Developer: Capcom R&D Division 1
Platform: Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release: January 25, 2019
Capcom caused a small ruckus when Resident Evil series producer Yoshiaki Hirabyashi announced in 2015 there would be a remake of 1998’s Resident Evil 2, inarguably one of the highest revered survival horror games ever made. Celebrated at its release for refining the gameplay and storytelling of its 1996 predecessor, Resident Evil 2 is remembered as one of the first games to deliver a polished, blockbuster experience beyond the expectations of anything the video games industry had seen before. As opposed to the fixed camera style of the original game, the remake would make use of the third-person, behind-the-shoulder camera style of Resident Evil 4, which was hailed at the time as groundbreaking for action games.
With so much nostalgia and praise backing the original, 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake faces an almost insurmountable rampage of gamer hype. How does it fight back? Fortunately, with tooth and nail.
One of the quirks that defined the 1998 game was its dual storytelling mechanic. Resident Evil 2 follows the separate arcs of police officer Leon Kennedy and college student Clare Redfield as they fight to survive Raccoon City’s self-contained undead outbreak. The player is invited to play through the game twice – once in Leon’s heroic pursuit to save humanity and destroy the monstrous “G” virus, and again in Clare’s desperate struggle to protect a young child she hardly knows. The pair of protagonists cross paths a handful of times throughout the roughly eight to ten hour onslaught, and expectedly the player is rewarded for completing both stories with an extended, action-packed, “true” ending.
This is by far Resident Evil 2‘s most interesting trait, and the one that’s most likely to split the room on whether it transcends the game to a masterpiece, or if it’s even worth replaying the whole game for the sake of some extra cutscenes. Personally, I was intrigued by this storytelling device and I can’t guess why more games don’t copy it; it’s an honest and worthwhile re-use of the game’s assets in a way that encourages replayability while offering a deeper dive into the world’s lore.
But while Resident Evil 2‘s respective playthroughs provide different paths through (mostly) the same areas, complete with disparate weapons, and item and enemy placements, a second lap around Raccoon City doesn’t offer much more than that. So while Leon and Clare experience wildly different stories on the same night, playing the game a second time might leave some players with a very hollow disappointment. At the least, Leon’s and Clare’s arsenals are vastly different, and the possession of either a shotgun or a (very cool) spark shot, among other weapons, will force the player to adapt to both playthroughs as far as combat is concerned.
And combat is concerned. Very concerned. Zombies in Resident Evil 2 are ironically the most lifelike they’ve ever appeared in a video game. Rather than making a straight beeline towards the player, the walking dead will stumble, carry their momentum in unexpected directions and struggle to balance their own heads on their necks. This erratic movement greatly ramps up the difficulty of landing a very desperate headshot, not to mention the panic when a zombie backs Leon or Clare into a corner. It doesn’t help that zombies are appropriately disgusting to look at, complete with realistically animated disembodied limbs that respond to the player’s bullets. Their harsh screams and shrieks in the darkness don’t exactly inspire much confidence either.
Headshots are made all the more crucial with the scarcity of ammunition on offer. True to the survival horror formula, players will run into problems if they fire upwards of ten bullets into a single zombie; there simply isn’t enough ammo in the game for that. Rather than the obvious solution, however – making every bullet count – Resident Evil 2 tacitly encourages the player to pick their battles, to assess every zombie on their threat level, or whether they’re guarding a key or health item, and to make fight or flight decisions in the moment. Could you instead knock a zombie off-guard with one bullet to the head, slip past them and break for the next room? Maybe lure it into grabbing you and swivel around at the last split second? It’s your call to make.
Fight or flight was a hard and fast lesson when the original Resident Evil launched on the Sony PlayStation back in 1996, where it was even possible to workaround fighting certain bosses. But somewhat unsurprisingly, this is a peculiar way to play an action game in 2019, when fighting back is second nature. Of course, when two or three zombies are piling down a corridor, and suddenly the ferocious screech of a Licker sounds somewhere on the ceiling, choosing to run achieves anything but making the game less thrilling. It’s these scenarios that the player must accept their powerlessness and foresee the increasing dangers of fighting on, that make Resident Evil 2 truly shine as a survival horror game. Sometimes the only option is to check the map and make a clearcut route to a safe room, and this holds especially true when Mr. X is involved.
As if undead people, dogs and other miscellaneous monstrosities aren’t enough to deal with, Mr. X, the indestructible, grey-faced behemoth might look very stylish in that trench coat and hat, but this big boy ain’t to be trifled with. While a slew of firepower will stun him momentarily, Mr. X is ultimately invincible while he stalks around the city in search of the player. The ensuing games of cat-and-mouse lead to the thrilling kinds of getaways not seen in a game since Alien: Isolation. The sheer sight of the tyrant crouching through a doorway never failed to instil absolute dread, and if that doesn’t bring the player to flee, his ability to walk through bullets surely will. In this sense, Mr. X’s formidableness is pivotal in teaching players that it’s okay to run away, and ultimately how to survive the night.
Hiding from Mr. X inserts a welcome level of complexity into Resident Evil 2, and finding a hiding spot is only half the fun. Even when hiding in an adjacent room, figuring out Mr. X’s location relative to Leon or Clare is made possible by listening for his booming footsteps. I would highly recommend playing Resident Evil 2 in headphones or surround sound if you have the option, as Capcom have used binaural recording technology to allow the player to pinpoint the direction that sounds are coming from. Hearing those zombie cries behind me as I bolted in the opposite direction only served to heighten the horror.
It goes without saying that Capcom has built a detailed and faithful recreation of 1998’s Raccoon City, touted foremost by the game’s iconic art museum turned police station. Every corner of the Raccoon Police Department has been crafted with attention to detail and a mindfulness for environmental storytelling; the RPD’s halls are littered with evidence of survivors who took refuge there, who fought for their lives before ultimately giving in to the zombie hoard. There’s a lot of confidence in a game that can tell a wealth of stories subtly through environmental clues, rather than flagrant cutscenes and flashbacks. It’s only a little disappointing that these stories become less frequent in the latter areas of the game, which are also a lot less visually intriguing compared to the RPD.
I especially appreciated Resident Evil 2‘s attention to detail, as vehicles, vending machines, office desks and videocassette recorders have been designed with a keen regard for the ’90s. The same can be said for certain zombies’ hairstyles and fashion choices – what’s left of them, anyway. You really get a sense that some of these zombies watched Buffy and listened to Nirvana. It’s a testament to Resident Evil 2′s sense of immersion, which is strengthened furthermore by the occasionally goofy (but oh, so Resident Evil) script, the overall impeccable voice acting, and the brilliant facial animations. You can even unlock Clare’s original hot pink short shorts, which, I don’t remember when those were fashionable, but it’s apparently important that they were included in the remake anyway.
Not unlike its source material, Resident Evil 2 is a masterclass in survival horror video games. Its intimidating, frightening enemies combined with its clever distribution of vital resources function together to teach the player the importance of fight or flight and hide or die. These intense gameplay experiences, stacked up against the game’s story-rich environments and fascinating dual story modes, create a survival horror outing that’s as rare as it is technically marvellous.