Resident Evil 4’s development cycle has been an uphill battle. It was originally planned for the PS2. Then development was scrapped when Nintendo grabbed exclusivity rights for the series and that game turned into Devil May Cry.

A new GameCube version was then unveiled for the Japanese press in late 2002. It got cancelled, and work began on a new version for the Electronic Entertainment Expo the following year.

It was cancelled again.

Again, Capcom got going on a new version, but it was not shown to the public. Resident Evil mastermind Shinji Mikami took over as director and cancelled that version, and work began all over again. Mikami had something new in mind. A complete overhaul of the series.

And now, years later, the long-awaited fourth entry in Capcom’s survival horror series is here, exclusively on the GameCube. And, yes, a lot has changed. While the Resident Evil remake revamped the level design, cutscenes and voice acting of the series, and added some new content, it was careful to retain the controversial controls, plodding enemies, pre-rendered backgrounds, limited save system and abstract puzzles that divided gamer opinions of the series.

Resident Evil 4, then, is far more than a remake. Because here, absolutely nothing is sacred. This game turns the series on its head, rather than giving it an aesthetic update. The pre-rendered backgrounds are gone, and are instead replaced by a damn amazing 3D engine. The controls are infinitely more precise. The enemies are faster and more intelligent. Ink ribbons are no longer needed to save. The story is much more cinematic, and the voice acting is easily the best of all Resident Evil games. And you will rarely worry about ammo.

But that’s just scratching the surface of what makes Resident Evil 4 such an astounding survival horror title. There’s a lot more. And, with few exceptions, it’s all mind-blowing. Let it be known right now that you need to own this game.

Read on for the nitty-gritty of what may very well be one of the best games ever conceived. Don’t worry—we won’t spoil anything significant for you.

GAMEPLAY/ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
To put it simply, Resident Evil 4 elevates the survival horror genre. On the basis of gameplay alone, there is no other survival-horror game on the market today that is deeper, more intense, more polished, or generally more fun to play.

The improvements start with the controls. While this game does stick to the exact same control scheme used by its predecessors, it works far better than before. Instead of having to get your bearings to determine how to run in a certain direction when moving from screen to screen due to a clunky control scheme, pressing forward on the analog stick always makes you move forward. Pressing left always makes you turn left, and so on. The difference in precision and freedom of movement is astounding. No longer is getting from point A to point B a chore because of a befuddling control setup.

The same goes for combat. You will no longer try to avoid fighting enemies because of an imprecise and slow combat model. Shooting, kicking and knifing enemies is extremely intuitive because of an aiming system that is much easier to use, much faster, and much more accurate than ever. Pulling off a head shot on an enemy is just as (if not more) intuitive and accurate as jumping in Super Mario World, with an accurate aiming system that works much like that in Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell.

“Simplify, simplify.” It was what Capcom needed to do with the Resident Evil control scheme, and it is what they did. And the improvement is amazing. You will now actively seek out enemy encounters—what the controls did, most importantly, was make this aspect of the game fun. Resident Evil 4 is more than just scary and involving. It is actually a good game from the basis of the gameplay mechanics alone, something that was debatable before.

On top of the generally improved controls, Capcom has also incorporated something which adds greatly to some of the gameplay situations, and allows for a lot of flexibility in what your character can do: a context-sensitive action button. In addition to your regular move set, with the action button, you can swim, jump, break through windows, push objects, kick enemies, dodge attacks, knock down ladders, and much more.

It allows for a much-improved sense of control over your character, as with this feature, you can do just about anything without doing what many other games do, which is show you a cutscene with the character performing the activity instead of you actually playing that moment.

And speaking of cutscenes, Resident Evil 4 takes the action-button concept even further by creating quasi-interactive cutscenes (similarly to Shenmue for the Dreamcast). For example, in one cutscene, Leon is being pulled into a lake with a rope tied around his ankle, and he pulls out his knife to begin cutting the rope away. Rather than cutting to a 5-second gameplay scenario where you cut the rope and then transitioning back to a cutscene, the cutscene simply keeps playing, forcing you to repeatedly tap A in order for Leon to cut the rope. This greatly expands interest in the cutscenes, and keeps you focused on the gameplay even as the story is unfolding. Overall, it simply adds a lot of interactivity, where in any other game you’d be sitting through unnecessary cinematics. It’s a very satisfying gameplay mechanic. And the level of interactivity it creates between you and your environment is for the most part unprecedented.

There are some minor issues with the controls. For starters, when fighting more than one enemies, you will occasionally wish there was a strafe function. In the end, it isn’t a huge deal, and it does lend more of a scare value with some encounters, and it would change the combat somewhat, but you may feel limited by its absence.

Also, the controls still do not incorporate true analog movement. You’re still pressing the analog stick to walk, and the B button to run. True analog movement would have been a good inclusion. Again, at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect the gameplay in a significant way, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have. But this is coming from a critic. I notice these things more than you probably will. It’s just slightly disappointing that, with all the other control upgrades, in an era of analog control, a 3D game like this uses a means of control that went out of date in the days of the PS1.

So the controls work much better than before, you say. Big deal. That doesn’t make much of a difference without improved gameplay to back it up, you argue. You’re right. That’s entirely true. But Resident Evil 4 not only delivers on the gameplay front, it absolutely shatters every notion you have about survival horror. The gameplay is quite possibly the best of any game released this generation. Rest assured the control is just one of many massive improvements made in this game.

No joke. Metroid Prime, Halo, Half-Life 2, Grand Theft Auto, every game considered to be a killer-app for its respective system. The gameplay here is easily on-par with them, if not better. This does not come from a biased perspective. I own every console. I play games from every company, and I’m not influenced by which system a game is on. If you can’t tell already, I wasn’t even a particular fan of the Resident Evil franchise. And I can nonetheless say with confidence that Resident Evil 4 is some of the most fun I’ve had since Ocarina of Time.

Capcom’s title improves the gameplay formula of the genre. It innovates, polishes, fixes and expands on just about everything you associate with survival-horror.

The enemies, to begin with, are surprisingly smart. They do not stand in the open waiting to be shot. They do not simply follow scripts, like falling out of a hole in the wall and trying to attack you from behind. They exhibit actual intelligence, and have much more complex AI than is available in most other genre pieces.

The villagers (the most common enemies in the game) act realistically. When you begin the game, you will see them going about their business, whether by collecting fire logs or shoveling hay. But if you make too much noise or get to close, they will come for you with whatever weapons they have on hand, be they knives, torches, axes, or pitchforks. They will follow you if you escape into a house. If you barricade the doors and the windows are boarded, they will use weapons to break through the windows. They will beat at the door. When their efforts fail, they will raise ladders and enter through the second floor.

And let me tell you that this makes for some of the most awesome, scary, and intense moments in gaming. To see an enemy kick down the door into a house or climb through the window with his weapon is something you would never expect an enemy to be able to do in a game. When you try to hide in the house, you would never expect them to find you. This just scratches the surface. There is one boss fight where you will encounter a rather large creature. If you run into a shed, he will often see you, and throw boulders or uproot trees to knock down the building in question. And it’s amazing to play and see. When he kills you, you won’t die frustrated, you will die with a sense of, “Hell! I didn’t know they could do that!”

It is this surreally human behavior that both makes the gameplay deliriously fun and almost ceaselessly scary. The enemies aren’t pushovers, and they are difficult to kill not because it takes a lot of hits to take them down, but because they are smart enough to use tactics to extend the battle.

And going back to the subject of the bosses, this game has some of the best. We will not spoil any of these fights for you here, but rest assured, they are all great. You will be floored by the first boss fight, and you will be floored again and again when each following boss fight somehow manages to top the last until the very end of the game. Indeed, the boss fights in Resident Evil 4 are right up there with those of Nintendo as some of the best ever made. They are flat damn genius. They are epic, they are vicious, they are strategic, they are challenging, they are rewarding. The sense of accomplishment when done with the boss fights in this game is something you must experience for yourself to adequately grasp.

Resident Evil 4 ditches the abstract puzzles of the earlier games in the series. The puzzles here no longer prominently feature item-hunting. The puzzles here are far fewer than before and are based more on how you use your environment. For example, there is a section in a castle where enemies are shooting you with cannons and you find a cannon to retaliate. But you must raise the platform it’s been placed on to a point where you can shoot it and then load the cannonballs before you can shoot back. It creates a cohesive strategic element, rather than dividing the game into strict combat and strict puzzle sequences. In another section, you must cross a lake. There are some concrete slabs that almost allow you to jump across, but there isn’t enough room to make it. So you shoot out some barrels that are located higher up, and they will float over to the concrete slabs because of the course the lake is following and some railing blocking them from drifting further downstream. Voila, you have a bridge.

Rather than flipping switches, you’ll be orchestrating an attack on your foes—determining ideal vantage points to fire from and knocking down ladders or blocking doors to keep them from getting to you. Combat has become much more strategic here.

This game is still survival-horror. It is difficult, but not in a cheap way. Enemies don’t take unrealistically large amounts of gunfire to die. They don’t respawn. Rather, the game is difficult because your foes are fast and smart. It is difficult because there is so much stuff you have to do to avoid being killed. It presents a fair challenge. You won’t die because the developers created an unfair shortage of health pick-ups or because you couldn’t fend off enemies due to a lack of ammo. When you die, it will be your fault, not that of an unfair design.

And this is where the game makes you feel extremely in-control. The controls don’t work against you. The environment doesn’t work against you. The level of items doesn’t work against you. The playing field is level. Your intelligence and skill is the only factor.

On a technical level, Resident Evil 4 is virtually perfect. There is no noticeable slowdown. There is no real choppiness or pop-up. There are no problems with hit detection. There are no longer any significant in-game load times. Clipping is present here, but you’d be really pressed to notice or care–it’s barely worth noting. There are no significant (much less gameplay-hindering) technical issues in this game whatsoever.

The only real criticism against the gameplay is this: the interactivity of the environments is slightly inconsistent. Why is it possible to blow up barred windows with grenades but a thousand blasts from a shotgun can’t budge a dining table chair? Why can I push a bookcase across a room but can’t push a hay wagon out of my way?

This sounds like a fairly significant issue, but the key word here is context. The game design lets you know, through environment-based puzzles, exactly what is and isn’t interactive. And since the progression is fairly linear and there are few moments where you aren’t making progress through the game, in the context of the design, you won’t think about shooting a dining room table chair because you’re always doing something else. The game doesn’t give you any opportunities to screw around. You don’t get to take a break.

The gameplay is near perfect. It offers enemy encounters that have tons of depth and complexity (in terms of using your environment), a complex strategic element that makes you think about combat, a very cool context-sensitive action button system, great controls, and some of the best boss battles of all time. And it’s scary as hell. Make no mistake about it: this is some of the most fun you’ll have in a videogame for some time to come.

Gameplay/Entertainment Score: 10 out of 10.

AUDIO/VISUAL QUALITY:
The brilliance doesn’t end with gameplay. Resident Evil 4 easily follows suit in the technical department.

Words simply cannot convey just how amazing this game looks in motion. You have to play it for yourself to get a full grasp of the beauty of the graphics. The consistency, the quality, the overall excellence of the graphics in this game permeate every single inch of the experience

From an artistic standpoint, what’s here doesn’t disappoint. Enemy designs are fresh and compelling. The various settings of the game are original, and have a style unlike anything seen before in a Resident Evil game. They are still dark, atmospheric, and gritty, while maintaining a sense of originality that is refreshing after the now-somewhat-generic art direction of the older games.

But this is really an understatement. Here you will find some of the best art in any game of this generation. Truly spectacular stuff. From the character designs to the environment details to everything in between, the art in this game is stunning.

This level of perfection carries over into the technical department. The detail in this game is through the roof. Capcom cut no corners here.

When villagers walk through town, rain pouring everywhere, illuminated by torches, your jaw will hit the floor. You will notice right off the bat that the character models are among the best in any game. They are all extremely expressive and detailed. You will notice that the lighting and particle effects are damn near unparalleled (the lighting here, in many instances, looks superior even to Spinter Cell for the Xbox—an amazing accomplishment in its own right). You will see that the polygon count is enormous, and the textures are very high in detail. You will see the most spectacular weather effects yet seen in a game. Etc., etc., etc.

I could go on. But it’s overkill if you don’t see the game running. This is possibly the best looking console game ever made, by any standard of judgment. Resident Evil 4 easily looks as good as the pre-rendered entries in the series, if not better.

And as for the audio aspect, well, it’s amazing too. The voice acting is much more professional than before, with the best character development/interaction and plot of any series entry. The sound effects are fantastic. Hearing your enemies scream at you and communicate with each other rather than just moan only adds to the scare factor. It all greatly adds to the atmosphere.

And the music in the game is extremely moody and well-composed, too, though (in classic style) relatively infrequent. Beautiful stuff, really.

The only notable flaw in this department is the lack of true widescreen support. But I can’t comment on that since I don’t own a widescreen television, and it isn’t significant enough for a point deduction. It would have been a nice feature, but for me, and probably most of the gamers reading this, it’s frivolous.

Audio/Visual Score: 10 out of 10

INNOVATION/LASTING APPEAL:
Resident Evil 4 is a huge departure from what you’ve come to expect, not just from the series, but from the entire genre. From the extremely fluid controls and fast-paced combat to the epic scope and extremely action-based experience, it redefines gameplay in a survival-horror title. This sets a new standard for what the genre should be like, and developers will aptly imitate its ideas for years to come. The experience does not feel quite like anything you’ve ever played before. It is extremely fresh, from just about all conceivable perspectives.

The aiming system, controls that encourage combat for once, the immense strategy of combat, the level of interaction with the environment and the way you have to use your environment to survive, and the unscripted, nonlinear gameplay situations are like nothing ever done in the genre. And contrary to what was thought before the game shipped, it still retains a pervasive sense of fear. None of this has been acceptably done before in the genre, and especially not in one package. It really does redefine survival horror.

Innovation Score: 10 out of 10

And as for lasting appeal—-this game will most likely take about 20-25 hours to completely finish. And there are extras that will motivate you to play it all over again. It isn’t the longest game out there, but it doesn’t need to be. There is more content here than in most other games. It is filled to the brim with gameplay, and never artificially extends length with unnecessarily long puzzles or dry moments in the action.

Lasting Appeal Score: 9 out of 10

SUMMARY:
If you have read this far, you know that I do little more than sing its praises. This is entirely justified. Resident Evil 4 is literally as close to perfect as you can get. It is the best GameCube game out there. It is possibly the best game of this generation. It is easily the best survival horror game ever made.

It just rocks. I don’t know how much clearer I can say it. Go. Buy this game. You will be floored. It will exceed your expectations.

It’s certainly been a long time coming. But uphill battle though the development was, the game has only come out stronger as a result. Capcom has climbed that mountain. They have fixed this series. They have successfully brought a game that can, and should, make Resident Evil relevant again, and mainstream again. It blew me away, and it will do the same for you. I implore you to purchase this game. It deserves every penny of the $50 admittance fee.

And that, as they say, is that.

Overall Score: 10 out of 10