Village of the damned

Jon Dieringer

‘Resident Evil 4’ reinvents series to horrifying effect

Before George Romero defined zombies as we understand them today — our friends and neighbors resurrected as plodding, cannibalistic killing machines by way of viral outbreak or nuclear mishap — there was, well, Haiti. Lest we forget, true zombiedom has its roots in voodoo mysticism as a type of mambo magic that spellbinds the deceased to do an evil sorcerer’s bidding.

When it was announced that Resident Evil 4 would completely re-invent the series, the most shocking implication was that players would no longer snuff walking stiffs in Raccoon City, U.S.A., but rather face running, hollering villagers in an unidentified foreign locale.

Some felt cheated. But those true zombie gurus among us can recognize the change for what it is — a revival of the “original” zombie concept once popularized in ’30s and ’40s horror films like White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie. The idea of the living as slaves to some twisted Svengali doesn’t just work, it’s killer.

The story concerns Leon S. Kennedy of RE2, who is now a government agent assigned to rescue the president’s daughter from an evil cult. Although it would seem that this abandons series staples like the Umbrella Corporation and the insidious T- and G-viruses, fans can rest assured that the story does make sense and in fact adds considerably to RE mythology.

But the diversions from the tried-and-true formula do not end here. While previous RE games invented and stuck to the “survival horror” format in which players must budget scarce health and ammo while solving puzzles and cracking zombie heads, RE4 is first and foremost an action game.

To be sure, this game might have the highest body count of any, ever. At the end of my 17-hour journey over two discs and varied locales, I had left a trail of 964 dead bad guys disposed of with magnums, grenades, shotguns, sniper rifles and, in one particularly memorable stretch of game play, the cover fire of a fully-armed assault helicopter.

The firepower is needed because RE4 has some of the most massive boss encounters in video game history. From a gargantuan zombie whale to arachnid-human hybrids that bring to mind John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, these are some truly memorable foes.

The action all takes place from a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective that lends itself well to hard-core shooting, which is done through laser targeting. Much has been made in the past about the series’ difficult controls, which are similar in RE4 but benefit from a much more fluid feel.

It’s important that players don’t feel that they are at the mercy of the game’s controls, because the game’s true terror comes not from jump-out-of-the-seat shocks, but the palpable sense of dread created when the player must reload his shotgun in the face of an oncoming zombie army.

The team at Capcom understands this, and they have taken full advantage of the video game medium to create something that stands out as a classic not just among games, but all things horror.

Contact pop arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected].