It's pointless, but I can't help imagine how things would be different if Resident Evil 4 had been released during GameCube Year One.
Imagine this game as an early GameCube release instead of a late GameCube release... say, Fall 2002. Imagine a big marketing push screaming about the rebirth of the fading Resident Evil franchise, exclusive to Nintendo's budget-priced brand new console. Theatrical trailers, TV ads. Nintendo would have ran away with the holiday season and utterly smacked down the Xbox, rather than competing neck-and-neck. There would be no question of Nintendo's new dedication to older gamers, nor of their commitment to third party developers. Those who bought a GameCube specifically for RE4 would be quickly ushered into Eternal Darkness, Metroid Prime and Metal Gear: Twin Snakes, followed by the long-term promise of Resident Evil 5 as another GameCube exclusive in 2004 (a foregone conclusion given the tremendous sales of this mythical Fall of '02.) Based on all these adult gamers with a 'Cube, the sports and racing games would have returned to Nintendo. Rare and Silicon Knights would have stayed as staunch Nintendo second parties, delivering Perfect Dark Zero and Too Human, respectively. And all the while Nintendo continues the usual business of pumping out quality Mario titles to cement the all-ages demographic.
But that didn't happen. Resident Evil 4 has come unto us too late, and although it will sell, many of those who would have killed a kitten to play it in 2002 have since moved on to other things. Thanks to the Resident Evil brand name being ruined by everything except a Raccoon City Kart Racer - combined with Nintendo's persistent bad rep among the blood-n-guts set - the iron is, as they say, no longer hot.
Resident Evil 4 itself, on the other hand, is very hot. So hot that my scenario above does not seem far fetched. Forget (almost) everything that ever sucked about Resident Evil; RE4 has awakened the sleeping franchise.
Several years after the, ahem, incident in Raccoon City, Leon S. Kennedy is now a special agent. He has been dispatched to Europe to find the President's daughter, recently kidnapped. Umbrella - the super-science think tank behind the zombie-making virii in previous games - is gone, forcibly disassembled by the government. Dropped off near a humble rural village, Leon begins his search for Ashley... and walks into a situation very similar to the hell he escaped in Raccoon City.
You may have read that there are no zombies in RE4. According to a strict definition of "zombie", that would be correct. However, the game's initial villager enemies are very zombie-like. They may not be raised from the dead, but they still moan a lot and come at you with outstretched arms. That's enough to get called "zombie" in my book, although it did lead to lots of jokes in my household about me fighting "these guys that are so totally not zombies."
Zombies or no, what sets the humanoid enemies of RE4 apart from previous editions is their variety of attacks. They can appear wielding various weapons, from pitchforks to dynamite to chainsaws to crossbows. They will throw things at you, come at you from all sides... and they usually show up in greater numbers than you've ever seen before in Resident Evil games. There are a lot of "Oh crap" moments when you're in an open area with enemies pouring out of every shack, corner and doorway. Often you can't initially imagine how you will survive the scene.
Thankfully Leon has learned how to use his environment since his first appearance. Now, you can't do absolutely everything you'd like to, but you can leap through windows, jump over fences and knock down ladders (via a context-sensitive A button) to try to maneuver yourself to a better position against the horde. Of course, the baddies also can manipulate certain elements as well, most notably the ability to raise up ladders you knocked down so they can climb up after you. Much hay was made about this "intelligence" when the game was first previewed... but in reality it's just the enemies picking up a ladder because it is something they have to do to get at you. It's not really a sign of good innovative AI, just a new route to flanking. They can also dodge bullets, but they dodge even when you're not firing... so again, it's not really AI, just a neat trick. If they pressured their advance when I ran out of ammo (as indicated by clicking on an empty chamber), then I might be impressed by their intelligence. Or if they all knew to stay away from the one guy with lit dynamite. But picking up ladders because I'm standing by a second story window is no more intelligent than walking through a door because I'm inside a room.
We've all been hoping for Resident Evil to move away from the digital, tank-like control scheme. Traditionally, RE has used Up for Forward and Left/Right for turning... regardless of where you are onscreen. I suppose the benefit to these absolute controls is that you could keep pushing up and you knew you would walk forward no matter where the camera was placed in the next room. (Previous RE games had lovely dramatic camera angles positioned in rooms that you walked through like a slideshow; Resident Evil was an early proponent of the cinematic approach to video games.) The downside of this scheme was that quickly turning to face zombies was a bitch, so they had to patch this with a lock-on button.
In RE4, they finally made the change. And yet they didn't make the change. What they did is find a brilliant way to combine the two: they borrowed the viewpoint of a first-person game... simply by positioning the camera over Leon's shoulder all the time. First-person viewpoint with third-person perspective. It's wild. So Up is still Forward, but the constant camera position means you don't have to think about it anymore. There is no strafe, however, which is something you'll definitely notice if you're accustomed to typical FPS games.
That first-person view means RE4 necessarily abandons the classic slideshow room approach. Every environment is fully 3D. And although this makes the game more immersive, I miss the drama of walking into a room with a camera viewpoint positioned in an upper corner, or down a long hallway, etc. But I will take the trade gladly, because the new perspective and controls make the game play much faster.
That is another hallmark of the New Look Resident Evil. It's fast. The enemies are fast. You can now aim fast, thanks to a laser sight equipped on every gun. (You can also aim at specific body parts, so you can shoot a weapon out of their hands, or make them grab a shot thigh in pain.) Ammo no longer needs to be rationed, since enemies will drop fresh boxes when they die. You're encouraged to fire like crazy. In many cases you'll have to fire like crazy, which creates a nice desperate "final hour" feeling.
This is a new kind of survival horror, and series purists may feel cheated. If your main fascination with the series until now was in avoiding zombies, being careful with supplies, and mixing your own ammunition (no thanks, RE3)... when then you may not be pleased with the fast-action vibe of RE4. What is "survival horror," exactly? What differentiates the classic Resident Evil series from, say, Half-Life? Both feature slow suspense-filled buildup scenes, surprise attacks from enemies, and a continual re-assessment of weapons and ammo. Both center around main characters struggling to survive against horrific odds. It's can't just be the viewpoint (third-person vs. first-person)... can it?
Here's a definite survival horror standard: inventory. Before, RE games gave you about 12 or so slots for items. Plus that weird storage box accessible at most save points, which had effectively unlimited room. Now, Leon has an upgradeable suitcase, which holds as many items as you can cram into its grid system. Similar to Disaster Report, you have to rotate items to get them to fit inside the box. This means it will be very difficult to keep every gun in the game... because they just won't all fit inside the case alongside all the herbs and ammo boxes and grenades you'll also want. Here the game breaks from the fast action by making you pause the game to change weapons and select grenades; there is to quick select for weapons, and I think the game could use it. Mainly because having to pause the game just to change from the pistol to the shotgun breaks the immersion pretty hardcore. Doing so would likely take us further away from "true" survival horror, but I would not mind if we lost that damn pause. I routinely tossed a grenade, paused to change to the shotgun, and ended up missing much of the cool explosion effect.
As you would expect, the game doles out bigger and badder weapons as the enemies get bigger and badder. RE4 even takes it a step further by allowing you to upgrade your weapons' stats RPG style. There's this crazy pirate guy near most of the save points who sells the weapons... and he will also "tune up" your existing weapons. Typically, you can upgrade any weapon on four different tracks: power, reload time, firing speed and shot capacity. These attributes are all fully explained and detailed in raw numbers, so you can compare and contrast different upgrade paths and ensure you're spending your money wisely. The merchant also eventually reveals different baseline models of the generic pistol or shotgun, etc, so you have to choose... Do I keep upgrading my current weapon, or do I sell it and start investing in the newer model? It's almost always a better idea to sell and choose the new weapon, but I could see a player sticking to his guns, especially if there's a cashflow problem.
Now for the visuals. Resident Evil 4 is one of the best looking games we'll see this generation. The character models are gorgeous all across the board. What's so great about the graphics is that they are unobtrusive. We're long past cheesy colored lighting effects... even past cloaking the whole level in darkness to hide seams. There's a level of detail that is quietly impressive right from the start, when you're in a dowdy brown forest that actually looks like a real forest, not just a flat plane with cutout trees and ground cover texture patterns. The standard RE loading doors are banished - hopefully never to return - although the game does toss a zoomy blur at you when you go through certain doors, obviously masking a very brief load.
Despite originally announced as a GameCube exclusive title, Capcom has since confessed a plan to release RE4 for the PS2 as well. The PS2 version is expected sometime in 2006, a full year after the 'Cube release. They're going to need that time to figure out how they're going to compress this game into the PS2's tech constraints. My guess is we'll see those damned loading doors return.
So how difficult is it? In my first pass through the game (approximately 20 hours on normal difficulty), I died 60-couple times. Some of those were due to me being cocky and reloading at inopportune times. Most were due to another new feature for the Resident Evil franchise: quick reaction button sequences. In certain situations - usually inside cutscenes or in boss fights - you'll get a flash of a button combo. It's always either L+R or B+A, but randomly chosen even if you have to replay the scene. Missing that button press often kills you instantly, because Leon doesn't duck in time or gets stabbed through the heart.
It sounds pretty awful. And in fact there is one cutscene that takes you through five or six of these quick reflex stings, so make sure you pay attention to the movies. But the good news is that death isn't the handicap it used to be. RE4 is riddled with invisible checkpoints, so continuing after a death of any type just resets you back a couple minutes. The traditional typewriter save points are still around, but happily you no longer need the stupid ink ribbons to use them. Save as often as you like.
In many ways, this is a brand new game. There are so many revisions and gameplay alterations that it feels like a Game 1 instead of a Game 4. Assuming that Capcom will use this game as the template for the next one (on whatever platform it may land), we are standing on the precipice of a new Resident Evil series.
And yet, it still retains an undeniable Resident Evil flavor. Healing herbs, ridiculously abandoned memos, shambling and moaning enemies, assembling insignias to use as door keys, giant fleshy boss monsters, corporate science gone wrong. This is the first game with "Resident Evil" in the title that doesn't feel like a copy/paste cash-in or a bizarre experimental sidestep. (In some other dimension, they have Resident Evil light gun games and online multiplayer games that don't blow. That is not the case in our dimension.) And had this dropped years ago, it could have changed the future of Nintendo's little box that gets no respect.