Few of the franchises of the 32bit era have endured as well as Resident Evil. Now almost a decade since we were first unassumingly invited into the world of Survival Horror, four further games in the series, as well as spin-offs Dead Aim and Outbreak – plus the recognized success of the GameCube’s Remake – have cemented the series as one of the most prolific of its genre.
And one of the most highly revered. Resident Evil is, without doubt, a system seller, and it’s for this reason the capturing of its lucrative licence by Nintendo, as a GameCube exclusive for all official sequels, has been bemoaned by Sony fans the world over – and well might they do so. With the latest in the series, Capcom have ripped up the rule book and started afresh – Resident Evil 4 is Resi for a new generation, and deserves to redraw the boundaries – not only of Survival Horror, but the Action Adventure – every bit as much as the original, way back in 1995.
Intricacies of narrative and setting have been well documented since E3. Resi 2’s Leon Kennedy returns, six years on from Racoon, in his new capacity as government agent sent to rescue the President’s daughter from kidnap in central Europe. Gone are Umbrella, in a government crackdown, as has the mansion setting; a familiarity Capcom obviously decided might breed contempt. And so at the beginning of the ECTS demo, we find our central protagonist being driven to the outskirts of a remote Spanish village. The camera swoops round, close in on eyes hair and hands, showing off the impressive character models. Leon exits the car, and we’re playing Resident Evil 4.
The camera is positioned behind Leon, close-up, allowing only for vision of his upper torso, half way between third and first person. Fixed camera angles long-gone, one could be forgiven for thinking this was anything but a Resi title… but for the encompassing dread exuded by the dense, painstakingly detailed setting. In a visual sense, at least, series integrity is intact.
As it is too, in control. We move Leon through the first forest area and find a pleasingly familiar feel to all initiated actions; B is still run, while the analogue stick still operates a pivot-turn function, the once rookie cop rotating with sideward flicks, backing up by holding the analogue down, and walking forward by holding up. Start now takes us into map screen, upon which a flashing beacon indicates our destination.
With this in mind, we move forward, a rickety, less-than-homely building to our left, the road ahead blocked by a parked truck. Looks like the house is the only option, then. We move inside and inspect the bookcase. “Nothing useful here” comes the text on screen, in familiar fashion. Moving into the next room triggers a cut-scene, Leon quizzing a hunched villager about the girl he has come to find, producing a photograph, only to be attacked. When we regain control, shouts of “get back” that hark back to the opening FMV of Resi 2 ring around the room – said villager, much like the zombies before him, paying little heed to Leon’s warning.
Unlike any zombie however, this villager is sporting a rather ominous looking sickle, and advancing at alarming pace – anything but an un-dead shuffle. Steadying our nerves, we pull the R trigger to get our first experience of the new aiming system. Zooming in to Leon’s right shoulder, it all looks very Splinter Cell, while rooted to the spot, as with previous Resi titles, providing a comfortable familiarity (albeit with new, more involving perspective), the laser sight on the handgun tracking (with use of the thumb-stick, with the option to invert) across the screen. Resting on our attackers’ upper torso, we hit A to pull the trigger – the gun producing a satisfying splatter when the shot connects. The villager stumbles, but keeps on coming, dodging our next shot and getting violently close. We panic, he slashes, Leon stumbles… we use our veteran experience of the series, turning to run, putting space between us, gathering composure before lining up our next shot. Square in the head. Red hits the wall, he goes down. Thank god for that. Nonetheless, an unnerving initial encounter against what are promised to be only the basic foes to feature in the final game.
Counting our blessings, we walk upstairs, exploring the house. It is at this point we notice for the first time the HUD in the bottom right of the screen, including an on-screen indication of character health (a first for the series) via an energy bar – which in our case, has decreased significantly. Coming up to an upstairs window, an icon comes on screen prompting a press of A; the context-sensitive action button that is yet another new addition for Resident Evil 4. We follow the prompt, triggering a cut-scene involving the road-blocking car revving to life. Leon dives out of the window, action hero style, only to find himself confronted by several angry villagers, all boasting weapons as pointy and deadly as their felled counterpart indoors. Shit!
Our uncertainty however, proves unfounded. Bob, weave and lunge as they might, our now-attuned targeting proves too much for the rampaging psychos – what Capcom company hype is calling “the infected”. We progress through the opening where the parked car once lay, stopping to off another “infected” in a small toll-booth, shooting some wooden crates after it to reveal handgun ammo in one, and a herb in the other. Realizing our failure to do so by now, we then press Y, bringing up the item screen which, while eschewing item block based carrying capacity of previous Resi’s, still holds a visual familiarity that’s hard to shake. We inspect the herb – a yellow one we are told increases healing effects when mixed with a green herb – and reload our gun, before continuing on our way through the autumn-green shrubbery.
And this we do, scouting the horizon without a trace of pop-up for villagers, picking them off before they get too close. We avoid sneakily placed explosively charged tripwires with the help of a fellow show attendee’s handy commentary, collect more ammo and herbs, and soon find ourselves on the outskirts of the village, ever closer to the flashing beacon on our map. A cut-scene whirrs into effect, Leon pulls out binoculars, and we zoom in and out using the C-stick. Disturbingly, we see one of Leon’s two chauffeurs from the opening movie. That wouldn’t be so bad, except he’s nailed to a wooden post. Chickens wander the area – a small village, replete with more rickety wooden buildings and a watchtower – as do several equally disturbed dungaree-wearing hillbillies. So we do the only thing anyone would do, given the situation; we walk forward and shoot at the nearest live poultry. Murder our driver would they? Bastards. That’ll teach ’em.
We do however underestimate the sheer number of the villagers. They just keep coming. And they seem really mad now – they must have really been attached to that chicken. Skirting the village perimeter, we make for the watchtower, a suitable place, we feel, to pick off a few of the unsuspecting heathens. That is, until we once again are reminded of the improved AI of Resi’s new grunts; a grenade, or Molotov cocktail (we can’t be sure which) exploding against the tower roof. We retreat down the ladder, hurriedly checking our map and looking around in weapon mode, only to realise our destination to be the very gates blocked by three freakishly large, imposingly hairy individuals. Out of ammo, spooked, and not a little scared, we make for the nearest building.
We regret it the minute we enter the room. Not that there’s anything in there, but as another cut-scene shows Leon closing the door, and the house being surrounded, we realise our stupidity. Like the archetypal horror movie victim, we’re trapped by our own actions. Unlike the victims of all-but one horror movie, however, we now see a brutish guy with a bag on his head – eye slits revealing crazed wide pearls of dread-inspiring evil – touting a loudly buzzing chainsaw. Leather face this is not – at least he was purely non-interactive. Fitting the clichÃ¨ to a tee, we run upstairs, grabbing the niftily placed shotgun from its wall mount, and extra handgun ammo. Walking over to the window, we push over the ladder, felling its climbing villagers with the use of the A button, and turn to defend ourselves atop the stairs, from the impending invasion.
Possibly with the words of Lord of The Rings’ Theoden ringing through our minds – “if this is to be our end, we will make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance” – we advance on the marauding hordes. One, two, three going down at the barrel of our new twelve gauge toy, exploding in a fashion that makes the few people behind us utter various impressed “ooh’s” and “ahh’s”. We’re quite sure we also hear one “woah!” though maybe that was us.
All is going to plan, until the inevitable – but in the heat of battle, overlooked – reload animation kicks in, that is, and we find ourselves surrounded. How could that be? Damned villagers must have put the ladder back up outside and entered from the window. It’s a logical conclusion, but one that we fail to see proof of, as we get over ran by the vile infected. You Are Dead, says the screen. “Time’s up”, says the Capcom representative, “I’m taking this away to be locked up now”. There’s still an hour of the show to go, but the single Resi demo – the best, arguably only, reason to attend ECTS this year – is obviously high security. Looks like we got the last play of the day.
And with it, we have learned much – “never shoot a Spaniard’s chicken” is just the cusp. Art direction of this new Resident Evil has proved as cinematic as ever, and integrated more fluidly than ever before, into a title that now boasts true credentials into the Action field of its genre title. Yet most importantly of all, it feels like Resi – handling with more flair and finesse, but true to its name. That it will impress with its visuals is a foregone conclusion, but Resident Evil 4 has all the hallmarks of a defining title of this console generation in ways other than mere aesthetic value. Panic, fear and dread are all imbued to the player with progression. Anger at the control scheme has thankfully, finally, been eliminated, a true subversion of the form, and evolution of it. Any game containing scenes of explicit violence and gore – as the loading screen of the series has always so proudly stated – has never been so deserving of the hype. Gaming has changed in a decade, and finally the world of Survival Horror has with it. No zombies, no Umbrella, no Dual shock controller, but very, very much so; Resident Evil.