It’s no secret that Resident Evil 4 is often regarded as one of the most influential games of the PlayStation 2 era, bringing with it a host of conventions that have continued to appear in games today.
And on this Halloween, I think it’s more than appropriate to re-visit the game and ask the question; what was it that made Resident Evil 4 so great?
Resident Evil 4 follows the exploits of Leon S. Kennedy as he tries to track down and rescue the president’s daughter, Ashley Graham. She’s fallen victim to the great misfortune of being kidnapped by a crazy cult somewhere in the back woods of Europe, and of course, Leon’s the only man right to go in and rescue her. But when he arrives in the area and starts poking around, he finds that he’s in for a bit more than he bargained for as he tries to combat crazed Ganados infected with a plauge that makes them hostile and dangerous. From there, it’s all zombies and shenanigans, and some moments including the mysterious Ada Wong.
One of the most interesting parts of Resident Evil 4 is its brilliant use of atmosphere. Even from the very beginning, you’ll find yourself a little on edge as you walk around the forest, accompanied only by your footsteps and the eerie ambient sound of the world around you. Soundtrack is sparse in the game, and it does a good job of using sound design to always make you wary of your surroundings.
Using a fairly plain pallet of browns and earth tones, the game has a very sullen, bleak feel to it that only helps enhance the tension and make it seem creepy and forlorn. Zombies look infected and gross, the world is grim, and the game communicates this well to players.
But love them or hate them, it’s the controls that make Resident Evil 4 something special. RE4 was the game that mastered and popularized the third person over-the-shoulder view in games, positioning the player to the right of Leon and using a laser sight to look down during shooting sequences.
In 4, you didn’t have the option to run and gun down enemies in the same way many third person action titles allow you today. Rather, you would be frozen in place whenever you went to fire a weapon, relying on quick reflexes and precision in order to take out enemies efficiently. Also unlike action games today, one analog stick was not used to control the camera. Yes, you could manipulate it, but it would snap right back to its fixed location behind Leon’s shoulder the second you released it, making it more effective for slow sequences or parts when you weren’t fighting for your life.
Now, I remember being incredibly frustrated with the game’s controls the first time I sat down to play. Coming to it with an FPS mentality, it was confusing and infuriating to not be able to move while I was shooting, and even more annoying that I couldn’t use the camera to effectively look around my environment. But after getting the hang of the controls and thinking it over, I’ve come to appreciate the complexity and unique design the controls lent to the game. By not allowing you to have complete control over the camera, there’s always a little bit of dread lingering in the back of your mind as you move throughout an environment. If something attacks you, will you react in time? Jump scares are a lot easier to pull off, and you suddenly start to pay more attention to visual cues and sound design, forcing you to immerse yourself in the game’s iconic atmosphere, which only served to help keep you engaged in the fright. And the lack of movement while shooting creates the illusion of impending danger, with enemies stalking you like prey as you stand, unable to move. By sacrificing movement for attack, you suddenly find yourself faced with some decisions as you go about battle tactics and combat with the hordes of zombies.
Boss fights in the game are interesting as well, with each boss requiring a specific attack or being exposed to a certain weakness in order to defeat them. It’s not a game that holds your hand and accommodates bullet spraying; rather, it forces you to consider the environment and the enemy’s patterns of movement before trying to zero in on one specific strategy. It can be frustrating, but in a strangely good way, since it always offers you options to learn more and approach things with a “better luck next time” attitude.
In many ways, Resident Evil 4 was one of the last “true” Resident Evil games, in the sense that it had a heavy emphasis on horror and atmosphere like the previous installments. But it also marked the beginning of the series gravitating out of the horror and toward the action shooter genre. There’s no shortage of ammunition or weapons in RE4, and you don’t get the same sense of terror some of the earlier games yielded.
Of course, whether or not this is a bad thing is completely subjective to the fan making the argument. Personally, I find the game to be creative and enjoyable, offering a number of interesting and inventive perks that make it such a unique and standout title in the horror genre.
So this Halloween, as you sit and make the sad decision that you’re too old for trick-or-treating, consider playing through Resident Evil 4 again. It’s legendary, it’s fun, and there’s nothing more nerve-racking than being chased down by the chainsaw maniac Dr. Salvador: