The worst thing about Resident Evil 4 on the PlayStation 2 is that you have to beat it again to get to the new stuff. That's not exactly a trial, but it is a little frustrating for those of us who played the GameCube version to death.
If you've been waiting for this version, Resident Evil 4 is a long-overdue evolution of the flagship series of survival horror. It keeps a lot of the trappings of the Resident Evil series--characters, plotlines, healing items, ammunition conservation, giant monsters who need blasted with large guns--but reinvents the game as a rock-hard action shooter.
Six years ago, Leon Kennedy was one of a handful of survivors of the disaster that destroyed Raccoon City, and the only survivor of the Raccoon City police department. Since then, he's become an agent of the U.S. government, and the Umbrella corporation has been destroyed. After causing decades of horror and misery, Umbrella was defeated by canny manipulation of the stock market; its prices crashed, and the corporation had to close its doors.
Leon's new job is to serve as a bodyguard for the President's family. Just before he's to go on duty, some unknown agency kidnaps Ashley Graham, the President's daughter. In response to an anonymous tip, Leon goes to an isolated village in Spain, where the inhabitants attack him on sight.
The next fifteen to twenty hours represent one of the fiercest challenges of this console generation. Seriously, this is hardcore action gaming at its finest, and repeated playthroughs have only made me appreciate its design all the more. As Leon, you'll take on hundreds of possessed villagers, horrifying monsters, possessed animals, and gun-wielding mercenaries, en route to a final showdown with the mutated master of a doomsday cult.
It's not that Capcom changed the control scheme. A lot of people say that, and it's wrong. What they did was change the camera angle. Instead of using pre-rendered backgrounds with a fixed camera, Resident Evil 4 is now a third-person shooter with the camera permanently locked just behind Leon's shoulder. You still move like a tank, just as in past Resident Evil games, but the new camera angle makes the control scheme seem more intuitive for many players.
At the same time, you're now allowed to freely aim anywhere on the screen once Leon's readied a weapon, with the help of a handy laser sight. You can go for headshots, kneecap an enemy to slow him down, shoot thrown weapons out of the air, or wing a guy to make him drop his knife or torch. The system would arguably be improved by the ability to ready a weapon while moving, or the addition of a strafe button, but it's still workable and useful.
Certain tasks in the game are carried out with the use of context-sensitive buttons, allowing you to hop fences, jump out windows, kick stunned enemies (or deliver a crowd-pleasing, headcrushing suplex), and kick doors open, among a host of other things. At certain points, you'll also need to hit buttons in rapid sequence to avoid incoming attacks; hit the right buttons, and Leon will obligingly dodge out of the way of whatever's trying to kick his face in. Leon's more agile and has more tricks in his arsenal than ever before, and you'll need them all to win against the hordes of not-zombies that'll confront you at every turn.
Resident Evil 4 is, essentially, all about the control of the space around you. You're almost always outnumbered, but your major advantages are firepower, range, and the versatility of Leon's arsenal. You can use a shotgun to clear a room, peg distant opponents with a sniper rifle, close off an avenue of approach with fire grenades, and cut the legs out from underneath an entire crowd of enemies with submachinegun fire, just to name a few of your tactical options. Old-school Resident Evil players will need some time to adjust to this, but once you do, you'll find it nearly impossible to go back to the older games.
The PlayStation 2 version of Resident Evil 4 is remarkably faithful to the GameCube original. The graphics are, of course, worse; everything's much darker and fuzzier, like you're playing the 'Cube version through a layer of thin black cloth. The sound's a little worse, but there's none of the predicted slowdown or flicker. There are plenty of "jaggies," though, and there's occasionally an appalling amount of popup, like when you're driving across the lake.
If you're new to the game, you'll probably be amazed by the graphics. The PS2's old, but the right team can still extort some amazing effects out of it, and whoever worked on this is definitely the right team.
All told, Capcom's done an amazing job of porting the game to the PS2, without falling prey to any of the usual problems. It's not as pretty as it was on the 'Cube, but it's still fun.
The big reason for enormous Resident Evil dorks like me to buy the game only kicks in after you win it. Beating RE4 unlocks a five-chapter secondary scenario starring Ada Wong, entitled Separate Ways. While Separate Ways is about 80% recycled material--Ada uses Leon's weapons, visits old areas, and fights most of the same enemies--it's a new take on the same mission, and sheds light on parts of the storyline that were previously unclear or simply bizarre. It recasts the entire game in a new light, and sets up a new status quo for the Resident Evil storyline.
You can also play through Assignment: Ada, just as with the 'Cube version, which pits Ada against a horde of Ganados in the island facility from the second half of the main game; and the Mercenaries minigame, where you take on an infinite horde of enemies to score points and unlock the powerful Handcannon.
If you've got an extra ten bucks to throw at your purchase, you can get the limited-edition game, which comes in a cool metal case with a few extras. The making-of DVD's a nice touch, as is the special Ada Wong laser cell, but the Brady Games pamphlet's a waste of paper. It purports to tell the story of the series up until now, but gets an appalling number of the facts wrong. (I am a Resident Evil
horrible dork expert. I know these things. Trust in my wisdom.)
If you're a horror fan or an action gamer, you've honestly got no excuse; Resident Evil 4 is your kind of title. You'll need to bring your A game, as this is unapologetically difficult, but you'll be rewarded for your effort with one of the most polished shooters of this console generation.