Resident Evil 4 is simply the finest videogame ever made.
Nothing else even comes close. It is, bar none, the culmination of all my fondest hopes and dreams about all the things that videogames would someday accomplish, the peerless peak that I never dreamed they would reach.
The most significant difference between Scott's point of view on Resident Evil 4 is that he sees it as the redemption of a fundamentally flawed franchise. I, on the other hand, felt that there was nothing wrong with the Resident Evil series to start with—which makes the fact that I think every change was for the better that much more significant. While others were hoping that this game would revolutionize and revitalize the line, I just wanted another Resident Evil game. Like everyone else, I received far more than I ever could have hoped for.
I'm quite a fan of the Resident Evil series. I'm also the only person I personally know to have played through RE3 the requisite eight times required to unlock all of the endings. A few times a year I'll do a speed run through all the games (Except for Code: Veronica—that's the one without any exploding heads) just to keep my skills sharp. Speaking as a self-proclaimed afficionado and expert on the series, I'm confident in saying that I'm perhaps the only person to have never complained about the control scheme in the Resident Evil series.
While other gamers griped about the stiff and restrictive control scheme, comparing it unfavorably to Battlezone, my point of view on the matter has always been a little different. I see it simply as the way the game is designed. —When I'm playing chess, should I feel restricted because the bishops can only move diagonally? More importantly, I never really felt that the control scheme was ever preventing me from doing anything that the game asked me to do. With its narrow, claustrophobic hallways and excellent sound design, moments were few and far between that a slow turning speed caused any major inconvenience for me.
Yet even I had to admit that Resident Evil 4's control scheme was a giant leap forward for the series, as well as better than anything else on the market. Beyond perfecting the control scheme, the developers have tweaked every aspect of the game design to an utterly flawless state. It's not hard to see how Capcom did it; they simply figured out what the best features of all their other horror games were and applied them to their flagship title. The upgradeable weapons and bonus collecting of Devil May Cry, the precise aiming and camera placement of Dead Aim, and the overwhelming tension and environmental interaction of Clock Tower 3 have all been combined to form some kind of uber--survival horror game design, one that will no doubt serve the company well over the next few games in the series.
There is something that Scott didn't mention in his glowing review of the game, though, and that's the incredible manual targeting system. History has shown that I'm somewhat obsessive about pain animations, and in this respect it seems as if Resident Evil 4 was designed specifically with me in mind. Shoot an enemy in the hand, and he'll drop his weapon. Shoot an enemy in the face, and he'll clutch it, screaming. If an enemy is running towards me, I'll shoot him in the leg, and he'll sprawl forward onto his face. It's the most natural and responsive animation I've ever seen, and it makes shooting the enemies such a pleasurable experience that the game is incredibly replayable.
Just a glance at any screenshot will demonstrate that the graphics are some of the most incredible ever realized in a videogame, and they look far better in motion than they do in still frames. The art designers have taken a page from Silent Hill's book—no longer is the world of Resident Evil beautifully furnished and surprisingly well-dusted. The various environments are believably aged and damaged—not in an overly affected, supernatural Silent Hill way, either. The art design makes it clear that the game is filled with locations where very bad things have happened to people. Very recently.
I'd also be remiss in mentioning that the game features some of the best particle effects I've ever seen. Whether it's the fantastic water effects or the utterly disgusting blood spurts, every time anything falls, or is shot, or explodes in the game, it's a beautiful sight to behold. The explosions deserve special mention. This is a game where I was able to fire a dart loaded with explosives into an enemy's chest then, if I didn't feel like waiting the five seconds for the timer to go off, I could just fire a shot into the dart and watch my enemy explode. Of course, other games have enabled players to perform similar acts of violence, but never have they looked as incredible as they do here. While other developers might have simply placed an explosion on screen and thrown the body (or body parts) around, the designers of Resident Evil 4 have gone that extra mile and created a special animation just for this act: the unfortunate enemy will find themselves vaporized into a quickly-expanding cloud of dust and viscera. Wanting to make that happen to a virtual character was the very reason that I started playing violent video games twenty years ago. It was worth the wait to see it realized so perfectly.
If it seems like I'm spending too much time dwelling on one tiny aspect of the game, believe me, I'm not. This one visual is so fantastic that it warrants purchasing the game just to see it.
One of the few real points of contention that I have with Scott's review is his suggestion that mature people wouldn't find the monsters anything but silly. From the blood-spattered Ganados to the The Thing-inspired dog-bursters and head-poppers, I found all of the creatures incredibly well-designed and scary. All the more impressive is the fact that the game continues throwing new types of enemies at the player for the entire length of the game. The Regenerator that Scott mentioned in passing is one of the best monster designs I've seen, and is just plain disturbing when seen in motion. In addition to this, there are three entirely different sets of Ganado models, one for each of the game's distinct areas, as well as specialized creatures, such as the Beastmaster-esque blind berserkers, or the giant hammer-wielding soldiers that I'm convinced must be a cute reference to the classic Capcom side-scroller Trojan. Amazingly, the designers were so confident in the success of their designs for the game that they saved the most terrifying creature in the entire game—as well as the most obvious nod to Splatterhouse—for the Mercenaries mini-game, where he appears exclusively in the Waterworld-themed Atoll level.
Which brings me to the other thing that Scott overlooked in his review: Resident Evil 4's comprehensive extras. In addition to the standard secondary costumes for the game's three main characters, RE4 contains a sub-character minigame that allows players to revisit one of the game's locations as a different character, fighting different enemies. The real accomplishment, though, is the aforementioned Mercenaries mini-game. Fans of the series will fondly remember the original game which appeared in Nemesis. This new version keeps the spirit of the original—kill the game's enemies as quickly as possible to gain points—while improving it in every conceivable way. In addition to the exclusive monster, the designers went to the trouble of offering three characters that are playable only in the Mercenaries game, two of which are completely new models that appear nowhere else in the game, each with their own exclusive weapons and moves. I was actually shocked by the amount of effort that had been put into what could have easily been a throwaway combat minigame.
There is a downside to the game, though, and that downside is something that the Resident Evil series hasn't had much of a problem with in the past: the plot. While their plots may have been convoluted previously, they were always entertaining. Like any soap-opera addict, I found myself missing out on the opportunity to peel the latest layer of the Umbrella conspiracy. It's become something of a standard feature that the backstory gets exponentially more confusing with each successive game—-even the Resident Evil remake added semi-significant notes to the plot. While it was a daring choice to make a completely Umbrella-free game, I was happy to see some hints dropped that the series' next installment may well feature those elements I was missing here.
The characters are something of a weak point here as well. While Ashley (the character that Leon is sent to protect) is without a doubt the least irritating "needs to be protected" character in history (dig this: whenever I pulled my gun, she ducked to the side so I could get a clean shot at my target) she doesn't have much of a personality, making it hard to care too much whenever an enemy slings her over his shoulder and starts to carry her off. The villains aren't much better. There's no one as clever as Wesker, or as terrifying as Nemesis, or even as just plain interesting as Alfred from Code: Veronica. But the real disappointment is the main character: Leon Scott Kennedy. Apparently he's spent the six years since the Raccoon City incident becoming a hardcore special forces guy, although, beyond a few nifty knife-fighting moves, I wouldn't have guessed it from looking at him. Or listening to him. His dialogue is as action-movie generic and dull as it comes, leaving him in a bizarre middle-area. He's not tough enough to be believable, and he's not clever enough to be entertaining. He's just sort of there. Given the fact that someone on the design team was clearly a fan of the television show 24, it would have been nice if they could have taken a few tips on how to Jack Bauer-up Leon a bit, to make him a more solid leading character. They probably should have started with the haircut.
Perhaps Resident Evil 4's greatest strength was its ability to pull me into the game. Through a combination of comfortable controls, amazing level design and beautiful graphics and animation, no matter what the situation was, I always felt I was right there in it, struggling to find a safe wall to put my backagainst, carefully lining up my shots to make the best use of my last few shotgun rounds. Praying I didn't just hear the roar of a chainsaw sparking to life. I was maybe an hour into Resident Evil 4 when I decided to give it a ten. A man was lumbering towards me, sickle at his side. I tried to blast it out of his hand and I struck him in the leg by accident. Pained, he fell to his knees. I fired a second shot into his chest, and he flopped to the ground. He certainly looked dead, but I wasn't about to take anything for granted, so I took a step forward, aimed carefully, and shot him twice in the face. His head exploded with the second shot, and I knew right then that it was the best game I'd ever played, and that the rest of the game would have to be absolutely awful to cause me to downgrade my opinion. And it only got better from there.
Two weeks into 2005, I've already found my nominee for game of the year. I can't imagine a better game coming out this year. If one does, if something actually tops Resident Evil 4, I'll be happy to have been proven wrong, because it means that this was the greatest year in the history of videogames.