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Resident Evil 4

You are about to enter the world of survival horror. It's been a long time since that sentence, glowing white on black, triggered a frisson of anything other than familiarity. Which is what makes the attacks on Resident Evil's new direction seem so extraordinary. Chances are you already know why the initial reaction from hardcore zombie-fanciers was so depressingly childish. Simply put, there are no - repeat, no - zombies in Resident Evil 4.

And if you're looking for an illustration of just how much the series has changed, it doesn't come much starker than that.

Maybe we're being contrary, but any game capable of triggering the sort of reaction this has must be doing something right. And, inevitably, the wounded fans have missed the point almost entirely. There are no zombies in Resident Evil 4 in only the same sense that there are no zombies in '28 Days Later'. New enemies who are quick and cunning have replaced the shambling cadavers. They attack en masse, retreat when overpowered and seem like a logical evolutionary step after the aggressive 'crimson heads' introduced by the GameCube remake of the original game. "The enemies have to be smart, otherwise it won't be fun," explains Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Resident Evil 4's producer. "And the one thing you can't expect a zombie to be is smart." Resident Evil 4's enemies aren't humans or zombies, you see, they're something else... something in between, and Kobayashi-san doesn't say it, but the word we hear is 'infected'. So this time you're facing off against crazies with farm implements who'll whistle to attract each other's attention and attempt to lure you into another area where more enemies wait in ambush, armed with crossbows.

Watching the astonishing video demonstration, it becomes even clearer why Capcom has put its walking corpses out to pasture. Whereas previous instalments have delivered improvements in small increments - with your quick-turn move you're really spoiling us - the fourth game threatens to reanimate the whole genre. And it's about time, too.

The one thing that hasn't changed is the star. Leon S Kennedy still models the same Jason Von Bondie haircut and Biggles flight jacket seen in the older, tantalisingly brief footage - but everything else has been cut. There's no sign of the mansion he was exploring or the hook-handed apparition that was stalking him. Instead, he's deep in the forests of an unnamed European country investigating the abduction of the US president's daughter. Six years have passed since the events of Resident Evil 2, when Kennedy escaped the destruction of Raccoon City together with Claire Redfield. Since then he has graduated from rookie cop to secret agent. Meanwhile, we're told that the Umbrella Corporation has been destroyed as part of a government crackdown. Something we don't believe for a second, secretly expecting Wesker to make an appearance in the final reel.

"Forget everything you've seen," Shinji Mikami intones, grinning devilishly on the screen. The director has just morphed out of a cut-scene from the original game in which the first zombie you encounter turns, creaking, to face the camera. Clearly delighted with the joke, Mikami-san apologises for being unable to attend and then invites us to "have a nightmare." The lights dim, the trailer rolls, and the most immediately striking thing is how gloriously detailed and open-plan the environments are. Graphically, Resident Evil 4 is something of a revelation, and is at least the equal of anything current console technology has to offer.

Even in the trailer, Resident Evil 4's newfound sense of freedom is palpable. The rapidly cut footage shows Kennedy diving through windows, kicking down doors and bursting heads like rotten plums. For the first time in the series, vehicles are also featured, and specifically we're shown Kennedy powering across a lake in a motorboat. Suddenly, a vast aquatic monster breaks the surface. We're clearly not in Raccoon City any more.

Moving away from prerendered backdrops and fixed cameras is a key element in Resident Evil's reinvention. The gameplay is viewed using two camera angles, the default of which is a traditional thirdperson perspective that tracks the hero as he explores. The viewpoint shifts, however, when you encounter enemies. Press the right trigger for Kennedy to raise his laser-sighted handgun and the camera crash-zooms on to his right shoulder, leaving most of the screen free for targeting. Which is vital, because the deranged mountain folk have location-specific damage models. Shoot an enemy in the knee and he hobbles around to predictably amusing effect. More practically, you can blast weapons out of their hands - an idea that also extends to deflecting the axes and pitchforks that are often flung at you, House Of The Dead-style.

Ace a headshot and you're rewarded with splattercore instant death. It's a technique you'll need to perfect, given the dozen or so enemies usually found circling hungrily. Accurate aiming is also likely to be an important factor during encounters with the game's more exotic, boss-sized enemies - which include a chainsaw-wielding nutter with a hessian sack over his head (you just may have already seen him elsewhere in the magazine), and an enormous creature that looks like it's moonlighting from Middle-Earth. Standing two storeys high, this overgrown troll hurls Kennedy through the air and attempts to stamp on his head - a scenario that presumably isn't exhaustively covered in the secret agent's handbook.

Return of the living dead
One of the most surprising things in Resident Evil 4 is its control scheme, which remains largely unchanged. Don't throw yourself into that open grave just yet, though. During a hands-on session, we found that the old system makes more sense in its new setting. There is, however, one important addition to the controls in the form of some context-specific actions. During certain situations the 'A' button will blink on the screen, indicating that Kennedy is able to interact with the environment. This might involve jumping over a fence, ducking behind an object or knocking down a ladder in order to prevent the villagers from climbing up. In each case the effect is empowering. Although far from revolutionary (it recalls Shenmue's QTEs) the feature is another indication of how Resident Evil 4 has been skewed toward the action end of the spectrum.

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