The first Resident Evil game I ever played was Resident Evil 4. I first played it to completion little over two years ago and I fell instantly in love with it. The gameplay was intense and powerful, the story was campy and dumb in the best way, and even the briefcase menu screen made inventory management fun. I knew the game’s place in history and how it changed up the formula from previous Resident Evil games at the time, but it wasn’t until I played those earlier games that I understood how different, but oddly similar, the fourth game in the series was to its kin. And all it took was a simple change in the camera.
Resident Evil 4 was the first mainline game in the series to abandon the fixed camera angles in favor of an over-the-shoulder 3rd person camera. And, while every game in the series previous was a mix of action and horror, Resident Evil 4 focused much more on the action side of the gameplay, being mainly a 3rd person shooter and leaving much of the survival horror aspects of the series behind. There are still effective moments of horror in the game like the Regenerator enemies the sewer section with the invisible bug creatures, but the game focuses much more on action and tension created by the relentlessness of the enemies. I think the shift in the camera is the culprit for this gameplay and tonal shift.
In the early Resident Evil games, each room, hallway, and staircase had a fixed camera, or multiple, to show the area. They could not be moved in any way and were mostly implemented due to hardware limitations. But the designers discovered an interesting side effect from the restrictive camera system: claustrophobia. With the limited view and narrow level design, the early games instill a sense of tightness in the player, a sense of being trapped and not knowing what to expect in upcoming areas. The camera in Resident Evil 4 is used to create a similar feeling, but by different means.
The camera in Resident Evil 4 hangs just behind Leon’s shoulder, following behind him as he explores the decrepit Spanish village. Even though the camera can be moved around, its movement is smartly locked in a certain degree of movement where Leon is facing. This still limits the view on the player, especially with Leon’s model taking up quite a bit of the screen. With this restriction, the game still has a sense of tightness and claustrophobia to it, even with its much more open level design. You never know when a village is shuffling up behind you or even just outside your peripheral vision. Many modern 3rd person shooters like Control offer a free camera, able to look any direction regardless of where the character is facing, but this just wouldn’t have worked for Resident Evil 4.
At its core, Resident Evil 4 is still a horror game, even though it focuses more on action. Without the dank, cramped environments of the previous games to provide scares, Resident Evil 4 uses complete relentlessness. When in combat, there are many enemies coming from all sides. The limited camera makes it impossible to keep track of all enemies at once and this allows them to sneak up out of view and grab Leon unexpectedly. The developers know this too and use it to apply stress to the player, having enemies come at you from all angles. Often you will be backing away from an approaching village right into the hands of another. Every combat encounter turns into a balance act of killing the enemies in front of you while also keeping mental tallies on any you know who are coming near and keep your distance from them all.
Besides hounding Leon from all directions, the enemies have been designed around the new camera in other ways. The villagers are typically slow moving to accommodate the narrow camera and stiff tank controls, but they can jog in quick bursts to gain distance on Leon. They can close distance surprisingly fast if not tended to, but the game gives the player ways to deal with that. Enemies become stunned when they take enough damage, stopping to clutch their legs or head or wherever they’ve been shot. Shoot them in the legs enough and they become staggered, allowing Leon to roundhouse kick them. This is an important technique to learn because it not only does damage and can hit multiple enemies, but it gives you invincibility frames and sends the enemies flying back. An up close blast from a shotgun also knocks enemies a good distance, granting you a little bit of breathing room and precious seconds to assess the situation and make a plan.
The majority of enemies are melee, with a few having ranged weaponry or tossing their axes or sickles at you from afar. You would think that in a 3rd person shooter, most enemies would also be armed with guns. This is indeed the case for most games in the genre, but those types of enemies would not have worked in Resident Evil 4. While the combat can be hectic, with snap decisions needed in the heat of a fight, the camera and controls give the shooting a more slow-paced and methodical feel. With the enemies being slow and having to reach Leon first to damage him, the player has plenty of time to focus the camera where it needs to be, to run to spot where they are safe enough to stop and shoot, to even dash past enemies if they are overwhelmed, low on ammo, or just don’t to waste the bullets to fight.
Resident Evil 4’s combat is some of the best out there, especially for an over-the shoulder camera system. It not only shaped action games at the time, but its influence can still be felt today. Take the 2018 God of War. The camera is as close to Kratos in that game as it is to Leon in Resident Evil 4, but the latter is a methodical shooter while God of War is a fast paced hack and slash. The camera’s closeness to Kratos never felt like it worked as well as it should. The game constantly had to have immersion-breaking indicators and arrows pointing to enemies off screen or throwing range attacks. The game mitigates this a bit by limiting the enemies to face in individual encounters compared to other games in the series, but it doesn’t handle the shift in the camera perspective as well as Resident Evil 4 had over a decade earlier.
It must be frightening to design a new game in a series so radically different than its predecessors. It has to retain what fans loved about the earlier games and the new stuff has to be as good enough for players to enjoy immediately. This must be why Miyamoto spent the few months of Super Mario 64’s development perfecting Mario’s controls. Likewise, I think the Resident Evil 4 developers knew how important the new over-the-shoulder camera was to the game. They clearly designed everything around it and made sure everything worked well within the new camera system.
It honestly blows my mind when people say they can’t play the game due to the camera or controls. Sure, the controls and camera can feel weird when you first start, but the game is so expertly crafted around them that you quickly get used to them. From the camera subtly creating a tight feeling to how the enemies are designed, the game perfectly utilizes the 3rd person perspective to heighten every minute of Resident Evil 4’s gameplay.
The other major complaint against the game: Ashley—that’s a whole other post there. Stay tuned.