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.
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'.
While there is a plot, it is a largely unimportant and superfluous one, as in most Resident Evils, but it still contains enough developments and references to please those who follow the series. RE4 lives vicariously through other great works, and in the process reincarnates them in a new, videogame form. While the end result may not always be original, it is never less than riveting.
Of course, there's always a danger in such adrenalized gameplay, particularly in a series which made its name relying on a creepy atmosphere and slow, deliberate pace. The addition of a shop-keeper - who holds access to all of the game's weapons - and the currency used to pay him, which is collected from fallen enemies ( ammunition is also often replenished in the same way ), will for some be one step too far away from an established norm.
Logic is sometimes not the friend of an enjoyable formula, however, and while the shop-keeper helps streamline the game and presents a tempting Pokemon aspect to his priced weapons, he also doubles as a safe-haven, a short period of respite from the relentless action. The shooting gallery made available in the second half provides an excellent diversion form the main game, rewarding you for high-scores. It is totally irrelevant to the main action, and the RE series as a whole, yet compulsive and generously included nonetheless.
Though the game is more action focussed, tense moments are far from done away with. Apart from the obvious tension of seeing off a huge crowd of bloodthirsty villagers, certain sections scare and manipulate the player just as the original games did and there are a number of chilling set-pieces. As in all best suspense, music plays into it masterfully, and while RE4 may skate around in applying aural styles it never loses sight of where to pin the right pieces.
One criticism, which will no doubt be shared by all, is the graphical ratio that Capcom have been reduced to in order to have RE4 working just the way they wanted. Fat, black borders sandwich the beautiful graphics like some kind of cruel joke. This is a game that yearns to be displayed in true widescreen, and the first instinct is to demand the heads of those who were unable to make it so. Yet, just as we all make sacrifices, it seems likely that at some point in development this particular settlement was made, with, no doubt, a heavy heart.
Many of us have seen what the GameCube is capable of, Rogue Leader proved it right from the outset - yet even with this knowledge - initial footage of RE4 served to astonish us all, including the most jaded. The borders were an unpleasant surprise, but nevertheless, this is one of the finest-looking videogames ever made.
With every new development, every new fight and scenario, the player likes to believe he now has a handle on how far, how high, this game can go. Yet, confounding expectations, it keeps raising its game, upping the pace, thrumming that adrenal gland like a mad drummer. Never before has a game been packed with so many sublime and well-considered moments. Perhaps in this age of soulless cash-ins, sedentary ideas and concepts, some of us will feel raw after this level of entertainment. How can we play normal games ever again?
Just gives us something else to complain about, I suppose.