Since its debut on the PlayStation in 1996, the genre-defining Resident Evil series has had its ups and downs, though it's always remained at the forefront of survival horror games. Yet it's not enough to call Resident Evil 4 one of the high points of the series, because this is probably the single greatest horror-themed action game ever created. Resident Evil 4 is an amazing achievement in a variety of ways, especially in how its inspired, state-of-the-art cinematic presentation works so well with its relentlessly exciting, white-knuckle action, all of which is wrapped up in a decidedly lengthy adventure chock-full of hidden secrets and bonus extras. It obviously isn't for the squeamish or for those otherwise not qualified to play this gory, mature-rated GameCube game, which is too bad for them, because it's hard to imagine anyone else not being consistently thrilled and impressed by what Resident Evil 4 has to offer.
In case it isn't abundantly clear, you don't need to be a Resident Evil fan to appreciate Resident Evil 4. However, Resident Evil fans will recognize the game's well-groomed protagonist Leon S. Kennedy, a wisecracking government agent investigating an inconspicuous European village where the US president's missing daughter was supposedly sighted. Experiencing the events of the game without really knowing what else to expect is a big part of the fun, so suffice it to say the story is filled with surprises, and it further does a great job of continually ratcheting up the sense of danger and tense excitement you'll feel right from the get-go. The story unfolds through some beautifully rendered and choreographed cinematic cutscenes, as well as through occasional notes you'll find. Yet these aren't the game's strongest suit, nor are they the focus of it, since the dialogue is hammy and thankfully brief. The story's there to give fans of the series something new to ponder, though it mostly exists to create a context for all of Resident Evil 4's action sequences. Basically, it helps make the game suspenseful and entices you to keep playing just to see what happens next.
Resident Evil 4 is being appropriately billed as the game that takes the series in a bold, new direction. This seems immediately apparent just minutes after the game begins, when Leon is confronted not by the sorts of mindless zombies that typified previous Resident Evil installments, but by a haggard man who seems decidedly displeased by Leon's presence and completely ignores the threat of his 9mm pistol as he menacingly approaches, axe in hand. The cover of the box depicts these sorts of torch-and-pitchfork-wielding disgruntled natives whom Leon will be dealing with in Resident Evil 4, so the question you'll be wondering is, what exactly are these Spanish-speaking folks' major malfunctions that cause them to want to murder Leon by any means necessary, and without any concern for their own safety? The game's humanoid enemies seem much more unsettling than your typical zombies, since they show basic signs of intelligence, yet their hatred for Leon far eclipses their own survival instinct. Still, it'll take just one slash of a sickle or one pitchfork gouging to teach you to terminate these savages without hesitation. They're creepy, memorable foes. And, without spoiling anything, they're just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite Resident Evil 4's unique controls and perspective, it's easy to come to grips with how the game is played. In fact, it might leave you wondering why it took someone so long to pull off a game in this fashion, because the controls and perspective work so well. Resident Evil 4 is presented in cinematic widescreen, so if you have a standard television set, you'll view the action in letterbox format. This not only contributes to the game's movielike feel, but it also gives you some much-needed peripheral vision of your surroundings. You view the action from behind Leon, and the perspective zooms in to a close, over-the-shoulder view when you ready a weapon, which you can easily aim using its laser sight. Realistically, Leon doesn't have a perfectly steady hand when aiming, but since most of the combat occurs in brutal close quarters, you don't usually need pinpoint accuracy to get the job done. You cannot move and fire at the same time, nor can you strafe from side to side as you can in a typical shooter, though Resident Evil 4 plays very much like a shooter otherwise. The zoomed view while aiming works great for drawing a bead on your enemies, but you naturally lose some of your situational awareness in the process, because you can see more of your periphery when you're not aiming at what's in front of you.
This dynamic has an exceptional way of heightening tension, since your foes love trying to surround you. They move and behave with frightening realism in the context of the game, and overall, the enemy design in Resident Evil 4 is truly outstanding. There are many things that look terribly lifelike and will send a chill down your spine, making you desperately want to kill them before they kill you first, in some sort of horrible fashion. Fortunately, the controls feel like they're tuned just right to give the game the same sort of pacing inherent to an action horror movie. The absence of the ability to sidestep doesn't hurt gameplay and instead accentuates the toe-to-toe confrontations, while the ability to quickly turn around using a simple controller command is more than welcome. The game expertly makes you feel that you're both watching a freaky, nail-biting movie about Leon and actually walking in his shoes. In fact, despite the high quality of the action, some of the best moments are the purely suspenseful ones when you're exploring while knowing full well that things aren't going to remain this quiet for long.
Possibly the best thing about Resident Evil 4's actual gameplay is the incredible amount of care and attention to detail that clearly went into the core action of the game. Leon's arsenal will expand to include shotguns, rifles, and automatics, and each of these causes a wholly satisfying and convincing result when used in any fashion against a given foe. For example, you can trip up an axe-wielding lunatic by shooting him in the knee, and then you can put him out of his misery with a subsequent shot to the head. Or you can stagger an enemy by shooting him in the midsection and then send him careening into his cohorts with a mighty roundhouse kick. Incendiary grenades cause foes to burst into flames, while other explosions will cause Leon to steady himself from their intense heat and blasts. The game features some subtle use of realistic physics and plenty of great little touches, such as how Leon can opt either to quietly open a door or violently kick it open. Many other context-sensitive actions are available throughout the game, giving you the impression that Leon is highly versatile and just possibly capable of dealing with the horrors he'll have to confront.
One of the wonderful ways in which Resident Evil 4 plays with shooter conventions is that shooting things in the head isn't a surefire way to kill every foe, even though it often results in a spectacular splattering of all kinds of nauseating substances. Though the weapons in Resident Evil 4 have a terrifically powerful feel to them, the game somehow manages to make its enemies seem like they're superhumanly strong as well, so you'll naturally start to consider new, unconventional types of tactics. You'll notice this when, for example, a perfect shot to an enemy's head doesn't cause him to instantly die but instead causes him to wince in pain and anger as though struck by a stone instead of a bullet. The feeling that you're heavily armed and yet faced with an unnatural enemy is often what makes the game seem so intense, which makes moments when you feel desperate and helpless seem that much more poignant when they occur.
Resident Evil 4 is an action adventure game with an emphasis on action. There's rarely any question about where you're supposed to go next or what you're supposed to do, even though some of the environments are quite open-ended. The game is so action-packed that even some of the seemingly noninteractive cinematic cutscenes require fast reflexes on your part (so don't you dare put down the controller). A quick button press will cause you to make Leon avoid certain death, while a lack thereof...well, you'll see. Deviously, the button presses are randomized so that even if you memorize the circumstances of when you need to react, you'll still need to be careful. And this simple, subtle bit of gameplay turns out to be great, probably because it's used sparingly. At other times, reactive, timing-based button presses or rapid button presses will be demanded of you in the context of the game's numerous and universally amazing battles against major enemy foes; these moments help instill boss battles with real dramatic flair. One can't easily describe just how incredible and frightening some of these battles are, so we'll put it this way: It's no exaggeration to say that Resident Evil 4 has some of the greatest boss fights of any game. Meanwhile, a convenient map is always available to helpfully point you in the right direction, but it's rarely necessary, because the game is paced so well, and because it's not difficult to orient yourself within environments that are as detailed as these.
The game's occasional puzzle elements seem almost like concessions to diehard fans of the series, since they're rather simplistic and definitely take a backseat to all the fighting. They're fortunately rare enough to where you'll appreciate them for letting you catch your breath, and they're easy enough to figure out that you probably won't find yourself feeling stuck. But despite the downplaying of the puzzle elements, this is no mindless shooter, so you'll really need to think on your feet and take advantage of the environment to defeat some of your enemies. Some of the combat is definitely difficult, especially since many of your foes' attacks will rightfully inflict grievous damage or even kill you outright if you don't successfully avoid them.
Yet while Resident Evil 4 offers a stiff challenge, it's a level of difficulty that feels just right in a game whose many dangers certainly don't seem like they should be easy to overcome. The difficulty also scales up seemingly in perfect harmony with your growing comfort level with the weapons and foes on offer, so it feels like there's always going to be some new and unique challenge awaiting you around every corner. You might also notice how even though the game is fairly liberal about giving you ammunition for your weapons, it gradually tightens the leash, compelling you to make your shots count. At any rate, should Leon get killed, the game almost never sets you back too far, so it doesn't get frustrating. Save points are also liberally interspersed throughout, which is good, since not everyone will prefer taking this sort of concentrated action in large doses, because most every enemy encounter will leave you breathless.
There's one aspect of play that sometimes interrupts Resident Evil 4's exquisite pacing, and that's the necessity of having to fumble around in your inventory. Though you can readily switch between a gun and your trusty knife at the touch of a button, switching between different guns (or using healing items) requires you to go in to the inventory screen. A more streamlined means of weapon switching would have been convenient, especially since many situations will require you to use multiple weapons for their unique properties. Inventory space is limited, too, so you'll sometimes need to shuffle the contents around to make room for new items. This is mildly annoying at times, but it's a small price to pay for a system that infuses Resident Evil 4 with sort of a role-playing-game feel, which really helps lend a sense of cohesion and character development to the adventure. You'll both earn money and gradually increase your maximum health as you progress, and you'll be able to purchase new weapons as well as weapon upgrades from a mysterious shopkeeper whom you'll encounter in the strangest places throughout the game.
The shopping portion of Resident Evil 4 is well designed, insofar as you'll need to make some tough, interesting decisions about whether to purchase new weapons or upgrade the ones you've got. And if you decide to upgrade them, then how? You can improve their power, ammo capacity, rate of fire, and more. All told, there's a great variety of excellent weapons in the game, which helps keep the action feeling fresh for the solid 25-or-so hours it takes to reach the end of the story.
Resident Evil 4 is a single-player game, but don't let that stop you from inviting your friends over to gawk at it. It's also loaded with secrets and extras that can be found both during the course of the adventure and after unlocking them following the completion of the game. There's definitely a lot of lasting value here beyond the initial play-through, and not just because it would naturally be fun to play through multiple times, but because there are clear incentives to go back through at least once again, as well as to explore some of the other extras. The bonus content serves to reinforce how much effort must have gone into this game.
Of course, effort alone isn't enough to make a game like Resident Evil 4. This is the result of an extreme level of talent on multiple fronts, and you need look no further than the presentation--as demonstrated by the graphics and sound--for proof. Resident Evil 4 perfectly and constantly evokes a suffocating, scary atmosphere, yet it's one that's rich with intrigue. Environments aren't highly interactive, but you'll probably love just looking around in them even if you can't pick up and examine every single object in every single room. The various characters are also meticulously detailed and distinctively stylized, and they move and interact in their environments with such a level of lifelike authenticity that you just might never look at games the same way again after seeing some of the stuff here. Visual effects are also universally superb, especially the fire, which looks completely real. The game does have maybe a couple of unsightly blemishes in the form of clipping issues, as you'll sometimes see enemies' limbs and weapons jutting through solid doors, but it's not nearly enough to knock Resident Evil 4 from its perch as one of the best-looking games ever made. Resident Evil 4 looks best when viewed on a great big progressive scan display, but it looks amazing no matter what, and by any standard. It's also technically impressive in less-apparent ways, such as in how there are virtually no discernable loading times at any point in the game, which helps to keep you immersed in the experience.
Any horror movie aficionado can tell you that audio is one of the most important factors in evoking a sense of dread and suspense, and Resident Evil 4 is an excellent example of this. The game's generally good voice acting is undermined somewhat by a goofy script, but all other aspects of the audio, from the chilling ambient noises you'll frequently hear to the roar of your various weapons to the occasional and perfectly placed musical cues, are terrific. Here's a game for which it might just be worth springing for a Pro Logic II-enabled surround sound system if you don't already have one. That way, even if you don't know Spanish, you'll instinctively reel around to face your foes when they announce their attacks from behind you. At any rate, rest assured that much of the audio in Resident Evil 4 will be just as memorable as many of the atrocious-in-a-good-way things you'll see. It's difficult to decide whether the audio is even better than the visuals, but there's no question these elements work extremely well together to create an incredibly atmospheric experience.
You'll surely find from playing or even just watching Resident Evil 4 that all this sort of high praise is warranted, though it's worth reiterating that this is one of those games that you ought to approach with as few preconceived notions as possible. Essentially, if you've been entertained by any other mature-rated action game recently, then chances are you'll be blown away by this one. It's that good.