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Resident Evil 4: The 15th Anniversary of Horror Reborn

Resident Evil 4 is a fantastic game, I’m glad we’re all in agreement on that, but can you believe that it’s already fifteen years old? The Resident Evil franchise got its start here in the west on March 30th of 1996 when it landed in North America and started to make waves with its, at the time, unique take on the horror formula. Players were thrown into the Spencer Mansion, and not long after that, they come face to face with their very first Zombie, brought back to life through the twisted biological wiles of the Tyrant Virus.

This set the scene for quite a while, with Racoon city playing host to a Zombie uprising and the Nemesis-T Type series of bioweapons joining the fun for good measure. The games were good, fun times were had, and Resident Evil was safely secured as a household name in the realm of gaming. But as the years went by and gaming took steps forward, Resident Evil began to feel old and clunky, heavy and unresponsive. Thus began a long and complicated development cycle that saw Resident Evil take on a number of forms as various builds came in and out of existence as Capcom searched for the new Resident Evil.

One of these builds involved a near superhuman character by the name of Tony, but sadly his game wasn’t to be. But its fixed camera angles and gameplay evidently impressed Shinji Mikami, because even though it was too far removed from the Resident Evil formula, Tony and his not-to-be Resident Evil game eventually went on to become the one and only Dante from Devil May Cry.

Eventually, however, after many trials and tribulations, including a weird and botched period of exclusivity with Nintendo, we got our new Resident Evil game, and what a game it was. Resident Evil 4 exploded out of the gates on the back of a tremendously powerful PR push from both Capcom and video game media outlets. You couldn’t open a video game magazine in 2005 without seeing this image and a text splash telling you about how the new Resident Evil was the most brutal and terrifying game in existence. This was of course hyperbolic, but the game really did deliver on a new level of violence for Resident Evil.

Bringing the gameplay down to the players level, Resident Evil 4 scrapped the usual fixed camera angles that defined so many horror titles of the era and instead made use of an all new over the shoulder camera that put you front and center. This new over the shoulder camera angle brought changes to how the game worked at a fundamental level, with the entire game taking place in 3D space that you could walk around and investigate at will, instead of being railroaded through areas only seeing what the camera wanted you to see.

Gunplay became something of a new fascination for players thanks to the red dot sight that was used in conjunction with the over the shoulder camera. Drawing a weapon (other than your knife or a scoped weapon) would project a red dot onto the target, meaning that for the very first time, you had true control over your aim. This made headshots, shots to the limbs, disarming shots, and firearms-based puzzle solving (an absurd term) viable parts of gameplay.

While Gunplay was greatly improved, so too was your ability to interact with enemies. Should you blow out an enemies knee and cause them to stumble, you could dash forward for a contextual button prompt that would result in you lashing out with a stiff kick, or lifting this enemy and pile driving them head-shatteringly into the ground. You could also kick down ladders and shoot enemies off ladders to buy yourself some time and get some much needed space before opening up on the enemies again.

Such an assault would normally seem like overkill for mere Zombies, but Resident Evil 4 had moved away from that particular flesh hungry enemy archetype in favour of a new original creation. Gone were the Zombies of Umbrella; we were now battling Las Plagas, The Plagues. This new parasitic life form gave control over the masses to whoever had the control parasite, but it also gave unnatural survivability to some, while greatly enhancing the physical attributes of others by inducing massive mutation. This was reflected in-game in a number of ways, but one of the most notable features of a Plaga infested host was their predilection towards spouting a weaponized parasitic head, should you destroy their head with gunfire. This, of course, changed how gunfights played out as you no longer always wanted to fire at the head, lest you spend more ammo trying to bring down the enraged parasite, but a quick solution could be found in the form of a Flash Bang hand grenade that would instantly kill an exposed parasites due to their weakness to light.

Our main character, who basically becomes the franchise poster boy, Leon Kennedy returns to take center stage and brings with him an all new sense of cheesy attitude. In fact, Resident Evil 4 is steeped up to its neck with self-aware and cheesy humor, something that you either love or you hate. I’m talking lines like,

Salazar – “So, maybe you have nine lives… But it doesn’t matter now, Mr. Kennedy! I have sent my right hand to dispose of you.”

Leon – “Your right hand comes off?” 

Resident Evil 4 changed so many of the horror conventions that its predecessors established that it’s still regarded as a masterpiece of a game. While there are parts of the game that drag on a bit too long, and some truly awful story telling in places, the game itself and how it plays has held up remarkably well over the years, securing it multiple re-releases and even remastered ports on a wide array of systems.

Frankly speaking, if you haven’t played Resident Evil 4, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The game has aged tremendously well and is bound to be available on whichever system you choose to game on. Play it because it’s great, or at the very least, play it to inform yourself on the conversation that enters around it, because for good or ill, Resident Evil 4 changed the way Resident Evil worked forever.