originals\ Sep 27, 2011 at 3:57 pm

From Zombies to Plagas: How Resident Evil 4 Changed a Classic for the Better


“Where’s everybody going? Bingo?” Those four words started a revolution that changed the face of Resident Evil. Over a decade ago, the series surged in popularity when it stepped foot onto old cemetery grounds--that of the undead. Zombies.

With all the recent news of remakes, rehashes, and team games, these creatures of terror should be more familiar than ever before. Reanimated corpses drag their ankles across the moonlit fields and ruined cities of our pop culture society every day. As the countless survival guides and fictional novelizations on the market will tell you, zombies are slow but dangerous in large numbers, especially when they shamble down cramped hallways.

Capcom designed the first Resident Evil game on zombie territory: a mansion with tight corners, glass windows thin enough for infected animals to crash through, and plenty of hiding spots for the more patient zombies. The series has since enjoyed a successful and lucrative career, spawning a healthy number of sequels and spin-off games, but the announcement of Resident Evil 4 surprised the industry and millions of gamers. Zombies were out the picture. Gone. Adiós.

Fans could barely wrap their highly desirable brains around the idea. A Resident Evil game devoid of zombies seemed criminal enough, but one set thousands of miles away from the Arklay Mountains was nearly incomprehensible. Games sites reported that Leon Kennedy, a character first playable in Resident Evil 2, would star in the upcoming title as a U.S. Secret Service member deployed to a remote village in Spain, where an elusive cult held the President’s daughter Ashley Graham for ransom. There Leon finds a horde of angry, foreign-tongued villagers--pitchforks, knives, and chainsaws in hand. After several frantic minutes of fending off the violent mob, a church bell tolls in the distance and Leon watches as the villagers drop their makeshift weapons and shuffle off to, presumably, afternoon bingo.

Suddenly, the Resident Evil game that had worried longtime fans instantly struck gold, awing players with an engrossing story and sophisticated gameplay and receiving critical acclaim across the board. Gamers loved the freedom Resident Evil 4 introduced. In the middle of that now famous village scene, players could make Leon vault over fences, jump out windows, break open crates, barricade entryways (eventually penetrable by force), kick down ladders, and dodge oncoming attacks. Instead of watching helplessly as a horde of zombies pinned Leon against a wall (as in older iterations), players interacted in a 360-degree space that allowed for a more tactical approach. Leon could flee from enemies, hit more than one with a carefully timed move, and shoot foes as they advanced, bottleneck style, through narrow spaces. Of course, the three-dimensional area and over-the-shoulder view also meant that the enraged cult members could crowd around him, cutting off possible retreat. Without warning, a chainsaw-swinging villager could sneak up on a preoccupied Leon and decapitate him, ending the mission.

In one clean sweep, a single game trashed years of history. Rather than develop an ordinary game, Capcom launched one that undermined the very genre Resident Evil helped to create. Action and surprise replaced horror and suspense. Faster, smarter enemies made a mockery of the slow, predictable ones from prior games. And instead of the overplayed T-virus turning people’s brains into mush, a parasite called “las Plagas” rendered an entire village loco. Resident Evil 4 ditched the classic formula and proved that even an overworked series can be fresh again.

Of course, Leon Kennedy’s romp through rural Spain didn’t veer as far off course from its sibling games as one might think. Before, tension arose from knowing that zombies could be lurking in any nook. Now that suspense took a more active role with enemies that weren’t afraid to attack with speed, trick players into a clever trap, shower them with arrows from the darkness, or even invite their friends to the massacre. Foes were given more creative license to terrorize Leon--after all, they’re brainwashed, not brain dead, and unlike the zombies of old, these Plagas-infected fiends operate under an overlord or two who coordinate the villagers’ mass movements and deliver regular (but not-so-prompt) reports on Leon’s activities.

As expected, puzzles constitute a considerable amount of gameplay, and a few of the more colorful monsters Leon faces on his journey possess as many tentacles and bizarre bodily appendages as their predecessors. The new location may usher Leon into more open environments as opposed to the claustrophobic settings of earlier Resident Evil titles, but the added space still welcomes the occasional scare with moody Spanish weather, the cobwebbed shadows of castles, and the chilling atmosphere of a secret military lab tucked away on a secluded island. In the black of night, enemies hide en masse, the light of their torches burning into the hillside. Lake monsters wait under cloudy waters, and giants groan unseen behind barred doors. Resident Evil 4 knew what made survivor horror tick and chose to break the rules of the genre.

Resident Evil 4 rejuvenated a series running low on innovation and creativity, and fans have long forgiven Capcom for springing its “no zombie” promise on them. Resident Evil 5, though, is another story entirely.

Those who missed out on Leon's adventure can enjoy the game (and Code: Veronica to boot) in a new high-definition collection set for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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