From zero to hero.
You barricade yourself inside the house; fists bang against the walls, the groans and yells of the villagers piercing through, and the sound of the chainsaw grinding against the door cuts above everything else. All you can do is find a corner to make your stand, and when the barricades give way and the villagers pour through, all that’s left is to fire what bullets you still have.
These are the moments that many of us look fondly back on when we think of Resident Evil 4. Many of us, but not me.
Because, while Resident Evil 5 & 6 were swept under the rug or spoken about only in hushed whispers as games that had pushed a beloved series to the brink, Resident Evil 4 has constantly been held as one of – if not the – best games in the series. Though so much of what happened with Resident Evil 4 paved the way for the shenanigans that unfolded in the next two games, in my humble opinion, Resident Evil 4 broke the series – for a while – and here’s how.
So much was made of the camera change in RE4; with the originally fixed point perspectives seemingly a thing of the past, RE4 switched over to a free-roaming, over the shoulder perspective. While the fixed point view served to freak players out as they stumbled toward the camera, with only the sounds of gurgled zombie moans and squidgy steps cluing you into what was coming, RE4 gave us total control over what we saw. Having the player view everything from over the shoulder of now super-cop Leon Kennedy may have offered more fluid gameplay, but it lost that sense of imminence, of forcing the player to blunder into the unknown, And like so much of RE4, the problem is one of control; more specifically, the player is given too much of it.
And with that fancy new perspective, we got a whole new environment, and more importantly, a shift in its design. RE4 takes you to the exotic shores of a rural Spain – an admittedly bleak and washed out one – still, so long Raccoon City. Gone were the claustrophobic corridors of mansions or those created in the city from the debris of the zom-pocalypse. Instead, we were thrown into huge open areas, allowing you to manipulate where enemies went, giving you the chance to carry out sweeps of areas if you had a rifle, picking off villagers from afar before throwing your weight around in close combat. So much was lost in this choice of design, taking away the feeling of being closed in, every run-in carrying that threat of dying, replaced instead with the markings of an arcade beat ’em up that demonstrates how and why Devil May Cry became a game spun-off from the Resi series.
The huge reveals of new areas in RE4 played a significant role as well; on the surface, it’s one that lays out the path you need to take, but think back to the original trilogy of Resident Evil. What I remember as a child is never knowing where to turnor watching my brothers trying to remember what they had to do. In RE4, that was never an issue; you’re simply following the paths laid out before you. Was it a more user-friendly design? Sure, but does it carry the same balance of irritation and nervousness that the other Resident Evil games carried? Not one bit.
But why would you be afraid of whatever RE4 throws at you when you’re controlling Leon “Cowboy,” Kennedy? The early impressions of the Resident Evil 2 Remake have applauded the move to make rookie cop Leon a vulnerable character, one who has to reassure himself as he wanders through dark corridors. And even the original Resident Evil 2 had Leon carry himself as a naïve officer (fair enough, his first day was a bit of a tough one). But RE4’s Leon? This man’s seen everything and has the quick wit to defuse any inkling of fear or acknowledgement of the severity of the situation he’s in.
Having quickly risen through the ranks of the job, Leon is now a part of a team who protects the President. A choice that kind of ignores the type of characters we’ve had in previous games – ordinary officers or those who are part of Raccoon City’s non-uniform SWAT team. But hey, whatever works. Anyway, Leon is the big man on campus and he’s got the skills to prove it. And as you carry out your one-man mission in RE4, roundhousing villagers, telling Ingrid Hunnigan that you were “a little tied up,” after escaping the clutches of an infected, outrunning boulders, and somersaulting through windows before executing a perfect landing, it’s impossible to feel vulnerable in RE4.
Compare that unflappable super-cop with the chaos of the original game that saw your team ripped apart immediately, or the hapless journey of Leon and Claire in RE2 which saw every attempt to save someone (apart from a child) fail, and then there’s Resident Evil 3 with Jill’s desperation in the opening moments, barely surviving as the game begins before watching any companion she runs into getting torn apart one way or another. Leon isn’t a horror character, he’s an action hero. RE4 doesn’t do desperation or vulnerability, because Leon is always in control – the player is always in control, and so that sense of dread dissipates. So, it’s no wonder that Chris Redfield is able to punch boulders into lava pits or that Jake is able to lead a terrifying monster on a merry chase around the world, stopping only to fire off terrible jokes. It’s because Leon’s ascension to a superhero gave way to this generic bravado, and the series suffered in its loss of the shit-scared protagonist.
I’m not suggesting that Resident Evil 4 is a bad game or even that it’s not a scary game – because there are a handful of genuinely chilling moments hidden beneath all the action. It was far more than a good Resident Evil game, it was a title that demonstrated how the Gamecube could rival the new money PlayStation and Xbox – and the fact that it’s been ported on to everything since its initial Nintendo exclusivity proves how popular the game still is today.
And while RE4 showed how Capcom was willing to adapt the core principles of the game, it was a big shift for the series, and new isn’t always better. RE4 paved the way for the action-heavy games that followed, moving the series away from horror and into the straight to television action film genre. Capcom managed to shake the series back to life with Resident Evil 7, changing up the tone and perspective in a devilishly fresh way that pushed players back into that helpless state, but it was RE4 that was the catalyst for the series to fall into disarray in the first place.
What the majority of Resident Evil games have always done well – apart from telling ludicrous stories – is make you earn that feeling of control. When RE7 has you running around salt mines in the final third, machine gunning down mold monsters, it’s not a feeling of invincibility you carry, it’s an outlet of frustration that comes after having been so powerless for so long. And that feeling of earning your chance to tear through monsters with a machine gun or shooting Tyrant with a rocket launcher will always trump the quick-witted action hero story. So yes, Resident Evil 4 broke the series for a little while, but it looks like we’ve gone full circle if RE7 and the Resident Evil 2 Remake are anything to go by; here’s to more of the same.