Since its debut on the PlayStation in 1996, the genre-defining Resident Evil series has had its ups and downs, though it's always remained at the forefront of survival horror games. Yet it's not enough to call Resident Evil 4 one of the high points of the series, because this is probably the single greatest horror-themed action game ever created. Now on the PlayStation 2, Resident Evil 4 sure didn't cut corners in translation from the original GameCube version released earlier this year. Like that game, this is an amazing achievement in a variety of ways: Its inspired, state-of-the-art cinematic presentation works extremely well with its relentlessly exciting, white-knuckle action, all of which is wrapped up in a decidedly lengthy adventure chock-full of hidden secrets and bonus extras. It obviously isn't for the squeamish or for those otherwise not qualified to play this gory, mature-rated game, which is too bad for them, because it's hard to imagine anyone else not being consistently thrilled and impressed by what Resident Evil 4 has to offer.
Resident Evil 4 is much more than an excellent sequel. It's one of the greatest action games in years.
If you're already familiar with Resident Evil 4, chances are you just want to know how the PS2 version stacks up to the original. The good news is it stacks up remarkably well, resulting in one of the best-looking, most atmospheric PS2 games to date. Having played the original, you'd find no signs that the PS2 got the short end of the stick, even though this version was announced only at about the same time as production on the original was wrapping up. The game controls just as well on the PS2 as it does on the GameCube, and it boasts support for Pro Logic II-equipped sound systems and widescreen high-definition displays (and this is true widescreen support, whereas the GameCube game is letterboxed even if you play it on a widescreen TV).
The content of the GameCube version is all intact here, but in addition to that, some key extras have been added. Chief among them is a side story called Separate Ways, which lets you play as the elegant, enigmatic spy Ada Wong as she finds herself in the same place at the same time as Leon, the hero of the story. In addition to featuring some slick new cutscenes and more than a few more hours of great gameplay, Separate Ways sheds new light onto some aspects of the storyline and explains why some of the things that happen to Leon are more than just happy coincidences. The difficulty in Separate Ways picks up at about where Resident Evil 4 leaves off, so Ada will have a tough fight ahead of her and will likely need to avoid as many enemies as she has to kill. As such, the feel of the action in this episode is different from the parts of Resident Evil 4 during which it takes place, even though Ada plays pretty much the same as Leon (though she's a little faster and gets to use a cool grapple gun). Overall, Separate Ways is a well produced and exciting bonus.
A few additional weapons and unlockable costumes are also new to this version, but it's not necessarily worth getting a second copy of Resident Evil 4 just for this extra content, especially since none of it is available up front. Besides, while Resident Evil 4 looks incredible on the PS2, it doesn't look quite as good as on the GameCube, where it has richer colors, sharper-looking environments, and nicer lighting effects. Larger foes also look better on the GameCube (while smaller foes melt away faster when killed), and the earlier version's loading times are also shorter. Pauses during the interactive cutscenes are also longer by an instant on the PS2, making the interactivity feel a bit less seamless. So, since the underlying gameplay is exactly the same, the slightly but noticeably better-looking GameCube original ultimately still has the edge. That about covers the differences between the PS2 and GameCube versions of Resident Evil 4, but if you're unfamiliar with what makes the game itself so good, keep going.
In case it isn't abundantly clear, you don't need to be a Resident Evil fan to appreciate Resident Evil 4. However, Resident Evil fans will recognize the game's well-groomed protagonist Leon S. Kennedy, a wisecracking government agent investigating an inconspicuous European village where the US president's missing daughter was supposedly sighted. Experiencing the events of the game without really knowing what else to expect is a big part of the fun, so suffice it to say the story is filled with surprises, and it further does a great job of continually ratcheting up the sense of danger and tense excitement you'll feel right from the get-go. The story unfolds through some beautifully rendered and choreographed cinematic cutscenes, as well as through occasional notes you'll find. Yet these aren't the game's strongest suit, nor are they the focus of it, since the dialogue is hammy and thankfully brief. The story's there to give fans of the series something new to ponder, though it mostly exists to create a context for all of Resident Evil 4's action sequences. Basically, it helps make the game suspenseful and entices you to keep playing just to see what happens next.
Don't be afraid: The PS2 version of Resident Evil 4 is thoroughly outstanding.
Resident Evil 4 is being appropriately billed as the game that takes the series in a bold, new direction. This seems immediately apparent just minutes after the game begins, when Leon is confronted not by the sorts of mindless zombies that typified previous Resident Evil installments, but by a haggard man who seems decidedly displeased by Leon's presence and completely ignores the threat of his 9mm pistol as he menacingly approaches, axe in hand. The cover of the box depicts these sorts of torch-and-pitchfork-wielding disgruntled natives whom Leon will be dealing with in Resident Evil 4, so the question you'll be wondering is, what exactly are these Spanish-speaking folks' major malfunctions that cause them to want to murder Leon by any means necessary, and without any concern for their own safety? The game's humanoid enemies seem much more unsettling than your typical zombies, since they show basic signs of intelligence, yet their hatred for Leon far eclipses their own survival instinct. Still, it'll take just one slash of a sickle or one pitchfork gouging to teach you to terminate these savages without hesitation. They're creepy, memorable foes. And, without spoiling anything, they're just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite Resident Evil 4's unique controls and perspective, it's easy to come to grips with how the game is played. In fact, it might leave you wondering why it took someone so long to pull off a game in this fashion, because the controls and perspective work so well. Resident Evil 4 is presented in cinematic widescreen, so if you have a standard television set, you'll view the action in letterbox format. This not only contributes to the game's movielike feel, but it also gives you some much-needed peripheral vision of your surroundings. You view the action from behind Leon, and the perspective zooms in to a close over-the-shoulder view when you ready a weapon, which you can easily aim using its laser sight. Realistically, Leon doesn't have a perfectly steady hand when aiming, but since most of the combat occurs in brutal close quarters, you don't usually need pinpoint accuracy to get the job done. You cannot move and fire at the same time, nor can you strafe from side to side as you can in a typical shooter, though Resident Evil 4 plays very much like a shooter otherwise. The zoomed view while aiming works great for drawing a bead on your enemies, but you naturally lose some of your situational awareness in the process, because you can see more of your periphery when you're not aiming at what's in front of you.
Exquisitely detailed environments and some unforgettable foes await.
This dynamic has an exceptional way of heightening tension, since your foes love trying to surround you. They move and behave with frightening realism in the context of the game, and overall, the enemy design in Resident Evil 4 is truly outstanding. There are many things that look terribly lifelike and will send a chill down your spine, making you desperately want to kill them before they kill you first, in some sort of horrible fashion. Fortunately, the controls feel like they're tuned just right to give the game the same sort of pacing inherent to an action horror movie. The absence of the ability to sidestep doesn't hurt gameplay and instead accentuates the toe-to-toe confrontations, while the ability to quickly turn around using a simple controller command is more than welcome. The game expertly makes you feel that you're both watching a freaky, nail-biting movie about Leon and actually walking in his shoes. In fact, despite the high quality of the action, some of the best moments are the purely suspenseful ones when you're exploring while knowing full well that things aren't going to remain this quiet for long.
Possibly the best thing about Resident Evil 4's actual gameplay is the incredible amount of care and attention to detail that clearly went into the core action of the game. Leon's arsenal will expand to include shotguns, rifles, and automatics, and each of these causes a wholly satisfying and convincing result when used in any fashion against a given foe. For example, you can trip up an axe-wielding lunatic by shooting him in the knee, and then you can put him out of his misery with a subsequent shot to the head. Or you can stagger an enemy by shooting him in the midsection and then send him careening into his cohorts with a mighty roundhouse kick. Incendiary grenades cause foes to burst into flames, while other explosions will cause Leon to steady himself from their intense heat and blasts. The game features some subtle use of realistic physics and plenty of great little touches, such as how Leon can opt either to quietly open a door or violently kick it open. Many other context-sensitive actions are available throughout the game, giving you the impression that Leon is highly versatile and just possibly capable of dealing with the horrors he'll have to confront.
One of the wonderful ways in which Resident Evil 4 plays with shooter conventions is that shooting things in the head isn't a surefire way to kill every foe, even though it often results in a spectacular splattering of all kinds of nauseating substances. Though the weapons in Resident Evil 4 have a terrifically powerful feel to them, the game somehow manages to make its enemies seem like they're superhumanly strong as well, so you'll naturally start to consider new, unconventional types of tactics. You'll notice this when, for example, a perfect shot to an enemy's head doesn't cause him to instantly die but instead causes him to wince in pain and anger as though struck by a stone instead of a bullet. The feeling that you're heavily armed and yet faced with an unnatural enemy is often what makes the game seem so intense, which makes moments when you feel desperate and helpless seem that much more poignant when they occur.