If the first Resident Evil (1996) was the game that defined the modern survival horror genre, then the 2002 REmake was the game that re-affirmed that status. But after six games done in the same style, it became clear that the zombies, static camera angles, tank controls and chronic lack of ammo had become as formulaic as mushrooms and 1-Ups in a Super Mario game. Resident Evil - Code: Veronica had already taken a step in the right direction by making the camera movements more dynamic, but it seemed that more innovation would be welcome to prevent the series from constantly repeating itself. And who better than series creator Shinji Mikami to give his creation a well-deserved polish?
Mikami was bold to abruptly cut the ties with the past, both in form and content (except for a few items such as medicinal herbs). He literally takes the story into new territory by taking us to Europe several years in the future, where Umbrella has all but disappeared, and the T-virus threat has been eliminated. Leon Kennedy, our hero from RE2, is a government agent now, tasked with a secret mission to retrieve the abducted President's daughter Ashley from an unknown religious group. There is also a new pathogen, which means a new deadly threat: no more slow, groaning zombies this time, but quick, agile, intelligent Ganados who can use weapons and coordinate their attacks (as well as sprout lethal appendages). Like the first game, Mikami shows himself the master of effective storytelling with an optimum of narrative tools. He keeps the plot as lean as possible and the game at acceptable length, focussing on action without subplots all over the place, over-the-top twists or drawn-out expositions that some of the previous installments or contemporary games were (in)famous for. It is great to see how the environments seem to tell part of the (back)story, and are almost characters in their own right. The scenery becomes increasingly sinister over time, which perfectly reflects the Inferno-like journey that the story takes, unfolding almost automatically through brief cut-scenes and documents.
RE4 was the big technical revolution for which the GameCube seems to have been invented. Just imagine the graphical splendor of the REmake, only not as statically rendered backgrounds, but in full, glorious 3D. If you're not running for your life, you will admire the great production design, sometimes in all its ugly details. The environments are a mix of indoor and outdoor, varying from large open areas, rustic villages, industrial areas to secluded castles and hospitals, but the difference is that enemies can basically turn up everywhere, and can hunt you down to almost every spot. Quickly getting out of a room doesn't necessarily make you safe, which is emphasized by the lack of opening-door animations (finally, BTW). Although the game's focus on firepower is far more than usual in the series, it is still very unwise to battle the hordes of enemies by firing away in a gung-ho style. Shots must count, and a poor aim may lead to a horrific death by pitchfork, claws or chainsaw, so the survival elements still very much pervade the gameplay. It will also frequently test your nerves; if the constant sense of dread or the unexpected shocks don't get to you, the suspenseful music or Dolby ProLogic sound will. The tension sometimes rises to heights where you hardly dare to continue.
With this abrupt change in gameplay, the ability to control your aim is not only welcome, but very necessary. Some fans say that RE4 was the game that turned survival horror into a dumbed-down shoot 'm up, but I say that it signaled the birth of a new genre: the survival shooter. The legacy of RE4 cannot be overstated: over-the-shoulder camera angles and third-person aiming are now the staples of many other games. And with good reason, because this system just works superbly. The lack of a 'lock-on' system could have been annoying, but free aiming makes hitting a moving enemy not only immensely satisfying, it also invites a lot of experimentation in aiming for certain body parts. Finding out how to most effectively kill or incapacitate enemies, or discovering creative ways to take on some of the larger monsters feels disturbingly good. The Wii version, with its WiiMote aiming, definitely offered the best shooting experience of all the versions I have played.
RE4 was also one of the first games where the gameplay continued well into the cut-scenes. These Quick Time Events prompt the player to press a combination of buttons in order to perform the correct action. This game still uses them in the right way, i.e. sparingly, at opportune moments and with usually enough time to respond, without overrelying on them or frustrating the player like RE5 did. This challenge largely compensates for the absence of real puzzles in the game. Where the previous entries would often test the player's creativity in manipulating found objects to gain access to new areas (sometimes in narratively illogical ways, though), RE4 eliminates most of these challenges. There are still enough fetch-quests, but the game will automatically suggest which item to use at the correct location. A better improvement is the ability to collect money and valuables, which can be exchanged for weapons and helpful objects, making thorough exploration of areas a worthwhile undertaking. Additionally, you can now manage your inventory space and acquire more of it, giving the player more control of collected items (a helpful innovation that was sadly ditched already in RE5).
Are there no downsides then? Sure, but they're almost negligable. As the story progresses, Mikami's tricks tend to become a bit predictable, and the set-up of certain areas (lots of ammo and deathly obstacles around) will already betray what trouble you can expect; the plot is not without its fair share of holes (e.g. if Leon is such a threat, why do they leave him running around all the time?); escorting Ashley to safety can be a drag sometimes (especially if she acts completely helpless and uncooperative), and the Cockney merchant guy whom you can buy stuff from is a bit out of place. Much has been said about the choice to port the game to the PS2, which took a bit away from its grandeur, but I think this is the type of art that should be available to as many gamers as possible. And that version also gave us some great additional content, like the Ada Wong scenario, 'Separate Ways'.
It rarely happens that a sequel completely changes the course of the series, and then becomes the best part of that series, but I am willing to make a case for it here. RE4 managed to re-invigorate the genre by taking its strengths and eliminating its frustrating elements, making for one hell of a scary, exiting and satisfying trip to Hell. I already lost count on the number of replays, and I am still not done yet.