Should you ask any fan of survival horror about the scariest moments he has ever experienced in a game, he is likely to cite the possessed dogs in the original Resident Evil as a particularly memorable example. Over the years, Capcom has kept the standards for new games in the series quite high, even if a bit of cash cow milking is evident. In many ways a brand new take on the classic series, Resident Evil 4, is a creepy and intense action-adventure that never fails to impress. Featuring an intriguing story that fits snugly into the Resident Evil mythos and smooth, nail-biting gameplay capped by surprisingly good artificial intelligence, Resident Evil 4 is en excellent game that will not only appeal to fans of the previous titles, but should also bring new fans into the fold of mystery and fear awaiting them. Leon Kennedy is back – and now that he has apparently moved past the events of Raccoon City, he has embarked on his biggest assignment: rescue the President's daughter, who has been abducted and taken to a secluded village somewhere in Spain. Accompanied by the local authorities, Leon arrives in the village, only to find that its inhabitants aren't quite themselves. A cult religion, a brainwashing kingpin, and a roguishly handsome local: on paper, it all seems somewhat cliché, and in actuality, it is. However, the delivery of story points via miscellaneous letters and other clues ensures that a seemingly trite narrative retains an air of mystification, like a standard campfire tale made sophisticated by layers of murk and the measured accrual of relevant details. While RE4 features no multiplayer mode, the campaign is significantly long, and some nice unlockable features may give the more motivated fans reason to give it a second go. You control Leon from an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective. The left stick controls his direction, and the C-stick allows you to look around to a certain extent, although there is a complete absence of free look and strafing. The most impressive aspect of the control scheme is targeting: pull the left trigger to automatically equip Leon's knife; pulling the right trigger changes the function of the left stick to become your aim. Each gun will produce a laser-red point on its target, and it's a pitch perfect implementation of the standard reticule. Leon cannot move while pointing his weapon, a mechanism that both manages to frustrate and add to the tension: this is no run-and-gun affair, and while the B button will cause Leon to run, you generally can't just escape to a safer area and shoot with abandon. Even more importantly, weapon reloading and rates of fire are disconcertingly real, and an occasional source of frustration. While you can eventually improve your weapons' performance in these areas, at no point will you feel safely overpowering. This is, in part, because the zombie-like villagers feature a remarkable brand of artificial intelligence that at first makes them seem sluggish, until they gang up on you in great numbers, surrounding Leon and using a variety of different techniques to attack. RE4 is a challenge, but the challenge increases exponentially. Even as you increase your firepower to make Leon a seemingly inescapable force, the villagers will approach you in greater numbers while pulling some new, interesting tricks out of their sleeves. The game also features a good number of difficult boss fights, all of them spectacular, and all of them featuring their own specific gameplay mechanic that goes beyond simply identifying a pattern and exploiting it. In fact, while puzzle solving has taken a clear back seat to the action – and while the action itself is not all that varied – Capcom has mixed up the gameplay by adding occasional twists to keep the player on his toes. Don't take the moments during cutscenes to grab a sandwich; you need to keep an eye on the screen, lest you receive instructions to press a button or pull a trigger to avoid certain injury or death. In fact, this element is the most interesting and surprising of Resident Evil 4, but don't think you can learn your lesson and have your finger at the ready: the button you must press may change, so you need to stay alert. Eventually, another character will be joining you, and you can give simple “stay” or “follow” instructions – or even a “hide” command when the environment allows for it, at which point your companion will stay out of harm's way until you whistle. Other actions can change based on your location or circumstance; the A button not only swings your knife and shoots your guns, but lets you jump over fences, climb ladders, leap through windows, or even deliver a roundhouse kick to your enemies when the time is right. The screen will always display context-sensitive actions, so there will never be unnecessary guesswork. There is still a fair amount of exploration to be had, but this boils down to a search for ammo, herbs (which can be mixed to regenerate health), gold, or the occasional trinket or clue. There are some puzzles to solve, but they are hardly as challenging as the action itself--pull a lever in the right direction, combine colors in the proper way, and you move on. For better or for worse, RE4 is light on the adventure and heavy on action. While the ammo you find in various boxes and barrels will keep you well-stocked, you will encounter a roaming munitions dealer -a gameplay contrivance wildly out of place in this context - who will sell you new weapons (a small but healthy supply), upgrade current ones, or even supply you with larger attaché cases for storage or treasure maps. Equipping weapons is done from a menu that takes you completely out of the game and requires you to fumble around a bit, in one of the few elements that truly removes you from the ongoing saga. Game saves are made at the token typewriters you will stumble upon, located conveniently on your in-game map, which also displays your current destination. Fortunately, ribbon-hunting is not necessary in RE4, and as such you can save 20 slots at any typewriter you come across. Jump-out-of-your-seat moments actually aren't all that common in Resident Evil 4, which is somewhat of a blessing, since it would be all too easy for Capcom to resort to easy funhouse tricks to deliver a few cheap thrills. Instead, the game ramps up the tension meticulously throughout by adding new gameplay elements, storyline complexities and increasing the difficulty. If at first it seems as though you have an unlimited supply of ammo and herbs, the availability of these items becomes much more conservative as you make your way through the village's spectral surroundings. Accumulating and upgrading weapons is always a blast, but just as you expect to gain a palpable edge, Leon will find himself surrounded by hordes of sinister villagers that make the once spacious elements suddenly seem claustrophobic. This is, indeed, survival horror, and while you may long for more sudden frights and a little less reliance on a generalized atmosphere of apprehension, you will undoubtedly develop a feeling of dread as you wade through the throngs of pitchfork-wielding villagers and their secluded home. Resident Evil 4 looks fantastic, and is likely the best looking title yet produced for the GameCube. Leon's surroundings are dark and dismal, and the village itself is realistically ramshackle, a secluded European hamlet with meandering paths and farms that house spotted cows and clucking, nervous chickens. The murk makes the journey tense and mysterious, and makes it even more difficult to see your lumbering enemies as they plod towards you in endless numbers. If the artistry of our infected Spanish collective is readily apparent, so too is the technical prowess evident in everything from highly detailed textures (with a slight but appropriate fuzziness similar to the two latest titles in the Silent Hill series) to smooth, lifelike animations. Just as in the gameplay, most of the outstanding elements are in the discernible details; Leon clutches at his injured limbs, small but important graphical elements stand out without ever seeming out of place, and even the aforementioned hens impress with their remarkably realistic behavior. The distinguished visuals actually make a few small glitches stand out all the more, such as the few true villager models and the occasional symmetrical animation that makes your nemeses sway in unison - but these hardly detract from one of the most attractive games seen on any console. For the most part, RE4's sound keeps pace nicely with the graphical presentation. A lovely 5.1 surround sound speaker setup will do wonders here--the villagers usually announce their presence with some incoherent howls in Spanish, causing you to spin around on your heels to pinpoint their origins. Like adversary faces and models, there isn't a huge variety of these battle cries, but they contribute to the overall feeling of dread and dismay. Voice acting is rather good, particularly for Leon, Ashley, and the other major players, although Leon's American liaison, with whom he communicates occasionally, is an obvious weak link (she sounds an awful lot like Velma from the Scooby Doo animated series). Music, too, is ambient and chilling, and it kicks up a notch when enemies are near, forcing you to grip the controller a bit tighter. Resident Evil 4 is an easy recommendation, and a worthy addition to the renowned series. Not since Silent Hill 3 and Eternal Darkness has a survival horror game offered so much polish and fascination. A few minor gameplay and story quibbles aside, gamers looking for a creepy, immersive milieu featuring some solid mechanics and gorgeous production values need look no further--Resident Evil 4's lengthy campaign delivers exactly what we were looking for.
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