Resident Evil 4 instantly became one of the most highly anticipated GameCube games of 2005 when it was first revealed last January. Since then, the fourth entry in Capcom's classic survival horror franchise has never failed to wow us in the glimpses we've gotten of it in trailers, screens, and hands-on time. Capcom's dedication to reinventing Resident Evil as we know it appears to be resulting in the kind of overhaul that fans have lately been crying out for. The latest proof that RE4 is bringing the goods comes from some exclusive time we've spent with a build of the game. While not complete, the version we played offered even more tantalizing hints as to the greatness that may be in store for this title.
The version of the game we played gave us a taste of what appears to be the first full chapter in the game, as well as a better idea of the game's structure and a few more tidbits on its story. With Capcom having gone on record as saying that zombies, the T virus, and Raccoon City are things of the past, many have been left wondering what's going to be so "resident" about RE4's evil. Speculation has run rampant, as Capcom has kept most of the details about the game's story under wraps, offering up only a basic thumbnail sketch of what's going to happen. Unfortunately, we can't shed too much more light on what the heck is going on, as the game's first chapter is basically all about setting the stage. At any rate, this is what we've gleaned from playing this piece of the game: Resident Evil 4 opens up with Leon, who is searching Europe for the US president's daughter, arriving in what seems to be a Spanish village. Unfortunately, the locals--who are, in fact, not zombies--aren't particularly friendly, and they seem anxious to stab Leon whenever he starts to ask questions. Matters are made more mysterious by the fact that the first big action sequence you take part in--a stunning set piece that finds Leon fighting off the entire village--is cut short by a bell that compels everyone to stop trying to kill Leon and enter the local church.
Once all the murderous not zombies are gone, you're able to do some exploring and begin your quest in relative peace. During your exploration, you'll encounter some NPCs, including Luis Serra (an Antonio Banderas kind of guy who's an ex-cop from Madrid) and two badasses who appear to be your main antagonists. One is the village chief, a Rasputin-esque gentleman whom it looks like you'll be playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with. The other is Lord Sadler, a mysterious man who has ties to the not zombies you'll encounter. In addition, you'll get a glimpse of Miss Ada Wong, who appears to be rocking a not entirely sensible gown on this adventure. As you start to make your way through the massive village and the area surrounding it, you'll also start to piece together clues about the not zombies. While we didn't get a precise explanation as to what their problem is, it appears that a cult called Los Illuminados has something to do with it. While neither of the baddies you encounter will reveal any concrete info, they will raise some issues that bear looking into. Beyond that, the game's story is still very much a mystery, and all we really know is that the murderous not zombies you meet are a credible threat.
The game starts, as all things do, simply enough. You'll take control of Leon just as he's dropped off on the outskirts of the village and pops into a local's home to begin his investigation. Quicker than you can say, "Oh, snap!" you'll find yourself on the business end of a hot poker. Obviously, in situations like this, the only real solutions involve shooting or stabbing. Thankfully, Leon has come fully prepared, and if your skills are on point you'll dispatch grandpa with minimal effort. Unfortunately, this sets off the other not zombies in the area.
While there have been a number of reasons for the intense interest in Resident Evil 4, the gameplay has arguably been one of the focal points for many. For better or worse, one of the things the Resident Evil name calls to mind is a once-promising control scheme that's long since become dated. Ever since its debut, however, RE4 has been touted as a bold new direction for the series, and Capcom has gone to great lengths to show off the freedom now available to players. While the demos we've tried previously have done a fine job of showing off the game's new control setup, this build offers even more to appreciate.
How You Like Me Now?
The core gameplay bears little more than a passing resemblance to that of the previous RE games, thanks to a new control scheme that's a breeze to pick up. You'll move Leon with the left analog stick and use the A button as a multipurpose action button. The B button will let you run, which is something you'll be doing a lot of. Holding the right trigger raises your weapon, and A will fire and B will reload when you're in this position. When not in combat, tapping down and the B button will let you make a quick 180-degree turn. The Y button will let you call up your inventory screen and check out what you're holding. The inventory system has been tweaked significantly since the last RE game. Only weapons and recovery items are on the main inventory screen in RE4--there's now a separate submenu for files, and another for keys and special "treasure" items.
The start button will take you directly to the map screen, which blows away the maps used in previous RE titles, thanks to its level of detail. While you used to have to contend with simplistic maps of the areas you've been in, the map in our build of RE4 is massive and detailed. Not only does it show specific paths in the areas you've explored, but its color-coded layout also lets you know which areas have and haven't been explored, and which areas are sealed off at the moment. For notable doors, the map denotes which ones have been opened, which remain locked, and which you have a key for.
Better still, the map features markers that tell you where you should be headed at your current point in the game, as well as where you can find a typewriter to save your game, where you can find a merchant (we'll get to these in a moment), and where you need to go to fulfill your secondary objectives. You can press the A button to get a look at the entire map or hit it twice to zoom in for a detailed view. For those of you who would rather not know where to head to complete your next objective--or anything else, for that matter--the Z button will let you customize which markers are currently displayed on your map.
Now, on to the merchant craziness, which will surely throw some people, as it's one of the new additions to the RE experience. As you go through the game, you'll notice that the not zombies you dispatch will drop items, denoted by small shafts of colored light coming up from the ground. Red light will alert you to ammo, green light means a precious health item, and blue is money. The money is what you'll use when you meet your mysterious benefactor, a pale (but probably also non-zombie) merchant who packs a hefty amount of munitions in his trench coat. While friendly, he's a fan of cash, so plan on forking out your hard-earned bling for his wares. Thankfully, he has some very good things to sell you. In an interface cleverly patterned after the inside of his coat, you'll be able to choose from two different sets of items. The first includes weapons, a treasure map, an upgrade to increase your storage capacity, and assorted upgrades for Leon's arsenal. The second option, called "tune-up," lets you enhance Leon's weapons in one of four categories: firepower, firing speed, capacity, and reload speed.
And just what will Leon be using to kill the forces of evil? A good mix of weapons that should be old hat to RE vets. You'll find a 9mm handgun, a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, a .223-caliber bolt-action rifle, a TMP (a fully automatic machine pistol that shoots 9mm rounds), a Punisher (a powerful 9mm handgun that can take out two enemies at once), a rocket launcher, and assorted grenade types. The weapons are all upgradeable via the items you can purchase from the merchant, which include silencers for the handgun and TMP, a stock for the TMP to improve its stability, and a scope for the rifle. The vendor's wares will increase in variety in future encounters, which ensures that there's always something worth buying.
Now, in terms of how the game plays, as we've discussed in our previous looks at RE4, you can expect a much more action-oriented experience than in the previous games. However, our version included a nice smattering of classic RE puzzles. We encountered a locked door that required us to collect the two halves of the emblem that served as the door's key. Another lock we hit required us to rotate a translucent ball with several designs on it until we found the right shape. Yet another was a dial in a cemetery that required us to match the emblems of a family crest while turning the dial in very specific increments.
What Else Is There?
In addition to the puzzle elements, which should be familiar to RE fans, RE4 contains some gameplay mechanics that are new to the franchise. The standouts are the action-focused segments that require you to repeatedly tap a button for a period of time and then execute a button combo at a crucial moment. For example, one sequence has a boulder racing toward you. You need to tap A to stay ahead of it, and then hit a particular combination of buttons to complete the sequence and dodge the boulder. One of the nice touches is that the combo changes if you have to repeat the sequence, ensuring that you're kept on your toes.
Something else that's new is the way you'll battle bosses. Our battle with the water boss found us tethered to him by the anchor on our flimsy motorboat, and thus dragged around the massive lake. The fight consisted of staying on the boat and dodging the debris the boss dragged us through while chucking harpoons at his backside. When wounded enough, the monstrosity would rush our boat, forcing us to try to harpoon his mouth and thereby dissuade him from ramming us and knocking us into the water. If that happens, you have to mash the A button to get your butt back in the boat before you're chomped.
The combat has also been changed some, thanks in part to the multipurpose A button, which now triggers a powerful kick at key moments. However, the biggest change to the combat are the foes you'll face. For not being undead or infected with a bioengineered virus, the not zombies can take a ton of punishment. As a result, you'll have to rely on your trusty arsenal of weapons and your wits. While the opposition is pretty stiff early on in the game, it gets much worse, thanks to the eerie AI that motivates the creatures. Your enemies will actively try to keep you from targeting their heads, and they'll even coordinate their attacks against you.
As if that weren't bad enough, later in the chapter they'll start throwing dynamite and knives at you. Thankfully, if you're a good shot, you can shoot these things out of the air before they reach you. As always, if you let your foes get too close, they can grab you and start gnawing on your various body parts. Fortunately, you'll have a "shake off" option that lets you kick them off before they get to chewing.
While all this may sound daunting, don't fret. If you use your head and the environment, you'll have a good chance of surviving. For example, the dynamite-throwing foes are a problem, but if you shoot out their legs just before they throw their explosives, or shoot the dynamite while it's in their hands, the TNT actually works to your advantage, allowing you to take out several foes with just a few rounds. The same can be said for the booby traps you'll encounter in the game--trip-wired explosives laced throughout a bunch of trees, for example. While they're hazardous to your health, they're equally deadly to foes baited into walking through them.
In the cases where you do sustain some damage, you can expect to heal yourself with the usual assortment of herbs and first-aid sprays. New this time out are eggs and snakes that you can collect and use to restore your health, à la Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Better yet is a new yellow herb that, when mixed with a green herb, will restore Leon's health and also increase his maximum amount of health.
While we've already waxed poetic about the visuals in RE4, we'll say it again: It's doubtful that any GameCube release in 2005--except for Nintendo's own Zelda game--will rival what RE4 has to offer. The graphics in the build we played, while not complete, are simply stunning in their mix of technology and artistry. The town and its surrounding areas are brought to life with an assortment of eerie and almost photo-realistic environments that create a subtle but persistent feeling of unease as you explore them. Once you get out of the town and start looking around, you'll come across some RE staples, such as abandoned houses, underground cave passages, and flooded areas, all of which are rendered in awesome detail. You'll also find some areas that you wouldn't expect, such as a shanty town that's built on stilts and connected by catwalks covered with flowing scraps of fabric, and a massive outdoor swamp area that leads to the lake where you'll fight the chapter's mighty end boss.
But there's more to the visuals than just their large scope. You'll find a commendable amount of attention paid to fine detail here, with wall textures, fire effects, and even small schools of fish in the water that hold up to the scrutiny of using Leon's binoculars to zoom in on them. The level of interactivity in the environment is also notable, not only because this is the first fully free-roaming RE game, but also because you can do so much. Doors can be blown or kicked open, ladders can be knocked down or replaced, windows can be broken, and so on. As far as the characters go, you'll be hard-pressed to find better-looking character models on the GameCube--or on any other console, actually. Leon's model is a polygon-rich thing of beauty that looks great even in the extreme close-ups that are used at certain points in the game. The rest of the humanoid cast is almost as sharp. The water boss is in a class by himself, featuring a freaky design that's both impressive and disturbing to look at.
The GameCube is working overtime and then some to pump out visuals of such high quality and maintain the solid frame rate the game is running at. Despite its work-in-progress state, our build of RE4 runs amazingly well, with only occasional inconsistencies. The visuals and action are complemented by the game's camera, which, while not perfect, generally frames the action pretty well. In addition to crowing about the impressive gameplay graphics, we have to mention the great real-time cinematics we've seen so far. While the ones we've come across are apparently not finished, they're already boasting impressive production values and no small amount of cinematic flair.
The audio in our version of the game was still coming together and hadn't been fully implemented in a few spots. But what has been implemented is impressive. The game itself is often preternaturally quiet when you're playing, but you'll hear ambient effects that reflect where you are, be it a creepy forest or an old house. The voice work in the game is coming along well, with Leon emoting nicely as all hell breaks loose around him. We're especially pleased by the not zombies you encounter, due to their excellent and often helpful grasp of Spanish. While a surly and foul-mouthed bunch, the villagers will actually alert you with their cries, sometimes in spot-on detail, to where they are and what they're planning to do to you. If your back is to an open door and you're focused on dealing with foes in front of you, you may hear "Te voy a matar" (I am going to kill you) or "Atras de ti" (Behind you) from the doorway, giving you a chance to react. Frankly, it's nice to see attention being paid to making sure the mad ramblings of the creatures intent on killing you are correct. It also gives those of us who speak Spanish a slight advantage, so good on Capcom for representing for bilingual gamers, even if the game does require us to plug our kinsmen full of lead.
As far as the game's soundtrack goes, the tunes we've heard so far are a collection of moody and driving pieces that underscore the action nicely. So, for example, if you hear a sinister track coming on, you can expect foes to start coming in waves. The sound effects are as sharp as a combat knife and include a satisfying collection of gunfire, explosions, and other appropriate noises.
Given how long this love letter has rambled on, we doubt anyone will be surprised when we say that Resident Evil 4 should rock the house when it hits next year. The stunning visuals are matched by equally impressive gameplay, taking this series in an outstanding new direction. More importantly, the gameplay mechanics may make some genuine contributions to the action genre itself, which is nice to see, coming from a nine-year-old series. Resident Evil 4 is slated to ship in January 2005 for the GameCube. A PlayStation 2 version is set to follow later in the year.