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Resident Evil 4 is a masterpiece in need of a generous overhaul

(Image credit: Capcom)

It's easy to forget just how far the video game industry has come in just 15 years. For many, Resident Evil 4 is still considered the pinnacle of its franchise and genre, reanimating the former in a way few believed was possible and transforming the latter for an entire generation of players and game developers alike. Perhaps that's why the internet is fiercely debating the value in a reported Resident Evil 4 Remake, rumoured to be in production for a release in 2022.  

I can understand the passion behind the arguments. Viewed exclusively through a prism of nostalgia, it's perhaps a little too easy to believe that the industry has failed to make any significant steps beyond Resident Evil 4's achievements. That its claustrophobic action is still the best interpretation of survival horror since we first stalked the Spencer Mansion so many decades ago. That its scenario design established a framework all third-person shooters continue to follow, the camera clinging tightly to Leon S. Kennedy's shoulder in an effort to simultaneously obscure your field-of-vision and lend you precision when you need it the most. That the game's unrelenting desire to never let the player settle into anything resembling a coherent rhythm or routine harkens back to a time where developers could be less frugal with their resources and more ambitious with their constructs. 

The truth of it is a little harder to swallow. Returning to it now, you'll quickly discover that while Resident Evil 4 is still a masterpiece, its rough edges cut a little deeper than you might expect them to. 

Time ages everything

(Image credit: Capcom)

Sitting down with 2005's Resident Evil 4 in 2020 is a strange experience, but the opening is every bit as electrifying as I remembered it to be. It isn't long before you find yourself frantically navigating a small Spanish village to avoid the pursuing locals, each bearing sickles, pitchforks, and A.I. routines that are still astoundingly aggressive. You know, for a special agent sent in to rescue the president's daughter – just six years on from surviving the zombie outbreak in Raccoon City and the subsequent nuclear explosion that engulfed it – Leon S. Kennedy is woefully ill-prepared for the first ten minutes of this assignment.

Handgun ammunition is diminished by the time the third body hits the floor, and your options are reduced to barricading windows, blocking doorways, and desperately rooting through decay to find anything that can help turn the tide. By the time you get your hands on a shotgun and a few loose shells to feed into it, you've already heard the first rev of certain death. What follows is a desperate struggle for survival as you try to prioritise shots between the enemies stumbling over each other up a staircase to reach you, ladders crashing in through windows, bodies amassing on adjacent rooftops, and the low-hum of an approaching chainsaw. Then the bell tolls. The villagers disperse. A deep breath fills the lungs. Reality sets in. 

Coming to Resident Evil 4 off the back of the excellent re-envisioning of Resident Evil 2, not to mention the recent Resident Evil 3 Remake, reveals just how much has changed in 15 years. The further you push beyond the village, the further Resident Evil 4 dates itself. That's especially apparent in the absurdity of its story, characters, dialogue, and in the eternally annoying Quick Time Events. While there is a depth to the game's encounters, a variety in its scenario design, and breadth to its assets that is unprecedented by modern standards, that can only offset so much of the frustration now born from navigating spaces and engaging with combat. 

Listen, I love tank controls as much as the next aging Resident Evil purist, but I can't help but wonder what a Resident Evil 2 style revision would look like within the context of Resident Evil 4's encounters. I'll still advocate for the need to plant your feet and stand your ground when firing to be represented in some capacity in a future remake, but there's no escaping the fact that what was once a revolutionary combination of limited FOV and purposefully stilted movement is now an exercise in mitigating frustration. 

(Image credit: Capcom)

The camera is pulled too closely to Leon's shoulder, and his turning-circle is too limited – it's like dragging a sled through thick low-poly mud. You have to actively wrestle with the thumbsticks to get Leon to make the simplest of adjustments – annoying when hunting twirling blue medallions, headache inducing when engaging with enemies. As iconic as Resident Evil 4 is for those that experienced it for the first time all those years ago, the sad truth is that games have come far enough since that it's difficult to imagine a new player properly appreciating its legacy, or even understanding its appeal, in this era. 

There's an entire generation of players that never owned a GameCube or PS2. There's another that would likely consider early Xbox 360 games to be retro. Do they not deserve to see Resident Evil 4's action reinterpreted, overhauled to reach modern standards of play? A remake does nothing to diminish the pervasive power of the original for those that remember it and, if handled correctly, its existence would only help to continue Capcom's resurgent dominance in the genre space. 

The truth is, Resident Evil 2 Remake set a new standard for third-person shooters in 2019. It's a slick action experience that isn't in short supply of tension or scares. There's so much comfort in its movement and combat systems that could certainly benefit Resident Evil 4. Of course, any change to the camera or controls means that the studio entrusted with the remake would need to rethink every one of the game's original environments and iconic encounters. Blasphemy? Perhaps. Achievable? Absolutely. 

As we've seen from the remakes of Resident Evil 2 and 3, Capcom is more than capable of engineering claustrophobic encounters in tight corridors, interlinked streets, and more open areas with a more fluid and malleable movement and combat system. It's also proven itself quite adept at capturing the spirit of old experiences while leveraging modern revisions and refinements to core gameplay systems and mechanics. 

Look to the future

(Image credit: Capcom)

The Resident Evil 2 and 3 Remakes are undoubtedly two of the best looking games of this generation, with Capcom's proprietary RE Engine helping to drive new levels of fidelity in everything from its lighting to animation. But their true strength is in how Capcom took two games that had faded to the annals of history – playable for those with an appreciation for the PS1 era of design or an affinity for retro gaming – and made them feel relevant again. In the case of Resident Evil 2, the modern version of it that exists today is perhaps even more transformative than the original was when it launched in 1998. 

Resident Evil 4 (the HD remaster from 2011, in particular) is easy to get a hold of. It's undoubtedly rough and a little frustrating, but it's also thrilling in ways that few games have ever been. You can go back and see for yourself, just as I have through Game Pass on Xbox One. The passage of time is reflected clearly in its muddy presentation, but felt more acutely in the way that it handles. I'll always remember the way that Resident Evil 4 changed the industry and I was glad to be there for it, but there's a part of me excited to see how an ambitious team could reimagine it for a modern audience. There's value in a Resident Evil 4 Remake, although with that recognition comes the acknowledgment that it might not necessarily be for me. 

Still, I'm eager to see what Capcom prioritises when reimagining a game as important as this, and what will hit the cutting room floor – an inevitability, given the size and scope of the original game. But do us all a favour, Capcom, and keep those audacious reload animations in through the transition; they are as necessary to Resident Evil 4 as Leon S. Kennedy himself. 

Resident Evil 8: Village needs to move the series forward, but there's some important lessons to learn from the past.

Josh West
Josh West

Josh West is Features Editor of GamesRadar+. With over 10 years experience in both online and print journalism, Josh has written for a number of gaming, entertainment, music, and tech publications, including 3D Artist, Edge, gamesTM, iCreate, Metal Hammer, Play, Retro Gamer, and SFX. He holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Feature Writing, has appeared on the BBC and ITV to provide expert comment, written for Scholastic books, edited a book for Hachette, and worked as the Assistant Producer of the Future Games Show. In his spare time, Josh plays bass guitar and video games. Years ago, he was in movies and TV shows that you've definitely seen but will never be able to spot him in.