The Resident Evil series has always told stories about the helpless and the hopeless: helpless characters in seemingly hopeless situations. Instead of "powering up" like typical videogame characters, Resident Evil's helpless and hopeless protagonists must constantly come to terms with their vulnerabilities and limitations. Instead of feeling empowered, they feel weak. Instead of celebrating cliched notions of heroism, i.e. standing my ground and fighting, Resident Evil was the first game to make "running for my life" not only a viable option, but a perfectly acceptable strategy.
There are a number of things about the series that never sat right with me: the paralyzed camera; the nonsensical puzzles; the equally nonsensical herb mixing; the way Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 (doing an uncanny imitation of Bea Arthur) would growl, "S.T.A.R.S." But the one flaw I could not forgive—and the one that kept me from becoming a bona fide fan—was the over-starched control scheme, which always left me feeling needlessly handicapped by the developers. If only I could move, I thought. If only my character controlled like a living, breathing human being instead of a 1972 U-Haul truck with four flat tires and a broken rear axel, these zombie bastards would be in serious trouble.
Resident Evil 4 opens with government agent Leon Kennedy—last seen in Resident Evil 3—being sent to a lost-in-time European village on a mission to find the president's kidnapped daughter. Within moments, I was surrounded by a group of pitchfork-wielding farmers and one chainsaw-waving maniac wearing a burlap sack over his head. (I could tell he was a maniac right away, because only maniacs wear burlap.) This hell-in-the-cell set piece—without an exit, I had to keep moving, keep climbing ladders and tossing grenades to survive—is a slice of videogame brilliance, far more kinetic and unnerving than anything I've previously seen in the series. While the earlier games always seemed silly in a state fair spook house kind of way, I felt something different at the start of the Resident Evil 4, something that I've never experienced before in the series: a creeping sense of mystery and deep-seated psychological fear.
What makes the set piece in the village so effective? The stunning graphics, the motion-captured animations, and the nuanced soundtrack are all rendered with a high degree of artistic craft and confidence. (Resident Evil 4, from start to finish, is clearly an A-level production.) But what truly shocks and awes here, what distinguishes this as not only a great Resident Evil game but a great videogame in general, are the unshackled camera and overhauled control scheme.
The camera—hallelujah—has finally been set free. And I mean completely free; none of this Code Veronica sort-of-free bunk. Gone are the fly-on-the-wall perspectives; gone are those disorienting moments whenever I walked into a new room and had to 1. first locate myself on screen, then 2. locate any threats. The camera in Resident Evil 4 follows me around like a loyal German Shepherd, always two or three steps behind me. And this new perspective gives the game an intimate, gruesome immediacy.
More importantly, Leon, though still not quite as nimble as a ballerina, has also been set free. For once, my Resident Evil character doesn't barrel around like he's pulled both hamstrings and has intentionally filled his shoes with rocks; no longer must he come to a complete stop before turning a corner. Simply push the analog stick forward, and Leon goes forward. Push left, and Leon goes left. It's simple. It's brilliant. It's revolutionary. Indeed, this is the living, breathing, and very human control scheme I've wanted for years.
This new-found sense of control—it has to be experienced to be believed—coupled with the now-cooperative camera both work together to give Resident Evil 4 something that previous games in the series never really had: genuinely compelling gameplay. Instead of feeling a constant sense of stomach-turning dread every time I came upon a cluster of enemies (the way I did in previous Resident Evil games), I actually found myself hungry for conflict in Resident Evil 4, eager for the next challenge. Many sections of the game, including that excellent village set piece, are worthy of a replay. In fact, hell must have frozen over, because I'm actually playing through a Resident Evil game a second time, and relishing every blood soaked second of it.
Still more good news: the nonsensical puzzles have been simplified. Backtracking is kept to a minimum. Item management doesn't feel like as much of a chore as it has in the past. In fact, I actually found myself taking pleasure in tidying up my briefcase for some inexplicable reason (grenades over here, herbs over there, etc.). Weapons are now fully upgradeable, which gives the game a slight role-playing game quality. And the pacing and rhythm of the game stay true to the series—find a key, solve a puzzle, watch a cut scene, survive a skirmish, battle a boss, rinse, repeat—with one subtle exception: button commands occasionally appear on screen during gameplay. These context sensitive commands, if timed properly, can result in dodged attacks or special moves. While I resented the button commands at first—they seemed gimmicky and cheap to me—I eventually found myself won over by them, particularly during the (minor spoiler ahead) white-knuckle knife fight with Krauser later in the game.
Unfortunately, while Resident Evil 4 opens in an unfamiliar place—that European village, complete with weathered farmhouses and bare trees is unlike anything previously seen in the series—the game quickly resorts to overly familiar environs like a castle, an underground cave, an Egyptian tomb, a medical lab, and an industrial plant, none of which have the creeping sense of mystery that the village has. I can't help but wish the developers had kept surprising me, kept challenging themselves to take the entire game (and not just the first three hours) to new places. Ditto for the bosses. The first boss fight—a showdown with a mutated leviathan on a dank lake that manages to be believable and thrilling at once—is easily the most inventive boss fight in the game (and simply one of the best boss fights I've seen in years). Each successive boss fight, by comparison, disappoints, with the game's final fight—the main event that I'd been waiting 20-plus hours to see—felt like a battle I'd already fought a hundred times, in a hundred other videogames.
In keeping with tradition, Resident Evil 4 still has its fair share of classic helpless-and-hopeless moments. Honestly, some of the how-the-hell-am-I-supposed-to-get-out-of-this? scenarios the game dropped me seemed like cruel and unusual punishment at times. (In typical Resident Evil fashion, I fled whenever I could.) In contrast—and this is arguably the very best thing about Resident Evil 4—the game for the first time ever actually has a counterpoint to these moments; the ying to that helpless-and-hopeless yang. That ying is an exhilarating sense of heroic empowerment.
Of course I limped my way through a few of the chapters, but I cut through other chapters like Gary Cooper in High Noon—pardon my crudeness—kicking ass all over the damn place. Instead of feeling constantly oppressed, instead of feeling like the game world was always imposing its will on me, instead of always feeling helpless and hopeless, there are moments in Resident Evil 4—Bruce Campbell-style "Come get some"/"Who wants to have a little?" moments—when I felt like I was imposing my will on the game world. No, Resident Evil 4 isn't perfect—the game peaks too early, becomes overly repetitious, and doesn't seem to know when to end—but these moments of bad-ass, shotgun-pumped empowerment help this franchise, which I'd given up for dead long ago, finally begin to realize its full potential.