Power to the people! Well, the dead people, at least.
As a card-carrying member of the Zombie Workers Union, Local 317, I must firmly protest Resident Evil 4. Although it is an exceptionally good game, I call on all fellow workers to boycott this title because, despite a history of supporting our cause, Capcom has not employed any zombies in Resident Evil 4, instead replacing them with non-union, living humans.
Okay, so they're still really scary, and they do shamble a bit like zombies, but they also call out warnings and instructions to each other in Spanish, and can even run and dodge when they want to. They'll scurry off and grab a pitchfork or a torch to jab in your face, or they'll find a ladder and use it to hop through a window to outflank you. Definitely not zombie-like.
But despite not being zombies, there's something terrifying in their relentless pursuit. What could possibly motivate all these Spanish peasants to put your destruction ahead of their own lives? It's chilling.
If you have no idea why everyone wants you dead, at least you know why you're there. Resident Evil 4 marks the triumphant return of Leon Kennedy, former RPD rookie cop and Racoon City survivor. Since the destruction of the Umbrella corporation, Leon is now considered a more mysterious "U.S. Agent." When the President's daughter Ashley is kidnapped, Leon is sent to an undisclosed location in Europe (where they speak Spanish) to rescue her.
Faster, more human enemies isn't Resident Evil 4's only change - the classic RE controls, gameplay and viewpoint have experienced a thorough upgrade. The new controls are a bit reminiscent of Silent Hill's, and while less cinematic, they work exceptionally well thanks to their smooth, crisp precision. Presented in widescreen format, RE4 has a slick, over-the-shoulder camera that follows Leon pretty closely. Ready your weapon and the camera zooms in a bit and locks in place, allowing you to aim precisely using your laser sight.
This new scheme perfectly complements RE4's more combat-oriented gameplay; Leon certainly faces a lot more action and fewer puzzles than in his previous adventures. You occasionally still have to find the "Blue Star Emblem" to put in the "Blue Star Emblem Slot" (Note: not a real item. Close your e-mail client, please), but for the most part, the challenge lies in defeating the challenging enemies and some very cool bosses. Ammo, scarce and fiercely conserved in previous editions, is oddly plentiful in Europe.
You'll find plenty of outlets for your ammo as well, because RE4 has quite a few guns to enjoy, from pistols to rocket launchers. Most of these you'll get when you can afford to buy them from the weird gun merchant who mysteriously appears throughout the game to welcome you with his bad cockney accent. He also sells add-ons like scopes and can upgrade weapons for a price.
This system works well because it gives the game some added depth, forcing you to focus on particular weapons of choice. In some ways, though, it doesn't make any damn sense. I just killed 50 villagers, we're surrounded by monsters, and this guy is trying to sell me a gun? The first thing I tried to do was shoot him and take all his guns.
Unfortunately, I couldn't shoot him, so I upgraded a gun and went off to shoot some more monsters with my slightly better weapon. The mere act of doing so is a pleasure thanks to the incredible hit detection and reactions. Shoot creeps in the chest and they stagger back; shoot them in the arm and they get spun to the side a little and may drop their weapon. No matter where they're shot, they react perfectly.
There's a good amount of new environmental interaction during combat, too. The nimble, tool-using humans might be able to hold up ladders, but you can knock them down. Barricade yourself in a house and you can push furniture in the way of doors...or dive through a window and hop over a fence to get away if things are out of hand. It adds some tactical strategy to the combat rather than just aiming for the head and crossing your fingers (which is hard to do at the same time).
The icing on the cake is that you look good doing it all. Resident Evil 4 proves that most game developers don't use the Gamecube to its full potential; that little box packs a lot of horsepower when you give it a challenge. From its realistic textures and eerie environments to its terrific animations and smooth action, this is a beautiful game that rivals the best on any console, period.
The sound is done well, too, at least in parts, with a grating white noise edge again influenced by the Silent Hill series. The enemies, though, get repetitive; you'll soon have memorized some basic Spanish phrases like, "Aqui esta! Mata lo!" I can't tell you how many times I heard that on my last trip to Madrid. Unfortunately, it's the English that really gets troublesome as Resident Evil 4 continues the legacy of preposterously bad voice acting, an issue made even funnier now that the Capcom cast of amateurs is trying to imitate foreign accents. Imagine Carrot Top doing a Cheech Marin impression and you'll get the basic idea.
Which leads to a few other complaints. RE4 is an excellent game that pushes the series in a new, more serious direction, but it only goes half-way there. Oddly enough, the game is best at the beginning when you're in the peasant village, lost, confused and terrified. I love the gritty feel, but the game pulls you back from the terror over and over with old gameplay mechanics that should have been ditched long ago.
Every time you pick up an object, the whole game freezes and switches to a item screen so you can see that you just picked up some ammo. Wait a second, isn't there a monster right behind me? And dragging out the most ancient bit of gameplay of all time, RE4 has you smashing open hundreds and hundreds of crates to find items. I was sick of that years ago; by tried and true measures, the presence of crates marks the moment when game developers have simply run out of ideas.
The ridiculous plot advanced by bad voice-acting keeps interrupting the terror, too. As the locations get more and more over-the-top, the game starts feeling more like Devil May Cry than Resident Evil. While still fun, it's no longer scary. Sure, Resident Evil used to be campy on purpose (that was part of the fun), but RE4 is trying to be more serious at the same time and the mix doesn't quite work. You can't have it both ways.
Also missing is one of the best innovations from Resident Evil 3 - a bit of chaos. RE4 is tightly scripted and every enemy is always in the same place every time, losing some of the organic, edge-of-your-seat tension from the previous game.
However, these are relatively small viral infections in an otherwise fantastic game. The combat gameplay is unrivaled, especially during some of the very creative boss battles. It's also the longest Resident Evil game yet, with 25 - 30 hours of gameplay on two discs along with a ton of unlockables that will make you want to do it all over again.
The real reason not to buy Resident Evil 4 is that it has put hundreds of zombies out of work. In fact, the union has called for an all-out boycott of all Capcom products. Unite with me, fellow undead workers, and despite the fact that we all finally have a great reason to dust off the Gamecube, we can still teach the Man a lesson in Marxist economics. At least until they bribe our union president, Tyrant.