Last week, I was having a discussion with my white clone one of the guys from our ads department about games, and we were joking about being separated at birth for having very similar opinions. But one really struck a chord with me--his opinion that PC games are, overall, just better than their console or handheld counterparts. I had to really think about that, and actually disagree with it (deep breath, now)--Super Mario Bros. 3, Contra 4, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Metal Gear Solid 3, Chrono Trigger, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, Final Fantasy VI, Vagrant Story and Xenogears never saw a(n official) PC release. Adding one more to that "Nate's favorite games of all time" list, Resident Evil 4, was part of the "console-only" club... until now. (Yes, I know Resident Evil 4 got a PC port in 2007. It was awful. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only bad version of this game.)
Capcom has brought the 2005 smash hit that revitalized a dying series to PC in full force this time, featuring beautifully-redone graphics and smooth, flexible PC controls, allowing either a supported controller or mouse-and-keyboard. Now, while this is a good thing for some people, I think the mouse-and-keyboard setup brings the game's challenge down considerably. If we're going to compare movie gunfights to the different versions of RE4, well...
The standard console (GameCube, PS2, Xbox 360 and PS3) controls are best described as the knock-down, drag-out train station shootout in The Untouchables, where every shot counts and missing equals immediate and painful death because there's a million things going on at once... but if you calmed down and took your shots one at a time, you came out on top.
On the Wii, it was smoother sailing, with clean, natural movement--you were literally pointing a remote (unless you were awesome and played with this). The game was easier, for sure--faster, more accurate aiming meant you rarely missed and got to get stylish, like Tequila wiping out an entire teahouse at the beginning of Hard Boiled.
But on PC, well... it's a little too easy. The ease of mowing through crowds of Ganados? The quick, effortless switching between gunplay and melee with pinpoint accuracy? Yeah, it was more or less the final shootout in Equilibrium.
So with that said, even as an easier game, Resident Evil 4 is one of those titles I hold up as a paragon of intelligent, organic game design. Leon has a variety of moves--shooting, attacking with his knife, context-sensitive kicks and throws--but not all enemies can be dealt with in the same way, and quite a few require more forethought and think-on-your-feet strategy if you don't want to be horribly dismembered. If you pay attention, weapons are introduced at really appropriate moments--you start with a pistol, and you deal with small groups of enemies, but when you fight an entire village's worth of weapon-wielding lunatics, you get a shotgun for crowd control. The game steadily introduces more and more advanced mechanics until it expects you to juggle a growing arsenal and shift tactics on the fly for varied groups of enemies, all while managing your health and ammo.
It's very important to bring up the fact that the game is very much a product of its time--people who've played Resident Evil 4 will get more or less the definitive version of a classic, but what about people who are just walking in, who've heard all the hype and are ready to try a piece of gaming history? A lot of gamers used to today's twin-stick controls tend to find RE4's (more realistic) stop-and-shoot mentality difficult, and it really becomes a case of "you had to be there," when this new setup was a huge leap forward compared to the series' infamous "tank controls." Personally, I'm of the mindset that prefers a slightly-awkward control setup, because it encourages mastery instead of just immediately opening itself to you. In 2005, Resident Evil 4 was a revolutionary masterpiece, but for people who have probably played countless titles that have been influenced by it, RE4 may not be quite so fresh and new.
Resident Evil 4 has been a huge influence on what we expect from modern games, for better and for worse--a persistent and slightly-offset over-the-shoulder camera (instead of centering the camera on your character), regular QTEs (both optional and mandatory), and a more dedicated focus on action have all helped define games since RE4's release. Unfortunately, for players who have only heard of RE4's accomplishments and are experiencing them for the first time, these may be perceived as old hat. People who don't like QTEs will also find a lot to hate--many QTEs happen suddenly during cutscenes or periods of calm, and failure almost always equals death. While I think it adds tension and keeps you on your toes, a lot of players will hate having to replay the same sequence over and over again.
Some players may want to take advantage of the Ultimate Edition's new graphics features, like hardlocking the framerate at 60fps, but I found that it caused too much slowdown (even in cutscenes) on a relatively recent laptop with good specs. While the in-game graphics have cleaned up nicely, they aren't as polished in the cutscenes, so the visual transition can be kind of jarring, especially in segments like Leon and Krauser's QTE-heavy knife-fight. While the cleaned-up textures look nice, it's never long before you're once again reminded of this game's age, and why I always talk about how stylized visuals age so much better than attempts at the super-realistic.
Really, with all the nitpicking out of the way, Resident Evil 4 is an expert showcase of great atmosphere. Starting out, the air is thick with tension, you have no idea what's going to attack you or from where. You're thrown into an insane life-or-death fight ten or fifteen minutes into the game, and the chances to catch your breath are few and far between. As you get better at the game and learn the ins and outs of its mechanics, the game becomes easier, enemies become less threatening, and in my case I get really obsessed with organizing Leon's attache case just right.
And to close on the same note I started on, I love PC games too. Briefly put, some of my favorite PC games are StarCraft, System Shock II, Portal, Full Throttle, and Half-Life, so there's really no wrong answer if you love playing games... and if you love games but haven't tried Resident Evil 4 for whatever reason, give the Ultimate Edition a shot--just be prepared to face the fact that this game released almost a decade ago. In some aspects, it hasn't aged well, but then again, some of the greatest movies of all time show a little wear. Games should get the same leeway.
+ Excellent sense of design, built around teaching you how to play by actually having you play the game and learning as you go
+ Oppressive atmosphere really draws you into the game
+ A wealth of unlockable content including special weapons, costumes, side-stories, and score attack modes
+/- Slightly-awkward controls encourage mastery, but can be jarring for gamers used to more modern setups
+/- Visuals clean up nicely, but still show their age
- Not all cutscenes are cleaned up, and there are minor, easy-to-work-around technical issues like slowdown at 60fps