Time Ex­tend

Why Cap­com’s 2005 ac­tion mas­ter­piece is still with­out peer


Why Res­i­dent Evil 4, Cap­com’s 2005 ac­tion mas­ter­piece, is still peer­less more than a decade on

More than ten years later, it still hasn’t been topped: Res­i­dent Evil 4’ s open­ing re­mains the yard­stick by which all oth­ers must be mea­sured. No doubt some will make a com­pelling ar­gu­ment for The Last Of Us, though re­peat plays re­veal how Naughty Dog en­sures the player’s arms and legs are kept firmly in­side the ride at all times. In­side this spar­tan Span­ish vil­lage, how­ever, you’re the one push­ing things for­ward: bar­ri­cad­ing door­ways, leap­ing through win­dows, sprint­ing, spin­ning, shoot­ing, kick­ing. Three, four, five plays later this ex­hil­a­rat­ing fu­sion of script­ing and player-prompted may­hem still has the ca­pac­ity to un­set­tle, from a glimpse of the im­mo­lated corpse of the po­lice­man who drove you here to that first yelp of “un foras­tero”, through to the in­sis­tent revving of a chain­saw mo­tor to the peal­ing bells that cause los gana­dos to (quite lit­er­ally) down tools and trudge off to their place of wor­ship. And then, of course, that won­der­fully ab­surd wise­crack – “Where’s ev­ery­one go­ing? Bingo?” – in­vites you at last to take a breath. Such is the in­ten­sity of the or­deal that it’s a shock to dis­cover that it’s only about five min­utes of game time. It feels like a land­mark mo­ment, and it is. So why, then, given the ad­vance­ments in tech­nol­ogy and game de­sign since, have we seen noth­ing to match it?

The legacy of Shinji Mikami’s opus is re­ported as a sim­ple mat­ter of fact. Its sta­tus as a game of mag­ni­tude and in­flu­ence is never re­ally ques­tioned, but in truth it’s not quite the pi­o­neer it’s of­ten made out to be. Which isn’t to say it hasn’t had an im­pact: its over-the-shoul­der cam­era was im­i­tated by a num­ber of third­per­son shoot­ers dur­ing the fol­low­ing con­sole gen­er­a­tion, with Dead Space in par­tic­u­lar ow­ing Cap­com a fairly sub­stan­tial debt. But it was most vo­cally ac­knowl­edged by Cliff Bleszin­ski dur­ing de­vel­op­ment of Gears Of War, and it was Epic’s game that would go on to be­come the es­tab­lished genre tem­plate. While the two games share a sim­i­lar per­spec­tive, their ap­proach to com­bat is markedly dif­fer­ent. In Resi 4 you’re rarely given the lux­ury of hun­ker­ing down be­hind con­ve­niently placed waisthigh bar­ri­ers; rather, you’re ex­pected to ei­ther pro­vide your own cover or fire from an ex­posed po­si­tion, plant­ing your feet to com­mit to ev­ery shot, rather than cow­er­ing and spo­rad­i­cally pop­ping up to let off a few rounds be­fore roadie-run­ning to the next po­si­tion of rel­a­tive safety. Rarely are you left feel­ing quite as vul­ner­a­ble as Mikami in­sists you should be – even when Leon S. Kennedy hoiks a rocket launcher onto his shoul­der and takes aim.

Play it again now and it takes some time to reac­cli­ma­tise; we’re ac­cus­tomed to be­ing able to move and fire si­mul­ta­ne­ously th­ese days, af­ter all. Resi 4’ s con­trols were de­scribed as a step for­ward for the se­ries but, in ac­tu­al­ity, lit­tle had changed be­yond the cam­era. Leon still moves like a tank, turn­ing on the spot and only step­ping for­ward when you nudge the ana­logue stick up­ward. Rais­ing your weapon, mean­while, gives you no choice but to lit­er­ally stand your ground, en­sur­ing you’ve cre­ated enough space be­tween you and the en­emy to sit through those elab­o­rate (and heart­stop­pingly tense) reload an­i­ma­tions. If it seems to throw out much of what peo­ple loved about its pre­de­ces­sors, its com­bat still creates a sim­i­lar sense of throat-tight­en­ing claus­tro­pho­bia. You may find your­self in more open en­vi­ron­ments than be­fore, but your field of vi­sion – and thus your aim – is still lim­ited. It’s an ap­proach mod­ern play­ers, ac­cus­tomed to greater free­doms in con­trol, will of­ten re­act an­grily against – tellingly, the let­ter­box pre­sen­ta­tion and nar­row FOV of Mikami’s The Evil Within, de­signed to evoke a sim­i­larly op­pres­sive am­biance, was di­vi­sive enough to prompt calls for a bor­der-free op­tion, sub­se­quently patched in by Bethesda.

This isn’t sim­ply a case of chang­ing tastes or emerg­ing trends in game de­sign, how­ever. It’s also a mat­ter of the­matic dif­fer­ences. Main­stream au­di­ences have a greater ap­petite for re­al­ism, which now ex­tends to fan­tasy: the suc­cess of Game Of Thrones, for ex­am­ple, says much about our de­sire for any piece of fic­tion that dab­bles in the su­per­nat­u­ral or oth­er­worldly to some­how re­flect real-world con­cerns. Pulpy pop en­ter­tain­ment like Res­i­dent Evil 4 is

no longer ap­pre­ci­ated by the world’s tastemak­ers, while the hor­ror genre has changed, too – ir­re­vo­ca­bly in­flu­enced by the rise of found-footage and tor­ture porn that’s since gen­er­ated a very dif­fer­ent brand of shocker. In the cur­rent cli­mate, some­thing as campy and silly as this is the kind of passé that has fi­nanciers sweat­ing.

All of which would mat­ter lit­tle if it was still com­mer­cially vi­able. But part of the rea­son RE4 oc­cu­pies a unique place in the medium’s his­tory is it’s now fi­nan­cially pro­hib­i­tive to make a 20-hour sin­gle­player game with so many be­spoke el­e­ments. Dur­ing the sixth con­sole gen­er­a­tion, Cap­com was in a po­si­tion where it could not only in­dulge Mikami’s wishes to in­cor­po­rate hun­dreds of in­di­vid­ual as­sets and sys­tems in a cam­paign of un­ri­valled pac­ing and va­ri­ety, but also scrap two years of de­vel­op­ment on a very dif­fer­ent ver­sion of the game to fa­cil­i­tate this new vi­sion. In 2016, the mar­ket has no place for such whims. The rise of the open-world game is a tes­ta­ment not just to player per­cep­tion of value but to pub­lisher per­cep­tion of ef­fi­ciency: if sand­box games of­ten bear the hall­marks of copy-past­ing, that’s be­cause pro­ce­dural de­sign and other con­tem­po­rary tech­niques al­low de­vel­op­ers to fill larger spa­ces with re­pur­posed con­tent. If a core me­chanic is sat­is­fy­ing enough, most play­ers will be happy to deal with it be­ing re­peated ad in­fini­tum.

While th­ese games in­vite us to em­brace the com­fort and fa­mil­iar­ity of rou­tine, the beauty of Res­i­dent Evil 4 is that it never once al­lows you to. Snip­ing se­quences segue into puz­zle in­ter­ludes, with the briefest of lulls be­fore a blis­ter­ing siege or a boss bat­tle. Not all of th­ese are made equal, but each is unique: the first three alone see you har­poon­ing a ser­pent on a murky lake, duck­ing the pow­er­ful at­tacks of a tow­er­ing brute, and tack­ling an ag­ile mu­tant that hangs from the rafters of a burn­ing barn. It’s hard to think of a sin­gle game re­leased since that so of­ten seeks to shift its tempo, to sur­prise the player with some­thing new and ex­cit­ing, whether it’s a ter­ri­fy­ing, rasp­ing wheeze herald­ing the im­mi­nent ar­rival of a crea­ture that can only be con­quered with the help of ther­mal vi­sion, or one-off shocks like the sud­den lunge of the en­emy af­fec­tion­ately known as Oven Man.

Even dur­ing its less cel­e­brated se­quences, it bel­liger­ently re­fuses to let its play­ers set­tle, ex­em­pli­fied in the mo­ment a head­shot fails to halt an ad­vanc­ing vil­lager, in­stead prompt­ing the emer­gence of a writhing par­a­site from his neck. It’s a star­tling sub­ver­sion of a se­ries sta­ple; that aim­ing for the skull is an es­sen­tial way to con­serve ammo. Here, you’re never in quite such short sup­ply, though more dar­ing play­ers can save time and rounds by tar­get­ing limbs, leav­ing en­e­mies vul­ner­a­ble to a kick or su­plex – though kneecap­ping a cultist is a chal­lenge when he’s clutch­ing a wooden shield. You might pre­fer to stick


with one or two favourites from a var­ied arse­nal, but the en­counter de­sign will reg­u­larly force you to re­fresh your tac­tics.

Cap­com it­self has tried in vain to re­cap­ture the magic. Pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter Ash­ley proved not to be the hin­drance many had feared; when she isn’t a re­source­ful ally, she’s smart enough to get out of harm’s way by hid­ing in a dump­ster. By con­trast, RE5’ s Sheva Alo­mar can’t help but fre­quently step into part­ner Chris Red­field’s line of sight, or blun­der into the arms of an in­fected op­po­nent. Res­i­dent Evil 6 brought back Leon, but lim­ited his role in a cam­paign that sug­gested Cap­com had only handed a third of it to its qual­ity as­sur­ance depart­ment. A re­cent trailer for spinoff Um­brella Corps, mean­while, sug­gests the pub­lisher sim­ply doesn’t un­der­stand what made the vil­lage so iconic, re­pur­pos­ing it as a map for what ap­pears to be a generic on­line shooter.

Our ex­pec­ta­tions may be un­fair. As time passes, it in­creas­ingly feels as if Res­i­dent Evil 4 might’ve been bot­tled light­ning: a per­fect con­flu­ence of tim­ing and tal­ent never to be recre­ated. A di­rec­tor at the peak of his cre­ative pow­ers, helm­ing a team with mean­ing­ful de­sign ex­pe­ri­ence and genre ex­per­tise. A pub­lisher in a po­si­tion to take risks and spend big on ex­per­i­ments with ex­ist­ing for­mu­lae. A player­base will­ing to em­brace a lin­ear game that of­fers enough space for them to im­pro­vise. Maybe this wasn’t ac­tu­ally ev­ery­thing games could be, but ev­ery­thing games were, and could never be again. At that time, few could’ve fore­seen that the end of the PS2 era would rep­re­sent the be­gin­ning of an era of western dom­i­nance; that Ja­pan’s sta­tus as the gam­ing su­per­power would soon be over.

Per­haps, then, this wasn’t the shape of things to come so much as the fi­nal flour­ish at the end of an era: a game that said “top that!” in the knowl­edge no one else had the com­pe­tence nor the re­sources to do so. And part of what makes RE4 so ex­cit­ing to this day is the knowl­edge no one has quite been able to fol­low in its foot­steps. You can see some­thing of its play­ful­ness, its in­tri­ca­cies, and its hunter/hunted dy­namic in the work of FromSoft­ware, but the likes of Blood­borne and Dark Souls are ul­ti­mately very dif­fer­ent games in tone and tenor. Eleven years on, maybe it’s time to come to terms with the fact that we might never see any­thing quite like Res­i­dent Evil 4 again. But that’s OK. We still have Res­i­dent Evil 4.

Es­cort mis­sions are rarely some­thing to rel­ish, but for­tu­nately Ash­ley is rel­a­tively easy to babysit. When sep­a­rated from Leon, mean­while, she’s plau­si­bly vul­ner­a­ble: a short se­quence where you guide her is fraught with ten­sion

There’s wit and in­tel­li­gence within a seem­ingly silly script. Af­ter Leon has offed Ra­mon Salazar – a kind of psy­chotic Ben­jamin But­ton-alike – an­tag­o­nist Os­mund Sad­dler dis­misses his diminu­tive un­der­ling as “small-time”

Re­leased in 2007, the Wii edi­tion might be the pick of the bunch. It in­cludes the ad­di­tional con­tent from the PS2 ver­sion, while in­cor­po­rat­ing poin­ter-based shoot­ing. The nat­u­ral wa­ver of the aim­ing retic­ule only height­ens the ten­sion of heated en­coun­ters

Mikami’s team glee­fully de­vised a va­ri­ety of death an­i­ma­tions for Leon, with the acid-vom­it­ing No­vis­ta­dors re­spon­si­ble for one of the most grue­some demises

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