Since its announcement, Resident Evil 4 has been about as elusive as a green herb when you're limping through a zombie-infested area in need of some health. We've been teased with the game sporadically, but Capcom and Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami have pretty much kept silent on the highly anticipated game. However, that silence was broken in spectacular fashion at Capcom's press event in Las Vegas this past January. Not only was a lengthy presentation devoted to the game, but, shockingly, the game was also available for hands-on play. We were sworn to silence on what we saw at the event--until now. While the demo on display was short, it offered a wealth of concrete information on the upcoming game.
The presentation opened with a short video clip of Mikami, now the game's director, being introduced by Hiroyuki Kobayashi (the game's producer), who simply told those in attendance to have a nightmare as the video segued to a new trailer for the game. Resident Evil 4 has undergone something of an overhaul since it was originally unveiled in 2002, and it now sports a number of new and promising gameplay elements. The video offered a montage of images that highlighted this new gameplay. We saw quick clips of gameplay that showed off the new third-person camera, a new targeting system, the new context-sensitive action button, a binocular view, a boss fight in a speed boat, and human enemies that didn't appear to be zombies but nonetheless attacked the game's hero, rookie cop Leon S. Kennedy. The macabre clip ended with the disturbing visage of a chain-saw-wielding freak that dissolved into a not exactly cryptic "winter 2004." Following the trailer, Kobyashi gave a presentation on RE4 that revealed quite a bit about the upcoming game.
Resident Evil 4 puts you in control of Leon S. Kennedy, whom we last saw in Resident Evil 2 when he was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed rookie member of Raccoon City's Police Department. For those who've forgotten, Raccoon City is the ill-fated town that saw a quantum leap in its zombie population when the Umbrella Corporation's T-virus got out and started infecting locals. In the six years since Racoon City's destruction, the US government has managed to destroy the infamous Umbrella Corporation, and life has settled down for a bit. When we meet up with Leon in this fourth entry in the RE series, the enthusiastic lad has grown into a man--a federal agent, to be exact.
As the game opens, the president's daughter is abducted, and Leon is ordered to investigate. His sleuthing leads him to a remote and (surprise, surprise) mysterious location in Europe. Given the lad's adventures in defying death as the rampaging hordes of the undead came at him in Raccoon City, he's pretty much seen it all--until his European investigation takes an unpleasant and horrifying turn. Blessed with the truly crappy luck of anyone in a Resident Evil game, Leon winds up on a quest to discover who or what is behind the disturbing things he's seen while trying not to die horribly and painfully in the process.
This promising and disturbing premise is being brought to life by the development team, which last worked on the Resident Evil remake for the GameCube that was released in 2002. Director Mikami is handling the scenario and has kept the details of the game's story rather vague, but, judging from the clips in the trailer, Resident Evil 4 is going to offer a genuinely unsettling mix of familiar scares and some all-new extra-creepy touches. The most interesting aspect of the game is that, while zombies and the Resident Evil name are typically a match made in heaven, the humanoid creatures you'll face in this game may or may not actually be of the formerly dead variety.
When we got our hands on the game, we were more than a little surprised by what we saw and played. Resident Evil 4 appears to be a complete overhaul of the Resident Evil experience as we know it. The game uses a fully 3D graphics engine and a standard third-person camera that, from what we were able to play, appears to be generally unobtrusive. The playable demo opened up with Leon making his way, in full-on free-roaming glory, around what appeared to be a deserted house near a recently collapsed bridge (always a surefire recipe for trouble). We did a quick lap around the house before going in, and we were able to try out the new shooting mechanic, which pulls the camera in tight behind your shoulder, making it much easier to aim.
Before going into the house, we got our first taste of the A button's many context-sensitive uses when an onscreen indicator let us know we could use it to enter the house. Once inside, we met up with a pretty disturbing individual who was standing over by the fireplace. The A button let us have a brief and troubling conversation with him during which he swore at us in Spanish. Shortly thereafter we were confronted by what we initially assumed were zombies, which offered a nifty opportunity to sample the new targeting system. Once you assume the "shooting" position, you'll be able to aim at specific parts of your intended target. A laser sight on your gun lets you know exactly where you're aiming, which is a useful touch. We were especially pleased with the option to use first- or third-person when shooting, which seems to give you the best of both worlds.
Back to our targets in this escapade: Our zombie theory got a bit shakier when we drew closer to the individuals in question, who, despite their odd gaits, didn't have the distinctive pallor or decomposition of zombies. In fact, the scary group of folks seemed to enjoy some limited speech. To make matters even more interesting, they reacted with a good measure of intelligence to our actions. For example, when we came upon a lone man in the misty forest, we figured we might as well do him in before his friends showed up, so we took a shot at him. Sadly, our aim was off a little, resulting in a miss that got his attention. Not only did he look our way, but he moved for cover and whistled, which resulted in the arrival of several more equally intelligent folks.
We eventually ran through the woods to a clearing with a few structures in it and tried to hide in a small house that offered next to no protection as the mob bashed in the front door. We retreated to a window at the rear of the house and used the very welcome context-sensitive "crash through window" option to get the hell out. Once in the courtyard formed by the houses, we used the A button again to scamper up a ladder to the roof of a building. Up top, our new best friend, the A button, presented the option to kick down the ladder before we received company. From this high vantage point we were able to see our foes circling about and occasionally looking at us. We picked off a few with a rifle and then, being the masochists that we are, dropped off the roof into their midst to mix things up mano-a-mano. We'll be frank and say that things were going reasonably well against the violent but thankfully unarmed freaks until their number was joined by a burlap-sack-wearing fiend armed with a chain saw. As any horror fan will tell you, chain saws are the enemy of a happy ending.
Our second look at the demo, which was being played by someone else, let us appreciate the little touches in the non-zombie enemies. While the work-in-progress version of the game was nowhere near final, we were impressed by their reactions and movements, which were eerily smooth and intelligent. The creatures you're facing aren't in a huge hurry to die, and, in fact, they try their best to avoid it. Not only did we see them look for cover and call for help when being shot at, but in closer quarters they'll move out of your line of fire if you leave the reticle on them for too long--which is a cool but troublesome development if you're nervously trying to line up a headshot but don't perform well under pressure.
Outside of concrete gameplay details, we were also pleased by the game's new interface, which displays both your health and ammo in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. The other key element that stood out was the demo's pacing, which was much more action-oriented and less methodical than in the previous Resident Evil games. Granted, we only played a level that showed a fraction of what the game had to offer, but we're definitely pleased by what we've seen.
We doubt anyone will be surprised to hear that Resident Evil 4 is one of the best-looking GameCube games we've ever seen. Frankly, Capcom's familiarity with the hardware has resulted in some amazing visuals. The demo we tried featured a very atmospheric area that didn't even load from disc as we moved around the highly detailed environments. The texture detail is impressively high and varied, resulting in a surprisingly rich look for an area that is mostly colored with shades of gray and brown. The mist that helped obscure things off in the distance worked nicely as a stylistic choice and gave the area a disturbing atmosphere.
The character models are outstanding and, despite the game's early state, move smoothly even now. Leon moves well, with a bit of old-school stiffness when aiming at specific parts of a foe. The assorted non-zombies and chain-saw-wielding freaks move equally well, although their smooth movement makes them a bit more troubling. We can't quite put our finger on it, but there's something very unsettling about seeing a form off in the distance, just out of clear vision, cautiously moving toward you.
As impressive as the demo we played was, the trailer showed off even more impressive parts of the game, such as the clip that showed Leon walking down a narrow path in the rain, which was occasionally lit up by a flash of lightning. The boss fight against some sort of mutated alligator (or possibly a dolphin--we can't say for sure) was set on a dark and stormy lake. For all the impressive graphical flair packed into the game, the frame rate moves smoothly even at this early stage, which of course bodes well for the final game.
The audio in the game, while still coming together, hit all the right notes to properly unnerve us. There is effective use of silence and ambient noise even now. Given the game's setting and its already disturbing mix of typical Resident Evil elements along with brand-new components, eerie silence is the last thing you want to hear as you're exploring. Another surefire arrow in the game's sound quiver is the whistles from your foes to each other as they try to coordinate against you. We expect those short cries to be the last thing you'll want to hear as you play, closely followed by the rustling of many people moving toward you.
While the demo and trailer gave us only a taste of what to expect from Resident Evil 4, we feel it's safe to say the game will come packed with plenty of things to unnerve us. The different gameplay elements shown in the trailer, such as the binocular segments as you try to scope out your area, the use of vehicles such as boats, and the combat with your oddly intelligent foes, should make for an impressive package that will be a highlight in the GameCube library and the Resident Evil franchise as a whole.
Put simply, Resident Evil 4 is the kind of game that critics and fans of the Resident Evil franchise alike have been wanting for years. The game finally takes the franchise forward (with a vengeance, we might add) and leaves behind its 32-bit roots once and for all. The improved pacing and control help the gameplay shine. Visually, the title is gorgeous, and it's one of the all-too-few examples of the magic developers can create on Nintendo's powerful little system if they set their minds to it. Few, if any, games will come close to matching the visual quality of RE4 on the GameCube this year. If you're a longtime fan of the series who has drifted away because the various installments have lacked the impact of the first two games, you owe it to yourself to keep an eye out for this true return to form. Resident Evil 4 is currently slated to ship exclusively for the GameCube. Look for more on the game in the coming months.