I still vividly remember the original version of Resident Evil 2, from my constant playing of a demo version to the countless runs I did through the actual game. It’s been years since I last played it – five, at least – but I can still clearly recall the sound of Leon’s footsteps echoing in the vast main hall of the police department (the RPD), or the low, guttural moans of the zombie infesting the building. In a series whose games I love almost without exception, Resident Evil 2 has always been the high point. 20 years on, I still adore it, so of course, I’d been following the development of its remake with a mixture of excitement and worry. Capcom had remade the original game and improved upon it immensely, but it was also true that some of the franchise’s recent entries took the games in a direction I wasn’t fond of.
This new version of Capcom’s classic survival horror game adheres faithfully to its source material. The fictional Raccoon City has been overwhelmed by a viral outbreak, turning many of its residents into the undead. As the crisis progresses to the point that the police department is taking in survivors and barricading its entrances, two unsuspecting people arrive in the city: Leon Kennedy, a police officer looking forward to his first day on the job, and Claire Redfield, who’s searching for her brother and series protagonist Chris. You can play as either character, and your choice will affect the game drastically.
When the pair are separated by a sudden zombie attack, their stories begin. I was disappointed to find that they don’t interact as much as they did in the original game, leaving the two heroes feeling somewhat like strangers after the credits roll. There are nice little touches, though, like letters of warning or encouragement left by one character for the other. Both do, however, acclimate themselves to the situation a little too quickly. Leon and Claire are both well-accustomed to these incidents in more recent games, but this was their first outing. A little more fear and uncertainty would have made them more believable. Also unfortunate were the changes in voice from the characters’ established actors, though there’s no denying that their replacements do a fine job.
No matter who you pick, the objective remains the same: survive. There are some twists and turns along the way – Leon initially sets about searching for survivors in the police station, whereas Claire focuses on her search for Chris – but their encounters with their flesh-eating foes quickly convince our heroes that staying in Raccoon City perhaps isn’t the best idea. Along the way, you’ll have to survive against zombies, savage dogs and worse, all the while solving cryptic puzzles and trying to get to the bottom of what caused the outbreak.
Resident Evil has always, at least in its early days, had a sort of B-movie charm to it. Even ignoring the oft-panned voice acting in the original game, the series tends to exist somewhere between a tense, thrilling survival horror experience and a cheesy disaster story. Resident Evil 2 is no exception, even now. The remake perfectly mirrors its original version for the most part, and the story is largely unchanged. A lot of the major narrative points are conveyed to you by the occasional survivor you run into; the rest you’ll learn from various files, documents, and emails scattered throughout the game.
It’s interesting, then, that Capcom refrained from adopting the sort of stream-of-exposition approach so often used in games lately. Actual plot developments tend to be quite scarce, but it’s the way they sit and linger with you, the worsening crisis never far from the surface of your thoughts, that really carries the story forward. When the game decides enough is enough and that it’s done with simply pestering you with zombies, the gloves come off and you begin to see the darkness behind the outbreak. As it turns out, people might be the worst monsters of all.
The RPD and subsequent locations have all been noticeably overhauled. Enough new rooms have been added to the police station that my enduring knowledge of the original game was mostly worthless. The same is true of items and puzzles. Enough remains the same that you often find yourself saying, “Oh, I remember this!” only for things to play out very differently than you’d think. The now-infamous first appearance of the Licker enemy, those grotesque humanoid creatures that can scramble up walls and along ceilings, no longer occurs in the same place. I spent the next half an hour terrified of its inevitable arrival. When I finally did cross paths with one, I nearly leaped out of my chair.
The changes made aren’t quite as clear-cut as in the remake of the original Resident Evil, which was, for the most part, a fairly straightforward upgrade in visuals and mechanics, with just enough changes to make it refreshing. Resident Evil 2’s remake is a different beast entirely. Gone are the fixed camera angles and so-called tank controls of the classic games. Instead, you have the same over-the-shoulder arrangement that the series has used since Resident Evil 4. It’s odd, but not unwelcome, to explore the game’s iconic locations in this way, and it certainly does lend a sense of urgency to your character’s circumstances.
Unlike 2017’s Resident Evil 7, the return to Raccoon City also takes is back to the third-person combat first introduced in Resident Evil 4. Most of Leon and Claire’s original arsenal returns, from the trusty shotgun to Claire’s boss-blasting grenade launcher, and a few new additions have been made in the form of extra handguns and a new version of the Spark Shot to name a few. Both characters also come equipped with sub-weapons: a knife and two types of grenades that can be used normally or as a counterattack when an enemy grabs you. Combat is easy to get to grips with, and the variety of weapons means you’ll never be short of ways to fight your way to safety. I do miss the mobility you had in Resident Evil 6, though. Being able to leap or dodge to the side would have spared me a lot of nasty hits.
Resident Evil 2 also keeps the “survival” firmly in “survival horror”. Even on the standard difficulty setting, ammo and healing items can be very scarce, especially if you’re a little aggressive in your approach to zombies. In the original version, it was perfectly viable to wipe out every enemy in the game and still have enough resources to face the final boss. Here, not so much. Learning to pick your battles is essential. Something I had to do very quickly decided which rooms in the police station I would travel through regularly. If I wasn’t going to be paying several visits, it was fine to leave any enemies within alive. Enemies respond to damage differently depending on where you hit them; sometimes it’s a much better option to shoot a zombie in the leg a few times to down it, rather than wasting a full clip trying to kill it.
Even the safest approaches have risks, though. Zombies can travel from room to room, beating down the door in an attempt to make you their latest victim. Mercifully, most other enemies lack this ability, save for an old friend from the original game who’s more aggressive and more relentless than ever. There’s nothing nearly as unnerving as finally, finally finding the item you need to progress, heading to the next area and hearing the sudden heavy footfalls of a creature you cannot kill as it stalks the dark halls of the RPD looking for you.
And the game is dark. You’ll often be plunged into near-total darkness, prompting your character to pull out a flashlight. The ability to toggle it on or off manually would have been nice, especially for some dark areas that the game decides aren’t quite dark enough. It’s an interesting twist on the old formula of the series which, despite all its horror and suspense, tended to at least allow you to roam around well-lit rooms. The darkness is full of tension, unnervingly so, as your flashlight only provides a small cone of light ahead of you, swaying erratically with your character’s movements.
It’s in places like these, deprived of light, where Resident Evil 2 is often at its most visually stunning. A sudden turn of your character brings the flashlight swinging with them, illuminating perhaps a gory mess of blood along the wall, or the scattered debris of a once-quiet office turned into a battlefield where the beleaguered police officers made their last stand. The level of detail is incredible, no matter where you look. Zombies sport grotesque wounds as they shamble towards you, and Lickers, their bodies a mess of muscle and their brains exposed, leap and lunge erratically from ceiling to floor.
There are plenty of moments where it’s tempting to stop and take in the scenery. There are even times when the game will let you do so in peace – the police station’s iconic main hall, complete with its towering statue, for example – and it’s astounding just how visually impressive the world of Resident Evil 2 is. When I first walked, gun at the ready and full of trepidation, down a hallway illuminated only by the moonlight, I couldn’t help but pause and watch the shambling, swaying shadow of a zombie cast into the room from outside.
Thanks to Capcom’s RE Engine and the possibilities of motion capture, the cast of Resident Evil 2 are no longer a bunch of stiffly moving blurred shapes. Several of them have had their roles in the story expanded, making them more crucial to the plot and, best of all, much more interesting than they were before. Leon’s would-be-mentor Marvin acts as a guide and moral support early on, and later addition Annette almost feels like the central figure of the game’s latter half. Conversely, other characters like creepy Chief of Police Brian Irons feel a little lacking. He no longer seems as sinister as he was in the original, despite a brand-new section that deftly illustrates just how heinous he is.
The story can feel a little abrupt at times. The different starting points between A and B scenarios (here called the 2nd Run) are mostly gone, with your second playthrough almost entirely skipping the initial section in the zombie-filled streets. Other encounters and events have been adjusted and relocated, making me worry for a while that they had been cut entirely. The core of the narrative and its best parts are all still there, but it sometimes feels like certain sections have been shortened in what was never the lengthiest of games. The longevity of the original game was strongly tied to its replayability; here it feels like everything has been streamlined, and not always in the game’s favor.
It’s hard to stay mad at Resident Evil 2 for anything. I sometimes lament the removal of certain standout lines of dialogue (That maniac’s gonna ram us!”) or the occasional descent into uncharacteristic and unnecessary vulgarity (one character’s diary entry mentioned how he “came” when gutting an animal for taxidermy), but the experience as a whole maintains such an astonishingly high standard of quality that my grievances soon became a distant memory.
Remaking a game like this, and after so many years had passed, was always going to be a tough task. It had to be faithful enough to the original to please old fans, while it also needed to feel modern and fresh to draw in a new crowd. Although it does have its flaws, this is the game Resident Evil 2 would have been 20 years ago if technology and conventions had allowed for it. Meticulously beautiful in its design and visuals, challenging in all the right ways and packed full of both nostalgia and fresh content, this is the greatest game of its genre on a whole new level entirely.