Since its debut on the PlayStation in 1996, the genre-defining Resident Evil series has had its ups and downs, though it's always remained at the forefront of survival horror games. Yet it's not enough to call Resident Evil 4 one of the high points of the series, because this is probably the single greatest horror-themed action game ever created. Resident Evil 4 is an amazing achievement in a variety of ways, especially in how its inspired, state-of-the-art cinematic presentation works so well with its relentlessly exciting, white-knuckle action, all of which is wrapped up in a decidedly lengthy adventure chock-full of hidden secrets and bonus extras. It obviously isn't for the squeamish or for those otherwise not qualified to play this gory, mature-rated GameCube game, which is too bad for them, because it's hard to imagine anyone else not being consistently thrilled and impressed by what Resident Evil 4 has to offer.
In case it isn't abundantly clear, you don't need to be a Resident Evil fan to appreciate Resident Evil 4. However, Resident Evil fans will recognize the game's well-groomed protagonist Leon S. Kennedy, a wisecracking government agent investigating an inconspicuous European village where the US president's missing daughter was supposedly sighted. Experiencing the events of the game without really knowing what else to expect is a big part of the fun, so suffice it to say the story is filled with surprises, and it further does a great job of continually ratcheting up the sense of danger and tense excitement you'll feel right from the get-go. The story unfolds through some beautifully rendered and choreographed cinematic cutscenes, as well as through occasional notes you'll find. Yet these aren't the game's strongest suit, nor are they the focus of it, since the dialogue is hammy and thankfully brief. The story's there to give fans of the series something new to ponder, though it mostly exists to create a context for all of Resident Evil 4's action sequences. Basically, it helps make the game suspenseful and entices you to keep playing just to see what happens next.
Resident Evil 4 is being appropriately billed as the game that takes the series in a bold, new direction. This seems immediately apparent just minutes after the game begins, when Leon is confronted not by the sorts of mindless zombies that typified previous Resident Evil installments, but by a haggard man who seems decidedly displeased by Leon's presence and completely ignores the threat of his 9mm pistol as he menacingly approaches, axe in hand. The cover of the box depicts these sorts of torch-and-pitchfork-wielding disgruntled natives whom Leon will be dealing with in Resident Evil 4, so the question you'll be wondering is, what exactly are these Spanish-speaking folks' major malfunctions that cause them to want to murder Leon by any means necessary, and without any concern for their own safety? The game's humanoid enemies seem much more unsettling than your typical zombies, since they show basic signs of intelligence, yet their hatred for Leon far eclipses their own survival instinct. Still, it'll take just one slash of a sickle or one pitchfork gouging to teach you to terminate these savages without hesitation. They're creepy, memorable foes. And, without spoiling anything, they're just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite Resident Evil 4's unique controls and perspective, it's easy to come to grips with how the game is played. In fact, it might leave you wondering why it took someone so long to pull off a game in this fashion, because the controls and perspective work so well. Resident Evil 4 is presented in cinematic widescreen, so if you have a standard television set, you'll view the action in letterbox format. This not only contributes to the game's movielike feel, but it also gives you some much-needed peripheral vision of your surroundings. You view the action from behind Leon, and the perspective zooms in to a close, over-the-shoulder view when you ready a weapon, which you can easily aim using its laser sight. Realistically, Leon doesn't have a perfectly steady hand when aiming, but since most of the combat occurs in brutal close quarters, you don't usually need pinpoint accuracy to get the job done. You cannot move and fire at the same time, nor can you strafe from side to side as you can in a typical shooter, though Resident Evil 4 plays very much like a shooter otherwise. The zoomed view while aiming works great for drawing a bead on your enemies, but you naturally lose some of your situational awareness in the process, because you can see more of your periphery when you're not aiming at what's in front of you.
This dynamic has an exceptional way of heightening tension, since your foes love trying to surround you. They move and behave with frightening realism in the context of the game, and overall, the enemy design in Resident Evil 4 is truly outstanding. There are many things that look terribly lifelike and will send a chill down your spine, making you desperately want to kill them before they kill you first, in some sort of horrible fashion. Fortunately, the controls feel like they're tuned just right to give the game the same sort of pacing inherent to an action horror movie. The absence of the ability to sidestep doesn't hurt gameplay and instead accentuates the toe-to-toe confrontations, while the ability to quickly turn around using a simple controller command is more than welcome. The game expertly makes you feel that you're both watching a freaky, nail-biting movie about Leon and actually walking in his shoes. In fact, despite the high quality of the action, some of the best moments are the purely suspenseful ones when you're exploring while knowing full well that things aren't going to remain this quiet for long.