Return of the Zombie Horror King: Resident Evil 2

Resident Evil 2
Gameplay
graphics
audio
value
fun
Genre
Reviewed On
Steam (PC) and PlayStation 4
Available For
Difficulty
Variable
Publisher(s)
Developer(s)
ESRB
ESRB
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When Capcom remade the original Resident Evil for GameCube in 2002, the resulting game was widely considered a stand-out in the series, and one of the best survival horror titles ever released. In a just world, REmake might soon have been followed by similar re-imaginings of Resident Evil 2 and 3, but the game’s sales didn’t meet Capcom’s expectations, and ultimately the GameCube saw only low-investment upscaled ports of the original PlayStation games. Interest in a remake of Resident Evil 2 continued, however, and seventeen years later (and twenty-one years after the release of the original RE2), the fanbase is finally getting its wish with a fully modernized, next-gen re-conception.

Resident Evil 2 (2019) takes the classic static-camera-and-tank-controls PlayStation game and recreates it in full 3D, with the over-the-shoulder shooting mechanics first introduced to the series in Resident Evil 4. The game follows the basic story and structure of the 1998 version, taking place in redesigned versions of the original locations.

The original Raccoon City police station is one of those locations that etches itself into a player’s memory, like Metal Gear Solid’s Shadow Moses Island or Half-Life’s Black Mesa research facility. A deranged, deadly labyrinth in the guise of a public building, the R.P.D. forces you to explore it thoroughly, learn its corridors and secret passages, and solve its riddles. As video games go, it is hallowed ground – and the revamped version is careful not to blaspheme. The new building remains mostly faithful to the general layout of the original, but adds new elements and rearranges the old. If you’ve played the PlayStation game, you’ll frequently recognize corridors and set-pieces, but things have been rearranged to subvert your expectations.

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Familiar items show up in new puzzles, and some of the old jump-scares and reveals take place in different locations. And some of them don’t, and somehow that’s even scarier. For new players, these scares will work as-is, but as a fan of the original, this remake allowed me to experience old frights with new eyes, as if it were my first playthrough again. The best remakes give you a second chance to play your favorite games for the first time, and Resident Evil 2 achieves this expertly, carefully blending the fresh and the familiar to craft an experience that will get the jump on both new and returning players.

Once you’re beyond the police station, the game gets less concerned with preserving the old geography, which is quite right. The police station might be sacred ground, but the sewer and lab, not so much. Both get a reasonably significant redesign, spinning new areas around familiar central rooms. Some of this works really well – the new Umbrella lab is full of interesting puzzles and secrets – but the sewer section that makes up the middle portion of the game is somewhat loose, meandering and unmemorable. Sewer levels are rarely great, and the original game kept its sewer section short and simple to navigate. The remake expands that into a fuller area with a near-maze of a map, but is there anything less fun than getting lost in a videogame sewer?

The early Resident Evil games, at their core, were about horror delivered not only through jump-scares and monsters, but also through the tension of resource management – whether you’d have enough ammo to deal with your next encounter, or enough healing items to recover if things went wrong. Resident Evil 4 moved away from this, focusing on action gameplay and quietly introducing an adaptive difficulty system that increased and decreased the amount of ammo drops depending on player state, cleverly maintaining the tension of scarcity while never allowing the player to completely dry out mid-fight. This system worked extremely well, but it’s fortunate that while RE2make has adopted RE4-like shooting mechanics, it sticks with the old resource system.

Inventory space is limited, ammo is fixed and scarce, and enemy health is random. You can run out of bullets, and you can run out unexpectedly. Encounters become not just about combat, but about decision-making. How are you going to deal with this zombie? Are you going to kill it? Do you have enough ammo for that? What if you just shoot its knee out and run past? You’ll save some ammo, but the zombie will still be here when you come back. Maybe you could just dodge around it, but if you don’t manage it, zombie bites do a lot of damage, and you need to save your healing for tougher encounters. If you start fighting, get ten bullets in and the zombies are still coming, are you going to change tack and cut your losses, or push through and spend even more precious ammo?

 

Oh, and don’t forget – gunfire is audible. You might attract other foes. Bigger, badder ones. The encounter I describe here is a common one, and you’ll have to make calls like this throughout the game. The sheer amount of options you have for dealing with enemies, and the real effects that the outcomes have on your game, make the experience consistently tense and fully engaging. Even when you’re only facing one single zombie.

Resident Evil 2 looks stunning. The game uses Capcom’s in-house RE Engine, first seen two years ago in the franchise-revitalizing Resident Evil 7. That game had a great look, though a specific one – dingy, dilapidated areas, often swathed in near-impenetrable darkness. The brighter, cleaner environments of Resident Evil 2 pose a different challenge, and the RE Engine does a wonderful job meeting it. Simply put, this is one of the best-looking horror games ever made. The engine’s impressive array of post-processing features and HDR support bring out the best in the intricately detailed models and facial animations. The iconic Licker monsters lurk menacingly in the deep, near-photorealistic shadows, then emerge, their exposed brains, raw flesh and dripping fangs glistening in the moonlight. Zombies take visible, visceral damage when shot, chunks of flesh disintegrating to reveal the yellowing teeth and bones beneath.

The final, true-ending boss is a masterwork of Cronenberg-inspired body horror, its warped morass of teeth, tentacles and cavities given incredible presence by the depth and detail of the shadows it casts on itself, and the phenomenally vibrant HDR color work.

This graphical fidelity obviously comes with hardware requirements – I tested the Windows version of this game on an Nvidia GTX1070, which ran it at high/max settings at a pretty consistent 60FPS. The recommended card is a 1060 or Radeon RX480, but the minimum requirements are surprisingly low, asking only a GTX 760 or an R7 260x. Obviously the game will look significantly less beautiful on that hardware, but it’s a testament to the scalability of Capcom’s engine that Resident Evil 2 will run on a six-year-old mid-range graphics card. I also tested the game on a PS4 Pro, which produced an image and framerate nearly as impressive, though slightly less sharp. The console version also occasionally had some noticeable and rather ugly visual artifacts when rendering surface reflections, but it’s possible that this is just a patchable bug.

Not content with simply looking gorgeous, the game’s enemies have been given gameplay redesigns to fit the new control mechanisms. Zombies are still slow and shambling, but they’re not as predictable as they used to be and can easily get the drop on you if you’re not careful. They’re also more resilient – a few shots to the head might drop a walker, but unless you make sure to deliver a definitive coup de grace with your gun or knife, it’ll usually get up again. The Licker is significantly faster and deadlier than it used to be. Zombie dogs are trickier to hit now that you have to manually aim at them (to balance this out, they now go down in a couple of hits), and the “Ivy” plant monsters that appeared in the original RE2 late game have been completely reconceived.

A couple of enemies have been dropped completely, and while I won’t miss the upgraded, chitinous Lickers that used to infest the laboratory area, I was disappointed that the original game’s giant tarantulas have been scrapped, replaced in the sewer section by some rather uninspired flesh-blob creatures which are difficult to avoid, little fun to fight, and absorb huge amounts of even your more powerful ammo. Along with the relatively dull level design in that particular area, replays the sewer sections become a bit of an exercise in drudgery. Still, good news for arachnophobes.

Then there’s the Tyrant, also known as Mr. X. Originally, Mr. X only showed up in the PlayStation version’s post-game alternate scenarios, a hulking and powerful Terminator-like enemy who intermittently dogged the player throughout the story, able to be temporarily put down but not definitively killed. The remake gives him a significantly larger role with expanded mechanics (and a hat), and depending on which scenario you’re playing you’ll find yourself having to deal with him much more. I won’t spoil anything here, but the first encounter with him is one of the most effective and panic-inducing sequences I can remember in the entire history of survival horror. A stand-out foe, Mr. X is the full realization of what Capcom originally tried to achieve with Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 – a perfectly-tuned and almost unstoppable enemy who will fill you with dread even in his absence.

The game’s story follows the original reasonably closely, maintaining the overarching progression but not being afraid to alter specifics. Claire has had some backstory updates, ostensibly to make her a more active character – she now brings her own gun to the city, rather than taking one from Leon, and is a well-trained crack shot. It feels like an attempt to make her more of a badass, but I felt that it missed the mark – Claire was already a strong character, and part of that was that she originally came to the city unprepared, and was able to adapt. The new characterization flattens her story arc, and makes her less distinct from Leon.

Side characters like reporter Ben and Umbrella scientist Annette Birkin have also received personality revamps, both becoming a little softer and more sympathetic. This adds some emotional weight to certain plot strands, but the original made a point of having the human NPCs be as treacherous and antagonistic as the monsters surrounding them, and the new characterizations weaken this theme, if not abandon it.

In fact, as far as story and character go, this retelling is weaker in nearly every aspect. For an entry in such a lore-heavy series, RE2make seems surprisingly unconcerned with plot. The specifics of the original are retold broadly faithfully – Claire still gets her motherhood story with Sherry, while Leon goes on an adventure with his super-spy girlfriend and her obviously impractical red dress (which has been given a substantially lower neckline, for reasons which I can only assume are, you know, gross). I can forgive the gender politics being a little dated – this is a videogame story from 1998, after all. But the story is told with conspicuous vagueness, in cutscenes that look good but carry very little weight, in either writing or voice performance.

Characters are much more verbose and naturalistic than in the original, but this translates into little actual detail. Some important plot elements are omitted entirely – the game doesn’t even explain why the primary antagonist is bothering to follow you around, and with the greatly increased role of Mr. X as a secondary villain, the story’s end is split between two unrelated plot strands, making the game’s third act feel somewhat unfocused, particularly in Leon’s campaign. The writers seem to presume an existing familiarity with the original game, and are content to simply drop in a few rewritten cutscenes rather than attempt to meaningfully re-tell the original story in a comprehensive way.

These shortcomings are highlighted further with the new B-Scenario system, referred to in-game as “2nd Run.” In the original game, on completion of either character’s main campaign, you unlocked the other character’s second scenario – a significantly altered playthrough which functioned as the opposing story, showing you what the other character was doing during the events of the first character’s game. Each character’s A and B scenarios were different, producing four available playthroughs making up two complete variants of the game’s story. In the remake, this system is still present, but it’s been drastically scaled back. The 2nd Run for each character starts in a slightly different place and there are some alterations to item positions, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s very little difference to the first run other than a more severe scarcity of ammunition. There’s not a huge amount of variation between Leon and Claire’s A-scenarios, either, so where the original contained four distinct campaigns, in the remake, playing through all four scenarios essentially feels like playing the same game four times.

It’s also not clear what the 2nd Run is trying to achieve from a story perspective. You get to see the alternate side of the cutscenes where Leon and Claire interact, implying that you’re playing the opposing story, but the plots of each campaign don’t actually fit together – you fight all the same bosses in all the same places, and all four scenarios directly contradict each other in major ways. Given that the premise of Resident Evil 2 so heavily relies on both characters undertaking different tasks concurrently in the same setting, it’s baffling that the remake doesn’t contain a canonical scenario where this actually happens. Leon and Claire barely even interact during the events of the game – where the original has them in constant radio contact, here there’s only a brief early scene where they pass each other on their respective routes, and then they don’t interact at all until a similar encounter at the very end, where they’re both justifiably surprised to find each other in the same lab. So why include a B-scenario at all? Why not just have two main campaigns that make sense opposite each other and are sufficiently different that players don’t feel short-changed?

It’s worth comparing this version of Resident Evil 2 to the first Resident Evil remake. That game took the original, refined the base gameplay, added compelling new subplots, enemy types and areas, expanded on the story and integrated it more fully into the existing lore. It stayed close to the source material, and when it diverged it did so in an additive way. Resident Evil 2, while modernising the gameplay, strips a lot of the original content away. The changes it makes, by and large, are omissions, and the result is a game that has less impact, and leaves a smaller footprint in a player’s memory. Once the novelty of exploring the recreated R.P.D. wears off, it becomes clear that ultimately, the first REmake is the stronger effort.

To be clear, I think the Resi 2 remake is a good game, and does a lot of things really well, but it feels incomplete. Important things that made the original a stone-cold classic have been dropped. What’s left is good, but the underlying structure that elevated Resident Evil 2 from good to great has not made the transition. And it should have.

The original Resident Evil 2 featured a ranking system – after a given playthrough, the player’s performance was analysed and they were given a letter grade from A to E (with a special “S” grade in the original Japanese and Western N64 versions). Since one of the major factors in calculating that grade was completion time, Resident Evil 2 was a bellwether for what would later grow into the expansive speedrunning community. The remake has not forgotten this, and the game has been designed to encourage replays and speedruns from the outset. The pause menu now has a playtime clock in the upper right corner, and once you’ve completed your first run a Records screen is unlocked. It shows your current best times for each playthrough on each difficulty, and the par times for the A and S ranks. (There’s also a new, secret S+ rank, which does call the Spinal Tap amplifier scene to mind a little). Unlike the original, the play clock only records actual gameplay time, so you can pause the game and not worry about wasting time, allowing you to take a breath and consider your route.

Speedrunning is still unfortunately seen as a slightly niche interest, but I’ll nail my flag to the mast here – the developers’ acknowledgement of speedrunning and attention to detail here are very cool. It shows engagement with and care for the long-time fans – the ones (like me) who still go back and try to A-rank the original occasionally. As it stands, I’ve managed after a couple of playthroughs to get my time down to about three hours – the hardest challenge in the game demands a time of under two. I’m looking forward to trying to beat it, and even more excited to see just how fast the hardcore speedrunning community can beat the game at AGDQ next year. Not all players will be as interested in improving their completion times as I am, but for those who are, and I’d wager that includes a significant proportion of long-time Resi fans, the new ranking system adds a lot of replay value to a game that might otherwise lose appeal as soon as the main content has been played.

Ultimately, I don’t love this game as much as I love the 1998 Resident Evil 2. I still really like this one – it’s undeniably fun, and the things that it does well it does fantastically well. It nails survival horror, delivering a considered, challenging, scary experience that pulls the player in early and mostly maintains that tension throughout. It’s worth buying for that alone – the first playthrough of this game is an unmissable experience for any horror fan. It’s only in the replays the game so eagerly encourages that you begin to see the corners that have been cut – the missing elements that are all the more frustrating in their absence because the original game is still there, proving that they could have been included.

A theoretical perfect remake of Resident Evil 2 exists. This isn’t it, but it gets enough right that the good outweighs the bad, enough to prove that the fresh, exciting Resident Evil 7 wasn’t just some lucky break, the cadaveric spasm of an otherwise expired franchise. Resident Evil 2, in its better moments, shows us two things. Firstly that the dead really can be reanimated, and secondly, that Resident Evil is still the king of zombie horror.

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