Las Plagas Laggard
Playing the legendary Resident Evil 4 for the first time in 2019
I’m a newcomer to Capcom’s popular survival horror franchise, despite growing up during the height of their popularity in the late-1990s. The first three core instalments of Resident Evil used pre-rendered backdrops and fixed camera angles, which always frustrated me when playing on the original PlayStation. It just wasn’t the experience I wanted from a game like that. It wasn’t until 2017’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard that I started to reconsider my feelings for this saga, although that sequel was something of an outlier — as it was the only version with a first-person-shooter perspective designed for the PSVR. But, earlier this year, the buzz about Resident Evil 2's remake resulted in an impulse purchase, and I loved it. The more user-friendly ‘over-the-shoulder’ third-person perspective and immersive soundscape, made me desperate for another ‘Ressy’ fix.
The best choice for more of the Resident Evil experience appeared to be the fourth instalment, first released for the GameCube and PlayStation 2 in 2005. My research into the franchise revealed that Resident Evil 5 and 6 weren’t well-received by fans, but Resident Evil 4 seemed to be the nexus point between what RE was and would eventually become (well, until RE7 effectively reset the clock and went back to basics). In 2005, RE4 ditched the game’s fixed cameras for a more engaging third-person perspective and upped the arcade-style violent action, making it the best option for someone who’d just lost weeks of their social life to the modernised RE2 on PS4.
In RE4, you once again control Leon S. Kennedy (RE2's rookie cop, now a US government agent), who’s been sent on a mission to rural Spain to rescue the President’s daughter, Ashley Graham. It turns out she’s kidnapped by a bizarre cult — the Los Illuminados — who have infected the locals with mind-controlling parasites called Las Plagas. The premise sounds like a cheesy action B Movie, but after claustrophobia and tension of creeping around a police station and underground laboratories in RE2, I was excited to play something similar but more expansive.
Resident Evil 4 was ported to the PS4 in 2016 with a high-definition upgrade and is now relatively cheap to buy. I was giddy with excitement to get another fix of this universe, weeks after completing RE2’s remake, but my elation was shortlived when it became clear RE4 is very much a product of its time. 2005 doesn’t seem that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but RE2’s once-game-changing third-person perspective felt alien to a casual gamer like me.
Put simply: the controls are god-awful.
Commonly described as ‘tank controls’, it didn’t feel natural or intuitive to move Leon around the environment. The camera hovers over his right shoulder, somewhat anchored to that position. These days, it’s typical for one joystick to have total control over the camera, while another steers your character around. It takes a bit of skill to work them in tandem, but you appreciate the fluidity of what’s possible when it clicks. RE4 doesn’t work like that, which means Leon feels “locked” with the camera pivoting from behind, making it difficult to move him around quickly or even see enemies within attacking distance on your right. Added to this, you need to hold down ‘X’ to make Leon run, which doesn’t come as naturally as simply pushing the joystick down harder.
For almost an hour after sitting down to play RE4, I struggled to do simple things that were second-nature with RE2’s remake. The controls have three different setups, but none are perfect. It quickly drained my enthusiasm for the game, which I turned off in frustration numerous times after dying during encounters that wouldn’t have caused a sweat if the camera was more manoeuvrable. It felt like playing with one hand tied behind your back.
The solution was simple: perseverance. I won’t ever come around to loving RE4’s controls, but my brain’s neurons created new pathways and, over a day or so, I grew more comfortable with how RE4 worked. I could even see some virtues with how the controls function, as they create an added level of panic when you’re blindsided by enemies approaching from the right or directly behind. It’s also not so easy to retreat without getting into a tangle. You also can’t move and shoot simultaneously, so often have to run away to find a better angle to squeeze off some life-saving gunshots, having to judge the distance and time it will take for enemies to reach you.
The difficulties baked into RE4 lend it a steeper learning curve for modern gamers who never played many games before now, or have forgotten how things used to be. Veteran gamers will likely take a few minutes to adjust to how their fingers used to flow across their Dual-Shocks.
Once “mastered”, and I use that term loosely because there was never really a point where the controls aren’t an unfortunate burden to me breezing through every level (even swiping at crates with a knife to break them is a pain), Resident Evil 4 began to reveal its strengths and why it was such so popular purchase 14 years ago. And even now, there are those who claim it’s one of the best video games ever made.
Action > puzzling
Resident Evil 4 is considered a turning point for Capcom’s veteran franchise because it expanded the horizon beyond the zombie-infested Raccoon City to explore other types of horror scenarios and tropes. This story now takes place in the Spanish countryside and the environments, therefore, have a different flavour. It begins with muddy villages and church graveyards, before moving into enormous medieval castles and ancient ruins. There’s a surprising variety of places to explore, which makes RE2 look positively small in scope with less complex level designs.
The trade-off with RE4 is that it’s less tense and cerebral. One of the elements I enjoyed with RE2 was the puzzles, as most rooms had locked doors or safes that could only be opened by finding various codes or artefacts. RE4 doesn’t totally abandon that idea, but there are considerably fewer puzzles and it’s a more linear shoot-’em-up from start to finish. You need to find the occasional key or complete a puzzle to open something, but the emphasis is more on the fun of exploration and prolific violence. Indeed, there’s so much ammo to collect and guns to wield that it sometimes played more like Doom or Quake.
Shooting zombies was fun but also dangerous in RE2, as it would be in real life to approach the undead. In contrast, RE4 keeps the sense of danger but it’s rewarding to dive headfirst into situations and blow away enemies. Heads explode with satisfying squelches, bodies are thrown into the middle-distance with close-quarter gunshots, and you can even get physical with a follow-up roundhouse kick after shooting someone in the face. (The fact RE2 wouldn’t let players punch and kick things stands out even more now.)
Enemies, enemies, enemies!
One area RE4 eclipses the RE2 remake is with the sheer variety of enemies and bosses. They don’t move as intelligently as one expects these days (often lurking around and following set patterns of behaviour that are often stupid), and neither do they suffer accurate body damage (one of the great delights of RE2’s zombie encounters), but there are so many different types of enemy that it keeps the game exciting to keep playing and discover more variations.
Things start relatively sedate with farmers and villagers armed with pitchforks and dynamite, before getting a bit tricker with chainsaw-wielding maniacs with sackcloth over their heads, and then things get crazier and more insane. There are Lord of the Rings-style giants (El Gigante), knights in armour (Armadura), zombie wolves that sprout tentacles like something from The Thing (Colmillos), a creature that can extend spikes from its body (Iron Maidens), skin-crawling beings called Regenerators that can heal themselves (meaning you need to use an infrared scope to shoot the parasites inside them to defeat them), and that’s not even mentioning the exciting big bosses.
There are also some enjoyable human characters with questionable motives like enigmatic Ada Wong (who returns from RE2) and suave Spaniard Luis Sera — who you get to essentially reenact Evil Dead with inside a cabin with infected villagers pouring in through windows. One of my favourite characters was the diminutive Ramon Salazar, son of the chief villain Osmund Saddler, whose voice is so cartoonishly evil it’s a pleasure on its own. One level where you have to defeat Jack Krauser, an elite soldier who worked with Leon but has gone rogue, is also surprisingly intense and benefits from more great vocal talent.
Sometimes the fact this is an older game actually worked in its favour, as it can be frustrating when today’s digital characters feature such great AI that you can’t easily outsmart them. In RE4, it was sometimes invaluable to be able to think around the AI’s limitations and find loopholes in how villain types behaved — although the pesky way some characters run at you, only to stop and approach more cautiously, can be more unsettling than expected.
Merchant of menace
This game is pretty bizarre, but one of the most amusing additions is the mysterious Merchant. In RE4, you purchase or upgrade equipment and weapons whenever you encounter the Merchant, who speaks with a stereotypical Cockney accent. He’s an amusing oddity and an instant cult classic of video game side characters. In some ways, the Merchant breaks the illusion of this taking place in anything close to the “real world”, as there’s no plausible excuse for his many appearances to sell goods. But as the game becomes more deranged, you stop poking holes in the logic and are just grateful to see him because he tends to signal the imminent end of a level. Or a big boss fight. Throughout the game, you collect pesetas when killing some enemies, or finding coins in cupboards, but can also sell the Merchant any jewellery and treasures you collect and combine along the way.
This adds a different dynamic to the gameplay compared to RE2. In that game, it was all about careful item management in your trunks because you can’t physically carry everything with you. Here, you still have finite space to carry things, but nowhere to keep items as an ‘overflow’. You’re always having to buy and sell stuff, or decide what core weapons to stick with and keep upgrading with the cash you find during each level. It may be tempting to save up a fortune for a rocket launcher, but it’s going to take up considerable inventory space that could have contained some energy-giving herbs or first aid sprays.
I do prefer the simpler idea with the trunks, which RE7 returned to, but interacting with the Merchant is always fun and sometimes saved my skin on a few occasions. Quite a few levels were impossible to complete with the weapons and quantity of ammo I had at my disposal, but backtracking to the Merchant to buy, say, a Mine Thrower would see me through with just a few shots. However, there are times when bosses are disappointingly easy to defeat because you’ve managed to buy the deadlier weapons. The final encounter with Osmund Saddler in his bestial form suffered from this the most, as what should have been a painstaking cat-and-mouse game devolved into me using a half-dozen mines to get the job done in half the time.
There are some instances when RE4 wilts under modern scrutiny, of course. The portrayal of women here… isn’t great. Ada Wong is a cool and proficient character, but the camera often lingers a little too much on her long legs and the improbably high-cut dress she’s wearing in dirty courtyards. But at least she’s a strong woman who keeps Leon on the backfoot and is somewhat counterbalanced by Luis Sera — who’s Antonio Banderas to her Angelina Jolie.
The bigger problem is Ashley Graham, who falls into the damsel-in-distress trope with a colossal thud. It’s one thing to run with the cliche of a VIP’s daughter in mortal danger, but RE4 is littered with moments where Ashley’s screeching for help and being thrown over the shoulder of various bad guys with her legs kicking. There’s also a very unfortunate game mechanic where, occasionally, Ashley obediently follows you around after being rescued, which means you have buttons that can tell her to “stay there” or “come” like a dog.
Worse, it’s sometimes essential to hide Ashley to keep her safe while you deal with enemies that might easily injure her, so Leon has to order Ashley to jump inside a trunk until the danger passes. Throw in Ashley’s “dumb blonde” characterisation and kilt miniskirt, and this is a character that will definitely anger feminists. The only upside is there’s an area where you get to play as Ashley and her level is more about stealth and puzzle-solving, to aide the bigger mission and help Leon, but it’s a shame that’s 10% of her otherwise misogynistic treatment.
The best thing about Resident Evil 4 is how it offers significant bang for your buck. There are five “chapters”, a total of 24 levels, and each one can take some time to get through. I’m not an expert with these types of games and took my time but, on normal difficulty, I got 20 hours’ worth of entertainment from RE4. That’s great. It also doesn’t get too repetitive because there are certain moments that turn into more arcade-style romps, like a sequence where you have to harpoon a lake monster from inside a speedboat, or a very difficult level aboard a mine cart rolling through tunnels with enemies jumping aboard and trying to attack you! The gameplay rarely gets stuck in a rut, as there’s always a new style of play required to get through certain areas, or a deadlier enemy makes their debut.
Resident Evil 4 is a stupendously entertaining video game 14 years after its release, despite how badly dated its control system feels today. They’re a definite barrier to pick-up-and-play success in 2019, but nothing a “remake” couldn’t fix if Capcom is going to continue that practice. Subsequent video games inspired by RE4 perfected certain aspects of what this game blazed a trail for, but the complex level design and proliferation of memorable enemies remain strong today.