On Capcom's desk there lies a mysterious container, a suggestion box for Resident Evil which, unopened for the past eight years, has grown full to overflowing with every new release in this series. After a while it came to be spoken of like the Ark of the Covenant, few were even sure it existed or not, and if it did then should it ever be opened by mortal hands? After all, surely the breath and depth of the changes asked for would forever alter the clunky systems familiar to fans of the RE series, touches which were considered inferior at first but have now come to define the series.
Eagle crests, item boxes, door animations, hidden subterranean labs and 'oops, we did it again!' Umbrella Geneticists who seem to handle deadly viruses with all the skill of Mr Bean.
Perhaps it was the influx of 'new' zombie films that did it, the sprinting foes of 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead made Producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi realize that traditional zombies just weren't frightening anymore, and so he bravely approached the suggestion box with a will to change and evolve.
It can't be denied that Resident Evil 4 has done just that, and the result appears to be an experience which is quite capable of luring new fans to the series through its sheer dynamic of polish and pace. While holdovers from the past still remain such as clumsy dialogue and a smattering of esoteric puzzles, a definite stream-lining of the RE formula is evident. If preceding entries in this series played out like B-movies then RE4 is a modern-day, blockbuster equivalent, action is the order of the day here and you can be guaranteed plenty of it.
Plot-wise, the tale revolves around Leon Kennedy who, through some largely untouched on back story, has become a Government Agent. Tasked with rescuing the President's daughter, he soon finds himself in over his head up against a mysterious cult called the Los Illuminados who wield a strange and powerful influence over the local populace, a psychotic influence to be precise. Suffice to say there's far more happening here than you are first aware of, and despite Umbrella's apparent demise the storyline promises to build bridges to other entries in the series, becoming ever more horrific the further you progress.
From your first encounter with the blood-thirsty villagers, you know that Capcom can never go back to plain old zombies under pain of death. The fire-fights here are simply so much more alive, rather than plugging shells into a shambling corpse you feel as though you're facing off against a relentless, inventive enemy, and this feeling is reinforced in your first major encounter with an angry mob. Enemies smash down doors, duck out of the way of your pistol's laser sight, raise ladders to reach you on higher levels, if you don't think on your feet and keep moving then Leon could quite literally lose his head.
For those used to sparing their ammo and picking their fights, this new approach is disorientating at first. Kobayashi wants you to take part in giant, epic battles, the initial deluge of ammunition available only confirms this, and he wants you to emerge victorious with a buzz of adrenaline seldom associated with the Resident Evil name. Make no mistake, bullets do become a valuable commodity the further into the game you travel, but it never feels as though you are lacking an offensive option. Due to the new and improved targeting, devastation can be wrought with a single round if you're good enough, shoot that blazing stick of dynamite in a villager's hand and you'll not only blow him into fleshy pieces but send all those around scattering in the blast.
The villagers themselves can also be targeted for different advantages; shoot one in the knee and he'll drop to the ground presenting you with an easy head-shot, or shoot another in the arm and they'll drop that pitchfork, instead lunging at you with their bare hands. Such precise aiming also works into puzzles later in the game as well, dislodging various landscape items to open up a path forward, it's a breath of fresh air from the usually required square crank that's for sure.
Stream-lining is also evident not only in the pace of the game, but in the mechanics of it as well. Rather than resorting to a clunky, multiple-choice menu to interact with the scenery, Capcom have assigned one context-sensitive 'action' button to keep things non-intrusive. Run up to a window and you'll instantly know if its possible to leap through it, a message appears at the bottom of the screen describing the action and all you have to do is hit the appropriate button, Leon will then execute the rest with an energy that most of us could only dream of having. This also encompasses opening doors, interacting with vital objects, kicking at enemies who have gotten too close and even tipping down the ladders of those pursuing villagers.
Capcom have also taken a page out of Sega's book and included 'Quick Timer Events', ala Shenmue, requiring swift reactions and combined button presses to avoid or flee hazardous events. These include everything from avoiding a boss's killer blow to sprinting away from a pursuing boulder Indiana Jones style, the variation of buttons that need to be pressed is also varied through each attempt so its very difficult to become complacent.
In another nice, new touch, additional weapons aren't located on route but rather purchased from a cockney leper ( no, really ) who pops up on your travels, offering the choice of either new weapons or tune-ups of the ones you currently have which enhance capacity, fire speed, firepower, and reload time. Money is dropped by particularly tough foes, and can also be gained by selling gems and jewellery that you come across to the shopkeeper.
Which brings us neatly to the last, major change. No item chests.
Leon carries an attachè case with him which uses a grid system similar to the inventories in Diablo and Deus Ex, every item takes up a certain number of squares and some rearranging will be needed if you're to make the most of all the space. New attachè cases are made available as the game progresses, but much of the time you'll find yourself agonizing over which weapons to buy or items to carry, as there is rarely room for them all.
Graphically, RE4 is a game which has garnered much praise. Ever since the E3-2003 video of Leon exploring a dark and foreboding mansion was released, its been no secret that the game would be a graphical treat even if it failed to change the staid series conventions. Such awe still remains, and is well deserved, for even though RE4 is stunning from the instant you begin it actually becomes even more impressive as the game draws on. The lush yet oppressive environments are perfectly realised, blending artistic talent with technical genius, even though Capcom has enforced a 'widescreen' effect which squashes the picture slightly under large top and bottom borders.
Although they are notorious for this ( remember Onimusha? ) arguably the borders are not a result of sloppy coding but rather an acknowledged compromise, as RE4 suffers from no slowdown or choppiness despite the amazing graphical engine. It seems Capcom decided to go with a 'cinematic' view rather than accept any hampering to the fast-paced gameplay, and although annoying at first the widescreen view becomes far less of an issue as you are absorbed into the game.
Sonics are also high quality and extremely impressive through Dolby Digital, from the report of weapons fire to the Spanish curses and cries of villagers there is nothing here to break the mood. Music is similarly diverse, ranging from haunting melodies, tense build-up, and even a smattering of rock music ( no nu-metal, thank God ) depending on the dire situation you find yourself in.
Controls are simple and functional, the right shoulder button raising your weapon and flicking on the laser sight, left shoulder button to draw your knife, the A button to fire/swing, B button to sprint, Z for map, C-stick to rotate the camera and so on. Like all good control systems, you won't even find yourself thinking about which buttons to press after an hour or so of play, and the control scheme is configurable if it doesn't initially suit your tastes.
Even after just several hours of play, it seems inevitable that Resident Evil 4 will not only take its place among the best the Gamecube has to offer, but also among the best this generation of consoles has to offer. Just when you had given up on Capcom to innovate, and provide the originality injection which Resident Evil so desperately needed, they serve up the kind of game which has all the hallmarks of zombie classics yet an intelligence and enthusiasm with the capacity to appeal to a far wider market.
Taken from what we've seen so far, it certainly deserves to.