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Resident Evil 4

resi coverResident Evil 4 may be twelve years old now, but it’s lost none of its power.  This is the game that changed third person shooters forever and masterfully danced on the line between giving the player balls to the walls action and scaring the crap out of them.

The player takes control of Leon Scott Kennedy, the coolest dude in the Resident Evil franchise.  He’s on a mission to find Ashley Graham, the daughter of the US President.  She’s been kidnapped by a group of Spanish fanatics who have been infected by Las Plagas, turning them into zombies fast moving, strong, and strategic opponents.

The enemies of the game were a shocking change for the series, as well as games in general.  One of the early locations the player visits is a farm area, with barns, cattle and a man shovelling hay.  The first time I played the game I though, ‘he can’t possibly be a bad guy, he’s shovelling hay’.  I ran right up to him, expecting a cut scene, or a short dialogue exchange.  Instead, Leon got stabbed with a pitch fork.  I had never before seen a game in which enemies go about their mundane chores until seeing a target.

That was not the last time the game surprised me.  Instead of going up against one or two enemies at at time, Leon would face waves of them, which felt overwhelming in 2005 and can still cause me to panic now.   I can’t deal with any more of this, I though the first time I played the town centre area, and ran into one of the buildings to hide.  Little did I know that this was the trigger point for Doctor Salvador, who sported a potato sack on his head and a chainsaw in his hands.

The game also made it clear that the boss battles were going to be something that would stay with its players for a long time.  I don’t know quite what I was expecting when I jumped into that boat, but it wasn’t to be helplessly dragged across a lake with I threw harpoons at a mutated sea creature.  It is, at most, ten minutes later before a troll comes stomping towards Leon.  I remember being overwhelmed when I saw it, not having any idea as to what I was meant to do.  I can clearly remember when I finally defeated it saying out loud, ‘I love this game.’  leonLittle did I know the game was just getting started.

Resident Evil 4 is split into three main sections: the Village, the Castle, and the Island.  The Village begins during the day, which shouldn’t be scary, and yet it is.  Not only is it filthy and in disrepair, but it also hints that some truly terrible things have happened.  Inside the first house that Leon enters, are skulls with maggots crawling around them.  Later, he finds a pile of dead bodies stacked up on top of each another.  The villagers being Spanish, they would taunt me with words I didn’t understand, but their tone was clear enough – they were all out to kill me, as they had done with those who had come before me.  It was easy on a first play through to think of the Villagers as nothing more than mindless monsters, but just when I thought the game was over, it had one last surprise for me: the end credits.  It shows a series of images of the Villagers in happier times, and then after, once Las Plagas has begun to infect them.  We see people being forcibly infected, someone sitting in the corner of the room while their family looks on with concern, and another that heavily implies they killed their children.  The second time I came to play the game, I felt horrible.  Much like the zombies in the older games, these villagers didn’t ask for this to happen to them, they were victims of the central villains of the game, Salazar and Saddler.

The castle was, for the most part, much cleaner than the village, and I’d argue that there are sections of it that are downright beautiful.  The marble flooring in some of the rooms blew me away at the time, and I would just stare at it, wondering how they made the walls and torches of the room reflect on the floor.  I’m a sucker for blue used in games, and one room of little consequence really stands out because it has lovely blue pillars in it.

Despite the beauty of the castle, the game found other ways of making it terrifying.  The Zealots, in their hoods and robs, would whisper at Leon rather than shout, which meant if I could hear them, they were too close.  In addition to the usual warnings to Leon about his impending death, they also did a lot of chanting, which by itself was creepy, but reading translations of what was being said, such as, ‘to die is to live,’ or simply, ‘die, die, die,’ made it all the more disturbing.

There are some great stand out enemies here as well, such as Garador, a blind brute with Wolverine claws, that responds to any sound Leon makes.  Staying quiet and taking him out is relatively simple on  first encounter, but on the second one Leon is trapped in a small cage with him and a group of Zealots, so staying quiet is almost impossible.  On a third encounter, there are two off them, so any attack on one will immediately alert the other.  When Salazar sends one of his right hand men after Leon, the player is treated to several quick cut scenes from its point of view as it runs down a corridor the player was just in a moment earlier.  My heart pounded, knowing that this thing was coming.  As Leon continued down the tunnel he had to dodge incoming attacks – a swipe of a tail or a claw.  When it finally made its appearance, it didn’t look to dissimilar to the Xenomorph from Alien – which only added to my fear.

regenerador_by_jaimito89-d6uh1oeThe final section of the game is the Island, and this is the part that puts me on edge every single time I play it.  Everything about this place is just wrong: the glimpses of experimentations, the enemy voices that sound more animalistic than human, and the Regenerators, quite possibly the most frightening thing I’ve ever encountered in a game.  Their body proportions are wrong, with their arms stopping half way down the legs and their overgrown hands down at their knees.  Their massive mouths house overgrown, razor sharp teeth.  And their body movements are not strong and steady, but almost wobbly, like they have no skeletal structure to speak of.  All of this taps into the feeling of the ‘uncanny’, that what you are looking at isn’t right, which adds to the horror.  I’m sure every person who has played this game has had the oh-so-intelligent thought to shoot them in the legs to knock them to the ground, but this isn’t enough to stop them as we soon learned when they threw themselves into the air and sank their teeth into Leon’s neck.  I’m sure it’s this moment, rather than the initial sight of them, that has resulted in me being full of dread every time I get to this part of the game.

Yes, there are the occasional ludicrous moments, such as the lava room underneath the castle, or the giant mechanical statue of Salazar that comes to life and starts chasing Leon.  But the whole thing is such a thrilling adventure that I can’t help but love it, even when common sense is telling me it’s a bit silly.

One of the ways that Resident Evil 4 manages to remain unnerving is through its use of sound.  There is nothing more horrifying than hearing the voice of an enemy you know  is sneaking up behind you.  The Zealots in the castle rarely speak, but whisper, chanting words over and over until they catch sight of you.  The animalistic sounds made by the enemies on the island suggest something that is in human form but is no longer human on the inside.  And the Regenerators, already terrifying in their not-quite-right body proportions, make a heavy breathing sound, somewhere between an asthma attack and a pig snort, that is always heard before they are seen.

Its score is one of the very best I have ever heard in a game.  Sure there is one or two cheesy tracks (this is Resident Evil, after all) but for the most part, the soundtrack is not about action, but about mood and ambience.  Walking around a village in the middle of the day shouldn’t be unnerving, but the game managed to make it so because of its score.  It so often isn’t even music, but sounds to inform the player that something isn’t right about this place, it may look like a village, but something horrible is bubbling away just under the surface.

It was bad enough after the sun had gone down, the rain was falling, and thunder was rumbling in the sky.  But for the score to then creep in underneath this scene made me utterly terrified of progressing forward towards the inevitable confrontation.

Even most of the action sequences in the game have music that is designed to make you uneasy rather than pumped up.  The player is always meant to feel afraid to continue, unsure about what danger is lurking around the next corner, and it succeeds wonderfully.

The story is pretty basic: cultists living in an isolated part of rural Spain kidnap the American President’s daughter, infects her with Las Plagues, and intends for her to spread the parasite across America.  What makes the game stand out is the characters, and their interactions with one another.  Yes, there are a few cheesy lines (‘Your right hand comes off?’) but overall it’s a lot of fun.  As I said, Leon is the coolest guy in Resident Evil so getting to play as him again is a joy.  Rather than being cowed by the villains, he taunts them, teases them, and outright mocks them.  Salazar, who has the maturity levels of a spoilt brat, grows increasingly frustrated throughout the game with Leon, his every attempt to kill him failing.  When Leon threw that knife at Salazar, pinning his hand to the wall, it was hard not to enjoy his shock and pain.  When Saddler moves into the foreground of the game, his conversations with Leon descend into bitch fights, with Saddler uttering the best taunt in the whole game, ‘Writhe in my cage of torment, my friend.’  That’s not to say that Saddler is a cartoon villain exactly, he displays moments of sadism and cruelty.  His murder of Luis with his…scorpion cock…is bloody and brutal, and his calling Leon afterwards to gloat is cold.

Luis is a character that’s difficult to understand for most of the game, as his story about who he is and why he is in the area is constantly changing.  He is charming and smooth, yet talks sexually inappropriately to Ashley.  When she expresses a desire to go help him with something, he behaves like the jilted boyfriend, declaring Leon is ‘better with the ladies’.  He seems to care only for himself, yet helps Leon and Ashley to fight against the parasite inside them.  It is only as he is dying does he confesses he’s a researcher who helped with the study of Las Plagas.  His is a character that doesn’t change for me on repeated play-throughs.  Yes, his guilt at spreading the parasite explains his desire to help Leon, but that doesn’t excuse the faux ‘lover-boy’ performance, or the inappropriate ways he behaves to Ashley.

AshleyGrahamI don’t hate Ashley the way a lot of fans of the game do.  As far as escort missions go, I think Resident Evil 4 is the very best.  It is often a horrible affair having to keep another character alive while dealing with hordes of enemies, but Ashley has the good sense to stay behind Leon when he aims his gun, or crouch down when in the line of fire.  She does prove useful at times, manning a lever or crank allowing Leon to focus on shooting the bad guys.  The first time I got to the section in which the player takes control of Ashley herself, I face-palmed, but that chapter ended up being a refreshing change of pace that required a different approach in order to survive.  The game also managed to get Leon and Ashley separated from one another just enough that she never outstayed her welcome, or got in the way of the really intense sections of combat.

If there’s any problem with Ashley it’s that she is two dimensional, and despite her being useful at times, she’s just ‘generic young girl’ who is there to be rescued from peril over and over.  This ages the game somewhat, because if it was being made now, she would be a more compelling and fleshed out character.  Games like the Uncharted series have shown us that secondary characters can tag along with protagonist and build up a relationship with them.  The best we get is a growing trust between the two – they know they can count on each other as they struggle to stay alive and escape the nightmare.

Something bizarre does happen in the final chapter of the game, though.  Both Leon and Ashley start behaving very differently towards one another.  As they get onto the jet-ski he says, ‘hold on sweetheart,’ to her.  Given that he’s never spoken to her – or anyone – like this throughout the entire game, it feels condescending at best.  More bizarre is Ashley’s request that they do some ‘over time’ once they get home, meaning sex.  At no point in this game is there any hints of sexual chemistry between them, so this come completely out of the blue.  I can only imagine that having finally escaped the danger of the past twenty four hours, Ashley’s brain suddenly reminded her that she’s a horny teenager and there’s a hunky man on that jet ski with her.  Thankfully, Leon turns her down, since he’s well into his twenties and she’s barely  an adult.

adaIf Leon has a complicated and compelling relationship with anyone in the game, it’s Ada.  He calls her ‘the part of myself I can’t let go.’  This is in reference to Resident Evil2, where they first meet.  Even then Ada was a curious mix of contradictions, but in the best way possible: she’s probably lying and manipulating Leon, yet when he is injured she gets him to safety and tends to his wounds with a nurturing affection.   Despite their limited contact throughout the game, it’s clear that they both feel connected to one another.  Throughout the main game Ada appears to be cold, distant, and a thorn in Leon’s side, but once I was able to see the story from her point of view, my opinion changed quite a bit.

Separate Ways is an example of extra content done brilliantly.  It is not a few extra levels shoved in as a bonus, but rather it tells a story that runs along side the main game, fleshing it out and answering questions I didn’t even realise I had.  Why did the church bell ring?  Ada rang it to attract the attention of the Villagers away from Leon.  Why was there fresh blood on the stone alter?  Because Ada had a close call with a Ganado with an axe.  Throughout the story we see Ada in constant conflict between her mission – which should see Leon as her adversary – and her affection for him, and although she chooses the mission, she still goes against orders to kill him.

At first, Separate Ways seemed to be treading the same ground as the main game, with locations including the main square of the Village and the dinning room in the Castle.  And that does make sense, you want to make extra content, but at the same time need to do it within a tighter budget, so naturally the developers are going to use locations the they’ve already made.  But to my surprise, the game also gave completely new locations.  Some were small, an adjacent section that Leon did not discover, or an area we only saw him visit in a cut scene.  But one of them, a ship yard, was pretty damn big in its scale and that blew me away – sometimes literally as there was ship cannons firing at me.  Separate Ways manages to do what few extra content does – give you a ride that is every bit as fun as the original, but adds to both the story and locations.

And yes, that dress and those shoes are highly impractical.  But you have to admit, she wears them well.

Even the very best of games have a few little issues.  The final chapter feels as though it doesn’t quite have the polish of the rest of the game.  It probably should have been split up into two smaller chapters, as it often feels like there is too much crammed in.  Where chapters one to four have big set pieces and then a bit of breathing space, chapter five tends to go from set piece to set piece to set piece.  The end of chapter 5-2 and beginning of chapter 5-3 has the U-3 fight, the Krauser fight, and then the mini warzone sequence, all without a Merchant to visit, and very little in the way of pickups.  While one could argue that in the final levels of a game should be wall to wall action, it feels as though the developers were running out of time and didn’t manage to structure chapter five as well as the other levels.  That’s not to say there are any bad moments, all of the individual sequences are excellent, but it does feel like the developers were running out of time and couldn’t quite give it the finesse of the rest of the game.

There are a couple of badly placed typewriters throughout the game.  The reason they are badly placed is because they are out in the open where enemies can freely attack Leon.  There have been times in the past in which I have loaded up a game only to be immediately attacked by an enemy.  When I say ‘a couple’ of typewriters, I literally do mean two out of approximately fifty, so on the whole, that’s not too bad.

The other issue is that the controls are a bit stiff, and whenever I’m in the mood for playing this game again, I always have to go through a little readjustment phase.  It’s worth saying, though, that when it came out, the controller layout was a breath of fresh air for me, a new way of playing a third person shooters that was so much more workable than anything that had come before it.  The reason they feel stiff now, is because many other developers have taken its basic controls and continued to build upon the groundwork that Resident Evil 4 laid, tweaking and polishing them into something better.  EA’s Dead Space trilogy – particularly the second game – is a good example of this.

Like any game that is popular these days, there has been many a port of it onto other systems.  I have been playing the PlayStation 3 version, which has been digitally re-mastered, and looks brilliant.  The blurriness from the PlayStation 2 version is gone, and sharp, focused graphics are now it its place.  The only low point of the visuals is in Separate Ways, which has lovely game play, but the cut scenes are abysmally blurry.  I’m guessing this is because it was made specifically for the PlayStation 2, which was notoriously lower in quality than the original Game Cube version and featured pre-rendered scenes instead of cut scenes.  Perhaps the only way to improve the quality would be to completely remake them, and that’s not worth Capcom’s time and energy.

Resident Evil 4 may be twelve years old now, but it’s lost none of its power.  It is a thrilling adventure that keeps the player on the edge of their seats.  The characters and story create are engaging, the enemies varied and requiring different strategies.  The fear that lingers over the game comes from many sources – the enemies, the soundtrack, the design of the locations.  Resident Evil 4 does what few horror games manage to do: continue to be haunting, and even downright scary, long after the graphics have started to date.  It is truly the mark of a great game that it can still hold so much power over its audience more than a decade after its release.

Creed

creedWhile I’m not a huge Rocky fan, I have a fondness for the original, a film that has you believe it’s heading one way, before gently turning in a different direction at the beginning of the third act.  Creed  is technically the latest sequel in the Rocky series, but in order to bring something fresh to the franchise, it is also a spin off, making its main character Donnie, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed.  A film about a man training to become a fighter just like his father could go wrong so easily, but this has a depth that raised it above my expectations.  Donnie is a young man who is both afraid to take on his father’s name, and desperate to believe that he is more than just an out-of-wedlock mistake.  Rocky is an ageing star who has forgotten how to fight his battles, whatever form they come in.  Instead of a meat-headed film filled with macho bullshit, Creed is thoughtful and introspective. 

The cast are all superb, and although the film does hit many of the emotional moments I expected it too,  I had no idea how it was going to end and during the final fight I realised I was completely invested in the characters.  The real stand out is Stallone as the aging Rocky Balboa, who becomes Donnie’s trainer.  A lot of his scenes put me in mind of Johnny Cash’s final albums, in which the old, tired voice of the singer added gravitas to songs like The Man Comes Around.  Similarly, there are moments when the old, tired voice of Rocky adds depth to what could easily have been something throwaway or cheesy, such as when he stands Donnie in front of a mirror and says:

“You see this guy staring back at you?  That’s your toughest opponent.  Every time you get into the ring, that’s who you’re going against.  I believe that in boxing and I do believe it in life.”

The boxing matches themselves are well executed, and despite them essentially being two men hitting each other, they are never dull or repetitive.  The editing allowed these sequences to be dramatic, entertaining, and easy to follow by not bowing to the current trend of rapidly cutting from one shot to the next.  A particular stand out is Donnie’s first professional fight, which seems to be shot in one take, with the camera dancing around the ring with a grace that borders on beauty.  In a time of shaky cameras that obscures the action, Creed allows the audience to savour every punch, jab, dodge and blow.  The editing and camera work of this film impressed me so much that I’ve become more hopeful that Ryan Coolger’s next film, Black Panther, will give us action sequences that can be relished rather than endured.

Despite being over two hours long, the film never drags. The story unfolds at a natural pace and the characters and their struggles kept me interested throughout.  It’s focused on a sport that involves people punching each other, and yet manages to be thoughtful.  The word is there is a sequel in the works, and if they manage to keep up the same high standard, it will be one to watch out for.

Thoughts on 13

I don’t usually emote while watching television, but the trailer revealing Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor caused me to shriek.  Ever since I began watching the show, I’ve often wondered what it would be like – or whether it was even possible – to have a woman play the Doctor.  I’m still a little shocked that in the not to distant future, I’m going to find out.  To my surprise and delight most of the reaction has been positive and enthusiastic.  Almost every woman’s reaction I have seen has been one of joy, with a mixture of shock, and the words, ‘they actually did it!’  With this, Wonder Woman, the new Star Wars trilogy, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery, it’s a great time to be a female geek.

jodie-whittaker-13th-doctor-doctor-whoThe moment I started shrieking

Some of the not-overwhelmingly-positive reactions have been understandable.  Time Lords may to be thousands of years ahead of us in terms of attitudes towards gender, but us primitive humans still struggle with it, and there has been some uncertainty as to how they feel about the Doctor changing gender.  Even a former Doctor has expressed some doubts, with Peter Davison saying, ‘If I feel any doubts, it’s the loss of a role model for boys, who I think Doctor Who is vitally important for.’ (1)  In fairness to him, I can see where he’s coming from.  In a show about adventures in space, facing off against enemies that threaten death and destruction, having the central male character not immediately resort to fighting or killing is a positive message to send to boys and young men who are so often bombarded by all that macho bullshit.  But at the same time, I question why the person sending that message to them can’t be a woman.  If I had a son who was a Doctor Who fan, I would tell him that this changes nothing, that the Doctor can still be his hero, and can still be someone he looks up to.  What this group of people probably just need is time to adjust to the change, and I hope that the rest of fandom give them that time.

Predictably, though, there have been some who have responded negatively to the news of a female Doctor and have declared – without ever seeing an episode – that they are done with the show.  What they’re failing to remember is that Doctor Who is a series that relies on change, and that the Doctor and companions are in constant rotation.  The tone, look, and style of writing also changes when a new showrunner takes over, such as the change from the Troughton to Pertwee eras, or the difference between Graham Williams’s season 17 and John Nathan-Turner’s season 18.  Sometimes it’s a change we love, sometimes we’re not so fond of it, but it’s always done with a desire to keep the show alive and interesting.  The regeneration has become such a staple part of the show that we forget that changing the actor who plays the title character was a brave one in 1966.  We remember that Patrick Troughton took on the role and was marvellous in it, what we forget is the backlash when it first happened.

The show is also at its best when it makes decisions that are bold and may be difficult.  A mere one serial in, showrunner Verity Lambert ignored Sydney Newman’s insistence that there be no ‘bug eyes monsters’ in Doctor Who because there was something deeper going on in Terry Nation’s script about giant pepper pots than Newman could see.  Lambert winning that fight ultimately resulted in a massive boost in the ratings that guaranteed Doctor Who would be around longer than anyone had predicted.  Had she not gone against his wishes, no one would be reacting to who the thirteenth Doctor is.  The show would have been cancelled after its original thirteen episode run, and the only people who would know about it would be media academics who have a thing for TV history.

That being said, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.  There is a tendency with genres that are male dominated – both in front of and behind the camera – to portray women in terms of limitations.  Both Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden have spoken of their frustrations while working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, that the writer did not seem to know what to do with the female characters.  It was the actresses who had to explain to them that they should just write the characters as they would the men, without limitations, without thinking, ‘well we can’t have Troi do this, because women wouldn’t do that.’  Once they started taking that approach, the stories with the female characters began to improve, though sadly this was quite late in the day (2).  So if there is one thing I think will be absolutely essential, it will be to continue writing the Doctor as they have always been written, brave, intelligent, refusing to suffer fools gladly, trying to find a smart solution to a problem, all while retaining a child-like enjoyment of the universe.

doctor-who-season-11I’m nervous that they’re going to make a big out of the Doctors gender in the first few episodes.  While  it would be wrong to not acknowledge it at all, I certainly hope they don’t go down the same route as they did with Capaldi and all the insufferable references to his age and Scottishness.  Perhaps, given that Time Lords are so much more advanced on this topic, the Doctor shouldn’t even really notice, and it should be a human who has had contact with them before that points it out.

I hope they dress Thirteen like they would any other Doctor.  I can’t imagine after two thousand years of dressing in shirts, ties, and fancy coats, the Doctor is suddenly going to be all about dresses and tights.

Hopefully the male writers could not dwell on the things they think women do.  We do not play with our boobs all day, and we do not obsess about fashion and make up.  The Doctor has never been shown to care about their hair style* so please don’t have thirteen start considering styles and colours.

I’m not one for angry shouting on Twitter, but I will do it at the first hint of a period ‘joke’.

And please, for the love of god, no ‘tits and ass shots’.  One of the things I love about the above image is that the coat is big and doesn’t emphasis her body, which is what tends to happens when women are photographed for promotional images, especially in science fiction.  She’s also in a powerful pose, with her back straight and her right leg elevated.  I hope they continue to do this, as the Doctor is often photographed in powerful or energetic poses.

* On screen anyway.  Three, Ten, and Eleven’s hair didn’t just magically look like that when they got up in the morning.

Links:

  1. Two former Doctors clash over Jodie Whittaker casting
    1. It is worth pointing out that Peter Davison’s comments are being taken a little out of context and are being jumped on by the media, particularly the tabloids.  The above link is to the Guardian, who did a slightly better job of representing his fuller answer in which he praised Jodie Whittaker as an actor, wished her every success going forward, and encouraged viewers who had doubts to approach the next series of the show with an open mind.  A transcript of his full answer can be found here.
  2. Mission Log – The One With Marina Sirtis