I didn’t play any of the Resident Evil games during the last generation. That was probably mostly because I didn’t have a Playstation back then; eventually, RE2 came out for the Nintendo 64, but it didn’t make enough of an impact for me to want to buy it. Also, the genre didn’t excite me too much: I don’t read horror books or watch horror movies, so why would I want to play horror video games?

The remake of the original on the Gamecube got a lot of attention, though. So I bought a copy, and I’m glad I did. While I’m not a big fan of the genre, it’s healthy to dip into different genres every once in a while to learn from their best examples. The graphics were stunning – this was near the start of the current generation, but even now they’ve held up well, I suspect. I wouldn’t want most games to have a fixed camera, but they used it to reasonable dramatic effect, and if that’s the price to pay for the graphics, so be it. I’m not a big fan of respawning enemies, but if there’s any game where that makes sense, that was the one. Limiting saves was a bad idea, the control scheme was awkward, there were probably other flaws, but even so, really good game.

Not a good enough game to make me go out and buy the rest of the series, mind you, or even to get me to buy the first new game in the series on the Gamecube, Resident Evil Zero. But then Resident Evil Four came out to much acclaim; the acclaim is well deserved.

To start with the superficial: it turns out that a fixed camera is not necessary for excellent graphics, you just need a really good development team with time to get used to the hardware. So they use an intelligent mix of third person with moving camera that goes into first person when you aim. It looks just as good as the earlier game; the cut scenes are done by the in-game engine, and look as good as most game’s pre-rendered cut scenes, but without compression artifacts.

On a side note, it would be interesting to track the development of POVs in action games; maybe it’s my imagination, but in this generation, it seems like there are a lot more games that are mixing first and third person, where last generation would have settled on one or the other. For example, I can imagine this game being a FPS in a previous generation, but third person plus first-person aiming works well. And, in the opposite direction, this generation’s Metroid games have gotten a completely different feel out of first-person than a traditional FPS, but those also drop into third person when necessary (morph ball).

Interestingly enough, it’s actually not much of a horror game. At the start, it was pretty scary: after fighting off the initial horde of enemies in the village, I was afraid to wander around much, being wounded and low on ammo, lest more people attack me. But more people didn’t attack me: after finding a save spot, I went back into the village, and wandered around it more, completely unmolested. So once the scary music stops, you really are safe for a while. Once I got used to that, I found that the game had a very nice balance in its enemy attacks: some areas have a few enemies around every corner, some areas have almost no enemies, some areas throw a horde of enemies at you that you just have to try to survive, and there are several boss fights. It keeps you on your toes, it’s pleasantly varied, and there’s always time after fighting enemies for you to explore and get to know (and loot) your environment. And no respawning to be found, unless you re-enter an area after being gone from it for a very long time.

The save points completement this well. You can’t save everywhere, but there are enough save points that, while there’s some tension getting between them without too much damage, you don’t have to constantly reload your game or block off hours of playing time to make sure you’ll make it between save points. (And you can usually go back to your previous save point without encountering enemies, should you so desire.) In addition, most times, when you die, it restarts you at a more recent point than your previous save spot: for example, if you die in a boss battle, you just have to refight that boss. And, mercifully, they gave up on the stupid “limited number of saves” idea from previous games in the series.

They also threw some bare-bones RPG-ish aspects into the game. Every video game has to have some aspects that make no logical sense, but are utterly necessary for gameplay reasons; items are a classic area where suspension of disbelief is necessary, and we see that here. You start off with a pistol, and pick up a shotgun quickly; periodically (once every save point or two), however, you find merchants, who are happy to take the gold that you’ve stolen and either sell you new weapons or, more commonly, upgrade your existing weapons. Exactly what these merchants are doing there and why they haven’t been infected by the parasites that have taken over everybody else’s body is never explained (good thing, too), but as a gameplay technique, it works fine. There are a few classes of weapons distinguished by the kind of ammo they use; you end up picking (at most) one weapon from each class, and upgrading it.

But they couldn’t let you carry around arbitrary numbers of weapons or other items – that would be unrealistic! Instead, you have to fit your gear into an attache case; as you progress in the game, merchants will sell you larger and larger attache cases, so in practice the size of the case is rarely a problem. So instead of something horribly unrealistic like letting you carry arbitrary amounts of items, you instead carry around larger and larger attache cases (which never show up in the third-person view, oddly enough), with loads of weapons, ammo, and healing items (but not key items or treasures – those you carry in some other, unexplained way), being able to switch weapons in and out of your attache case instantly! Much better.

And, like other games in the series, there’s ammo scattered around the environment; the amount is very well chosen so that you’re always under some amount of ammo pressure, but if you’re reasonably careful, you never quite reach the end of your ammo. The merchants can’t actually sell you ammo (even though they’re happy to buy ammo from you), except that they’ll refill your gun if you upgrade its ammo capacity, so you end up not reloading a weapon that you think you’re about to upgrade. None of this makes any sense, but the gameplay is very well balanced; the resulting illogic is more than worth the results.

The plot revolves around trying to save the president’s daughter; half way through the first part of the game, you find her, and get to protect here. (And occasionally she gets to help you, too.) Which is a pleasant enough change of pace, but ultimately an Ico style of gameplay wouldn’t fit this genre very well. They solve this problem by having her get recaptured three or four times during the game. So, as a result, she’s only with you maybe a third or a quarter of the time: you get the benefits of variety, but it doesn’t compromise the basic gameplay.

What else? There are some Shenmue-style quick time events; not many, but it makes the cut scenes a bit more interesting. The plot is interesting enough. It’s a good length (25 hours, maybe?). The boss fights are well designed. The levels are well designed. The puzzles, while hardly intricate, provide some structure to the game other than battles.

Don’t let the details here distract you: this is a great game. At every point, I felt that I was playing a game written by people who are confident in their artistry, who know the ins and outs of game design, who can throw in variety and interesting gameplay elements appropriately, and who are more than capable of painting some very attractive pixels on a television screen. My only regret was that, since I didn’t want to play it while Miranda was around, I was lucky if I could play it for as much as two hours a week; it took me months to finish, which I’m sure lessened the impact. But they were very pleasant months indeed.

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