Resident Evil 4
What would happen to the greatest zombie-killing video-game series ever if it didn't have zombies? Resident Evil 4, the latest (though not actually the fourth) in the series, marks a bold re-imagining that not only freshens things up with a series of new twists, but also jettisons some of the annoying little things about its predecessors. First and foremost, the bulk of the enemies attacking American special agent Leon Kennedy (the returning hero of RE2) seem to be normal humans–Spanish villagers, in fact–who have just gone loco. They attack our hero, who's on assignment to rescue the American president's kidnapped daughter, and they attack in coordinated groups, with purpose. (Also with knives and torches.) Their feet don't drag, they don't do the zombie moan, and their heads don't explode. At least not right away.
You play Leon, of course, and you're closer to the action than in Resident Evils past via an over-the-shoulder angle that gives RE4 a first-person shooter vibe without the accompanying nausea. Winding through an incredibly rendered 3D world–complete with seriously bone-chilling sounds and surprises–you accomplish the twin prongs of the Resident Evil series: blasting creepy creeps and solving relatively simple puzzles. RE4 cooks up an array of tough bosses to cap each of its neatly divided chapters, making for an excellent mix of wandering and shooting. Even hardened pacifists will come to love Leon's upgradeable arsenal and what it can do to an army of... zombies?
Beyond the gameplay: As with most games involving an intricate story, plausibility is never a factor: It's simply thrown out the window, as it should be. The hilarious baddies at work behind the scenes–a cult leader, a pint-sized Spaniard in a purple getup, a rogue American agent–couldn't be more over-the-top in Resident Evil 4's cinematic cutscenes.
Worth playing for: Dozens of moments, but particularly the first time Leon gets completely surrounded by attackers in a cottage (he later learns they're called Ganado, Spanish for cattle) and has to keep blasting and reloading for what seems like ages. Close-range murder–in self-defense, of course–has never been more exhilarating. Or plentiful.
Frustration sets in when: Occasional fights, particularly one in a series of boxcars fought against a tentacled beast, take a dozen Leon deaths to figure out.
Final judgment: As the pinnacle of the so-called "survival horror" genre, Resident Evil has a lot to live up to with each installment, and this latest offering surpasses even the classic Resident Evil 2 in playability (even on repeat plays, since elements change) and sheer, joyous terror.