I remember the first time I played Resident Evil 4, back on the Gamecube in 2005: I had preordered the game months in advance, and I had poured over every glowing preview, review, and interview with the dev team, and despite the years of hype, it lived up to every hyperbolic accolade and award that was showered upon it. Every aspect of the game — the intense yet strategic gameplay, the beautiful graphics, and hell, even the predictable but ultimately entertaining story — all combined to create one of the most visceral, memorable, innovative, and just plain fun experiences in gaming history.
Obviously, I loved this game. But things have changed have a lot since 2005; the third person shooting mechanics that RE4 pioneered have since been expanded upon by games like Gears of War and Dead Space, which, by their developers own admission, exist because of RE4’s influence. The genre has moved so far forward in the last 6 years that when Resident Evil 5 was released with a mostly unchanged control scheme from 4, critics labelled the game’s mechanics as “tired” and “antiquated.”
The game has also seen a lot of retroactive hate from a small but vocal minority within the Resident Evil fan community who decry 4 as the game that killed the “survival horror” genre; with 4’s shift in focus from deliberately paced adventure-style gaming over to that of an action-shooter, it made the already stagnant traditional “survival horror” style of gameplay feel even more dated, and “horror” games haven’t been the same since.
But ignore all the haters, disregard all the fanboys who can’t tell the difference between something that’s legitimately bad and something that’s simply different (and better,) than the previous games in the series, and don’t confuse this game with it’s lesser sequel, because the truth is this: Resident Evil 4 was a masterpiece when it was released in 2005, and now, in 2011, it’s still just as good.
Now, Capcom has a reputation for being masters of the shameless rehash: No other publisher, not even Square-Enix with their endless parade of Final Fantasy remakes and rehashes, or Nintendo, who’ll use any excuse to get you to re-buy your favorite NES or SNES games, can match Capcom in this regard. Every Resident Evil game has been the victim of at least one half-assed port or shameless “Director’s Cut” re-release with barely any new content added, so it’s easy to assume that this new, “HD Remastered” version of Resident Evil 4 is another shameless attempt by Capcom to get you to rebuy a game that you already probably have (or, in my case, already own for 3 different systems,)… And that would actually be a pretty fair and accurate assumption. But shameless cash-grab or not, the fact remains that RE4 is still definitely worth your money.
Why? Well, the first and most important reason is simple: The gameplay is still fantastic. While newer, novice gamers will likely lose patience with the inability to move and shoot at the same time, as they did with Resident Evil 5, for some reason this limitation doesn’t feel like, well, a limitation in RE4: even when you’re surrounded by enemies, I never felt like the game’s controls were a hinderance, unlike in RE5. RE4 is simply better designed and balanced; the levels and the enemies were designed with this control scheme in mind, and it all comes together cohesively to feel challenging but never frustrating. The levels are designed in a way that it encourages you to pick when to stop and fight, and when to flee and fall back… The inability to move while shooting never feels frustrating. Likewise, the game’s enemies are impeccably balanced: they’re slow enough that they give you enough time to aim your shots and retreat, but they’re also aggressive and smart enough to keep the game challenging and interesting.
This finely tuned level of challenge is further enhanced by the variety the game offers. Before playing this new re-release, I hadn’t played RE4 since it was ported to the Wii in 2007, and I had forgot about how cleverly the game integrates new elements into the core gameplay slowly over the course of it’s lengthy campaign: whether you’re barricading yourself in a house as you try to keep a mob of infected from getting in, sniping enemy soldiers stealthily, or protecting the President’s daughter (in one of the rare, non-annoying escort missions in videogame history,) it all blends naturally with the game’s basic mechanics and it’s all insanely compelling and satisfying.
Likewise, RE4’s graphics have managed to age just as well as it’s gameplay. The game already looked amazing to begin with, and it looks even better upscaled to HD. Outside of a few blurry background textures that betray its last-gen origins, the HD version of RE4 could be compared favorably to some games that were designed specifically for the HD consoles, and that’s saying a lot when you consider it’s a 6 year old game. It’s obvious that Capcom put a lot of care into making sure this game looks as good in 2011 on an HD display as the original game did back in 20o5, and they’ve succeeded. Unfortunately, the visual upgrade isn’t totally flawless. While the Gamecube and Wii versions ran at a mostly rock-solid framerate, RE4 HD still experiences some rare slow-down when there’s a lot going on screen; while this was acceptable during the last-gen when RE4 was pushing these systems to their absolute limits, it’s confusing that this random slowdown still persists, even when the game is running on hardware that is several times more powerful than the system it was originally designed for.
Sadly, the audio seems to suffer from some legacy issues as well: while the voice overs sound crystal clear during cut-scenes, voice samples that occur during the gameplay — Ashley’s cry for help, the crazed taunts of the infected villagers, the merchant’s infamous “What’re ya buyin’?” line — still sound tinny and distant. This was acceptable last-gen when the audio had to be down-sampled to fit within the limited confines of a disc, but it would’ve been nice if Capcom had remastered the audio to match the new clarity of the visuals.
Despite being promoted as the premiere offering in Capcom’s celebration of the series’ 15 year anniversary, RE4 is strangely devoid of extra or new content. Fans who took a chance on the Wii version of RE4 or the Gold version of RE5 on PS3 know how much better these games play with the Wii-mote or the PS Move: the pointer based controls of those games allowed for a level of aiming precision that you can usually only get via a mouse on a PC game, and both games benefited as a result of the new motion controls. It was one of the rare instances where motion controls actually improved a hardcore gaming experience, and it’s a shame that Capcom didn’t see fit to add in PS Move support to the PS3 version of this game. Now, obviously the game was originally designed to be played with a traditional controller, so it still plays fine, but the option to play with motion controls would’ve been nice.
Likewise, there’s no new bonus content within the game either. The game still has all the extras that appeared on the PS2 and Wii ports of the game: the short “Assignment Ada” bonus mission, the extra costumes and weapons, “The Mercenaries” score based minigame, etc… But you still have to beat the game on normal difficulty to unlock these special features. While that won’t bother newbies, if you’re a fan of the series (like me, and probably the intended audience of this HD re-release,) then you’ve likely played through this game at least one or two times before, and having to re-unlock all the extras, as well as even the harder difficulty modes, feels like a cop-out on Capcom’s part.
But really, despite some technical hiccups and some questionable design omissions, RE4 is still a fantastic game, and even though I’ve played through this game a half dozen times before, I didn’t mind having to go through it all again, simply because it’s such a joy to play. It was the last game in the series that RE creator Shinji Mikami worked on, and the level of care and thought that went into every aspect of the game still manages to show through, despite the game’s age. Whether you’re like me and have been a fan of the series since the original game on the PS1 and have played every game in the series (multiple times through,) or if you’re new to the game and simply want to know what all the hype is about, you owe it to yourself to play Resident Evil 4 through to completion. It was, and continues to be, simply one of the most satisfying games you will ever play.
Final Score: 9/10