy atmosphere and a decent story or decent controls and neither of the former.  There is no reason survival horror as a genre should stay divorced from good play control. Say what you will about the pace of the experience, or the mise en scene derived from fixed camera angles and sluggish controls suggesting vulnerability. This is 2012. Game developers can and should be better than this.

categories: survival horror, resident evil, leon s. kennedy, ganados, el gigante, not a zombie, evil clergy, bond villain, cliche, hammy, overdone, quick time events, quick 180, gun, stranger, not scary, awkward camera, silent hill, bad controls, atmosphere, game design, customization

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