So I’m still only an hour or so into Resident Evil 4, but I thought I’d post my initial impressions anyway.
With all the hype surrounding this game, I wasn’t really sure if I was going to like it or not. I mean, the graphical quality is amazing (I thought it was the best-looking game at E3 2004), but I wasn’t sure if the game play was going to match it.
What you need to know about Resident Evil 4 is that it is still very clearly a Resident Evil game. Capcom has attempted to revitalize the series by dramatically increasing the quality of some aspects of the game, while downplaying areas that have become clumsy or outdated.
For example, combat has come to the fore in Resident Evil 4. In previous games, shooting zombies was a mechanic used mostly for slowing the player down as he attempted to solve a larger maze puzzle. Shooting zombies never helped the player in previous RE games: it cost time, it cost bullets, and every encounter was potentially fatal. This mechanic wore itself out, especially in more recent games like Resident Evil Zero, where the enemies were so powerful that they significantly altered the strategy of the game. But in RE 4, the developers have made combat an ends in and of itself. Shooting the villagers (not quite zombies, but not quite human either; think Siren) requires a bit of strategy, as the enemies are vulnerable in different areas and the correct spots (like the neck!) must be targeted to quickly dispose of them. Killing the enemies also provides a reward, in the form of dropped ammo, health, or gold. In fact, the first level of the game (the area that we’ve all seen in the screenshots and movies) requires you to kill a certain number of enemies before you can progress. This reflects a very different focus from previous RE titles.
Complementing the focus on combat is the move away from item-based puzzles. The traditional Resident Evil formula has called for giant maze puzzles, where the player traverses the same areas over and over and slowly unlocks new areas by collecting items and solving puzzles. Zombies get in the way of solving the maze, but getting out of the mansion/police station/town/island/underground base has always been the goal. This time around, there are almost no explicit item puzzles (at least, I haven’t collected items that can be “used” other than health an ammo in the first hour). There are areas that are locked that I will clearly return to, but unlike previous RE games, I know that the progression is linear. I’ll return to an area only when I have completed all the requirements to open the next section, as opposed to previous RE games where the player must continually search and re-search areas already traversed for new things.
Ammo conservation, at least in the early stages, appears to be a non-issue. There is incentive to shoot everything that moves (and some stationary objects!), and ammo is plentiful. You can even purchase ammo if you run out with the gold you collect. Item management may still be an issue (you have limited inventory space), but it appears that almost all items will be combat related rather than puzzle related.
What I find most interesting is that these fundamental changes in focus don’t change the pace of the game very much. Leon is certainly moving from area to area faster than he has in previous games (perhaps due to the lack of backtracking that I’ve already mentioned), but the time he spends in each area and the pace of the combat feels right at home with the series. You still can’t move and shoot at the same time, shooting, running, re-aiming, and shooting again is still a viable strategy. You still have a knife and it still sucks for combat (though you can now conveniently access it any time you like without going through the inventory screen). The combat strategy has changed a bit (Leon can now kick enemies that are close and stunned), but the overall progression of the game from area to area and from monster to monster feels, well, natural. In fact, the rate of progression is very similar to Resident Evil 3, perhaps because both games take place primarily outside.
I don’t like reviewers who just gush about games, and I don’t want to give you the impression that RE 4 is perfect. It’s harder than you are expecting, and some of the mechanics you are used to might not be there. The entire game is letter boxed, which is weird but necessary for the camera angle they’ve selected to work. The follow cam is nice and also feels very natural, as do the context-sensitive events. The game play is further mixed up with some Shenmue-style quick time events and button mash challenges.
So far I have very, very few complaints. I’ll report back when I’ve progressed a little further.