For the first 10 minutes of Resident Evil 4, there's scarcely an enemy.
Instead, the emphasis is on the Spanish countryside — a dim, damp, grey, crushing sadness. Crows fly low to the ground. A dog whimpers in pain, his front leg caught in an iron trap. It's quiet — almost unsettlingly so. And, yes, there are several villagers that lumber towards you, but they're little threat. The silence creates a slow-burning tension, emphasizing mood over action. And we wouldn't want it any other way. In a game filled with incredible levels, Resident Evil 4's village level stood tallest. Other levels might have had stronger enemies or more varied structure, but it was in the village that you felt most vulnerable. Never again did you feel so helpless, and so hopelessly outmatched.
Resident Evil 4 is an unqualified classic, a different breed than every Resident Evil game that came before it. Prior games had claustrophobic architecture, with blind corners, varied camera angles, and long hallways.
In Resident Evil 4, the developers opted for a tracking, over-the-shoulder setup, and they replaced the tight corridors with wide, open spaces. When fans first heard about the change, they derided it as regressive. What Resident Evil 4 lost in cinematic style, however, it gained in more naturalistic, personal play.
Take the music, for example. In past Resident Evil games, music meant that the coast was clear. It was when you heard silence that you knew the infected would attack. Resident Evil 4 inverted this formula — music would play when the action started up, and would fade when the last enemy's head exploded. You spent the majority of the game hearing natural, diegetic sound. You came to relish the natural silence; you could catch your breath, appreciate your beautifully-rendered surroundings, and search for ammo in peace in preparation for the next battle.
The game opened with a classic red herring. You were driven to the outskirts of the local Spanish village, and your driver (and his buddy) acted very suspiciously. They whispered and mumbled detached, creepy things. You were there retrieve the President's daughter, and so your first thought was probably, "These guys must be in on it." But then a random villager attacked you, and your driver hightailed it out of there. Well. Guess not.
At this point, you had to shoot some villagers. But ironically, instead of making you feel stronger, your firearm made you vulnerable in other ways. Whenever you aimed, the game planted your feet; you could not move, and thus, you could not 'run and gun.' Your speed — your number one advantage against the plodding villagers — was neutralized.
You were forced to stand your ground, and this made for a more suspenseful, immediate experience. To complicate matters, every weapon forced you through stationary, protracted reload animations. Getting down to the last bullet in your chamber was dangerous, because if you stopped to reload, it would take at least three seconds of anxiety-inducing animation. You would be anchored to the floor, enemies surrounding you, and you would be dead. Again.
When you reached the village's town square, ready for war, the game prolonged the suspense, and tortured you for a second longer. For the first and only time in the game, Leon took out his trusty binoculars. You could look around, zoom in, and zoom out on the village square. You saw your driver, spiked through the chest, burning on a large bonfire.
Good. God. That couldn't possibly mean anything good.
Everything in this village looked disgusting — like there was a thin layer of grime that crusted over every surface. Buildings and objects were falling apart, but they were not broken — they were rotting from disuse. Everyone's skin looked greasy, their hair unkempt. This was well-earned filth, the result of neglect over a long period of time rather than a single, catastrophic disaster. This was not a T-Virus 'epidemic.' Leon was stepping into an intractable situation where the sickness, whatever it was, had taken root and flourished.
The villagers could still speak and communicate with one another. They were still carting supplies, and baling hay, and tending fires, albeit slowly. They were going through the motions of their former lives. They hadn't yet abandoned all of their humanity and, ironically, this made them worse. T-Virus victims were rendered brainless and, thus, blameless — animals who communicated in moans and growls and who didn't know any better. The villagers, by contrast, appeared more complicit in their misdeeds.
Stealth here was not an option. Sure, you could sneak around for a bit, but you wouldn't be able to advance in the plot that way. So, by design, you had no choice but to run in, loudly and stupidly, and take on the entire village. By yourself. Armed with nothing but one handgun and a few clips.
I first tried fighting the villagers head on, out in the town square. Eventually, I ran out of bullets, I wasted my one grenade (did you know that crows drop grenades when you kill them?), and I had nothing left but my knife. One measly knife against sickles, hatchets, and pitchforks? Impossible. The first time I took on the entire village with my knife, a creepy, pale woman snuck up behind me and choked me out. On the next attempt, a group of ten villagers backed me up against a wall, catching me in the head with a flying hatchet. So I tried again, and died again. Repeatedly. It was a brutal but instructive practice in trial and error.
These enemies were hard to kill. In most games, it took several bullets to the center of mass to kill an enemy. In Resident Evil 4, I found myself expending round after round on single villagers. Even if you scored a headshot, there was no guarantee of an insta-kill.
The only way to win an open fight with the villagers was to kneecap them with a single bullet. And then, while they were stunned or lying on the ground, you could either knife them to death, or deliver a powerful spinning kick. Effective, yes, but when we first started playing, most of us probably lacked the dexterity and patience to do this, never mind the foresight to conserve enough ammo.
So, eventually, after dying six or seven times, you tried to hide and fortify yourself. And if you jumped over the fence and headed into the first house on the left, it triggered a dramatic cut scene. The villagers rallied more men, set up a ladder to the second floor, and began pouring themselves in. You also had a crazy maniac with a chainsaw to deal with — more on him later.
You could spend some precious time pushing a dresser in front of a window to block them off, but the amount of good this did was negligible. Those villagers were coming in, one way or another — you could see the doors rattling and the windows breaking as they pushed their way through. You could head deeper into the first floor, and fortify yourself under the stairs, but it was never a good idea to fight with your back to the wall. Your best and only option was to run up the stairs and seek higher ground.
On the top floor, mounted on the stair landing, was your salvation: a pump action shotgun with a wide spread that could destroy multiple villagers in a single shot. In front of you, there was a glass cabinet housing a grenade. And, lastly, on the bed to your left was a case of shotgun ammo.
It wasn't much, but it was enough. You now had enough ammo to complete the fight sequence — although not enough to leave the village feeling well-stocked or powerful. It was this constant feeling of inadequacy — the lack of an extra clip, a spare grenade, one more herb — that set a player's teeth on edge. There were no true 'shock scares' in Resident Evil 4. It was more of an abstract dread — of always feeling weak and outmatched in every situation.
Wielding that shotgun was the closest that Leon ever came to feeling powerful. Its stopping power was the only way an average player could beat the chainsaw maniac (his name was Dr. Salvador, although that was never mentioned in the main storyline). Leon's handgun, by contrast, provided no stopping power at all — our good friend Salvador would charge right through your bullets and, if he got to you, it was a one-hit kill.
Salvador excelled in close quarters, and so you now had a new priority: get out of the house as quickly as possible. The top floor was way too cramped, and left you little room to maneuver around. And although they were dumb, the villagers had their brief moments of insight. For example, even though you could push the ladder down, to prevent more villagers from coming in:
They would eventually prop the ladder back up, and continue their assault.
You were better off climbing up and onto the roof. From that high-ground position, it was more difficult to be surrounded. By sniping from the roof, you may have also discovered a neat gameplay mechanic — with a well-timed shot, you could knock the villagers' weapons out of the air, mid-flight, or out of their hands. This made a satisfying, metallic *ping* sound whenever you succeeded, and it made your enemies feel more real. They were 'armed' — their weapons were not crude extensions of their bodies.
The roof was safest, but in order to loot the greatest amount of gold and ammo, you had to fight the villagers on the ground. And now that that you had the shotgun, fighting out in the open with no fortifications was a bit easier.
But you only got a handful of shotgun rounds, so it was crucial to switch between weapons. The handgun worked for the regular villagers, but the shotgun was for Salvador — or for a mob of villagers that got too overwhelming. Resident Evil 4 managed to passively instruct you on inventory management without holding your hand through some didactic teaching session. That kind of trial by fire was much more exciting, if not humbling.
But even when you 'won,' it was demoralizing. The church bell rang, and the villagers walked away from you, as though in a trance. Suddenly, you didn't matter much.
It reminded me of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation. When Riker and his away team beamed over to the Borg cube, the drones completely ignored them. The Borg were confident, so secure in their power, that even when Starfleet was inside their ship, the Borg considered them to be no threat at all.
The conclusion of the village fight was relieving, but passively insulting — to have tried so hard, and ultimately to have mattered so little. There was no climactic victory, no boss or final, badass move. Instead, the game 'permitted' you to live; without the bell, you would eventually be killed, in a protracted war of attrition. Of course, that wasn't reality — your kill count, rather than elapsed time, triggered the cut scene. But it didn't feel that way. It felt like you barely escaped with your life.
The Resident Evil series has always portrayed its heroes as 'in over their heads' — never asking for trouble, and always thrust into horrible situations that only got worse. It was only in the last two main games — Resident Evil 5 particularly — that our protagonists felt strong, carrying military-grade weapons and truckloads of ammo. But Resident Evil 4 remains the glorious apex of the series — it split the difference between the more recent titles and the older, 'classic' games. Resident Evil 4 had the clear, linear objectives of an action title along with the unscripted, spontaneous combat that survival horror thrives on. Only The Last of Us managed a similar, perfect balance of action and atmosphere.
Too often, opening levels in video games feel detached from what comes afterwards. They are glorified, pedantic tutorials — we are babied and unchallenged for the first thirty minutes of a game, or more. Resident Evil 4 did the exact the opposite. The developers dumped us into a challenging sequence with little ammo, and told us to figure it out. It was a brilliant tactic — one that works particularly well in the horror genre, which aims to make its audience feel vulnerable and unsafe at all times.
In a way, the developers mirrored our gaming experience to Leon's state of mind — just like our avatar, we were forced to react, improvise, and fumble our way through an unexpected situation.
Kevin is an AP English Language teacher and freelance writer from Queens, NY. His focus is on video games, American pop culture, and Asian American issues. He wrote a weekly column for Complex called "Throwback Thursdays," which spotlighted video games and trends from previous console generations. Kevin has also been published in VIBE, Salon, PopMatters, and Racialicious, and he will soon be published in Joystiq. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.