It looks like there’s something up with the brightness on my primary monitor as the screenshots I took for this review are all far darker than they appeared when I was actually playing the game. Resident Evil 2 is certainly dark, but it is not this dark — I will try to tweak my brightness settings and capture some more representative shots tonight.
I don’t believe I’ve ever talked about Resident Evil on here, and for good reason: unlike what appears to be the entire rest of the world I hated Resident Evil 4 and have singularly disagreed with the direction the series has gone in since then, with the prioritisation of anime knife fights and suplexing zombies over slow-paced B-movie survival horror. (Not that suplexing zombies isn’t awesome, but it’s really not what I want out of a Resident Evil game.) Still, I wouldn’t have had a problem with that tonal shift if I hadn’t liked what the series was doing up until that point; I really enjoyed the first three Resident Evil games – especially the first one, with the legendarily terrible voice acting and the tremendously cheap live-action cutscenes — and so my reaction to the announcement that Capcom were remaking Resident Evil 2 in the Resident Evil 7 engine1 was rather mixed. The preview footage looked interesting, sure, but it didn’t look all that much like what I recognised as being Resident Evil 2, and while Dark Souls has demonstrated an appetite for the slower, more thoughtful style of the old Resident Evils I was a little sceptical that Capcom could resist the urge to (for example) put in a quicktime event where the main character punches a boulder to death.
Turns out that, with a couple of very minor exceptions, they mostly managed it. Resident Evil 2 is, when you account for the fact that it has to update a twenty-one year old game into something tolerable for today’s audiences, one of the most faithful remakes I’ve ever played, being as true as it can be to the spirit and the content of the original whilst dragging the ossifying gameplay kicking and screaming into the modern age. Leon, Claire, the police station, the absurd puzzle locks, Lickers, Sherry and Ada, the Kendo gunshop, the sewers, the lab, bossfights with G-Birkin, obsessive inventory and resource management, and a sudden creeping dread at what that noise you just heard in the next room might be — it’s all here, modernised and a little remixed, and while there are a few bits and pieces that disappointed it’s only because they’ve contrasted poorly with a remake that, in general, has an absolutely stellar level of quality.
For those who haven’t played the original Resident Evil games (you really missed out): Resident Evil 2 is set shortly after the 1997 zombie mansion incident from Resident Evil2. The zombies have spread from there into nearby Raccoon City, and the whole city is now infested with the living dead. You play either Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie cop showing up to the Raccoon City Police Department for his first day of work, or Claire Redfield, a “college student”3 who is looking for her brother Chris (who was a protagonist of the original game). Each character gets their own unique weapons loadout, cutscenes and special gameplay segments, but the majority of the game will otherwise be the same for both: they make it through the city into the RCPD, discover that the police station is just as screwed as the rest of the city, and start looking for a way to escape Raccoon City alive. Because this is a Resident Evil game the area beneath the police station is full of secret tunnels and mad scientist laboratories, and so you don’t spend much time in Raccoon City itself: some classic locations like the gun shop do make a return, but Resident Evil 2 takes place almost entirely in and under the police station, which is stuffed full of shambling zombies, vicious mutants and other, worse monstrosities. You start with a handgun and a single clip of ammo. Good luck!
Well, it’s not quite as bad as all that. The first few Resident Evil games were always heavily focused on resource management, as you decided where to spend the precious bullets and shells you’d picked up from the surrounding environment to get past an obstacle — but the supplies are there to be picked up, and as long as you don’t waste it profligately you’ll accumulate more than enough to see you through to the final bossfight. There are relatively few weapons available but each of them can be improved with attachments (bigger magazines, bigger barrels, laser sights etc.). to keep them relevant and useful through the entire game. You also find healing items in moderately-plentiful quantities; Resident Evil’s gimmick here is to give you different types of herbs that can be combined to produce different effects, from healing to poison-curing to a damage reduction buff, and — again — as long as you’re moderately smart about the way you approach the enemies you’ll never feel all that pressured when it comes to your HP bar either. The trick with both ammo and health is to learn when to conserve it, when to use it, and how to use it, and it’s here that the Resident Evil 2 remake starts to get a little bit interesting.
The original Resident Evil games are infamous for their tank controls, fixed-perspective pre-rendered environments and finicky aiming that make them very difficult to go back and play today; it had to give you quite a lot of ammo because you’d end up shooting a fair chunk of it into the scenery through no fault of your own. The remake very wisely jettisons all of that, opting instead for a modern over-the-shoulder third-person perspective with right-click-to-aim left-click-to-fire shooting mechanics. This makes it much easier to land shots on target than in the original game, so the amount of overall ammo in the game has been reduced and the zombies have been made tougher. Not much tougher, as I recall them eating 5-7 bullets each in the original Resident Evil 2, but headshots with the regular pistol appear to be ineffective against this new breed — the Magnum and Shotgun will still pop zombie heads just fine, but magnum rounds and shotgun shells are rare enough that you don’t want to waste them on bog-standard zombies. This means that the zombies are now tough enough that spending between eight and ten rounds of ammunition to kill them outright feels like an expensive, borderline-unsustainable move that could quickly run you out of ammunition entirely if you keep it up. And of course if you’re busy punting rounds into one zombie any friends that he might have will be closing the distance on you, and if they get close you’re going to have a really bad time.
It’s therefore quite important to get a feel for when you absolutely have to kill a zombie versus shooting them in the head once or twice to stagger them, or maybe going for a leg shot that’ll bring them down temporarily so that you can slip past. Resident Evil’s zombies are the slow breed of zombie and they’re not particularly cut out for a high-speed pursuit, so once you’re past them they cease to be a threat — at least until you have to come back to that location. You can save a lot of ammo by either stunning them like this or by dodging around them completely in the more open areas, and so you pretty quickly develop a Zombie Threat Matrix. Zombies in corridors almost always require at least distracting before you can get past, but that guy chowing down on the corpse in the library? He’s perfectly happy where he is and won’t come after you unless you interrupt his meal; don’t waste the ammo. On the other hand if there’s a zombie in an area you know you’re going to be coming back to a lot, like outside a safe room, it’s probably worth spending the bullets to put it down permanently so that you’re not having to constantly dodge it every time you want to save your game.
A similar calculation exists for health items, along with the realisation that health equals ammo and vice versa. Unless you’re playing on Hardcore a zombie attack will take off at most a third of your health, and after you get attacked you throw the zombie back and create some space to get by; you can therefore knowingly take the hit if you’re willing to spend herbs instead of bullets. This remake also (re)introduces4 subweapons such as knives and grenades that double as defence items; if a zombie starts an attack animation you can activate a defence item to e.g. cram a flashbang down the zombie’s throat instead, negating the attack. Subweapons are in short supply and are much more effective when used as actual weapons (there’s couple of spots in the game where you really need a grenade that you haven’t fed to a zombie), so they’re yet another kind of resource that you have to decide when and where to expend. The Resident Evil 2 remake keeps the limited inventory space of the original (albeit with some expansions given as rewards for completing optional puzzles) so you can’t carry all of your ammo and health and weapons and defence items around with you at once; safe rooms have storage chests that hold your excess stuff and function as base camps where you outfit yourself for the next leg of your journey through the game, and figuring out what you’re going to need versus what you can probably get away with leaving behind this time is always an interesting decision to have to make.
You might notice that despite going into how the monsters and combat and inventory interact with each other in great detail I haven’t really mentioned anything about Resident Evil 2 being scary yet. Sure, the resource management and routing through the police station/other environs is a fascinating intellectual exercise, fighting or evading the monsters is great fun, the gore system is satisfyingly meaty and the environments look wonderfully atmospheric — but this is a survival horror game, and one of the reasons we play those is to be scared, right? Well, it does succeed, but not quite in the way you might expect. I don’t find zombies inherently scary, and I’m not one to be intimidated by a dark room, either. (Which is good because a large portion of the first half of the game is almost pitch black.) I did find the lickers to be effective in the sections where it was possible to creep by them without triggering an attack — they locate you by sound, so if you walk very slowly they won’t be able to find you, although it’s extremely unnerving watching them swivel this way and that as they try to find you. Most of Resident Evil 2’s other monsters fall into the “weird and unsettling” category rather than being outright terrifying, with just one exception that you’ve probably heard of by now: Mr X.
Mr X is a gigantic man in a leather trenchcoat and fedora who shows up about a third of the way into the game to implacably pursue the player throughout the rest of it. He’s very unhurried and — unlike most of the enemies in the game — is polite enough to use the doorknob, which makes for some decent entertainment as he squeezes his nine-foot bulk through a door and then unfolds again, but also means there’s very few places in the game that are safe from his constant search for the player character. You can’t kill Mr X, as he’ll shrug off everything from shotgun blasts to flame grenades (in fact the flame grenades just make things worse as he’ll now be punching you while on fire). You can stagger him down onto one knee by unloading heavy-calibre ammunition into his face — the only vulnerable part of his body — which gives you a few seconds to escape, but eventually he’ll get back up and come after you again. This means the best strategy for dealing with Mr X (as with most of the monsters in the game) is simply to avoid him, but while he’s just slightly slower than the player character and you can quite easily dodge him if you’re not in a confined space and are in a position to give 100% of your attention to him, he adds a tremendous sense of time pressure to any actual task you need to accomplish to progress the game — especially since you can hear the extremely loud clomp-clomp-clomp of his footsteps as he patrols up and down nearby corridors and gradually homes in on your position.
Now, this all all sounds a lot like another famous survival horror baddie that I actually didn’t like all that much: the Alien from Alien: Isolation. Like the Alien, Mr X is a big unkillable-yet-noisy monster that shows up at set points to make your life difficult. The Alien wasn’t a particularly smart enemy and could be easily evaded, and Mr X is, if anything, even simpler. I thought the Alien was a paper tiger whose sense of threat totally evaporated once you realised just how stupid it was, which for me took about fifteen minutes as I like to probe the boundaries of AI behaviour to see what it’ll let me get away with. I did similar testing with Mr X and pretty quickly established his patterns: he spawns at set story points and despawns at others, he can follow you almost anywhere in the station except for safe rooms and certain dead-ends, and if he doesn’t have a good fix on your location (because he’s just gotten up from being staggered and you’re now on the other side of the police station, say) the game will give him a hand and direct him to search in your vicinity. If you’re in a part of the story where he’s supposed to be around, then he’ll always be around, but his attacks aren’t all that damaging on their own and even if you screw up a dodge you’ll survive as long as your health isn’t on Danger status. If anything, Mr X is less threatening than the Alien, because while he’ll always be able to find you (eventually) he won’t be able to do more than wound you before you get away.
But here’s the reason Mr X works where I think the Alien doesn’t, really: unlike Alien: Isolation, it is quite tricky to kill every single enemy in Resident Evil 2, especially since new zombies will spawn in certain locations once you hit particular points in the story. Mr X on his own is fairly tame and you can lead him in laps around the police station until you have enough distance between you to get to your objective, but that’s only possible if your chosen escape route is clear of other enemies. If there’s zombies there you’ll run the risk of getting delayed by one of these walking landmines and possibly taking damage, and then Mr X will catch up to you and punch you and kill you. That’s the element that the Alien was missing; this giant hulking monster isn’t really supposed to be dangerous on his own, but he massively amps up the threat level of everything else in the police station, which is in stark contrast to the Alien who’ll actually murder the other enemies if it catches sight of them. If Mr X is behind you and there are zombies in front of you then you have to do some extremely quick thinking and/or shooting to dodge, cripple or stagger the zombies so that you can get past them before Mr X catches up — killing them is out of the question because you don’t have the time, and you are far more likely to screw it up when you can hear the clomp-clomp-CLOMP-CLOMP of his footsteps getting louder and louder.
Importantly, up until Mr X appeared Resident Evil 2 had been more of an intellectual exercise than a survival horror experience. I was enjoying managing my resources and choosing where to expend them to take out enemies, but as long as I had ammo the zombies and the lickers were known problems with a known solution that I could take my time over, just like any other third-person shooter. I wasn’t scared until Mr X showed up and started pressuring me into having to make rushed, panicky decisions where I inevitably made mistakes. I started missing shots and punting valuable ammo into the walls and floor. I started wasting defence items to try and get away from the zombies that Mr X had flushed me into. When the defence items ran out I started taking unnecessary damage. In short, I was far, far less comfortable with what I was doing when Mr X was around; he never actually managed to kill me himself, but he did cause two deaths and a reload because I’d blown too much ammo and didn’t think I could make it to the next objective with five handgun bullets.
Really, in terms of combat, exploration and the resource management puzzle that defined old Resident Evil I don’t have enough good words to say about Resident Evil 2. It’s a fantastic update that feels incredibly tightly designed; the environments are all seamlessly connected (no more loading screen doors!) and the behind-the-scenes scripting the game is doing to manage the enemy encounters is almost invisible. More than that, it’s been made with a clear reverence for the original as it’s very recognisably the same game; the police station in particular is pretty much a direct update with some space made for the modernised mechanics. This unfortunately backfires in the bossfights, which are very standard “shoot the glowing weak spots for massive damage” affairs but which feel rather flaily and awkward because you’re nowhere near as mobile as the typical videogame protagonist and can’t dodge out of the way of the boss attacks as quickly as the game seems to demand. Still, it wouldn’t be Resident Evil 2 without them, and so I’m willing to put up with them, clumsy as they are.
I’m less sanguine about some of the actually bad content in the game. Fortunately there’s not all that much and it’s almost entirely concentrated in Leon’s playthrough, but it’s also fairly telling that these bad sequences are the ones where the developers have tried to do something genuinely new and tripped over their own good intentions. First, there’s a truly awful scripted event where you have to run away from an mutated alligator; you can run left, right or down the middle of the sewer tunnel, and the alligator instakills you if you’re running in the wrong place. Unfortunately you’re given no indication of where the wrong place actually is and so you have to figure it out by trial and error alone, which is always a terrible gameplay outcome. Then there’s the sequences where you don’t play as Leon or Claire; each of them has a short 20-30 minute interlude where the action switches to focus on another character they’ve met in the course of their exploration. Claire gets Sherry Birkin, a ten year-old girl who has inexplicably survived the zombie outbreak and… yeah, I guess Sherry’s sequence wasn’t too bad. It was a bit too modern horror game for my tastes, but it was undeniably creepy and provided some decent backstory.
Sadly the same can’t be said of Ada Wong, the spy that Leon spends most of his storyline mooning over. Ada’s gameplay sequence involves running past half a dozen zombies through a pitch-black room with no flashlight, no healing items and nine bullets, and then having to do it again backwards. It was so dark and maze-like in there that I had to resort to orienteering using the map and finding the zombie locations by letting them eat me. Again, this required a lot of trial-and-error to complete, except this time the checkpoint is absolutely horribly placed, requiring you to replay two minutes of running through a vent shaft every time you die. Then there’s an incinerator puzzle where you have to use a magic doohickey to overload electrical junction boxes through walls before you get burned alive, and figuring out the right sequence involves — you guessed it — trial-and-error. Having the alligator and Ada’s sequence back-to-back as the kickoff for the sewers and the associated chess piece puzzle (which requires a lot of back-and-forthing the first time you do it because you don’t know what you’re doing) really soured me on the game for a while because my feelings about sewer levels are only slightly less vehement than my feelings about swamp levels.
That being said, I did eventually come around on this particular set of sewers thanks to Resident Evil 2’s conceit that you should play through it at least once with each character to get the full story. Completing the game as one character unlocks the B scenario for the other character; this has been something of a missed opportunity in the remake as the only major differences between each character’s A and B scenarios are a different opening and ending, with the rest of it being more-or-less identical save for some slightly remixed item locations, but Claire’s playthrough is different enough from Leon’s that it’s still worth doing them both. When playing through the game a second time as Claire there were two things that jumped out at me. First was that Claire has much more personality than Leon in this version of Resident Evil 2. Leon’s a bit too much of a generically earnest do-gooder, whereas Claire actually has some depth and motivation to her character in addition to a lot of pent-up anger; listening to her swearing at the bosses as she unloads grenades into them is very entertaining5. Second was that I was absolutely ripping through the game now that I knew how everything worked; Leon’s A scenario took me just over eight hours to complete, but Claire’s B scenario took barely three. It’s a real strength of the game that even now it’s got me thinking about ways to further optimise my route and shave an additional hour off of that time; speedrunning isn’t something that’s previously interested me beyond watching it on Twitch, but I’m seriously tempted to try my hand at Resident Evil 2 speedrunning because it’s a natural extension of how you play the game anyway.
(That speedrunning aspect is really brought to the fore in the 4th Survivor bonus mode, where you start out with a full inventory but have to run through almost the entire game from the sewers up to the police station entrance as fast as possible, while dodging a much higher density of enemies than you’d find in the regular game. It’s a bit spoilery for monsters and level layouts, but it’s still maybe worth watching a video of a runthrough because it demonstrates pretty much everything I’ve talked about in this review.)
Hopefully I’ve been effusive enough in my praise for Resident Evil 2 to convince you that it’s something special: an extremely well-designed single-player survival horror experience that doesn’t outstay its welcome — I do not need all my games to be fifty-hour open world experiences, thanks very much — but which is supremely replayable if you want to sink more time into it after you’re finished (and you probably will). It is an almost pitch-perfect update of a classic game that seldom puts a foot wrong, and even when it does it only stumbles a little before righting itself. Unusually for a Japanese developer the PC port is excellent, too, and unusually for any AAA game in this day and age it doesn’t have a single bug in it that I could see. No, Resident Evil 2 is that rarest of things in the videogame space: an all-around high-quality product that more than justifies its £45 RRP, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of new releases that I can say that about in any given year.
- Which is apparently an excellent game and much more up my street, but I’m not sure I’d get on well with the first-person perspective. ↩
- Excellently this is a proper remake instead of a reboot so it’s still 1998 and Leon starts the game in blue jeans and a painfully white pair of trainers. ↩
- Scare quotes necessary because she’s a terrifying engine of destruction compared to Leon. ↩
- They first turned up in the remake of the first Resident Evil on the Gamecube. ↩
- And then at the end she hefts around a sodding minigun like it’s a bag of moderately heavy shopping, and I don’t have a problem with this at all because it’s entirely in-character. ↩