It would be easier to focus on Resident Evil as a series in this retrospective instance. Remembering its weight and impact on a fledgling and somewhat naive industry -- then ruled by Eastern development -- would be a cakewalk. The series stood alongside Final Fantasy VII as a poster-child for taking gaming to optical discs and away from cartridges, and helped popularise videogaming as a passion for more than just kids thanks to its heavy dose of gore and horror. Oh, and it was there at the beginning of what would become known as the survival-horror genre, but you’ll be able to
But instead of talking about the series as a whole here, we'll take some time to remember the game that took it from its own undying design clutches and ushered the survival-horror world into something new. Metaphors of breathing life into the (becoming) lifeless genre abound, but I’d rather get to the point: Resident Evil 4 -- Shinji Mikami’s magnum opus before parting ways with Capcom forever, may very well be one of the most important design and playing experiences in the history of modern gaming.
A big statement, I know, but it’s difficult not to see the game’s influence everywhere you look -- specifically in the third-person space. Everything from the Batman Arkham series to Dead Space and Gears of War borrows from Resident Evil 4. You wouldn’t have had Alan Wake if not for the handsome Leon S. Kennedy’s orders to rescue the President’s kidnapped daughter from the Los Illuminados. You might not have even had the recent Tomb Raider reboot and its graphic depictions of Lara’s death anytime you failed. Even the untouchable Naughty Dog admits The Last of Us was massively inspired by Mikami’s masterpiece. But in the wake of more and more regenerative health and non-interactive beginning, middle and end set-pieces in modern Triple-A ‘blockbuster’ games, the game’s impact feels less rounded and utilised, resting perhaps more as a timeless game only talked about in whispers and not properly borrowed from anymore.
Of course it’s not all doom and gloom. That Batman Arkham series continues to do alright, and then there’s The Evil Within -- Mikami’s return to horror glory many are rightly banking on and, who knows, maybe that game will do what Resident Evil 4 did all those years ago and influence a slew of newcomers, but at this point in time, even Mikami’s new undertaking feels like a pretender to the crown.
By modern standards, you could see a fresh face coming to Resident Evil 4 and throwing the controller down after their first encounter with the game’s nonzoms
. The controls would be described as “sticky” and “archaic”, but these would be the wrong words to use, and throwing the controller down would lose out on the chance to experience one of the most perfectly-paced ever-escalating action-horror experiences ever crafted.
The controls, for example, are deliberate. There were other games in the field that did what people thought
Resi 4 should have done, before and around its release, but survival-horror has always been about the terror impediment; about tension building and weighing you down as if your feet were cinderblocks. You’re meant to be outnumbered, but you’re not meant to be able to properly deal with it. That would be cheating. Instead, you need to think on your concrete toes and miraculously survive myriad onslaughts with your equally-evolving toolset.
In Resident Evil 4, this principle was the cornerstone of the game’s design philosophy, and it did so while maintaining more than a tether to the games in the series that had come before it. Controls in the fixed camera iterations of Resident Evil were deliberately binary, designed to build off the controlled camera environment where your peripheral viewpoint was non-existent and the player was left at the mercy of the game’s horror director. It was a brilliant way to present a highly-detailed game-world in an otherwise underpowered gaming generation -- that the series’ developers took hardware limitations and fed off them to power
the horror and scare component of their game was, frankly, genius.
In Resident Evil 4, the series did away with the fixed camera and gave players a game with interiors and exteriors that were explorable beyond simple hallways or patios. But the camera didn’t play nice with the player, and digital (read: not analogue) control inputs built around run and walk, stop and aim were pulled directly from the previous games. This made this expanded 3D gaming space all the more terrifying. Your peripheral viewpoint was now an active element of keeping your guard up (built largely off the over-the-shoulder camera position which changed third-person gaming forever), but you were still left at the hands of a dynamic and very restrictive developer-controlled camera.
Simply, Resident Evil 4 was about those control inputs I mentioned before, while the game dynamically offered the player other interactions contextually. What this meant was the controller itself was not a remapped keyboard in disguise with complicated face layouts and button combinations. The dynamic nature of the contextual play also meant that gameplay was always being mixed up, yet handled with a single button press. Moreover, quick time events (QTE) helped break up cut-scenes in new and responsive ways without overtaking the core gameplay features. It’s arguable that to this day, no other games have treated the QTE initiative with the same level of non-obtrusive maturity.
Even death in Resident Evil 4 was a reward, with numerous contextual animations designed to make you want to see just how Leon could
fail. The first time his head is lopped off by one of the chainsaw bearers or being crushed to death by any of the game’s mauling, giant trolls was as much a reward as taking them down or successfully fleeing. Enemies, too, had unique and varying deaths based on the weapons you were using or the context of the situation.
The ever-escalating level of enemies and enemy types was also one of the its stronger points. No two areas ever felt the same, nor their enemy encounters. The dynamic nature of action fed off the AI and the playspace brilliantly, and the player always felt like they were actually getting somewhere. Cut and paste level-design is weak design and in Resident Evil 4 it was nowhere to be seen. This coupled with the greater sense of geometry the game threw at you (in that you could always look back and see areas you’d just come from rather than painted skyboxes) gave it a believable foundation; this place could be real -- despite the ridculousness of its position where plot is concerned.
In this sense, the game wasn’t built around trial and error, and the vastness of most of the interlocking sandboxes you played in gave the player a visceral, expansive sense of progression. Like an RPG, you felt the further you got into the game, the more powerful you were becoming. It was like a reactive sense of XP rather than the oft superfluous numerical reflection of player progression in other games. Adding to this, your items attache case, which became its own puzzle component the more you added to it was a form of micro-management fed by the player’s desire to find and build out every treasure of the game. In fact the whole economy system Resident Evil 4 used was as varied and fun as its enemy engagement. Collecting cash from downed enemies, finding gold bars behind paintings, shooting roof-mounted spinals or piecing together various items of treasure with others was a companion side-quest. You didn’t specifically need to go anywhere else to play it, it opened up alongside you.
Deciding how to spend your money was also another great piece of player-driven content. Would you wait until you finished fleshing out that cup with three different coloured Cat’s Eyes so it would be worth more money, or were you in dire need of health with no other cash on you, deciding instead to sell the cup as is to buy a health spray. And what about weapons? Do you continue to upgrade your first-round gear, or save money for the inevitable new range? Would upgrading the initial pistol, fully, be better than waiting for the Broken Butterfly? All tantalising questions and all answered very differently by different players and play styles.
Gameplay variation didn’t end there, either. After you finished you also had The Mercenaries mode as well as solo missions you could play with Ada Wong which, despite being played with the same inputs and in the same environments, proved to be a very different gameplay experience than that of Leon. You also had solo, weaponless missions with Ashley -- the President’s daughter you eventually rescue. Hers were wonderfully inventive with level-design playing a big part in just how you managed the enemies she couldn’t really stand and fight (she could throw lanterns at them though, setting them on fire). From a recourse perspective, players could also use Ashley as bait once she was by their side. The enemies were always looking to take her away, which could give Leon some breathing room and allow for easier attacks on them. You even had shooting galleries where you were laughed at if you failed to make the base score… I mean, c’mon.
The game is often remembered for its action innovations, but it’s important to know that at its heart, it was a horror game. The creature design and certain environmental designs were often pretty disturbing, and there was an overabundance of nothing. Walking through tight corridors or between open fields with ominous barns or huts between them, with no music, no growling and only the sound of wind or Leon’s footsteps worked perfectly to build tension. The first time you see a villager stuck to a wall, impaled by a pitchfork with no context and still no immediate danger around you is a terrifying moment, and like so much of the game, it only continues to escalate, but at a pace that never felt off
And finally, on its first release platform, GameCube, the game was a technical marvel. The aforementioned geometry was a scale feat the platform had never seen before and it was gorgeous. Even today, playing an upscaled version of the game on Xbox 360 it’s a great-looking title. It also delivered different beats and extras across all its platforms it eventually made its way to, but it’s the game’s place and position among the history of its peers that it has shined most. Influencing some of the best in business and maintaining more than a foothold against even modern games, Resident Evil 4 continues to be a pillar of hope that gameplay is first and foremost against giant, non-interactive set-pieces and dumbed down repetitive play. It won’t likely ever be topped for what it did for a series, a genre and gaming in general but that’s okay with us.