Resident Evil 2 Review

January 25, 2019
Also on: PS4, Xbox One
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Also on:
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Where on earth did this come from? That was the single biggest question on my mind throughout my entire time with Resident Evil 2. While development on this remake of the 1998 classic survival horror had generated a small amount of buzz, it arrived with relatively little fanfare. Perhaps Capcom wasn't sure how well it would be received, given it’s a bottom-up reimagining of the original. They needn’t have worried. Almost every aspect of this experience is an improvement on the series’ second trip to Raccoon City, and the result is a beautiful, gory and occasionally terrifying game.

When I said "Fire at will"...

Stepping into the shoes of either rookie cop Leon Kennedy or plucky college student Claire Redfield, after an initial opening encounter you’ll arrive at a zombie-infested city warzone with the Raccoon Police Department the only safe haven. It doesn’t stay that way for long. The story of each character plays out similarly — possibly a little too similarly to fully justify a second playthrough, although there are marked differences. Claire is in search of her brother Chris from the first game, while Leon is having one hell of a first day on duty. The police station, now fully 3D rendered and explorable, is a character itself, with certain locked doors only accessible to each specific playthrough. The goal is ultimately the same — work out how to escape — but the path to do so has some variation along the way.

Whoever you decide to pick as your gun-wielding protagonist, the bulk of the gameplay involves solving puzzles to access the next locked room while trying to stay alive. This last point is harder than you may expect, since despite being a US-based police department, RPD is woefully short on guns and ammunition. You’re likely to find more live rounds in the homes of some southern state than the entirety of this game. Ammo is therefore a commodity you need to carefully conserve, and loosing rounds willy-nilly is a surefire way of getting eaten. When you first encounter the infected, you might assume that a shot or two to the head will take them down, Walking Dead-style. Not so. These zombies are tough mothers, even on the middle of three difficulty levels, and often need half a clip of metal delivered pinpoint to the face, and even then they may get up again once or twice more. Boarding up windows is another way of keeping the horde at bay, and in a nice touch every enemy you finish off remains where it dies so you have an idea of where you’ve travelled and what you’ve encountered. You will discover weapons such as knives and grenades which can be used either offensively for more damage or as a weaker counter-attack to briefly get out of danger, but mostly you’ll learn to walk slowly, aim carefully, and manage your inventory meticulously.

There's been a "slight" improvement in graphics over 20 years.

On the item management front, the game treads a fine line between being frustratingly restrictive and super forgiving. It veers closest to the former at times, making you treat each of your inventory slots with ruthless efficiency and forcing you to leave items behind or — in the case of gunpowder and herbs — combine them into more powerful variants to free up space. Hip pouches can be found as you progress to let you carry more, and there are safe rooms with save points and a storage locker which teleports items between similar locations for use whenever you arrive at one, but even these offer only slight relief. A welcome addition is the  labelling of key items to let you know when they’re no longer needed so they can be discarded, negating the question of how long to keep hold of something at the expense of a free slot which could be filled with healing items or shotgun ammo.

Combat is thoughtful and meaty, sometimes literally so. The RE Engine used for the seventh game has turned the pre-rendered backgrounds and tank controls of the original game into a fully 3D experience, filled with shambling corpses to blast chunks off. Arms, legs and heads can be taken off with precision, and there are some pretty gruesome cutscenes (one early example with a living police officer is spectacularly bloody). Most of the enemies you remember from 1998 are back with new, visually impressive upgrades, including Lickers, dogs and of course, the Tyrant. Likely to be one of the more controversial changes in the remake, the hulking, unkillable Colossus-like enemy now tracks you persistently down corridors and into rooms, only stopping when you’ve created enough distance between you. Its footsteps echo above and nearby, prompting fear as the John Carpenter-esque music kicks in to indicate its presence, walking at a steady, relentless pace towards you like the thing from It Follows. However, after the third or fourth encounter it starts to become less terrifying and more of an annoyance, an obstacle which you have to get around in order to reach your next location. Even so, the Tyrant does a good job of keeping you on your toes, since forcing you into the path of a Licker as you try to work out where those footsteps are coming from generates more scares in itself.

"Do you have bullets? Or a band-aid?"

The adaptive difficulty from Resident Evil 4 is in play here, meaning that the game keeps track of how well you’re doing and adjusts accordingly to ensure your challenge will always be knife-edged. As you come closer to the end and your resources dwindle, the difficulty ramps up along with your arsenal. If you’ve misspent your ammo, you’re going to need to do some serious running. Fortunately, the map is tightly designed, without an inch of wasted space. Pacing is near-perfect; just as you are about to reach the last of your resources, you’ll stumble upon some more ammo or a gun upgrade to help see you through to the next set of rooms. The locations you’ll remember from the original game are mostly all there, but the key items may be in different rooms so revisiting this remake will offer a new experience which plays with your preconceptions wickedly. And the voice acting and admittedly bare-bones story are generally good too, perhaps tonally more serious than before, but in keeping with the general creepiness and vibe of the new, more sinister police station. The sparse music kicks in only at the appropriate times to emphasise action or ratchet up tension, resulting in a horror package that feels satisfying and complete.

Though the campaign will take around ten hours, finishing the game with one of the characters doesn’t end it there. Both Leon and Claire have first and second run scenarios, which replace the A/B scenarios from the original. The second runs for each character are more like extended versions of the same runthrough and, while great for fans, don’t offer a huge amount of extra content to make them worth ploughing through four times. But combined with the main campaign differences of each first run, there’s plenty of scope for you revisiting the game further on down the line and discovering new secrets and story beats.

Should have kept that door closed.

Where this remake really shines is in the small improvements: the unlimited saves, the visual location of items appearing on the map, the comfortable controller layout and a focus on tighter gameplay. The change to an over-the-shoulder camera pushes you as a player that much closer to danger, upping its intensity when an inevitable jump scare occurs. However, Resident Evil 2 doesn’t rely on cheap tricks to succeed. It builds a palpable atmosphere and sustains it for almost the entirety of the game, combining it with excellent gameplay which fully embraces the “survival” aspect of survival horror. With Resident Evil 7 and now this excellent remake under its belt, Capcom is enjoying a surprising resurgence in a series — and a genre — which previously languished in a state of near-parody, bereft of innovation. If the seventh game didn’t make you fall back in love with Resident Evil, this one surely will.

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An unexpected horror delight, Resident Evil 2 is a fantastic example of how to remake a classic while staying faithful to the original.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.