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Resident Evil 4 review - a lavish remake of a horror classic that is still to be bettered

Resident Evil 4 remake
Resident Evil 4 remake

Resident Evil 4 is nothing if not flexible. Since its original release in 2005, Leon S Kennedy’s gruesome foray into a macabre, parasite-infected European village has bounced its way to different consoles, incorporated light-gun esque motion controls, had a HD touch-up, been on mobile phones and gone all virtual reality. Now, though, is the first time that it has had the full-on remake treatment that seems so hot right now.

Developer Capcom has sterling previous in this regard with its remake of Resident Evil 2, a classic game made brilliantly modern. Partly because of technical and visual enhancements, but majorly because it was made, well, more like Resident Evil 4. That claustrophobic over-the-shoulder camera, thumping gunfire and taut aiming; Resi 4’s genre-defining influence went far beyond itself and its own series, forming the basis of the third-person shooter that perseveres today.

So a remake of Resident Evil 4 can’t have that same bold transformation as the Resi 2 remake and comes across more as a handsome, modern and faithful remix of the original. But it is still a powerful reminder of what an exceptional game it is. And, despite its far reaching influence, how there still isn’t anything quite like it.

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It starts as it always has: with rookie cop turned super government agent Leon arriving on the outskirts of a mysterious, fog-shrouded hamlet in search for the President’s daughter. Separated from his guides, Leon stumbles into hell; rotting corpses and squishy entrails --rendered in suitably gruesome detail-- pile in corners of cabins; a local policia is tied to a stake and set alight in the village square; the cultish denizens shuffling and chanting around their grim pyre. Before, of course, they turn en masse to Leon; axes in hand and violence in mind.

Resident Evil 4 remake
Resident Evil 4 remake

That opening hits as hard as ever, the oppressive feeling of gaggles of infected villagers stalking down on you; gunshots popping into flesh but still they come. Then the telltale roar of a chainsaw. I’m not sure a game before, or since, has captured the essence of panic in its combat as brilliantly as Resident Evil 4 does.

And this is undoubtedly enhanced by the remake’s tremendous visuals and sound, those gurning, groaning ganados and their wriggling parasites searing into your mind. There are other modern tweaks here, of course, the camera is a little looser, Leon can move while he takes aim and has a broader range of knife-attacks to help hoard ammo. You can now crouch and creep, sidling up to enemies for stealth kills that thin the herd. Leon also has a neat knife parry that, when timed right, can allow you to dish out his roundhouse kick before finishing off any enemies knocked prone. All of this is offset but he fact that knives can break easily, meaning their use is just as tactical as the guns. Quick switching between pistols, shotguns and rifles is essential in managing the hordes and your survival.

Even with modern enhancements to your arsenal, the result is just as startling. Resident Evil 4 is not always jump-out-of-your-seat  ‘scary’, though it certainly has its moments, but there is an almost constant feeling of dread and tension both in and out of combat. The action forms the backbone of Resident Evil 4 and it is an impressive feat of design that so many encounters feel like marquee set pieces; whether its a gaggle of torch-wielding denizens, the heart-stopping approach of a Regenerator or a bigger boss fight. These are mixed up to differing levels of success in the remake, but the game is broadly a masterclass of pacing, knowing when to slow down and give you a puzzle to solve or a more open area to explore. Each quieter section a potent comma in which to catch your breath but nearly always gilded with something interesting to do.

Resident Evil 4 remake
Resident Evil 4 remake

I can take or leave the new tasks scattered around by Resident Evil 4’s famous merchant. Here, blue flyers ask you to collect eggs, kill a certain number of rats or sell the merchant particular treasures (or dead snakes, naturally). All of this in exchange for special spinels used to trade for items you can’t buy with regular cash. They’re fine and tend to fit naturally into your progress, but occasionally contradict Resi 4’s otherwise staunch opposition to video game bloat.

Still, any excuse to spend more time in Resi 4’s gorgeously gross environments will have its merits. The muck and blood of the village farms, creaking wooden walkways leading down to a monster-infested lake, a resplendent castle with lavish dining rooms and twisting corridors hiding any manner of slithering ghouls in its light and shadow. It looks as terrific as you might expect, but also help enhance that sense of pace and variety and each environmental shift brings a change in tone and bestiary.

That a Resident Evil 4 remake is expectedly brilliant is a tough stick to beat it with. But while it might not have that extraordinary sense of upgrade that Resident Evil 2 did, it is important to realise what it represents. Resi 4 was the main driver of the third-person action revolution - the moderniser-in-chief. That its influence has come full circle into its own remake should be no surprise. What does shock, perhaps, is that even after all these years and all its myriad versions is that Resident Evil 4 still hasn’t been bettered. A smartly-executed upgrade has only thrown that into sharper focus. And, particularly for those that haven’t played it before, this is as essential as video games get.