Most gamers will agree that the survival horror genre isn't particuarly recognized for its innovation. Since its inception of the Lovecraft-inspired Alone in the Dark series, the conventional elements including nasty creatures, static camera angles and the legendary shotgun have continued to thrive in a compelling game where action and adventure blends with the horrific tones of terror. These laudable elements would explain much of the growing hype behind Capcom’s long-awaited survival horror sequel, Resident Evil 4. Usually keen on "playing it safe" with their quintessential zombie thriller, Capcom seems intent in restoring the series back to its natural, survival roots.
Currently available in Japan for approximately a year now, the North Amercian demo opens with little to no context -- the player is informed that six years have passed since the bomb was dropped on Raccoon City, and Leon has been sent to locate the whereabouts of the President’s daughter and bring her back safely. You’re dropped off in the woods, located by a nearby bridge and cabin, (think Evil Dead). Upon approaching the cabin, a brief cutscene offers a clue that someone is lurking inside the cabin, made evident by their shadow. Acting accordingly, Leon enters the building and inquires about the whereabouts of the missing girl. Unfortunately, the local residents aren't very cooperative or hospitable. Ultimately, it's not long before the village brethren join in the chase, and Leon's only clue reveals that the man he killed -- wasn't a zombie.
Right off the bat, RE 4 is a breeze to play. The controls retain the same configuration as its predecessors: press R to raise a weapon, A to fire; weapons are accessible via the inventory screen. Aiming is a cinch, thanks to the laser sight attached to the pistol and shotgun, respectively. On occasion, when enemies get too close, a swift, roundhouse kick is available, ultimately serving as one of several context-sensitive actions which sends them flying. In fact, the context sensitive actions (executed with the A button) are one of the most significant changes featured in the game, allowing Leon to knock over ladders and dive through windows with a fluid movement that makes such games like MGS3 look choppy in comparision.
Visually, Capcom opted to stick with the same atmospheric tone of browns and whites that dominated the previous GameCube editions. While it retains some of the conventional settings, everything is depicted in a Silent Hill tone. Also of note are the graphic and audio touches including transitional cloud patterns, crunchy leaves breaking beneath your feet, and wildlife peppered throughout the terrain; all of which make for a more convincing depiction of Leon's European trek. Best of all, players are sure to enjoy the game’s widescreen presentation, ultimately offering a immersive, cinematic experience.
Taking a closer analysis of the demo, I’ve noticed the pacing has changed substantially from previous Resident Evil titles. For example, the villagers don't attack in waves of more than two or three, dispatched easily enough with the revamped controls. However, once the player reaches the village itself, all hell breaks loose, and you'll be fighting to survive as the undead will do whatever it takes including breaking down doors and windows in order to make you their next evening snack. By making the gameplay dependent on AI rather than scripted events, Capcom has stripped away the predictability factor (read: comfort zone) that previous Resident Evil titles offered. Entering a new room and slamming the door on Leon's pursuers will only offer a temporary measure of safety, as the would-be undead are rather clever and resourceful to avail themselves to using ladders, Molotov cocktails, or even a chainsaw. In short, snap judgments will need to be made if you hope to survive.
With Resident Evil 4's U.S. release date fast approaching and Capcom’s assurance that the domestic version has been substantially tweaked over its Japanese counterpart, fans and newcomers alike can look forward to one of the most compelling, survival horror thrills this year.