Resident Evil 4 has left an undeniable impact on gaming often spoken about with a reverence few games have. For myself, and I know of many others, Mikami's seminal masterpiece is the best action game ever made. It is the game I judge all action games by since and so far all have fallen short. I have wanted to do a big breakdown on RE4 and now that the Remake is out in a few days I feel it's a good time to examine why it is so revered so we don’t forget about it’s greatness.

Before I continue I want to address the obvious that not all games are for everyone. What was considered groundbreaking in 2005 might be second nature now. The lack of moving while aiming is the big complaint, for some it's a non negotiable issue, they can't enjoy a game without modern controls. With the way shooter game controls have become homogenized over the years any game that strays from that formula will meet resistance, especially when the actions are more limited. I will explain why I feel the lack of moving while aiming is actually beneficial to this game because of how it is designed, but I understand those that find it as a cardinal sin. There are also RE fans who remain bitter at how RE4 changed the franchise into a different genre all together. I understand that having a franchise evolve into something you don't care for can be painful but the quality of the game on its own is different from the question of "is RE4 a good RE game". That's a question everyone will have to answer for themselves, for the purpose of this thread we are focusing on RE4 being the best action game possible.

This will be a long post so to summarize why RE4 is such a masterpiece here are some bullet points.

  • Revolutionary over the shoulder aiming with excellent hit detection, a game where every shot matters.
  • Context actions allow Leon to transverse the environments with ease and engage enemies with melee attacks after they are stunned.
  • A perfect gameplay loop where every kill and hidden treasure funds the upgrades of your arsenal and carry limit.
  • Incredible enemy variety and ever changing level layouts means no two rooms are ever the same
  • Perfect pacing, a relentless action game that continuously surprises room after room for around 13 hours straight.

Controls and Mechanics

RE4 by today's standards seems antiquated but back in 2005 it was ground breaking, the over the shoulder aiming brought a whole new perspective to the combat. By pulling the camera all the way in and letting the aiming take over the screen it allowed for precision shooting most third person games never achieved before. It also enhances the action by putting the player right into the viewpoint the character would have without actually being first person. An aspect many probably forgot about is that RE4 was a widescreen game during a time  where widescreen games were rare, especially on consoles. This game had black bars because most everyone had 4:3 TVs, it's was a bold move but absolutely necessary for this new over the shoulder viewpoint so that the player had the most possible peripheral vision.

That change in viewpoint revolutionized third person shooters forever. I will breakdown many aspects of this game but I can't take you back in time and give you the feeling of seeing or playing RE4 for the first time when it released, there was nothing like it. Its influenced is felt to this day in every third person shooter out there.

While the viewpoint was changed RE4 actually has the same tank control scheme of previous games in the series but simply changing the perspective makes it feel like a whole new game. The camera is always in tight in Leon which works great to keep the tension high and the action close. RE4 is designed to be stop and shoot. By forcing the player to stop when aiming it makes them commit to that location and put all their attention into the act of shooting. There is no dodge, there is no side step, your offense AND defense is in your shooting.

The context melee attack makes sure the player is staying close to the enemies and in the thick of the action. Any shot that staggers an enemy can prompt a melee attack which sometimes can knock back multiple enemies at once. This gives the player the choice on whether to hang back and continue to fire at a distance or rush in close in order to get the melee attack in. It's an elegant system of pros and cons that tie perfectly into how Leon moves around the environment.

The hit detection is some of the best in gaming, every shot creates a reaction that can be used to strategically escape any situation. If an enemy is getting close firing one shot to the leg brings them to their knee. Say a ganado has a throwing axe, well shoot the axe out of the hand or even out of the air as it's been hurled at you. Need to stun an enemy, nail a head shot giving an opening for a melee follow up. Have a whole group coming at you, take out the SMG and shoot at legs and watch them all fall like bowling pins. This super reactive hit detection combined with tight aiming and the forced commitment to one spot creates a feel where every shot matters, I find that rare in most action games.

Another distinguishing feature of the RE4 control scheme was the way every action was context sensitive. RE4s control scheme is rather simple, but the versatility of the context button lets you move about the environments with ease. Think about all that button can do; jump over an object, knock down a ladder, jump out a window, duck behind a cover spot, melee attack, or barricade a door. Look at that variety in actions done with one button, I feel it allows the player to not get bogged down in too many superfluous mechanics and just focus on what matters, moving around, finding the right position and shooting.

So many shooters let you spray bullets, or run and gun where you just move around while unloading clips; RE4 in contrast makes each shot and action mean something. I'm not going to tell you one type of action is better than another, that's for you to decide, but for me I was never the biggest fan of the cover shooter that Gears popularized. I do enjoy Gears games but when it comes to a big combat sequence it almost always involves a series of chest high walls and you navigating your character between them to get good line of site to spray bullets at a target until it dies. Sure there are guns in gears where shooting a limb does something different, and a head shot is always more damaging but for the most part it's aim and spray which to me isn't as interesting as the surgical nature of taking out enemy by enemy with each shot in RE4.

Environment

Leon's restrictive movement forced the developers to design levels in such a way that the player can put obstacles in between them and the enemy, or have multiple paths to escape. A large empty space would not work, a room with a bunch of chest high walls would not work. This kind of combat needs intricate design; there are windows to jump out of, doors to barricade, ladders to knock down, and many objects to get behind. Every new area in this game has a different layout which is key in making each encounter feel interesting. Take the village and its many homes and barns to use as ways to create space between you and the hordes after you. A good player will running into homes creating choke points at doors or windows, then exit through a back window putting barriers between you and the enemies but always needing to be aware of enemies coming from multiple sides. The genius of RE4 comes in the multitude of different room layouts, each designed specifically to create a new exciting encounter.

So many action games don't bother to make the environments part of the action, mostly because the main character can use their movement to get away from enemies. I feel the restrictive movement of Leon, and how he can't be a strafe shooting maniac, lead to the devs focusing on the way each room is designed to allow Leon different ways to fight. Let's compare RE4 to the third person shooters that are more free in motion, some having the character dive around in slow motion or even have some form of powers. Again this can be fun but for me it usually results in using the same strategy of running/diving around while shooting at an immediate threat. When the player can move and shoot the environment doesn't matter as much, you can evade the attack no matter the design of the level. In games like Max Payne and Control, the levels are usually just spaces to move about, sure some have pillars or objects in the way but for the most part the level is there to give you space to move around, not be a part of the combat scenario. So many games have simple flat rooms, maybe divided into different halls with simple dividing walls but for the most part all flat. Dead Space I feel was full of these very basic environments, even the most intense fights take place in a simple room that has little to no interaction. Contrast that to nearly any location in RE4 and the many ways Leon can move about the ever changing layouts.

Enemy AI

When people ask how does the game work with no moving and shooting I respond with it's designed specifically for those controls, and I feel the ways the enemy attack are directly tied to that. With the camera so close there is no way to know what is coming up behind you and nothing is worse than being hit by something off screen. RE4 solves this by creating a sort of audio radar where enemies will literally announce that they are behind you. Spanish speakers will understand the ganado when they say "detras de ti imbecil" which translates to "behind you imbecile". Every enemy says something before attacking as they come up behind you, making sure you are always aware when to move.

Third person shooters all have issues with aiming when an enemy is right in front of the player taking up most of the screen. In a first person shooter this is no issue at all, the cursor is always at the center of the screen so an enemy taking up the screen puts them in the target area, just shoot away. In over the shoulder aiming a weird effect happens where many times your aiming cursor goes beyond the enemy or somehow is aimed incorrectly resulting in miss fires. In most shooters players can simply run backward to get a proper view to aim but when you can't move and shoot that's a problem. RE4 mostly solves this by having enemies slow down near the player, it's as if Leon has a small force field around him, about a foot from him, that allows the player to properly aim and shoot these enemies. Enemies will sprint from afar and then slow down and sometimes even stop about a foot away and then enter their next phase of attack; ganados, the wolves, the nosvistadors all have animations where they stop in front of the player to allow proper aiming and shooting before the attacks come.  It's subtle but elegant and another example of how this game was built for standing and shooting.

Dynamic Difficulty

Here is a fun fact about RE4s difficulty, it has a background dynamic system which raises or lowers the games difficulty based on how well or poorly the player is playing. Start dominating and you might notice ammo becoming scarcer, enemies becoming more aggressive and numerous. Die a few times and enemies might take it easy, more health and ammo will drop regularly. Any time you feel you desperately need that herb or need bullets because you are about to run out the game will raise the drop rates of those items for you. Another brilliant way RE4 remains fun and balanced no matter how skilled the player is.

QTEs

QTEs where invented by Shenmue but it was RE4 that brought it into the mainstream for better or worse. RE4 I feel used it perfectly to create cutscenes that were semi interactive allowing the player to partake in more elaborate action sequences. It's used most effectively when it's used in battle, because Leon has no dodge button for specific battles QTEs serve as the way to dodge attacks. This comes up mostly during boss battles adding a new layer to the fight. The worst uses of the QTEs come after a big sequence which ends in a sudden QTE that if failed kills the player, that happens a few times and it's something that should be critiqued but for the most part QTEs are implemented well, especially as a contextual dodge mechanic. Still without the QTE we wouldn't get a chase where Leon has to outrun a gigantic walking statue, or have a knife battle with Krauser, or dodge killer lasers. Yes most of those are over the top ridiculous but that's part of the charm.

Inventory

RE4 did away with the classic limited inventory and item boxes, instead there is a large suitcase that can hold a generous amount of items. All key items don't take up any space, this means all your suitcase space is determined by what weapons and health you want to carry. The suitcase created a sort of mini game that many players enjoyed where they organized it in an almost Tetris like way to fit as many weapons and sometimes to simply make the inventory visually pleasing. I think this is the best of both worlds for RE as a magic infinite inventory sort of loses the strategy of what weapon should get priority . Here you don't really need worry at every moment what can you take but when getting new weapons and planning against bosses it still lets player have a modicum of strategy. Also if a player so chooses they can play a whole run with no suitcase upgrades adding a new layer of difficulty.

The upgrade system is extremely well done and spaced out to constantly let the player feel like they are growing at a consistent pace. About every two hours there is a new weapon or new upgrade to invest in, sold by the best Merchant in gaming. This upgrade system is tied into the treasure and currency system that rewards the player for killing enemies and exploring for treasures. A lot of the treasures are very well hidden and serve as the games purpose for exploration. This being a very linear game, these hidden rewards are strategically placed in areas a player may miss if they are just gunning forward.  I found many of these treasures to be fun to find, it gives just the right amount of exploration while not bogging the player down in searching aimlessly for invisible collectibles like say Uncharted which have no value to the gameplay. Here every treasure has the classic item glint or are stored in large chests that many times can be seen but are behind a path the player maybe haven't found. I also love how you can combine treasures to make more valuable ones which incentivized players to find all treasures and be thorough.  It's impressive to see the synergy in play with all these gameplay systems all serving the singular purpose of growing Leon's arsenal, every hidden item has a purpose, every kill can lead to rewards, every breakable crate can give ammo or money, there is nothing wasted in RE4.

Weapons

Weapon variety is key to any action game and RE4 brings about the usual suspects found in a shooter. What makes RE4 stand apart is how it makes sure that each type of weapon has specific uses. Pistols are your base line weapon that allows for pinpoint accuracy and let's you disarm or drop enemies. Shotguns are your primary close damage dealers often times resulting in instant kills or stunning larger enemies. Rifles provides range capabilities which RE4 makes great use of with many sections where enemies are far away requiring good accuracy from afar. It's also a power house weapon resulting in easy head shots from any distance. The SMG is excellent for crowd control and flying enemies. The Magnum and mine launcher provide high power weaponry for bosses or larger enemies. Grenades are extremely valuable serving as your get out of a bind emergency weapon, if you find yourself surrounded lob one and escape. The knife is always at your disposal which lets you create space when an enemy is right in your face.

The way all these weapons are used in any one combat encounter is part of why I feel RE4 sets the standard for enemy encounters. During any one battle you may switch between all four of the major types of guns. It's a beautiful balance of using the right weapon for the right situation and the way the enemies are designed and levels are structured all create opportunities for each weapon to have a specific use and have a chance to shine. Enemies come with specific weaknesses like Plagas with a flash grenade or Regenerators with the thermal rifle. There are multiple versions of the weapons too, different handguns with unique properties allowing the player to pick their favorite (Red9 for me). The first rifle you obtain is a manual reload single fire rifle (with the greatest reload animation) which makes the semi auto rifle you gain later feel like a massive upgrade. It's a fantastic arsenal where nearly nothing is wasted. Not having real time weapon switching is probably the biggest flaw most will agree on with RE4 but experienced players will be able to switch weapons in under a second.

Enemy Variety

Enemy variety is extremely important for any action game, if you get bored of what you are fighting for hours the game will get tedious. Too many action games have few enemy types, many western games don't even have memorable boss battles. The best action games will have loads of enemies that require different strategies and surprise the player from beginning to end and what a shock, RE4 does just that. It has an incredible collection of enemy types which are consistently introduced hour after hour, almost all getting memorable moments. Everyone remembers the first time they went into the prison and fought a Garrador. Or going through the dark sewers and invisible bugs were hiding in every corner. And of course that first time a Regenerator started to slowly come at you with it's disturbing noises and stretchy arms.

Even something as simple as the grunt enemy, the ganado are so well thought out. The first group attack with basic farm equipment, maybe throwing knives or sticks of dynamite. Later in the castle ganado wear armor to cover their head, some have shields, some have dangerous bolt guns or even an RPG. My favorite aspect of the ganado is that for the first chapter it seems like getting a head shot is the best way to assure a death. Then from the second chapter on , when night falls, the game throws a curveball. If a ganado's head explodes they might keep coming at Leon, bursting from their head a tentacled monstrosity emerges, making them more dangerous than ever. The plagas forms add so much to each combat encounter, a lot of my deaths come when I thought I killed an enemy only to have a plagas emerge at the worst time possible. To show the beauty between the weapons and enemy design, Plagas have a clear weakness, bright light. Usually the flash grenade is used to stun groups of enemies, but if you have plagas around it's an instant kill making flash grenades very useful weapons in specific moments. All this variation comes from just the grunt enemy, imagine if most games put this much care into the common enemy you fight.

These enemies are so memorable, have great designs and most importantly are expertly placed in each encounter to create a new exciting experience.  I wish more games would learn from RE4 and have a good mix of unique enemies that aren't just different to be different but are fun to fight by require different tactics for each. To have rooms and situations built around each of them. Too many games feel like the randomly place different enemies in a room and call it a day, in RE4 you can tell every enemy placement and how they fit into the environment is well thought out.

Boss Battles

No action game is complete without memorable boss battles, to me boss battles are what can take a game from great to all time masterpiece and RE4 is a great example of that. The first boss is a gigantic water dwelling salamander that takes place while Leon is driving a boat in a large lake. He must throw spears at this creature as it drags the boat around; that's how the game STARTS. Next we have El Gigante which is a show stopping boss that is instantly recognizable as an all time iconic boss battle. Here is a monster that tears down shacks, picks up entire tress to swing at you, the scale is incredible. That's just the first time you battle it, there is an optional fight that is more of a chase and later on a unique twist with two gigantes in a lava room. I think the way RE5 handles their gigante shows the difference between the two games. RE5 chasing the current action game trends of the time, makes their El Gigante boss a shooting a gallery moment which is pretty basic and actually kind of annoying. RE4 in contrast makes sure  that every El Gigante fight is different but making sure to keep the core gameplay intact.

It's not just all gigantic screen filling bosses either, I love the more human sized bosses as well. Mendez is a a great fight in a small burning barn as he swings around with dangerous pinchers. Verdugo is probably the scariest battle as this alien like creature turns invisible  and hunts you through an underground lab. My favorite boss is the MGS like Krauser battle which is multi staged and ends in a fast paced battle requiring great reaction time. Many bosses even have multiple ways to defeat them allowing the player to experiment. These bosses have incredible variety, many make great uses of different weaponry and are almost all extremely memorable.

Story tone

As the icing on the cake the story and tone of RE4 straddles the line between 80s action movie bravdo and B movie horror goofiness perfectly. Leon plays the role of the one liner spewing American action Star perfectly. The villains stay in contact with him throughout borrowing from greats like Die Hard which understood that a great hero needs fun villains to feed of off. The action is played serious enough to feel like Leon is in legitimate danger while also pushing the campiness right to the line where the zaniness (like a statue coming to life chasing Leon) adds to the adventure rather it feeling like a big joke. Mix in some meta commentary on big dumb American action movies and you get a sort of homage to everything that made that kind of movie stand the test of time, now in video game form.

Pacing and Encounter Design

We can argue if certain games have better weapons, better mechanics, better enemy variety, better bosses, sure there are games that excel in one or two of those areas but rarely does a game balance all of them as well as RE4. That said I don't think there is an argument as to which game has the best pacing and encounter design; RE4 manages to remain exciting, surprising and have non stop variety for about 12-14 hours, a ridiculously big game for an action game that basically has no down time at all. RE4 is always on, no boring sections, no walking and talking segments; it's nonstop adrenaline pumping action from the first home you enter until the last explosion goes off. To this day I marvel at how Mikami and his team were able to craft such a roller coaster of a game and keep that intensity up for so long.

It begins fast, no slow tutorial like RE6, the first encounter is one enemy and gives a chance for the player to learn how shots affect them. There is an escape from the window teaching the player about the contextual actions. On the road toward the village there are bear traps and laser triggered bombs teaching awareness to the player early on.

The opening village I feel is one of the all time greatest levels in gaming history. Think of how the first level of Super Mario Bros. teaches the player everything they need to know about the rest of the game just through its level design. The village is a testing ground for the player to experience practically every kind of action they will need to learn to master. Everything from barricading doorways, kicking down ladders, bursting through windows, dealing with locks on doors, chickens giving eggs, barrels to explode, learning to use new weapons, and mastering how to get around a perfectly designed location. The introduction of the chainsaw wielding mad man shows the player how relentless some enemies will be making you use the environment to get away. You will see enemies break through windows, tear down doors, and throw axes at you. It's the perfect encapsulation of the mechanics and encounter design that will prevail for the rest of the game.

From there each area adds a new wrinkle from  the farm introducing blue medallions and teaching players about treasures with the pendant and dirty water well.  There are sections with traps and dynamite. We meet the merchant where you buy the sniper rifle just in time for an area designed to snipe. This level is designed with verticality in mind, with winding bridges, towers and roofs to climb. Enemies will drop dynamite from up high and also hide inside the different sheds in ambush. I love this section, so many action games don't care about verticality, this is a perfect section to show how RE4 uses its environment so well to introduce a new weapon.

On the road to Del Lago you enter a fish farm needing to take cover behind walls as enemies launch dynamite from behind cover. There is the graveyard with puzzles and a trap filled swamp and then the first boss battle of the game.

Next few hours have the change from day to night bringing in the threat of plagas bursting from enemies heads. New wolf enemies come out at the church. There is the El Gigante boss. Finding Ashley and having her go through the darkened village eventually reaching the cabin where there is the intense cabin defense segment.

The village ends with the excellent Mendez boss battle, many games might give you a break but not here, there is a car barreling down on Leon and Ashley, ganado give chase until you reach the castle where a whole new set of problems arise. Catapults! Giant flaming balls of death! Needing to find a cannon to blow open a door. Another spectacular setpiece. In the castle a series of tight well designed rooms, the introduction of el garrador and one of the best designed rooms of the game, the gigantic water bridge room. The player must protect Ashley and use her to activate switches while enemies can literally drop from the celing onto you. The action spills out into a massive water room where Ashley must go on her own to raise a bridge while Leon must snipe enemies attacking her while protecting himself at the same time, brilliant with so many systems working together.

The castle is the best part of the game with the most inventive rooms and best mix of enemies. It's also the scariest section of the game with memorable horror moments like being in the sewers when the invisible novistadors show up. Soon after is the hedge maze of doom with wolves jumping out of every corner. Being stuck in a cage with a garrador is never fun. Even getting to control Ashley as she navigates a pitch black library filled with loving armor statues. There is a mine cart chase, a flaming dragon statue room, guys with rocket launchers, double garradors, Verdugo, a giant statue of Salazar come to life and an elevator ride from hell. It NEVER STOPS.

I see a lot of people don't like the island, some say it makes RE4 too long, it could be cut… hell no! The island has some of the best moments of the entire game. Yes it has some gun toting enemies, but they fit with the combat unlike the mess you get in RE5. The location might not be as interesting visually as the other two but again the important thing is the encounters and the island has so many great ones. Imagine RE4 without the Regenerators, without the giant truck chase section, without MIIIKEs excellent helicopter section. The island also has the best boss battles of the game with IT and my personal favorite the MGS like multi staged  Krauser battle. If the island is what many believe is the worst part of RE4, then the worst part of RE4 is still better than most action games.

Conclusion

Resident Evil 4 not only revolutionized the third person shooter, it set the standard for how to design the perfect action game, the standard which I feel has yet to be topped. Every aspect of the game is so well designed, all gameplay systems work so well together. Ultimately though it’s the incredible encounter design and ever changing variety that has never been topped. I know this was very long, I’ve been wanting to do this for years and now that we are on the cusp of the original maybe being overshadowed by the remake I want to make sure we never forget why RE4 is such a masterpiece.

Posted by Dvader Thu, 23 Mar 2023 07:40:12 (comments: 5)
 
Thu, 23 Mar 2023 10:02:15

What a damn fine game. What a surprise it was when it came out that January.

 
Thu, 23 Mar 2023 13:30:35

I never replayed RE4, only did one playthrough, but it's amazing how much I still remember of it.  I don't like horror games, never played any RE game before it, but the pure quality of this game was so obvious that I bought it day one regardless.  Those were good times to be a gamer.

 
Thu, 23 Mar 2023 15:29:03
Will read later.

Awesome game. I replayed it so many times though I don't really feel the need to play a remake at the moment.

I have it permantly installed on my switch in HD.

Could use motion controls, otherwise its as perfect as I can imagine.

Would be nice to have a Co op mode for my nephew. We (him mostly) enjoyed playing through re6 together.

Never did team up to take down re5. Thought it was too violent at the time.
 
Sat, 15 Apr 2023 17:05:58
Yeah the aiming and camera have been endlessly copied. It set a new cinematic standard in a way.

Loved how every shot did count. My nephew is terrible at it. Kept trying to get him to shoot the kneecaps.
 
Fri, 28 Apr 2023 17:42:39

I think the most interesting thing about RE4 pacing is that it is not constant action. There's many moments of down time, arguably more than in most action games. It starts and stops in quick succession, unlike most games, too; and often isn't building up to a crescendo. There isn't really anything else like it, yet arguably most modern blockbuster action games have tried (and failed) to copy it. I think what makes it work so well is how detailed and engrossing the environment itself is. When you're just exploring looking for treasure in between fights, it's almost as enjoyable as the combat.

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