Review: Capcom Resident Evil 4 Mobile Edition
Two years ago, the very thought of a game like Capcom's Resident Evil 4 Mobile Edition ($8) for iPods or iPhones would have been enough to excite Apple fans all over the world. These days, while the name, the concept, and execution are still attention-grabbers, they don't generate the same immediate level of enthusiasm, as it's becoming obvious that pairing an impressive graphics engine with iPhone-ready gameplay and content isn't as easy as it sounds.
Resident Evil 4 is based upon a popular series of “survival horror” games that evolved from pre-rendered 2-D backgrounds and item management-based gameplay into more exciting 3-D shooters. Like the earlier mobile phone exclusive Resident Evil: Degeneration, you control Leon Kennedy, a gunslinging government agent who’s currently charged with rescuing the President’s daughter from a bio-infected zombie cult; this means you spend missions exploring Eastern European villages, gathering weapons and ammo, and trying to keep yourself alive. There are 12 relatively simple stages, interrupted by visits to a weapons dealer who will let you use cash to purchase new guns, upgrades, and ammunition, as well as healing items. Mapping is not necessary, as the stages are small areas designed to be tackled in sequence. A “mercenary mode” puts you in the same levels with a timed “take down as many enemies as possible” mission and limited supplies, sometimes at different times of day.
At first, the game feels as if it’s not really supposed to be about exploring, but rather, firing round after round of ammo into enemies that keep popping out of nowhere and trying to kill you. A village seems to spawn tons of zombie-like villagers with pitchforks and axes, then a guy with a chainsaw; later, a pitch black mountain path forces you to confront even freakier villagers who have alien-like arms popping out of their heads, then a fourth stage contains the first of several oversized, monsterous boss characters. On your first push through a level, you’re more likely to get eaten or hacked up than to survive; the next time, you realize that you’re better off running around, locating all of the crates with important objects inside, and then killing as many things as pop out at you once you’ve gathered the items—keys, better weapons, and so on—that were scattered around.
It’s no surprise that Resident Evil 4 isn’t as fun to play on the iPhone as it was on game consoles, so the only real question is how close it gets. The answer: “sort of.” You’re given an on-screen joypad to steer your character around, plus buttons to pull your gun and knife, and sometimes another button to interact with objects. In keeping with series traditions, the game makes shooting and stabbing a pain—press button, reposition your body to aim, hit button, repeat—in an apparent attempt to preserve the game’s challenge, with a red laser sight modestly helping you to direct your bullets at targets. There’s also the tedium of managing your inventory, made artificially difficult by items that are picked up and not automatically combined, such that you might have 10 pieces of ammo, 50 pieces of ammo, and another 30 pieces of ammo occupying three spaces in your bag; then, you run out of spaces for items, and need to manually combine them to make space. This wasn’t fun years ago, and on a handheld device, it’s really not fun now.
Technically, Resident Evil 4 feels and looks like the console versions. There’s a deliberately dreary, washed out color palette that gives the game a gritty, old-fashioned look; enemies are fairly complex polygon creations, and everything from the buildings to the objects you see—ladders, axes, and your own character’s body—looks quite good by iPhone 3-D standards. The only major visual problem is that the backdrops and villains blend together due to both a lack of color contrast and the low resolution of the iPhone and iPod touch displays, such that you can turn your character 360 degrees and never spot an enemy who’s just about to pounce on you. Resident Evil: Degeneration’s mobile-optimized graphics and interface may not have been as detailed, but they struck a somewhat better balance of color contrast and boldness given the limitations of a small device’s screen.
The visual issues are compounded by the controls, which make actually shooting or fighting these enemies less fun than it should be once you hear them groaning nearby. Those groans and the sounds of gunfire are incidentally most of the audio in the game; there’s little else to hear. And though the polygon counts and frame rates are pretty high here, they’re offset by lackluster animation, which makes the characters feel even more mindless and robotic than they are supposed to be. It’s not unusual to see a zombie apparently turning 90 or 180 degrees by doing nothing more than an unanimated rotation; and the once-menacing chainsaw attacker is stripped of both weapon animation and blood when he succeeds in touching you. Here, you should be scared of him because you die immediately, not because he’s going to turn the screen into a mess of red splatters. Cutscenes are similarly stripped down into flat images with text overlays, and don’t provide quite as much of the story as was in the original title.
In sum, Resident Evil 4 isn’t a bad iPhone game: between its familiar gameplay and reasonably impressive 3-D graphics, fans of the series will find certain parts of its translation from console to iPhone OS to be legitimately compelling, and many companies would be thrilled to have a title on this platform with half as much to see or do. That said, serious gamers will ironically find the mobile game’s content to be a zombie-like shell of its predecessor, with limited enemy intelligence, so-so animation and mediocre controls relative to the well-liked console version. We’d recommend Resident Evil 4 Mobile Edition only to those who haven’t played the console version and are looking for five or ten hours of challenge; they’ll find this to be a good enough way to pass the time.