In 1983, when I was but a tot of eight, a new videogame appeared at the arcade ("Tilt," it was called) in the local shopping mall. This was in the days of the Atari 2600, when the arcade experience was still emphatically superior to that of home-console players. The new game, "Dragon's Lair," offered a radically different approach than other games on the market at the time, which were almost entirely sprite-based. The stand-up cabinet housed an early laserdisc player, and the game featured full-motion animated video, giving it a look which was light years ahead of its competitors like "Centipede" and "Defender." In today's terminology, "Dragons Lair" was all "cut scenes." Gameplay was miserably poor, however: It amounted to moving the joystick in a particular direction at a particular time in the video, thus affecting the "action" of the game and determining which video clip would play next. As in a choose-your-own adventure book, making the wrong choice would lead to death. UNLIKE a choose-your-own-adventure book, there were no instructions; you had to guess, based on what was happening onscreen, which direction to move the joystick and exactly when. The superior graphics (which even now is often the standard by which all videogames are judged, rather than playability) justified its 50-cents-a-game pricetag when ALL the other games were just a quarter. In fact, now that I think about it "Dragon's Lair," may well be the first 50-cent arcade game I ever saw. I played it once or twice but quickly recognized it as a rip-off. Choose-your-own adventure videos, thankfully, did *not* take off in the market, and "Dragon's Lair" was relegated to the domain of historical curiosity.
Until today! The dunderheads at Capcom have included the concept in the latest installment of their highly-successful Resident Evil franchise. On the whole, RE 4 is a pretty good game. The atmosphere is appropriately 'orrifying throughout. Also, the game looks spectacular - better than any other console game I've seen - and the playability of the shoot-em-up stuff is not bad at all. The environment has some good "actions" built into it, which can induce some impressively cinematic spontaneous gameplay. Now, instead of just blasting everything in sight when the "zombies" attack, you can run into an empty building, push a dresser in front of the door, run upstairs, and knock down the ladder that the zombies are using to climb up and get you *while they're climbing.* Then you can toss a grenade down on them and watch the parts splatter. The PlayStation 2 version of the game even supports progressive-scan video, so if you have the right connectors and a good display you can enjoy all this action in high resolution. The various weapons available to the male lead, Leon, are satisfyingly powerful and effective, and there's plenty of the oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-this-new-gun excitement. Plus, once you've played the game all the way through you can go back and play parts of it again as a different (female) character with different weapons and moves, which is a hallmark of the RE series and a clever way to recycle all those environments the designers put so much thought into.
But it's a long way from perfect. The storyline and dialogue are *feeble* to say the least, and although the angry villagers and other beasties that attack you throughout the game aren't technically zombies (they're hosts of mind-controlling parasites), you tend to end up thinking of them as such anyway. It's easy to identify the game's various cultural influences: the parasites look exactly like facehuggers from the "Alien" movies, and the beseiged-in-a-farmhouse-by-zombies motif of the early chapters is clearly evocative of "Night of the Living Dead." The girl, Ashley, whom you're supposedly rescuing and who follows you around all the time, falls in and out of the clutches of the bad guys so many times you rapidly stop caring. The random scruffy vagabond "merchants" that inexplicably inhabit the enemy compound to sell you state-of-the-art weaponry (but no ammunition) during slow spots in the game stretch the credibility of the storyline well past the breaking point (to say nothing of the random "shooting ranges" that you can practice at from time to time). None of the puzzles are in the least bit difficult. The bosses, while requiring a good balance of arcade and puzzle-solving skills, are entirely predictable. If I have to watch one more "nightmarish transformation" of a humanoid badguy into some kind of polytentacled arachnid whose only weak spot is its eyes, I'm going to laugh myself silly.
But the absolute worst part of the game are the random choose-your-own-adventure cut scenes. Those habituated to "resting" during video game cut scenes are in for a rude shock: RE 4 demands that you *closely* watch the action of the cut scenes, because every so often you're faced with a "Press B quick or die!" scenario. No matter how carefully you play during the shoot-'em-up portions of the game, these *BOO!* scenes are almost certain to take you by surprise, the first time, and flush all your hard work down the drain. They're easy to clear when you know when and where they're coming, of course, so including them just seems like a mean way to randomly kill the player his or her first time through the game. It's almost as if somebody at Capcom got annoyed with the thought of people not watching their (insipid) cut scenes, and therefore designed them with built-in pop quizzes. The final jet-ski chase out of the exploding cavern is a particularly annoying instance of this. It's easier to kill the final boss than it is to successfully navigate the caverns on the jet-ski without being killed, which of course breaks the tempo of the game's final moments in a very frustrating way.
Still, I enjoyed RE4 enough to play it all the way through, at least the first time. Faced with the prospect of starting over as the female character, I find myself less than enthusiastic, although I'll probably play the new chapters through anyway so I can see all of her available weapons, which promise to be much cooler than Leon's, at which point my opinion of the game may have to be revised somewhat. I'll let you know. But until then, RE4 gets an emphatic "eh."