Resident Evil 4, where to begin...
I first came in contact with this game at a friend's house shortly after its initial release. At that point, my experiences with video games were limited to a handful of Game Boy and Game Boy Advance games as well as semi-regular local multiplayer matches in Halo. I only knew about anything else from reading magazines and visiting friends, and therefore didn't consider myself a dedicated video game player at all. Until Resident Evil 4 hit me like a freight train and offered me an experience unlike anything I had ever seen before. I asked to borrow his copy and spent the following week hunched over in front of another friend's minuscule TV until I saw the credits roll for the first time. I was absolutely enthralled by its layered and ingenious design and it was from that moment on that I knew video games would become my main hobby in the future.
The most important thing to keep in mind in regard to Resident Evil 4's various systems is that the game is based on a single-stick setup. The tank controls make it so that both character movement and aiming are directly controlled by the left stick, which means that the camera controls are little more than a luxury. Here's an funny challenge for anyone who's interested: Start the game while using the original control scheme, try to resist the temptation to use the camera at all
and see how far you can go. You'd be surprised as to how natural and responsive it is.
This single-stick setup in turn influences how the enemy AI works. Due to Leon's inability to move and aim at the same time, the enemies are carefully programmed to always give the player a fighting chance. They slow down when they reach a certain distance and alert the player through specific voice lines when approaching from behind. Almost all of them can be baited into performing specific attacks which grant the player more strategic options. Almost every attack in the game can be dodged or countered through careful planning and quick reactions. Almost every encounter in the game can be beaten without taking any damage and by only using the necessary ammo. All these factors combine to create a metagame which is not at all about precision aiming, hyper-mobility and DPS battles like most shooters, but is instead based on positioning, crowd control, and strategic decision making. In this game, the presence of mind to know how to utilize the options at your disposal becomes your most valuable asset. Every action has a reaction, every choice a direct and tangible consequence. From the enemies' layered hit detection system and the melee attacks' invincibility frames to the flash grenades Plaga-killing properties, every element of the combat is part of a risk vs. reward dynamic. The end result is a combat system that is significantly deeper and more layered than the one-trick-ponies in titles like Dead Space or The Last of Us.
And here's my second challenge to prove it! At the beginning of Chapter 1-3, right after leaving Mendez's house, you'll find a Dr. Salvador and two Ganados waiting for you outside. It's 100% possible to kill all three of them without leaving the area, taking any damage or firing a single shot, simply through careful positioning, crowd control, AI manipulation and knife and melee attacks. Luck isn't a factor. Try it!
If you manage to do that, you'll understand what makes Resident Evil 4 so unique and I think you'll appreciate the rest of the game even more. Being able to reliably kill one of the game's most intimidating and deadly enemies by using the weakest weapon in your arsenal without any kind of RNG involved or wasting any resources is the kind of finely-tuned mechanical depth that most other games can only dream of.
Whenever the topic of tank controls and the inability to move while shooting has come up on C&R in the past, I've heard it summarized as merely "adding tension". While I think there is definitely some truth to that, I also think it's only half of the story. There are tangible mechanical benefits to this type of controls as well, such as how they force the player to quickly evaluate threats and to make strategic decisions about when (and where!) it's safe to attack and when it's preferable to run away, instead of the one-size-fits-all blunt combination of both that tends to get the job done in most third-person shooters. Your exact positioning and moment-to-moment decision-making end up mattering a lot
more in this game than in conventional dual analogue based games. I feel like it's an element that should be mentioned, at least.
Despite what her reputation would lead you to believe, I think she is one of the best example of a partner AI done right. Let me explain: Partner AIs in games tend to fall into two distinct categories: The first type prides itself in being "complex" and "incredibly advanced", but inevitably falls short of the designers' ambition and becomes a victim of its own complexity when observed into the final product, much to the irritation of the player. Sheva in RE5 is a good example of the first type. The second type is the "invisible" AI that only interacts with the world when it suits the player and stays virtually non-existent otherwise. While this type is a lot less frustrating to witness than the first one, it is guilty of breaking immersion left and right and amounts to little more than the developers throwing their hands up in the air and giving up on the concept of design integrity. Ellie in TLoU is of good example of the second type.
What makes Ashley so special, might you ask? It's because she's both consistent
. She's very much an integral part of the world and is subjected to the same rules that Leon is, which grants her weight and presence. Unlike Ellie, the player has to look after her even during gameplay. But because she follows such a strict set of rules, she's also comparatively easy to plan around. Her pathfinding is simple and easily understandable. Unlike Sheva, she won't run headfirst and suicide into the enemies while carrying all your healing items. She does exactly what she's programmed to do at all times, which means she is never really an annoyance for the player willing to put the little time and effort necessary in order to understand how she works. She stays behind you whenever she can, ducks when enemies are nearby or when you aim at her, and immediately follows the player's commands otherwise. Dead Rising, this is not.
I think this is both the game's strongest point as well as its most easily overlooked aspect. Obviously, the enemy variety alone is quite impressive. But it's the way they are used that I find so remarkable. Every area in this game has its own unique flow and almost all of them introduce at least one new gameplay mechanic, be it a new enemy type or a minor, yet significant element that impacts the way the encounter works out. The various elements never outstay their welcome: Mini-bosses are used sparingly (you usually fight them alone the first time they appear, and then only a couple of times after that with various modifiers), the standard enemy set changes three times throughout the game and their flexibility allows them to be re-used in very different scenarios without them becoming stale and frustrating to fight, and most of the scripted elements only appear once in order to keep the experience fresh.
To put it simply: This game does not have any two encounters that play out the same way, thanks to a very
hands-on approach on the part of the director. The attention to detail at play here is quite frankly astonishing and certainly nothing I've ever experienced in any other game before or since. In fact, I would argue that most action games tend to fall in one of two camps. Games like Bayonetta have deep and engaging mechanics, but often just reuse simplistic encounter setups, such as locking the players inside an empty room during combat sequences, sometimes even just spawning enemies in front of them mid-fight. On the other hand, games like Uncharted rely on intricate and spectacular scripted sequences but have some surprisingly shallow mechanics otherwise.
Resident Evil 4 is one of the very few games that manages to give equal attention to both sides of the equation.
Obviously, this also ties into the incredibly ambitious boss fights. Every single one of them is brimming with little details and while some of them are quite challenging, they are never outright cheap. There is always a way to anticipate their attacks, to better navigate the terrain, or to find a more efficient way to damage them. My favorite has to be the Krauser fight in the Sand Fortress. He'll try to ambush you over and over again while you learn how to navigate the maze-like environment, each time varying his tactics a bit and using different weapons as the fight progresses. Only to culminate in the final duel on top of the tower. What makes this fight truly stand out to me is Krauser's hyper-sensitivity to knife attacks, as subtly hinted at by the preceding QTE fight. It's obviously a very challenging option that hardly leaves any room for mistakes, but if the player is willing to meet him head-on and force the close quarters combat, they'll be rewarded with a surprisingly short, but oh so intense and rewarding knife fight between the two foes. The end result being a boss fight that can be completed in three perfectly valid ways: The easy way by using the rocket launcher, the normal way by using conventional weaponry, and the hard way by using only the knife. With each option being available not through a menu or even through the game's ingenious adaptive difficulty system, but as an organic choice through use of the overall mechanics. I cannot emphasize this enough: This is brilliant
Speaking of attention to detail, one aspect I hardly ever see mentioned anywhere else is the variety of non-enemy animals the player encounters in the first third of the game. Just based on my own playthroughs, I've noticed Dogs, Beetles, Spiders, Snakes, Basses, Cows, Chickens, Crows and Bats. Each with their own AI and careful placement in chosen locations, which must have taken a bit of effort to implement correctly. I think this is emblematic of this game in many ways. It was never a marketing bullet point and therefore flew under most people's radar. And yet it is there, subtly enriching the experience and contributing to the strong sense of locale of the Village section. Unlike in games like MGS3 or RDR, this isn't a feature
per se. Nor a bunch of lazy collectibles tied to an insipid XP system. Just a little something that was put in for the sake of putting it in. For the art.
is almost offensively bad in comparison, and I think it stands as the most poignant evidence of the delicate craftsmanship that went into creating the main game. It utilizes the same enemies and re-hashes the same areas for the most part, and yet it is a very unpolished experience that lacks the main game's signature flow and carefully constructed encounter design. The cynic in me is convinced that this was just cobbled together by different team members at the last minute in order to be able to market it as a bullet point for the PS2 port.
is fun enough in its own right and clearly meant to be played in one quick session, but is rather unsubstantial otherwise.
, on the other hand, is the... stuff that dreams are made of. It is hands down the best unlockable ever created, in my humble opinion. Let me explain why. Score-chasing arcade games and modes tend to demand two things from the player: Knowledge and Mechanical Skill. In order to obtain a highscore in a game like Resogun Survival, for example, you need to memorize the times when the various combinations of enemies will attack you as well as being skilled enough to be able to survive their onslaught as long as possible. But there's little strategy involved, you mostly just react to what is happening on screen.
What makes The Mercenaries so special in my eyes is that it's one of the very few modes that actively force the player to conceive and implement actual strategies. First, you obviously need to understand how the scoring system and the enemy spawns work. But since you can't just camp out in a corner and wait for the enemies to come to you, you need to come up with the most efficient route so as to make the best use out of the limited time available to you. Optimizing your course of action in order to deal with the enemies and sub-bosses in a time- and resource-efficient manner while collecting the various items, time extensions and bonus chests scattered around the stage really takes some mental effort and is not as easy as it sounds. That's without even going into the different characters' unique attributes and loadouts that massively impact the way the game plays out and the interesting options that derive from them.
In order to succeed at Mercenaries, you need to have a solid strategy going into it, but you also need to be able to react instinctively to unforeseen circumstances as well as having the skill and concentration necessary to implement said strategy and perform the right plays during the key moments of your run. Last but not least, luck only plays a very small part into it, which makes every score feel completely earned
. All of the above combined are what gives this mode one of the most ridiculously high skill ceilings I have ever seen and make the Horde-type modes of other games feel incredibly shallow in comparison.
While the vast majority of players unfortunately dismissed it as another worthless unlockable, even the dedicated Mercenaries community mostly turn up their noses at it in favor of the mode's later iterations in Resident Evil 5 and 6. I think it is an exceptional piece of software and I would be very
pleased if you guys could give this mode a little more attention this time around!
- Differences Between Versions
Little known fact: The japanese versions of this game have kept the traditional fixed camera angles of the earlier Resident Evil titles for the section during which you play as Ashley in the castle. I find that to be a very neat touch and sweet acknowledgment of the legacy of the series, and I would have liked to see it being implemented in every other version as well.
Other little known fact: The original american GameCube version of this game is an "unpatched" version of sorts that has a handful of small differences in enemy AI, weapon statistics, as well as enemy and item placements, which makes it the version of choice when going for specific Mercenaries scores. The european and japanese versions came out several weeks later, incorporated the changes and formed the template that all subsequent versions of the game have since been based on. Unfortunately, I found every other version to be lacking in one way or another and so the original european GameCube release remains my favourite version to date, if only because the game was developed with the GameCube controller in mind.
The PlayStation 2 version toned down the graphics and added Separate Ways, which means it can go straight in the bin as far as I'm concerned.
The Wii version finally introduced native 16:9 resolution, but I think the motion controls make the game way too easy. On top of that, they also ruin the careful balancing of the weapon handling by nullifying the differences in aiming speed and laser sensitivity. Thankfully there is the option to play it with a GameCube controller.
The HD version on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 appears to utilize a very awkward visual filter and I'm genuinely angry and frustrated at Capcom not bothering to include online leaderboards for Mercenaries.
Finally, the more recent 60FPS version on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is also nowhere near as good as it appears at first glance. Not only have certain animations not been translated at all, the higher framerate also seems to negatively impact the AI and is causing noticeable pathfinding errors, among other things.
For better or for worse, it's pretty obvious to me that the game was never intended to be ported onto any other platform during its initial design phase. I'm honestly kind of sad that there isn't any ideal version of the game as of now.
Resident Evil 4 later went on to have a very noticeable influence on the rest of the industry and appeared on numerous celebratory lists. And yet I honestly think that this game, paradoxically enough, is a deeply misunderstood one. Most of the influence it had was superficial in nature, and merely consisted of various developers sheepishly copying its over-the-shoulder camera and precision aiming into their own dual analogue based games. Its core mechanics were immediately expanded upon, but without considering how their restrictions directly affected its encounter design. Even its popular reception and common statements such as "Good for its time, but hard to go back to nowadays. I wish I could move and shoot at the same time." make me wonder whether people genuinely understand the value of the craftsmanship that went into this game and the importance of its mechanical restrictions. Admittedly, it does require a specific mindset in order to be fully appreciated, but I think that too many people try to play it like a Last of Us prototype and end up actively sabotaging their own potential enjoyment in the process. I know that "playing it wrong" is a bit of a dirty phrase here at Cane and Rinse, but in my experience, it does seem to hold true at least some of the time.
Undoubtedly, Resident Evil 6 has a more complex combat system, Gears of War more fluid controls, Dead Space a more spectacular and immersive audiovisual presentation and The Last of Us a much better story to tell. But Resident Evil 4 has something that all those other games lack: A strong sense of authorial intent which gently guides the player throughout its carefully crafted scenarios while remaining fair, deep and engaging in the process. Its pacing, variety and attention to detail are truly unrivaled to this day. In many ways, it is an anti-sandbox game: Instead of giving the players dozens of tools and mechanics and letting them loose within a huge open world with only a little, if any, connective tissue unifying the two, it understands the value of restraint and constructs its experience around its core mechanics. It challenges and empowers the players, but never gives them enough rope to hang themselves. It understands the symbiotic relationship between enemy AI, level design and encounter design, as well as the player's place within it better than any other game I've ever played. Perhaps it is because, being the first of its kind, it didn't have any preconceptions of what it should be or any official template to follow. Perhaps it was the talent of its team combined with Capcom's then-willingness to take risks, as well as the clear single-platform laser-guided focus of its development. In any case, this game is the kind of lightning in a bottle which I don't think has ever been captured before or since. I think this is one of the medium's "essential texts" and that it should be an absolute must play for anyone interested in game design. Quite frankly, it pains me to see how so many of its less visible lessons seem to have been lost in time, like tears in rain.
I just realized I haven't even mentioned the art design and music (both of which perfectly set the mood), the story (which is charming B-movie nonsense), the characters (which are strangely charismatic and memorable despite having so little to work with), the weapons (which all fulfill a specific niche and are all very fun to use in their own way), or the adaptive difficulty system (genius).
In case that wasn't clear, I absolutely adore this game! This is my sacred cow and my total number of playthroughs must easily be in the triple digits by now. I've done everything from handgun-only runs to speedruns to spending countless hours attempting to break my own Mercenaries records. I am very much looking forward to this particular episode! Feel free to ask if you need any additional help, be it in terms of research, specific footage, further explanations of various mechanics or anything of the sort, for I would be more than happy to contribute in any way I can.
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