By Rich Stanton on March 6th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
The problem with a classic is that it’s a classic. The medium doesn’t matter – if enough people agree something’s great, then discourse around it is reduced to little more than glowing generalisations and snarky counter-thrusts. Some consider Resident Evil 4 one of the best vidyagames ever created; others counter that, good as it may have been, the world has long since moved on from grotesque monsters, tank controls and rescuing the president’s sizeably-bosomed daughter.
Resi 4 deserves more so, with a little help from director Shinji Mikami, let’s look at the anatomy of a classic.
The Resident Evil series had, by the time of Resident Evil 4, suffered an even crueller fate than the many Z-listers gutted therein. It got old. The first Resi games were from an era when 3D environments in thirdperson were created with fixed angles – simply to look good. There were mechanical implications, of course, and as it turned out this style of design suited horror much better than other genres; the first two Resi games make brilliant use of audio and what the player
But as technology matured and detailed 3D environments became more achievable, these designs felt restrictive to the point of asphyxiation. Capcom had no idea what to do about this and so Resi 4 was one of the most famously stop-start projects in the company’s history – with several abandoned prototypes, and one version that became the basis for Devil May Cry.
Shinji Mikami, the director of the original Resident Evil, was the man they turned to. And when still a rosy-cheeked Edge staffer, I was lucky enough to chat to him about it. “I wasn’t there right from the beginning, I came in after it had been started,” Mikami says. “Basically, as Capcom’s head of development at the time I was given an instruction: to change the series altogether. Outside of that instruction I was given every freedom in how I wanted to recreate it. And that’s why Resident Evil 4 is the game it is.”
Resi 4 abandoned fixed camera angles, extended fetch-quests, and even zombies. “Resident Evil was a horror game,” Mikami says. “But when I started with Resi 4 we decided to lessen that aspect and make it more of an action game. That was one of the two biggest changes.” Survival was out.
To this end Resi 4 created and perfected a new dual perspective: Leon’s body off-centre for movement, and a zooming camera over-the-shoulder for aiming. The environments were now fully 3D, but much more importantly combat had a greater range of possibilities: location-specific damage, like shooting enemies in the knees or the weapon hand, was combined with contextual moves like a roundhouse kick.
This is why Resi 4 is still a blast to play now. Unless it’s a boss, you’re always fighting crowds of enemies and so working out how to both do damage and avoid being surrounded. But these enemies aren’t zombies – they’re ganados, a design so powerful Capcom has used them almost without change in every subsequent Resi. “This was the other big decision,” Mikami says. “Changing the zombies for something closer to human beings.”
“I don’t feel traumatised by crowds of people normally,” Mikami says. “But I think everyone can relate to the idea that crowds of people can be very scary – if, for example, they turn against you.” The Ganados talk to each other, shout at Leon, advance unerringly, and if a group surrounds you a merciless beatdown is incoming. They try to blindside you, get outside of the camera view, duck when you’re lining up a headshot, grab you for their mates to deal the damage, and laugh when they’ve snuck up behind you.
There’s a brilliant idea central to Resi 4’s crowd-controlling that never gets mentioned: invincibility. You can stagger ganados and then roundhouse kick them (among other moves), which deals damage in an AOE fashion, staggers others, and makes Leon invulnerable for the short duration. So in any kind of crazy pile-on you have the chance to pick a shot, dash forward, and clear space for an exit. It’s an arcadey touch that tempts recklessness, but lets Leon take down five or six enemies with one well-placed bullet and a sweeping boot.
These are the very basics of Resi 4’s combat, but then it does what so few other games dare and starts messing with the player. So you’re used to the headshot / roundhouse kick combo, and then chapter two introduces parasites that burst out of enemy heads. They’re deadly, proper hard to kill, and so do you really want to go around headshotting everyone?
The slightest change even to how enemies are grouped can make the biggest difference; there are hulking great clawmen, for example, who are blind. The first encounter is simply terrifying. And afterwards? They turn up in environments alongside enemies that can see you – which force movement and firing.
Later you’ll meet the horrifying Regenerator, a pale and nearly indestructible thing with gaping maw that can only be destroyed by shooting certain parasites in their flesh using a thermal scope – and the game always makes sure you’re doing this in a tight corridor with your back against the wall. You switch weapons, equip the scope, and line up over random bright spots on the body as it gets closer, filling your sight, throwing your aim. On Pro difficulty, there’s an extra parasite in their back. How do you hit that?
This kind of clever design, which squeezes everything out of Leon’s capabilities, is the counter to the most frequent criticism of Resi 4 – the ‘tank-based’ control scheme, whereby you turn Leon and move him forwards rather than moving sideways.
“Fact is,” Mikami says. “It’s an element of the game. And one I feel is crafted to a very high standard. Perhaps the hurdle was too high for the change from horror to action. Perhaps it didn’t work so well in that respect. But from a game design point of view, I think they’re as good as was possible.”
Amen to that. Fact is that criticising Resi 4 for the tank controls shows a wilful blindness to how the game has been designed around them; everything from the layout of the environments to how the enemies themselves orient to your position works in relation to Leon’s movement, rather than some imagined alternative. Frequently you’ll find yourself turning 180° to run away, a touch that always provides a frisson because you simply give up on seeing what’s behind you and run.
Then there’s Ashley. In a twist to the standard damsel-in-distress formula, Ashley is rescued relatively early in the game and then becomes your companion – though she’s still there to be rescued, not to help. As a design element she becomes another variable in combat, a target to be defended, and a moving objective that stops you simply dashing past enemies or abandoning certain positions.
On the note of desirable protagonists, it’s probably worth saying that I don’t give two hoots about Ashley’s ‘ballistics’ – but Capcom create better sexy men than any other company. I’m as straight as you like but when it comes to Leon S. Kennedy there’s something about those curtains, that physique, and his sheer competence at dealing with any situation that… man. Man. Ashley’s not the only one who wants a piece by the end of this.
Anyway cough back to the action! Outlining how Mikami and his team designed Leon’s moveset and the combat system only goes so far to explaining Resi 4’s impact. The craftsmanship is one thing, but beyond this is a grisly imagination that never stops coming up with set pieces, and huge boss fights that are actually fun to play; Del Lago, a monstrous fish-thing you harpoon from a speedboat, the El Gigantes that batter Leon into the ground and off walls, a giant statue of a midget that chases you into the waiting arms of the real thing, ready to burst into a house-sized Final Form.
The imagination in even basic encounters is astonishing: moving through a sewer full of camouflaged insects, listening to their twitching and looking for the tell-tale condensation of their breath.
No single moment astonishes more than the sheer number of them. Holding off an angry mob inside a cabin, entering a castle by cannoning down the gate, suplexing endless cultists, running from boulders, riding a minecart, running from a half-scorpion mentalist in a cage suspended above a chasm, knife-fighting a madman in his personal labyrinth, freezing unkillable enemies and shattering them like the T-1000, diving through laser traps straight out of Mission Impossible, or jetskiiing out on a tidal wave. Long past the point other designers finished up and went to the pub, Resi 4’s team were working into the night.
So about this particular version. There are a couple of niggles, all of which Capcom really should have got right by now. A lot of the environment textures are crummy. This is because Resi 4 was designed to be seen in SD and, despite selling the game on multiple platforms since and trumpeting ‘HD!’ for all they’re worth, Capcom never bothered to have the textures re-drawn. So aspects of this game are SD assets in HD, which look as good as they sound.
I also had serious slowdown issues on release, which were fixed relatively quickly with a patch – but worth mentioning that some users are still experiencing them. Before this I was able to play smoothly by reducing the framerate from 60FPS to 30FPS but obviously that’s not what we want; further fixes are incoming, Capcom say, but in the meantime check out the Steam forums if you’re concerned about compatibility.
More unforgivably, the mouse and keyboard controls still suck. This was the case with the previous PC port published by Ubisoft (I have no idea) and, despite fiddling with the sensitivity and turning mouse acceleration on and off, they never quite felt right. I have some sympathy with the developers here. You can’t on the one hand praise how beautifully Resi 4 was designed around its limitations, and then criticise it for not adapting perfectly to a different input system – though it’s strange that the Wii version worked so well, and one with a mouse pointer doesn’t. C’est la vie.
Resi 4 was one of the first games that, for a time after its release, actually took over my life. Since then I’ve played through it at least once a year, on platforms from Gamecube to PS2 to Wii to the original PC release to the 360 HD release to this latest version. Why? After all, I know the whole experience beat-for-beat and every location and piece of equipment intimately.
The answer is as close to understanding what makes a ‘classic’ as I’ll probably ever get. It’s not that each individual mechanic of Resi 4 is so beautifully-honed, or that there are so many of them, or even that the enemies are still capable of surprises. It’s that many elements of this game never needed to be half as good as they are, or even present at all, and yet every single part has been sanded off and polished. The inventory system is a puzzle game in disguise. Halfway through the game you find a shooting gallery, a shooting gallery, slap-bang in the middle of Salazar’s gothic deathtrap of a castle. It’s as in-keeping with the theme as go-go girls, especially when taking part lets you win miniature models of the game’s cast.
Then you get the Mercenaries, a mode unlocked after the first runthrough that repurposes campaign environments as wave-based shooter arenas. The rules, which mix a combo system with a tight timer and several other bonuses, work such that the challenge of the Mercs scales with your own mastery of the combat system. It never stops getting tougher, offering more, asking for more. It’s a ‘bonus’ mode that might be better than the main game, which is one of the best games ever made, and so good that Capcom made Mercs into a standalone title and has included it in every subsequent Resident Evil.
Resi 4 is a classic not just because Resi 4 itself is a brilliant game. But because it goes beyond this to perfect things most players will never see, and packs extra stuff into every corner it possibly can. There is more pound-for-pound fun in every hour than anything else, and when you think you’ve seen everything another little detail jumps out. You can equip eggs and throw them at enemies. Sit on Salazar’s throne. After fighting Del Lago, you can cruise around on the boat and harpoon tasty fish – or watch the bigger ones try to eat the smaller ones. While riding the Jetski, hit both shoulder buttons during a jump to do a 360° spin. It has never, after nearly a decade of play, stopped giving me new things to enjoy.
“I’m very happy about the reception it got,” Mikami says. “It was a title that a lot of people can relate to – perhaps not as different as you think. Despite what some people said about the controls, controlling Leon and fighting the enemies is a joy. And a big reason is it was a game where people could pick it up and feel the joy, know exactly what game this was from the very beginning. Those qualities make a successful game.”
Capcom has never quite shown Resi 4 the reverence it deserves, despite the fact it was the foundation for their most successful series over nearly the next decade. But that doesn’t change the fact that, for whatever price you end up paying, this is as close as we’re getting to a definitive version of what even Mikami admits was a successful game. Or, as a simple critic like me would put it, a classic.