I don't think we're in Raccoon City anymore!? From Capcom comes the Games on Demand release of the survival horror classic that has been given the "high def" treatment this time around. And with enhanced graphics coupled with one of the best gameplay experiences of the last ten years, this serves as a great (and relatively cheap) way to welcome Halloween.
In this edition of the nightmare, you'll be in the shoes of U.S. Secret Service agent Leon S. Kennedy, who has been sent to a mysterious European town for only one reason: retrieve the President's daughter Ashley Graham. And since the U.S. Government pulled the plug on the Umbrella Corporation and Raccoon City, this is truly the most important mission the young hero could take up. But after arriving in a small village with an uber creepy atmosphere, Kennedy realizes the locals are anything but friendly. These dangerous foes have pledge allegiance with Los Illuminados, the eerie cult that has taken Ashley hostage. This is where the tipping point boils over and is the jumping off point for one of the best survival horror games ever with an incredibly visceral experience that grips you every cautious step of the way.
I can remember being a teenager when this game came out. At the time I took myself to be "above" playing the Gamecube and disallowing games like Mario Party and Luigi's Mansion. Eventually, though, my little brother got a GC for Christmas, and I have to admit I did have some fun playing stuff like Melee in between my matches of Rainbow Six 3. I had heard that the new Resident Evil was supposed to be "pretty good," so I petitioned him to make that his next purchase (honestly more so for me than him, but whatever gets the job done). The guy who worked at the EB Games I used to frequent told me I was going to freak by how great this game is, but I knew it was a GC exclusive, so "how good can it be really?" In short, I was blown away about how great the game was, particularly the high level of engagement that entrenched me in every little nuance at every moment of the title. Since then, I jump at any good excuse to play this one again. So when RE 4 was slated to get the HD treatment, it became a must on my review list.
The big "hype" around this version is the "make up" job the Games on Demand release got. I'm usually hesitant to get excited about "up scaling" efforts. Most DVD to Blu-Ray transfers I've seen don't seem like real high definition. The same kind of thought process is applied to "HD" released classics, if it isn't designed with that resolution in mind then it just will not look as good as something from the current gen. And while this game didn't do anything to make me believe the contrary, it still looks really sweet. Of course it helps to have a base that was "graphically inclined" to begin with (RE 4 is the best looking GC game I saw during it's time), but the team at Capcom knew where to place some new visual "bells and whistles" to make things really stand out. Any kind of "muddled" things from the standard def GC/PS2 versions are a thing of the RCA cable past. Every object has its own, defined place on the screen, which gives it a level of visual depth that was missing from RE 4 in previous iterations. Also what is really cool is how the game didn't need to feature "re-tooled" or "re-imagined" graphics. I know this is a trend used today to help justify a new purchase, but Capcom realized the world they created the first time is the right one. The same, great design (contrast, colors, tones, character/object models, cut scenes, ect.) is on full and glorious display. The "HD" injection just buffs out any eye sores to make playing the game even more rewarding than it already was.
In terms of gameplay, what is there to say that hasn't already been said about this one many times before. The game is stupid good. And the main reasons why it succeeds are from the different approaches taken that went against staunch generic conventions at the time. Generally speaking (before 2005 at least), survival horror games followed a similar "cookie cutter" pattern. To entice fear, the uncertainty of gameplay moments outshine horror movie stuff like unfamiliarity. Bad camera angles were a must so that the player isn't sure exactly what might be lurking around the corner. Walking into new rooms without a pre-survey of the surroundings, dense darkness or fog, and even extended "long shot" camera views coupled with a lacking cache of weapons and ammo made fighting the things that go bump in the night scary. But this formula shouldn't be written off as necessarily being bad. Some games follow this pattern to great success.Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams is one of my favorite games and used the above strategy to a tee with cloudy streets full of dread and the countless exploration of room after room armed with nothing but a flashlight and a 2x4 with a nail through it. Simple, but truly scary stuff.
With great risk comes great reward, and that's the story of RE 4's playing elements. The devs at Capcom took a risk and did away with most of the aforementioned "standards" of the genre. First is the camera angle. Instead of the usual "bird's eye" overview third person perspective, we're given a more personable over-the-shoulder view. This eliminates virtually every awkward angle, which puts an unprecedented feeling of control back into the hands of the player. Speaking of which, this was another change spot. To handicap the usefulness of over-the-shoulder, you are not allowed to attack and move at the same time. This does much to cultivate the anxiety that must be present in a survival horror game. Sure, you can run for your life, but when the time comes, you'll have to stand and deliver your own dose of punishment without flinching. So, a move and shoot/move and shoot strat becomes a necessary style to progress through the increasingly difficult campaign. This game also gives you a much better arsenal of weapons an ammo than usual, but conservation is still very much needed. You'll have to figure out when you might be able to get away with a quick knife swipe to kill a baddie instead of loading it up with seven pistol rounds or an ever important shotgun shell. This is compounded with an inventory system that forces you to chose what things are important and even play a little Tetris of sorts as you arrange and re-arrange items to make the most of the case space.
Eventually, more anxious moments are created by how to dispatch the enemies themselves. Once you get in a groove of utilizing your stash and making the most of the inventory, the game throws another wrench at you. We all know that the best shot is a head shot (less ammo/more effective). But later in the mission, the Las Plagas enemies become as surprising as what's inside a pinata. Even though a well placed bullet will disintegrate their cranium, you might get a surprisingly sharp tentacle sprouting from the newly made opening that can slice Leon's head off in one swipe. It may be hard to pen down exactly what makes RE 4 masterful and put that into words, but one of them is definitely how it keeps you on your toes; right when you think you have things figured out, it switches things up and makes you adapt all over again. Great, great stuff. Another plus is the way the game literally feels to play. Not many games can say the dexterity demands are apart of the positives, but this one can. The controls are so uncanny that it becomes a mini-game, of sorts, to get really good at getting in and out of "weapon hot" stance while gauging the right amount of distance to maximize effectiveness while minimizing risk of injury. To be honest, the GC pad feels the best to play this game with, but I did think the 360 controller worked better than when I tried the PS2 version a few years ago.