Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Essentials #47: Resident Evil 4

Infogrames's 1992 Alone in the Dark may have been the first "survival horror" game, but Capcom coined the marketing term and popularized the genre with Resident Evil in 1996. Despite its eccentric design, Resident Evil managed in a short span of time to inspire hordes of imitators, most of which were more horrendous than horrifying. Of course, Capcom itself would wear the mechanics pretty thin with numerous sequels, ports, side stories, and sister series. By the time of Resident Evil Zero's release in 2002, both the series and genre seemed spent. Series creator Shinji Mikami must also have realized that change was in order, and he worked his team through an extended development period that included at least three discarded prototypes before finally arriving at the revolutionary Resident Evil 4 for the Nintendo GameCube in 2005.

Perhaps there is no greater credit to the meticulousness of Mikami's craft than his fiscally reckless tendency to restart projects that are already well into development. Series historians will point to "Resident Evil 1.5," an early version of Resident Evil 2 that was nearly finished, before the developers scrapped it and started over nearly from scratch. The Resident Evil 4 team endured several more of these agonizing false starts. Devil May Cry actually began life as one take on RE4, before Mikami and Hideki Kamiya realized that it had ventured too far from what Resident Evil was. They were able to put what they had to good use as a brand new IP, but, for RE4, what followed were lengthy years that included doomed prototypes such as the "fog" and "hook man" versions. The latter featured the beginnings of some of the new mechanics seen in the final version, but most of the art assets and story concepts, considered too derivative of previous "zombies in mansions" outings, ended up discarded. The finished product was one that departed significantly in every aspect from its predecessors in order to revitalize and, truly, to reinvent a franchise.

The differences began with the story and setting. Resident Evil 4 featured the long-awaited return of Leon S. Kennedy from RE2, arguably the series's finest entry. As the solo protagonist, he was now far from being the rookie cop of that game. Since surviving the Raccoon City incident, he had somehow risen through the ranks to become a secret agent for the US government. The fight against the zombie-producing Umbrella Corporation, still unresolved at the end of Code: Veronica, no longer seemed to matter. Formerly the overarching plot tying the franchise together, it was now dealt with summarily in the opening prologue, which explained that, in the long gap between Code: Veronica and RE4, Umbrella had been shut down by the government. Leon's mission instead tasked him with rescuing the president's daughter, who, it would turn out, was being held captive by a cult in a rural Spanish village. The villagers and cultists would unsurprisingly turn out to be a new form of biohazard, "Los Ganados." They looked human and operated with some level of intelligence, but they were actually infected with parasites that made them act savage.

This anti-civilization had a Deliverance vibe to it that took the horror in a new direction, but the gameplay was far less concerned with scaring the player. With RE4, Resident Evil was no longer a survival horror adventure, but now more of an action game. Although the character-relative controls remained intact, they were no longer as debilitating when coupled with the new 3-D camera, which would remain fixed behind Leon's back as the player explored the real-time environments. There wasn't actually very much exploring, however, in the very linear campaign, which for the first time provided the player with the tools to face the aggressive enemies head-on in combat. While aiming, the camera would zoom in to an over-the-shoulder view that allowed the player to manually aim with accuracy in order to pinpoint the enemies' various vulnerable spots. Shots to the legs could stun or drop them, bullets to the hands could disarm them, and critical headshots could take them out instantly (unless "Las Plagas" sprouted in place of their missing heads, in which case they became a lot meaner).

Was the over-the-shoulder camera really a revolution in action game design? It didn't actually open up any options that hadn't already been available in most first-person shooters by that time. But where other developers might try to distinguish their takes on popular genres by adorning them with unique, never-before-seen gimmicks, Mikami favored a distilled, impeccably polished design that he could control, not as a player, but as the omnipresent director.

Leon still could not walk while aiming, and the only automatic weapon was highly lacking in firepower, so combat was far more methodical than in a typical shooter. But in those limitations, the restrictive design philosophy behind the series came into play again, as Mikami's team constructed the experience around these deliberate peculiarities to craft an action game that would feel distinctly different from any of the popular titles of the time.

The Ganados were smarter and more versatile than the old zombies, but they were still far from intelligent. They would periodically shuffle from side to side in order to dodge fire, but they would also tend to react slowly and telegraph their attacks, giving the player often just enough time to down a pack of enemies with some well-chosen handgun shots. Of course, the developers tried to keep the tension perfectly balanced, and the sheer numbers would be imposing enough to keep most players too excited initially to see through the act. Once comfortable with the enemy behavior, some might have asked why these imbecilic foes would waste time standing in place and pointing their fingers at a man pointing a magnum back at them. But the fights would have been unwinnable with seven enemies all running at Leon at the same time, just as they would have been too easy if Leon could start circle-strafing around guys armed only with pitchforks. They could still have kept things balanced by making both Leon and the Ganados more capable, but, the more power you bestow, the less control you have over its wielders. That again was the idea--to control how the player experienced the game.

This was further reflected in the careful scripting of the game, as nearly every encounter was presented as a set piece. The game's defining sequence was the barricade cabin that had Leon and one AI ally fending off a mob of villagers attacking from all sides. You would begin by pushing bookshelves in front of doors and windows to slow their entry. As they hammered their way through, you would then have to do your best to cover all entry points with just the two of you. Inevitably the room would be breached by too many Ganados flooding in, and your partner would signal a retreat to the second floor. You might then lob an incendiary grenade down the stairs to catch pursuers in flames. Up top, you would then have to continue to hold back the ones charging up the stairs, while also knocking down the ladders raised by villagers trying to get in through the second-floor windows. As things got too intense, you might switch from the handgun to the crowd-clearing shotgun, and if multiple deadly Plagas emerged from their blown-off heads, you could toss a flash grenade to instantly fry any exposed parasites.

Not every battle would be that elaborate or dynamic, but the game always tried to keep the enemy sets in harmony with the stages. You might find yourself stuck in a pit with two chainsaw maniacs. Or taking cover against some dynamite-hurling loonies who were not afraid to blow themselves up. Or escorting the president's daughter through a hall thick with shield-bearing cultists. Or how about cutting across a battlefield while assisted by helicopter fire?

The experience was certainly helped by the enemy variety, which was the best of any game I've played. In addition to the different varieties of villagers and cultists, the game would periodically mete out fiercer opponents that, far from being just bigger versions of Ganados that took more bullets, would test the player in other ways. There were the "Garradors," lethal but blind berserkers who could only be felled by sneaking behind them to target the parasites on their backs. The "Novistadors" were giant, invisible insects that only betrayed their locations with their visible breath and drool. Creepiest of all were the "Regenerators," whose internal weak spots could only be viewed with the thermal scope on the sniper rifle. And of course there were the building-sized "El Gigante" ogres, which had no real place in the mythos of Resident Evil, but which again provided something completely different from normal combat against Ganados.

Then there were the excellent boss fights. Some of these could be won through conventional means, but the best of them concentrated on unique mechanics specific to those encounters. There was the Jaws-like "Del Lago," for example, which Leon would have to harpoon from a boat perilously tethered to the lake monster itself. Or the nasty "Verdugo," which would stalk Leon in a frantic cat-and-mouse game seemingly inspired by Alien 3 and Terminator 2.

Alongside God of War, RE4 also helped to popularize about the most extreme example of scripted gameplay, "quick time events," as a standard action game element. During normal gameplay, the A button served as a multi-purpose context-sensitive button that allowed Leon, depending on the situation, to dynamically suplex a prone enemy, dodge an incoming attack, jump out a window, knock down a ladder, etc. Then there were the true QTE sequences that required the player to press a specific button as instructed on cue in order to avoid an instant death. Sometimes this was as simple as tapping A repeatedly to outrun a boulder after watching a cut scene of some villagers rolling it toward you. But they could also happen without warning during cut scenes, which is where players should usually be most at ease. In fact, there was one entire "boss fight" that was nothing more than a cut scene involving multiple QTE button presses that grew increasingly tighter. Accounting for nearly all of my deaths in the game, that cut scene was one of the most frustrating video game sequences I'd ever come across. But afterward I thought back to the clunky hand-to-hand boss battles of the first three Metal Gear Solid titles, and I knew that this RE4 fight would have completely sucked if it had been just a regular in-engine sequence featuring canned gameplay animations.

Otherwise, my only major gripe with RE4 was its excessive length. At over twenty hours for a first playthrough, perhaps closer to thirty, it was about double the length of the average triple-A action game. RE4 boasted greater variety than any other action game, but the length of it still wore me down. The story was first of all too weak to keep me interested, but, more importantly, I believe most players operate with an internal deadline for when the narrative needs to provide some feeling of victory. No matter how exciting the action may be, if the hero must carry on for too long without any results to show for it, the fight eventually becomes a slog.

A worthy contender for the finest game of its generation, Resident Evil 4 was a second beginning to a series that, like Final Fantasy VII or Metal Gear Solid, introduced it to a brand new audience of gamers. Just as the original Resident Evil was followed by legions of copycat horror games that exhausted the genre, tons of newer action games--mostly Western-developed shooters, actually--have since adapted elements of RE4's design. The original game may stand out a little less as a result, but, truthfully, none of its would-be successors have actually managed to equal it for combat depth, enemy variety, or cohesiveness of set piece construction.

Additional Information

Although Mikami early on assured that RE4 would be strictly a GameCube exclusive, even joking that he would cut off his own head if the game ever came to the PlayStation 2, it did indeed arrive on PS2 before the year was over.

The PS2 version was noticeably graphically inferior to the GameCube original, but the porting team added several features to enhance the value. The most significant was a short extra campaign starring Ada Wong, which cleared up some lingering questions about the plot. Also added were some extra unlockable costumes and an extremely powerful unlockable weapon.

In 2007, the game was ported again, this time to the Nintendo Wii.

Because Mikami was not involved in any of the ports, some do not consider the additions canonical, but the Wii edition is unquestionably the definitive release, combining all the extra features of the PS2 version with the technical merits of the GameCube original. Perhaps more importantly, it also offered new pointer controls using the Wii Remote with Nunchuk.

With the new controls, shooting becomes much easier, but I'm skeptical as to whether it is really due to the Wii Remote itself being more accurate. While aiming with the Remote, the old laser sight is replaced by a large reticle. Because the reticle does not become any harder to see when far from the target, the player is able to make impossibly long-range shots with just the handgun. It actually feels like the developers made the Wii edition artificially easier in this way, as if to compensate for the Remote itself maybe being less precise than traditional controls. And since the game is not otherwise rebalanced in any way, the experience is stripped of nearly all challenge.

So why is the Wii release still the definitive version? Because, unlike all of Nintendo's GameCube-to-Wii ports, Capcom thoughtfully left in the option to play with a GameCube controller. As a result, there's really no reason to hang onto the GameCube version. It may not come in a fancy SteelBook, and the white Wii case may not match the tone of the game, but RE4: Wii Edition is the right way to do a Wii-make.

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