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Don’t Lose Your Head: Revisiting Resident Evil 4

November 21, 2012

There’s been a lot of talk surrounding ‘favourite games’ in the WeHave9Minutes office recently. There’s also been a lot of talk about why we don’t actually have an office, but that’s besides the point.

As I stretch backwards in time, scraping through the medley of games I’ve owned/played or deeply deeply desired there are a few that, for me, really stand out. But I’m going to give a disclaimer, right here and now: they’re my favourite games. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not saying they deserve medals as the all-time greats, but you know what? I like them.

When it came to writing this article, two sprang immediately to mind. Resident Evil 4 pipped F-Zero GX to the post, but only on one count: I had to choose which I’d like to play through again. Both are worthy of a go, but I couldn’t stomach playing through the start of F-Zero again, purely on account of the astronomical levels of magnitude through which the game improves as you progress.

So, Resi 4. Let’s do this.

I’ll make a couple of things clear from the outset: I was very late in getting a console, I suppose I was about 16. Resident Evil 4 was THE main reason that I bought a Gamecube and it has some of my favourite moments in gaming tagged onto it. And finally, as it was one of my first console games, it will probably always hold a special place in my heart.

These are all pretty substantial things to live up to, playing it again so many years later. I did pick up the Wii version in 2007 but, five years later (seven for the NGC version), what am I going to feel?

I load up. I’m going for easy mode for a quick play-through, with regular costumes (not that wardrobe should really be my main concern – but it is). Straight away I’m flooded with memories; the opening cinematic is as dull as it was back in 2005 but I understand why it’s there: I’m here to find the president’s daughter. No problem. The cinematic finishes and I’m pottering around the countryside in ‘rural Europe’, looking for signs of … life, I guess. There’s the house. There’s the guy inside. I remember this.

I also suddenly realise that the cinematic isn’t actually over yet. I’m constantly peppered by micro-cinematics as I wander along, reminding me of why the game gripped me so much in the first place: it’s filmic. Simple as that.

The landscape surrounding me right from the outset has a toned-down quality about it. Nothing’s vibrant, nothing’s bright. The sky is overcast, the locals are dirty, the buildings are dilapidated. It all adds up to a feeling, a sense of being in a place. And I must say, it’s exceptionally well-executed.

Making my way towards the main village (after dispatching one or two of the locals with unreasonable force) I recall one of the most heart pounding moments of the game is coming. A short survey of the village and … no, sod it, I’ll just shoot things. A few more locals taken care of and then it happens: the vrm vrm vrm of a chainsaw firing up.

Something about the chainsaw wielding nutters of Resident Evil 4 still sends a shiver up my spine. It doesn’t take me long to recall why, as a poorly timed reload sees me losing my head in a ridiculously over-styled geyser of gore. The deaths are always horrible. You get desensitised after a while, certainly, but it makes the threat of ‘dying’ something a little more serious. It also doesn’t help that the music turns into a dirge-like thud, reminiscent of a racing heart, every time there’s an encounter.

Cattle by name, inhumanly bloodthirsty plague-carriers by nature.

Honestly, the relief when you’ve dispatched the last enemy and the music disappears is palpable. The same thing happens when meeting with the ‘mysterious stranger’ now and again (the shop keeper, if you will), or reaching save locations. The chilled out music in these areas gives you a real sense of peace. You know there’s no imminent danger. You can calm down, relax, have a bath.

The score is effortless. In all honesty, I’ve not listened to it as ‘music’ before and I must say, I appreciate it. It just works. It’s moody, it’s fitting and often, it’s absent, making musical moments a little treasure or a terrifying ordeal.

As I continue on my merry way, it doesn’t take long to get into one of the aspects that makes this game feel so much like a continuous cinematic. Quick Time Events. A recent article on QTEs was actually what prompted me to give Resi 4 another blast and, the more I think about it, the more of them I can remember. The majority of my memories of this game are QTE based. What does that say?

I think it says that the majority of the memorable moments of the game were cinematic or QTE based. The fight with Del Lago (giant fishodile), escaping from various boulders, the QTE fight with Krauser (a fantastic cinematic experience). Nearly all of the bosses have QTE elements in their encounters and, in general, you’ll find yourself mashing something unexpectedly as you’re wandering around. Yes, sometimes it’s a pain and there are a few instances where they suffer from the regular QTE syndrome of having to repeat scenes over and over until you nail the inputs, but on the whole I enjoy them. It’s one more aspect of gameplay that gets the heart racing, and that can only be a good thing in an action thriller.

If I’m honest with myself, the core game play gets fairly same-y, after a while. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, of course, but there are only so many times you can shoot Los Ganados before it becomes second nature. Throwing in the odd few more powerful nasties keeps things fresh, forcing you to begin to rely a lot more on running away than standing your ground.

In fact, the majority of bad guys get shaken up a bit just as it gets boring killing them. Plagas infected Ganados rather than standard, the horrendous Iron maidens rather than the Regeneradors (quite why they felt Regeneradors needed to be scarier still I don’t know), Zealots superseded by Zealot leaders. So yes, they keep it fresh, and me and my increasingly powerful arsenal appreciate that.

This game would be nothing without its monsters. All of the monsters in Resident Evil 4 deserve a mention but the Verdugo will still stand out as one of the more terrifying encounters. Reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien, it’s extremely fast and horribly difficult to kill. The fight takes place in a dimly lit tunnel system adding claustrophobia to the mix as you try to dodge and weave around a thing more claws than beast. But even the horror of the Verdugo is beaten by U-3/IT. The mind that came up with IT is someone who needs a day or two in the sunshine. The mind that came up with the encounter itself is someone who should never be allowed to make videogames again. Perhaps others didn’t find it hard, but trying to get through the encounter with IT (especially on professional mode) was akin to separating sugar from salt. Blindfolded. That is to say, it was pretty tough, yeah.

The word 'prolapse' springs to mind.

Those pretty claws aren’t for slicing the Sunday roast, I can tell you.

The final boss is a triumph of over-zealous monster design, where scary meets absurd and the boundaries of what can or can’t be nestling inside a human body are pushed well beyond their limits.

It’s also not a short fight, giving that final heart-racing tension to a game that keeps you on the edge throughout. And, if I recall correctly, even after that there’s still an escape to be made on the back of a jet-ski, forcing you yet again to nail a serious of manoeuvres as you race through a tunnel to avoid the onrush of an explosion.

It’s safe to say I enjoyed this return to Resident Evil 4. There are so many good points and so few bad that I feel I’ve made this article a little biased. Needless to say my old memories have come into play a lot whilst revisiting, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. My memories are where the magic resides and I’d be denying myself if I played it completely objectively. And a game where you really feel stuff as you’re playing deserves more than that.

Because that’s what Resident Evil 4 is all about: the adrenaline pumps furiously and then subsides, giving you actual, physiological sensations. Can’t ask for more than that really, can you? That feeling of a game: being taken to somewhere else and dragged through it backwards until you come out the other side, gloriously draped in shimmering entrails, a thin wisp of smoke trailing from your sidearm. Worth every jump-out-of-your-skin moment, every holding-your-breath moment, every sweaty-palmed-controller-throw and every angry word you ever screamed at the screen.

So yeah, that’s why I quite enjoy Resident Evil 4.

Image Links: Wikipedia, Resident Evil Wikia

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