I purchased Resident Evil 4 at the same time as Kessen III (yay for tiny windfalls) and I’ve been playing that steadily since. I haven’t paid attention to the multipage official threads for the game on the usual forums, but I did catch wind of lots of talk about it being “revolutionary” and so on. Compared to the rest of the series and with the game’s current peers, it seems more to me that RE has finally caught up with the times, and is much better off for it.
The play experience reminds me of RE2 (I’ve previously played PC RE1 and N64 RE2, with those nice absolute controls) and has the same sort of slightly puzzle-ish gameflow, but everything is much more fleshed-out and the controls are much more transparent and nice to deal with. The biggest and most important changes I can see in the game’s minute-to-minute operation, aside from the obvious perspective change, are the way item interaction is handled, the new pseudo-first-person weapon-aiming, and the way the game has been broken out of its predecessors’ scripted, linear framework.
One of the things that constantly pulled me out of the experience in previous RE games was the “button-mash drag” – pushing up against a surface and running along it while pressing the action button repeatedly in order to try to find hidden items. This doesn’t exist in RE4, partly because the perspective allows the player more granular control over his or her actions, and mostly because there are many more visual clues as to the locations of items now. The most obvious one is that when an enemy drops an item, it’s surrounded by a vertical beam of light, marking its position and type (whitish beam for treasures, yellowish beam for ammunition). In addition, many items are now found in breakable boxes and barrels, and each of these seems to be “made” from the same unstained pine, which makes recognition easy. There are still items hidden in cabinets, lockers, and so on, but these are easier to recognize than ever: when you see one of them, you’ll know you can open it and you’ll feel the need to do so immediately.
RE has used an R-trigger to aim and a face button to fire since the beginning of the series, but the way it’s set up now feels very much like the first-person aiming in Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3. The new viewpoint turns an element of guesswork in previous games (hoping your gun is locked onto the right zombie, hoping the up-aiming you’re doing will hit its head) into an element of skill that adds a lot of visceral fun to the game. Damage-mapping is very well-done; besides the classic headshot you can shoot an enemy in the leg to make him trip and fall, shoot him in the arm to disarm him, or go for the vitals shot that can kill straightaway with some weapons (something that doesn’t happen very often with MGS’s armor-wearing generic troopers). It adds a nice dynamic element to a series whose action has often felt very canned and limited.
What also contributes to this is the way many of RE4′s setpieces are constructed so that they can play out in many different ways, depending on the player’s inclination and ingenuity. For example, in the first village areas, the player can stick to the back alleys and take out attackers one by one (as I did – I wasn’t thinking very far beyond “shoot, shoot, shoot”) – or can hole up on the second floor of one of the ramshackle homes, Night of the Living Dead-style. This is another similar approach to what was taken with MGS3 – while the game still progresses in an overall linear fashion, individual situations can play out nonlinearly and can be different on each playthrough. The cinematic nature of the game has been preserved in spades, but the fact that they’ve maintained that while providing so much more to do, see, find, and interact with (along with the strides made with MGS3) gives me great hope for these cinematic genres that were previously so aggressively noninteractive.
And while RE4 is not a difficult game by any stretch of the term, I do look forward to trying out the hidden, arcadey Mercenaries game and to trying the game proper on higher difficulties. I think the mechanics are strong enough that if the game was to demand more skill and performance out of me, I would enjoy the game just that much more.
On a side note: I don’t know if it’s just because I don’t play very many explicitly violent games, but RE4′s graphic deaths are often pretty disturbing to me. I’ve hardly seen violence like that portrayed so realistically in a game, and the effect is possibly even more convincing than movie gore, as the techniques used to portray the violence and death are consistent with the rest of the game’s engine. So much for that desensitization the media says we’re all going through, I guess!