Please bear with me because this is a special moment, a minor milestone if you will, the first time I have ever approached a review with the solid and unwavering intention of awarding it that hallowed 10. It's a tricky number, a thorny one. For many it stands for perfection; while others just see it as 'the best that we can expect right now', perhaps even more confusing is that both these views are correct. It's the 10s that will be remembered, which lead to that defining moment when the reader either concludes you and he just don't think alike, or is moved to cement the bond because you are exactly on his wavelength.
Deep breath, then.
The best way to describe Resident Evil 4 would be this; it lets you be the hero.
Everyone is familiar with that moment when, after watching a spectacular action movie, they feel as though they could stand up and slam through the nearest wall. Quickly the feeling dissolves upon walking back into the world, becoming nothing more than a small afterglow, and with an accepting smile and more than a little sadness, they re-connect with their lives.
Now imagine that feeling stretched over fifteen hours, so intense and unrelenting that it becomes almost an ache, and some idea of what the best games can offer becomes apparent. Usually, just as in life, we settle for something which has merit but is not quite perfect, yet all the time we're searching for the precious instances when we don't have to make that compromise.
'this is a far different Resident Evil than you may be used to'
Obvious statements first: this is a far different Resident Evil than you may be used to. The more action-oriented gameplay and over-the-shoulder camera are certainly a far cry from what everyone associates with Resident Evil. While some may bemoan this, what exactly are we feeling nostalgic about here? Games which rely on restrictive camera angles to create tension? In which the majority of battles are fought by running to the other end of a room, turning, and firing repeatedly into a shambling cluster of enemies? Games which consist of either perpetual, narrow corridors or blocked off side-streets, and tiresome puzzles involving eccentric security measures such as eagle crests?
Sorry, but what we have gained far exceeds what has been left behind.
Put simply, Resident Evil 4 does not stop. From the moment you boot it up and marvel at the graphics, it has you, and with that small hook already buried in your attention, more are steadily fired out: set-piece after brilliant set-piece, boss encounters brimming with scope and style, and Quick Timer events which start off rudimentary then build to reaction-testing events which jangle your nerves with a sadistic glee.
Environments, for the most part, are wide and open. Careful scouting ahead and judicious use of the new sniper rifle can thin out enemy ranks and turn the odds in your favour, and if you find your back against a wall there is almost always a way to escape and fall back. Windows can be leapt through, doors can be barricaded off, ladders kicked down after climbing them, and while all of this may sound like an unfair advantage, these zombies are not the ones we are used to.
Past Resident Evils relied on a slow, pot-boiler pace, taking up the George Romero view of zombies, more or less forcing them to be that way. A generous handful of fast-moving, spider-like creatures were thrown in to balance the equation, but still, it was only when a zombie lunged at us out of a cupboard, or appeared in a room we previously thought empty, that these enemies managed to trigger any fear. It seems Capcom knew it too; the addition of 'Nemesis' to Resident Evil 3 meant that, while the game itself wasn't a strong contender in the series, gamers were given a valid reason to be afraid of this indestructible and spontaneous foe. Also in RE3 we started to see the shadows of Quick Timer Events, actions which could be taken on confronting Nemesis and potentially ending the fight in a neat and gruesome fashion, and these have a big part to play in RE4.
These new zombies, usually just referred to as 'villagers', may not be indestructible but they are resilient, inventive, and totally lacking in fear. Perhaps one section in the game best illustrates this - when Leon is forced into an abandoned house and has to defend it against waves upon waves of villagers. It's a movie moment; there's no better way to describe it. While there may be references to seminal action flicks peppered through RE4 - Indiana Jones, Jaws, The Island of Dr Moreau - where this game really excels is in making you a part of these nods as opposed to just observing them. As you retreat into the centre of the room, villagers coming at you from all sides through the shattered glass and up the splintered wood stairwell, part of you says 'Night of the Living Dead, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!' while the true buzz comes from thinking 'yes, and I'm living it, controlling it'.