“By Design” was a phrase I saw when I was a game tester. If a bug was minor enough the developer could ignore it, they would occasionally lie and say that it was there intentionally. For our purposes, By Design is the title for a series of transmissions, where we evaluate a game’s design. I’ll tell you what’s happening and if it has good or bad design. Leave your story, music and art where they are, because unless they impact game design, we aren’t going to need them.
Resident Evil 4 is easily one of my favorite games. While it was radically different from the previous Resident Evil games and its success seems to have signaled the end of the previous games design philosophy, Resident Evil 4 did a number of things right that kept the horror shooter at least reminiscent of its survival horror roots.
The game does a good a job introducing the player to Leon’s situation with a mock encounter that’s pretty hard to fail, short of not attacking the Ganado. On their walk into the village the player encounters a trickle of Ganados which allows them a chance to get the hang of the controls. All the enemies are placed directly in front of them giving them time to anticipate their targets approach.
The first real test of the gun combat comes in the village when a few short waves of Ganados come after Leon. The player doesn’t actually have to kill all Dr. Salvador, but just enough other Ganados to make the church bell ring. This is the first introduction to the player learning to become environmentally aware.
Most modern zombie games feature two key skills, gun combat and level awareness. As waves of bad guys attack the player, learning to use the level’s geometry allows them to control the enemy flow. Since environmental awareness requires the player become familiar with the level, this is a skill that’s always learned on the fly when entering an area and gets stronger the more they are in the area. This was a critical skill for anyone wanting to score high in Mercenaries Mode.
A player who has developed sense of level awareness will find points to bottle neck and control the flow of bad guys, like a window or ladder, and plan when possible for escape routes. Developing the skill enables the player to adapt their knowledge in new areas, such as identifying bottleneck spots ladders where they only have to shoot the bad guys in the face one at a time or a stairway that can be kept clear with knock back weapons.
Since the two story house in this area gives the player ample room and a shotgun, which is great for crowd control, the game spawns the chainsaw wielding Dr. Salvador who not only can destroy blockades quickly but has dangerously high attack power.
The shotgun’s knock back will help the player make room to escape but the stock weapons won’t be able to kill Dr. Salvador easily. With a high attack power that can quickly drop Leon the player’s best option is to keep a distance and use the level to their advantage.
Stronger enemies like Dr Salvador, while usually are more like mini-bosses, are skill checks to help strengthen the player’s ability. Killing these bad guys will yield some good treasure but if they player is careful, they can be even be evaded most of the time.
What’s important in good game design is that the players progression be gated by the development of the player’s skill. Graphically this ideal development is referred to as the “skill ramp” where the player climbs the incline over the course of the game, and at the end of it, masters the necessary skills.
The player will have gotten a good sense of how to control and dispatch Ganados by the time they get through the factory and grab the church key. Backtracking through the village where they encountered Dr. Salvador to get to a few other areas, will mean the player gets another shot to flex their level awareness muscle and bend the crowd around the familiar buildings.
Bad guys become harder as the game goes on, not just by increased hit points. Some enemies wear helmets and carry shields to protect themselves, some carry ranged weapons and some even have a few stages, where the plagas become exposed and has to be killed as well. These kinds of bad guys will teach the player to build upon the competency of the regular combat while introducing them to new techniques that they can combine for more personal approaches.
In some circumstances the player can use environmental factors like exploding barrels or hanging lanterns to get around situational bad guys, or they can shoot a round into a bad guys kneecap to do kicks or suplexes. As the player gets deeper into Salazar’s castle and encounters more enemy types not only will their response have to change but acquiring new weapons means they will be learning new ways to deal with them.
Just as the shotgun has knock back and can clear space, it can be used to tear apart enemy shields. The TMP, sub machine gun can also tear up shields but can also be used for crowd control. Peppering a group of zealots will set up a chain of kicks and suplexes. Connecting even one round house kick in a group of zealots will give Leon a lot of space to maneuver. A player who’s collected more treasure may want to buy a different gun from the merchant or tune up their weapon. Powering up weapons becomes essential later in the game when the gun combat skill ramp plateaus early and it becomes more about brute force, careful shots and dodging when possible. While there are usually strategic options for even the toughest of armored bad guys, enough shots from a devastatingly tuned up weapon anywhere on their body will drop them.
As with all escort objectives in games, Ashley is a handicap. While she does help with the drastic increase of puzzles in the castle, maintaining her health and preventing her kidnapping is is another test on the players ability once that adds to the system dynamic beyond the core skills.
She’s not that much of drag though, in addition to helping with some puzzles, her AI is competent; she’ll stay where you tell her, run quite a distance when you call for her, pathfinding is pretty strong and she ducks if you aim in her direction. In certain sections of the game that would be too difficult to escort her through, you can even have her hide and come back for her.
Weapon tune up is a great dynamic on the gun combat that really allows for a personal touch. Players who favor a weapon class, shotgun, pistol, rifle, etc, can customize their prefered weapons to better combat the increased difficulty of bad guys and keep some of their previous techniques and strategy until later into the game.
It around this point where the game design changes course though. The problem with Resident Evil 4’s game design is the same thing that plagues Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6. Once enemies become more active with ranged weapons, it becomes a different animal.
Ganados threw a few items and even some Zealots used crossbows but once enemies start using turrets, miniguns and rifles this goes counter to the previous game design. Where the player was using their environment to control enemy flow in conjunction with their weapons, fighting gun toting Ganados means radically altering the players approach. Instead of building on earlier techniques they have to be abandoned them as new emphasis is put on gun combat and enemies no longer need to close the distance attack Leon. Open areas where Ganados shoot at Leon from afar drastically slows things down, and short of firing back, there’s no other meaningful counter. Instead the player has to awkwardly use their environment as cover and the game becomes more action focused.
Where earlier stages meant being careful about your weapon use as well as being mindful of Ashley and your surroundings, its all thrown out the window and becomes a full on action game with fleeting moments of the previous skill development by punishment, like when they run into the Regenerator.
A game can teach a player a skill with positive and negative reinforcement, or in other words using reward and punishment systems. A game with a strong system dynamic will usually have both kinds of systems but the successful use of one over the other will mean a well designed hard game or a well designed easy game.
I believe this is the problem with modern Resident Evil games. They have the same settings as the games that started series; an underground lab, a mansion/castle, a cave or tunnel, etc. but the player’s level awareness was the most important ability to master as the abundance of puzzles meant they had to move around certain areas for a while until they could move to a new level. If the player needed to save some ammo, they may choose to go around a certain room they knew they had left some zombies in. Puzzles have become less important and the use of Typewriters to save has vanished after RE4 which was already a little gimped.
Resident Evil 5 and 6 seems to have gotten an underwhelming reception. While a more punishing game design like their earlier titles may not be popular with a modern audience, there seems to be a market in more difficult games as we’ve seen with the constant comparison of new titles to the difficulty of Demon and Dark Souls series. If Capcom wants a return to form, they need to make level awareness the players dominant skill while teaching aggro players to master gun combat at the end of the game scenario or in new game + for those who play more careful and unlock the majority of weapons then.
Despite all that Resident Evil 4 is still a fairly well designed game that’s a good length without even taking into account its strong replay value in new game plus. Even when the player might get bored of its main game mechanics, there are puzzles, mazes, a shooting gallery and some on rails segments to keep things diverse.
Please leave your thoughts on if you liked this first episode of by design and I want to say thanks to Highwang who gave me the footage from his recent review of the HD release of RE4 for the PC.
Until next time.