Taking the zombies out of the Resident Evil universe? Naw, it would never work...
Ever since Resident Evil defined the "Zombie Dogs Jumping Through the Window Unexpectedly" genre, other games not developed by Capcom have passed the sequels of the original Resident Evil in just about every category. While gameplay improvements with each new RE game did bring something new to the table, the static camera angles and control scheme never changed, and the Raccoon City storyline was stretched thin. Capcom went back to the drawing board to re-invent the series for Resident Evil 4, and the result is nothing less than amazing.
The game looks incredible. The game sounds incredible. All gameplay elements are extremely well thought out. The story is good and the cutscenes that help tell it are stellar. The control scheme works now, and the new manual aiming system is great. The most impressive thing of all is how the game intertwines it all, making for a total game experience that is much, much more than the sum of its parts.
One of those parts is what the game looks like. A single glance at this game isn't enough to appreciate how jaw-droppingly beautiful everything is. Textures are so well applied and so crisp and clean that you can't believe what you see on your screen is happening in real-time. In fact, there are many backdrops in the game that look better in real-time then some of RE2's pre-rendered backgrounds did. Every so often you're going to stop and just look at a cabinet there, or a table setting there, or a blood-stained wall over there. There are more than a few areas where the environment is so alive, you can't help but stop what you're doing and appreciate it for a moment before heading out into that what you see ahead.
If you happen to see a hoard of Los Ganados ahead of you, then you might want to draw your gun and start shooting them down. In previous Resident Evil games, you had the option to aim in three places. In Resident Evil 4, you can use your laser-sighted weapons to shoot any part of the body. If some big angry dude with an axe in his hand is running at you, a shot or two in the leg will trip him up. Closer threats can be shot in the arm to make them drop their weapons. If you hit their head in the right spot, you'll blow it clean off. Shooting has a much more prominent role in this game, giving it a fast-paced feel right from the start.
Unlike in past games, where ammo was precious, here it's everywhere. You can find as much ammo as there are crazed villagers, and when you take care of them, they'll leave even more ammo behind. While there are some points in the game when running away is a good option, you'll generally want to move closer and get personal to get the most out of your shotgun or whatever other weapon you have available. It makes you go on the offensive more than ever, making the game less of a fight for surival, and more of a quest to kill anything in your way.
Instead of fetching keys and backtracking to get new weapons, our hero Leon can now collect money, and buy weapons and items from the merchants located around town. You start the game with just a simple standard-issue handgun, but as you get more money and find treasures to sell for serious money, you can get more impressive weapons. If not, money can be used to upgrade weapons you already have. There are points in the game where the amount of money you have saved up and the need for greater firepower match each other, and you can sell your old weapons and get brand new ones. Firepower and enemy strength is balanced out perfectly.
For a majority of the game, you'll be dragging along your damsel in distress, Ashley. It'll be your job to make sure she doesn't die, or else it's game over for you and a trip back to a continue point. For the most part, she is never a nuisance, and it never gets to the point where you want to turn around and shoot her yourself on account of her stupidity. When it comes down to certain parts of the game where you'll need to work together to get through an area, she can hold her own just fine, as long as you cover her back.
Sound is a very important element for Resident Evil 4. Everything heard out of the game adds to the atmosphere perfectly, or helps you out in the game immensely. Nothing sounds bad at all. With some enemies and in some areas of the game, sound actually becomes vital in getting through alive. For instance, a rather nasty type of enemy is blind, but they can hear your footsteps if you run, or the sound of your gun if you shoot. Another type of creature is invisible, and the only way you'll know it's coming is to hear them scooting up the walls or sloshing around in the water.
These examples of the use of sound incorporated into the gameplay help to illustrate RE4's most impressive feature. All of the elements that most people would look at individually (graphics, sound, control, gameplay, etc.) are all intertwined, each category helping make another category better. The final result is a product that is could be considered a masterpiece more than just a videogame.
The game's cutscenes are the best example of everything coming together to produce something unbelievable. In most games, once a cutscene starts, you're simply just watching it, and the game will start up again once it's over. Resident Evil 4 does it differently. A cutscene could be going on, and suddenly, you're prompted to press a button combination. If you don't do it in time, you'll usually die a gruesome death. This is totally integrated into a cutscene that looks good enough to be pre-rendered. It gives you the feeling that you're in control of the game from start to finish, and an eye-popping cutscene is no guarantee that you're safe from dying.
In fact, there are a few cutscene sequences that you might consider "boss fights." A knife-fighting sequence in particular comes to mind. It could have been done with you in complete control of Leon, exchanging dialogue and swinging knives at each other. Instead, it presents you with an awesome, scripted (but not pre-rendered) interactive cutscene sequence, with you on the edge of your seat and looking to react to the button prompts in time. It's an awesome experience, one made better by the fact that you still have some control over Leon, as if you're still playing the game.
As for the actual boss fights, Resident Evil die-hards might be a little bummed to hear that they aren't as difficult as some of the bosses in previous games. This might be a result of the improved controls and greater emphasis on shooting, but whether or not you find the fights easy, they are still put together well and are nothing short of visually stunning.
The other negative things left to scrape off the bottom of the barrel are the control issues and minor graphical oddities. The control scheme that RE4 has is virtually the same as previous games. While it's solid and not really a problem now, you still can't strafe, and you must turn in place. That becomes a problem when you need to run away quickly in tight spaces, something that happens a lot toward the end of the game. In the graphics department, the weapons of enemies tend to clip through closed doors they can't open. It doesn't look all that good, but once the action starts up again you won't care.
There's also this little thing about Resident Evil 4 being two discs. It's impressive enough that the game looks so good, but the reason it's two discs isn't because all that space is for textures. The game takes a minimum of 20 hours to beat. That's as long as many RPGs. What makes RE4 so incredible is that you will play it again at least once, because you can play it in many different ways. Change the difficulty to hard, use different weapons you didn't get the first time, find all the treasures, etc. There are also special games to play after you complete it, a la Resident Evil 2, one of which just begs you to come back to the game. This game is worth it for so many reasons, one of them being that you will be playing it for weeks even after you've finished it.
Resident Evil 4 is perfect in many ways, and the few flaws that are present are cancelled out by the overall brilliance of the total package. It's got lots of cool elements from old RE games which fans of the series will get a kick out of, but it's plenty accessible to first-timers as well. Anyone looking for a good action title would be a fool not to own this game. Don't wait for an inferior version to come to the PS2 at the end of the year. This game will sell GameCubes, and if you already have one, you should go out and get Resident Evil 4. Right now.