Rating: 8/10 - An enjoyable action game, but only middling as a horror game.
Platform: Nintendo Gamecube
Resident Evil 4 is the first survival horror game I've really enjoyed. The game play is addicting with a number of fun action sequences. I found it hard to put down. The visuals are great to look at. RE4 is a solid, enjoyable action game. The sound, ignoring the voice acting, is great. There are a few genuinely scary moments (the first time a villager's secret is revealed was quite a shock.) Unfortunately it's marred by a few problems. While it's a fun action game, it's pretty lousy horror. Like the overwhelming majority of the survival horror genre, it's really just action survival with a thin veneer of horror glued on top.
The first problem is that the game doesn't have a long enough setup before horrible things start happening. Without a baseline of normalcy, it's hard to appreciate the horror that follows. This mundane setup period needed to be at least a few minutes longer. There is a cut scene at the beginning which helps a little, but we need more time actually playing.
Beyond that, there are a number of flaws that break immersiveness and ruin the suspension of disbelief. If you can't believe the situation, you're not going to be scared.
In RE4, you're US special agent Leon Kennedy, sent into a non-specific European location to rescue the President's kidnapped daughter Ashley. This is clearly an important mission, so why are they sending in a single agent? When things start going wrong and it's clear that Ashley is present, why isn't a team of Marines or Navy SEALs sent in to back you up? The game covers a long enough period of time that the military could easily get forces there in time to be helpful.
RE4 spends a fair amount of time in cut scenes, which always break immersion. Two particularly poorly considered ones show me scenes the main character could not know, entirely destroying immersion. When the main character is present in a cut scene and facing dangerous criminals, he never just shoots them; instead he feels the need to talk with them. Fortunately the bad guys never kill our hero in cut scenes, despite having him at their mercy at several opportunities, instead they let him go. Finally the game uses several cut scenes to screw the player, stealing Ashley from the player twice. Nothing is quite as frustrating as having achieved something, believing you have enough skill to hang on to that achievement, than having the game take control away from you so it can steal the achievement. In one case Leon does something I would never have done, with the result that he gets captured. Fortunately the bad guys don't bother to take away Leon's weapons or radio, so once he breaks free he can easily carry on.
Leon has a fear of descending ladders. He prefers to kick the ladders to the ground, then jump down onto them. Fortunately our hero is tough enough to regularly jump down two stories without injury. Ashley shares Leon's phobia and also refuses to climb down ladders, so Leon has to catch her so she can jump down.
As this is a Resident Evil game, it's only fitting that you'll spend some time fighting the camera. It's not as bad as the artistic but useless camera angles in previous games, but it's not good enough for an action game. The game is in the third person, so you're seeing Leon for most of the game. This harms immersion, reminding you that Leon is someone else; not you. When aiming your gun, you get an over-the-shoulder camera. This means that Leon's body is frequently in the way of things you want to shoot. It's difficult to aim medium range shots as you can't sight down the gun itself. The game gives you a targeting laser, which is a good idea. Unfortunately if you're off target it can be hard to tell if the laser is to the right of left of the enemy since the camera is offset from the gun. When not using a gun, typically the third person camera is pretty good, but it's not great. I occasionally found it difficult to see bear traps left sitting out in the open where Leon could easily see the but I was blocked by rubble in the way. I also ran into problems locating someone who was throwing dynamite at me. In some cases Leon would step around a corner and could see an enemy (and the enemy could see him), but I couldn't see around the corner.
You'll find yourself occasionally fighting the controls as well. Leon won't sidestep, making navigating narrow passages difficult. As it typical of the survival horror genre, our hero turns too slowly to easily target fast moving, nearby enemies.
In the world of RE4 it seems like there is no problem that can't be solved with a gun. Is something hanging just barely out of reach? Shoot it down. Don't worry, the item won't ever be damaged by being shot or falling on the ground. There are painfully obvious tripwires connected to explosives, but Leon can't duck under them. Fortunately you can shoot them. Bear traps blocking the way? Shoot them. Can't reach a switch? Shoot it. (Unless, of course, it's visually identical switch, but in another part of the game, in which case it's immune to bullets.)
The guns do have their down sides; most notably once Leon decides to start loading his gun, you're stuck until he's done. Occasionally you'll be caught reloading your gun when an enemy gets the drop on you. There is no way to drop the bullets on the ground and fall back to regroup.
Leon's knife is also quite useful. Leon doesn't seem to understand how to open pantry doors, so you'll use your knife to break the glass to get in. Got a boarded up window you want to get through? Sometimes it's invulnerable, but sometimes Leon can hack away at it with his knife. Boxes and barrels can't be opened, but Leon is happy to reduce them to splinters with his knife so he can get the loot inside.
As for barrels and boxes, why are they filled with strange objects? Who takes a foot cube box and puts four bullets in it? Who stores money and grenades in barrels? Who loses giant gems on their roof? Money and other things stored in pots? Am I in a Zelda game? The bad guys never use pistols, so why is there pistol ammunition scattered all over? Why do they sometimes carry pistol ammunition?
Early in the game we establish in a cut scene that Leon has a pair of binoculars, but those binoculars are never available to the player. Very frustrating, as occasionally I wanted to check something out in the distance before approaching.
It's always necessary to constrain player movement, but like too many games it's done sloppily here. It's hard to predict which obstacles Leon will climb over. In some cases he'll climb onto something slightly taller than himself, but in others he'll be blocked by a knee high block. A wheeled cart blocks the way in one case, but Leon isn't willing to try pushing it. Slight hills thwart Leon. Leon is unwilling to "squeeze" past some two foot wide gap. It's hard to take him seriously in these cases.
The dialogue is frequently ridiculous and the voice work is pretty awful. The worst case is the dialogue between Leon and his manager, who he talks with via a radio. Early in the game the main character introduces himself over the radio to his partner. Why bother; isn't he the only person on the line? And why am I being introduced to my field manager when I'm actually in the field? It's a bit late for that. Why does my manager give me training materials to review when I'm in a hostile situation? Once things hit the fan, the voice actors and the dialogue they read is overly clinical, failing to show real emotion. Our hero is surprisingly unfazed by the horrors he witnesses and battles. Leon isn't particularly distraught when the bad guys take out a military helicopter. He also never bothers mentioning minor things that his manager might want to know like, "the villagers can take multiple shots to the head without ill effect," "there are crazy merchants," "there are giant fish monsters," "there are giants," or "there are hideous aliens." Those seem like they might be useful to know, just in case Leon fails and another team needs to be sent in. On the up side, he does find time to give idiotic one liners like "I was all tied up," to explain a long length of radio silence because he was tied to a chair.
Throughout the game you'll run into implausible firearm merchants. The only other people in the area are cultists who don't use firearms, so who are his normal customers? Why won't he sell me his special weapon until I shoot ten gems scattered around the world? Why does he sell guns, but not ammunition? Why can I kill him, but after killing him I can't loot him for his weapons? In one location he has a basket full of grenades next to him, but he won't sell me any.
Some of the merchants also run shooting galleries. And while Leon is busy rescuing the President's daughter, there is plenty of time to play in the shooting gallery for the chance to win cute little statues. Nothing says horror like meaningless collection games.
It's a cliche across a wide variety of games, but red exploding barrels are still ridiculous. What hyper-explosive thing is in those barrels? If they're so dangerous, why are they scattered around the world so randomly?
Animals frequently will have items when you kill them. Snakes inevitably have a chicken egg. Wolves will sometimes have money or ammunition. Where were they keeping that?
I appreciate the need to reuse textures, but it's strange to see the same painting of a cultist a dozen times in the same house. It's a bit overkill.
Why does the only bathroom in a house have only a urinal? And why does it have a toilet paper dispenser?
You'll run into the another intruder named Ada at various points in the game. Why is she wearing a full length, formal dress in a combat situation in the wilderness?
The game frequently gives Leon internal dialogue when he examines things. That's okay, but too often it tells me instead of showing me. For example, instead of telling me what food is present, the game tells me that they eat like normal humans. Putting it that way is far less "normal" than saying something like, "They've got eggs, some smoked bacon, and bread," "it's a pot of simple stew," or something like that.
Leon's inventory is stored in an attache case in which there is limited space. It's a big case, it can hold a rifle easily. So why isn't such a large case visible on Leon's character?
The game is full of completely random puzzles that don't fit the world. The merchant wants you to shoot ten blue amulets to get a gun. A gem (with monetary value only) is gotten through a simple wheel puzzle. A door is locked with a weird alignment lock. Access to parts of the castle is controlled with giant buttons on the floor like a Zelda game. There are actually swinging pendulums to dodge. There is a door locked with a laser reflection puzzle. The game has some key and lock puzzles with a dedicated interface. You can unlock the locks by simply bouncing on the A button, so why have the interface? There are several manipulation puzzles; none of which let you directly manipulate the puzzle. Instead you pick options from a menu. That's just stupid. Why should I get a menu with options like "Up" and "Left" instead of just moving my joystick appropriately?
With yet more Zelda behavior, some rooms have locked doors that open when you kill all of the enemies in the room. Who unlocks the doors, and why would they do so? Not content to knock off cliches from Zelda, one part of the game has bad guys rolling barrels at you, some of which are on fire. I guess the game designer liked Donkey Kong.
As the point of the game is to rescue Ashley, is is perhaps unsurprising that large portions of the game are escort missions. Escort missions pretty uniformly suck.
Why do the bad guys leave notes about their plans scattered around the world where I can find them?
The game suffers from the common problem that if you're doing well the game tends to be easier, but if you're doing poorly the game is harder. This is a bad idea because it means that someone who is doing poorly, low on health and ammunition, actually has a harder time than someone who is doing well and needs more challenge.
There is a sign in the game that reads, "CAUTION: Overloading Dynamite On Trolley Will Trip Circuit Breaker!" Someone is confused about how circuit breakers work.
RE4 has Quick Action Sequences where a cut scene plays and buttons are displayed. If you hit the buttons quickly, Leon avoids some danger and the cut scene continues. If you fail to react quickly enough, Leon dies, then you start the sequence over from the beginning. This is a game play mechanic from Dragon's Lair (or more recently the awful Shenmue). It's old, tired, and should be dead.
Some of the enemies have head and face armor tough enough to not only deflect rounds from a high powered rifle, but the target isn't even knocked back.
The game is deeply inconsistent. Some boarded up windows can be broken open. The first spotlight you find in the game you can shoot out. A second identical one is immune to bullets. Most barrels can be broken open, but some identical ones can't. Some switches can be toggled by shooting them, but other identical switches can't.
You'll spend most of the game carefully conserving scarce ammunition and money. Because valuables and ammunition are scattered around in boxes, barrels, pots, and the like, you're rewarded for spending your time carefully combing the world for things you might have missed. Searching for boxes isn't terribly fun game play.
The game gets more than a little long. The giant icky things cease being surprising or horrifying after the second or maybe third.
(Update 2007-11-07: Minor edits.)
(Update 2009-11-01: Minor typo fixes.)
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