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Resident Evil 4 360 may be six years old and looking a little dated even in this HD re-release, but its perfectly paced narrative remains one of gaming's great experiences.
From Dracula to The Wicker Man to Hostel, the nightmare of old Europe remains one of the persistent themes of horror fiction, the idea that somewhere out there, away from the big cities and hubs of civilisation, there are old, savage traditions that still persist in run-down villages and rambling chateaus.
Leon S Kennedy, floppy-fringed veteran of the fall of Raccoon City, is just the kind of clean-cut American boy destined to fall foul of pagan beastliness on a trip to the heathen old country, and it doesn't take long for his trip to a remote part of Europe to go very, very badly.
Within minutes of asking after the US President's kidnapped daughter - who Leon, one-day-cop turned special agent, needs to find - he's been attacked by guttural red-eyed locals, heard his transport get pitched into a river, and found one of his police escorts impaled and aflame in the village square.
After that, things really go downhill, literally in the case of the giant boulder pushed after Leon as he legs it down a narrow path, dodging at the last minute in one of the game's (blessedly infrequent, though still annoying) Quick Time Events.
Then there's that nice bag-headed gentleman revving up his chainsaw, something very big thumping away behind a large wooden gate, a ripple beneath the waters of an otherwise placid lake... There's always another threat, another action set-piece, another novel environment or scenario around the next corner in Resident Evil 4.
It's a nightmare for Leon, but a joy to play, the drip-feed of frequent rewards and challenges stretching into a true epic that, for all the duplicate character models of inbred villagers, rarely feels repetitive.
It helps that in telling an American-in-peril-abroad story, Resident Evil 4 mixes and matches from the entire continent of Europe to create the weird, non-specific but familiar place for Leon to battle through. The locals speak Spanish, but there's something very Northern about the light and atmosphere of the place. Gloriously OTT baddie Ramon Salazar, a wrinkled dwarf in a tricorn hat, lives in exactly the kind of chateau you might see on footage of the Tour de France, albeit one exploded to baroque proportions even the Sun King could only dream of.
It's a very rich brew of influences, one that has great depth and appeal.
Then there's the very mediterranean island later in the game, the Graeco-Roman ruins that a key boss battle takes place on, and a villain with the very English name of Lord Saddler... but I'm just listing things again, a danger with a game this deep. Suffice to say it's a very rich brew of influences, one that has great depth and appeal, feeling close enough to reality to be relatable while heightened enough to be exciting. These influences cohere to create a sense of place strong enough to justify the 'resident' in the game's title.
Resident Evil 4 is six years old now, and just being released for 360 (and PS3) in an HD-friendly port. This isn't a full-blown remake - 2005-era textures and models are given an angular crispness by the transfer to HD, but they're still crude by 2011 standards. In terms of graphical resolution Resident Evil 4 won't match this year's big titles for HD whizzbang, but the sense of verve and pacing beneath that aged surface hasn't dated at all.
Like the beast in the lake that snags Leon's boat and takes him for a ride, there's a narrative pull beneath Resi 4's surface that drags the player onwards, so that even after a save point has been painfully reached there's always the temptation to see what's around the next corner, through the next door.
It's a momentum that, to this day, few games have matched. Even Resident Evil 5, for all its slavish reproduction of its predecessor's story path pursuing a fiendish cult from a rural outpost to a military/technological complex, didn't quite match up to the breadth of Leon's journey.
Saying that Resident Evil 4 is a superb exemplar of videogame storytelling is, in some ways, absurd. The story itself is absurd, a load of old rot about a conspiracy to create a new world order using squiggly brain parasites, squiggly parasites that - this being Resident Evil - cause the infected to mutate into giant boss monsters as and when required.
Characterisation pushes the acceptable bounds of stereotypes.
Characterisation is ridiculously cheesy and pushing the acceptable bounds of stereotypes, with the dialogue to match. Leon is the beleagured cornball American hero, innocent but supremely capable, while kidnappee Ashley is ludicrously spunky and wholesome.
Then there's a womanising Spanish man, a cold but alluring Asian femme fatale... Resident Evil 4 doesn't reserve its cliched outlook for its European setting alone. Everyone is a stereotype of some kind.
But it's hard to describe this contrived cheesiness as being a fault as such. This embracing of the ludicrous, of the broadish-brush of fantastical storytelling and characterisation, is part of the Resident Evil series' charm and appeal, and indeed all of the characters are infuriatingly likable, just as the equally over the top baddies are hissably compelling.
This cheesiness is all part of the B-movie dynamism that drives the franchise, a compelling fusion of horror and action.
In 2005 a number of loud voices declared that Resident Evil 4 had taken that formula too far away from scares towards action, abandoning the creeping dread of earlier, slower games in favour of shootouts and explosions.
To me, looking at the game again now, that critique seems exactly wrong: while Resident Evil 4 is faster and more trigger-happy than earlier games, horror is always a constant presence, and the game's genius lies in the precise balance of those two elements, horror and action.
The slack-necked chanting of the glassy eyed enemies is genuinely unsettling.
Horror is always a factor. Enemies are shocking in their appearance, brutal in their attacks and gorily efficient in their fatalities. Let a chainsaw-wielding enemy get too close and Leon's head will be off his shoulders in a shower of blood, while even a pitchfork wielding yokel can cause a jarring, bloody blow.
The slack-necked chanting of the glassy eyed enemies is genuinely unsettling, and later baddies like the spiny regenerators are truly creepy. Environments are dark and dingy or spookily beautiful, while the music builds a sense of dread. Resi 4 may be dated in its graphic tech, but it's still a beautiful game in terms of the artistry and style of its world.
So, that's the horror side of equation. Well, action is the opposite side of that: to resist the creeping horror, violence is required - fast, heart-pumping, weapon-switching action. Even six years ago, Resident Evil 4's control system, which requires you to stand still while firing weapons, was accused of being dated, but that misses the point altogether. It isn't a throwback, it's a deliberate design choice.
In the thick of it, Resident Evil 4's gameplay is about the choice between our two most basic impulses in the face of a threat: fight or flight. You can't do both, weaving around to circle strafe an enemy. You have to decide when to stand still in the face of an advancing monster or incoming horde, and when to lower your weapon, turn as fast as you can and run for safer ground, there to hectically regroup and open fire once more.
You won't find a better combination of schlock horror and dynamic action in videogames.
In making you vulnerable while attacking, the game can let you have an array of potent weaponry without completely diluting the tension. The weapons in Resident Evil 4 are wonderfully tactile and responsive, with even the standard handgun knocking enemies backwards. The shotgun will throw them right off their feet, while the TMP brings up a ripple of blood as it rapid-fires bullets. Meeting encroaching monsters with a wall of firepower, moving fast to avoid them even scratching Leon, is a real thrill.
You won't find a better combination of schlock horror and dynamic action in videogames, although the likes of Dead Space 2 and Alan Wake come close. It's this perfectly balanced combination of genres, along with the skill, style and bravado of the game's blockbuster execution, that makes Resident Evil 4 not only a landmark in its series and genre, but the kind of durable classic that deserves revisiting over half a decade after its release. Absolutely essential.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
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