Rating: M for Mature
Of the PS1-era Resident Evil (RE) titles, none is more universally beloved than Resident Evil 2—the tale of out-of-towner Claire Redfield and rookie cop Leon Kennedy as they fight to survive for just one night in the zombie-infested Raccoon City. Following the 1996 original, RE2 met and exceeded the bar set by its predecessor, doing away with the weaker aspects of that game and capitalizing on its highest achievements. Of the tank-control-era RE games (Resident Evil Zero, RE, RE2, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, Resident Evil: Code Veronica) RE2 is the best. Even without a 2000s-era graphical overhaul (RE) or an HD remaster (RE, RE0, Code Veronica) RE2 has rightfully stood the test of time in the minds of fans as the series’ premier entry. It is fitting that RE2 is the game to receive the most substantial overhaul of any title to date.
Twenty years was a long time to reflect on this classic, and in the most substantial ways, Capcom respected the source material while making meaningful changes that have taken the sublime experience of the original to the next level. But latent problems from the late-90s-era classics have gone unaddressed, deeply mitigating much of RE2’s replay value.
Are Capcom’s solutions to these problems enough? Read on for one nerd’s opinion.
If you think you’ll find any semblance of sunshine or lollipops in a game called “Resident Evil,” you’re gonna have a bad time. This one checks all the boxes, folks: Lord’s name used as an expletive, F-bombs and other-letter-bombs; posters of half-naked women; one character is a psychopath who derives sexual pleasure from taxidermy; child kidnapping; realistic guns and gun violence; people getting mauled by zombies and mutants; blood and gore all over the place. Depending on how your player-character dies, you might have to watch an unsettling keynote animation where they get impaled or smashed to death or their face gets eaten off. In the immortal words of Jim Carrey: “Yummy!”
The violence and language are clear and present, but laudably, they never felt gratuitous. You may be thinking, “I’m pretty sure I saw a clip of a cop being eaten from the waist down and you get to look at his viscera for like five seconds.” Okay, yes, BUT—given the tone and plot in RE2, those sorts of things are well within the realm of probability. Every human death in RE2 is truly horrifying in that they all feel tragic, gritty, and believable. Given the circumstances of RE2’s plot, nothing is ludicrous or over the top. Disturbing, sci-fi horror was once the hallmark of the series. Before the dark times. Before this kind of crap:
If the game wasn’t violent and didn’t feature regular people cursing when they’re shocked or scared after being thrown into a zombie apocalypse, we’d call foul because the game would be boulder-punchingly unrealistic. This is what I mean when I say the game isn’t gratuitous. It’s absolutely dark and violent, but it’s not unwarranted.
For Christians who wrestle with the question of how they could possibly play a game like this and honor the spirit of Philippians 4:8, I’ll say here what I’ve said elsewhere about any piece of media that has “objectionable” content: I don’t think the game revels in violence and death, but rather tells a serious story burdened with the narrative weight of zombies, civic breakdown, and the dangers of unsupervised corporate science. To not make the story dark and the violence disturbing and the unethical practices of Umbrella evident would have been a failure to realistically and meaningfully engage with the subject matter. In this same vein, the Book of Judges honestly and disturbingly portrays the moral breakdown of ancient Israel, and the exact point of Judges is to juxtapose the holiness Israel was supposed to practice with the reality of what life looks like when a society ignores God. The only way to make that message felt is to be brutally honest in the portrayal of such a world. If you walk away from RE2 thinking, “Boy, it sure would be horrifying if laboratory science went totally unsupervised and some company accidentally caused a viral outbreak in a populated area,” you’re understanding my argument. Capcom have provided us with a modern-day parable of this terrifyingly-possible scenario.
And if you as a Christian are convicted that you shouldn’t play a game with these sorts of themes and depictions of horror, you should follow that conviction.
I have nothing but praise to offer concerning RE2‘s design of the spaces and characters—all the characters, all the monsters; no complaints at all. The game’s tone, the graphics, and the sound or all award-worthy. Capcom made additions that, looking at them now, could have always been there: the third floor of the PD and the expanded basement, and the orphanage and sewer areas for Claire and Leon, respectively. It’s all seamless, and the overhauls on the original areas are straight prime rib.
RE2 is layers of scary because the tone is so perfect. Even in the moments when something isn’t jumping out at you, the overall experience of playing is dreadful and tense due to the superb design, lighting, and sound. You’re not supposed to feel comfortable playing this game, and if it’s your first playthrough, you probably won’t.
The new POV meant the developers needed to maintain the sense of tension and uncertainty the mounted camera POV of the old games fostered while doing away with that POV. The question for Capcom was philosophical: how could they keep the emotional impact the mounted cameras provided while completely changing the visual format? The answer was leveraging the RE engine’s lighting and sound systems and revamping the level design. To see what I’m getting at, check out this YouTube video.
The soundtrack of the original, while iconic, has been mostly relegated in the remake to musical cues that accompany certain enemies. On my second playthrough with Leon first rather than Claire first, I opted to keep the audio set to the original. It was then that I realized how important the lack of music is in the remake for setting tone. It’s not just that the original music is old and familiar. It’s that it ejects the player from the major themes of the experience—frailty and isolation. So much of the creepiness is dependent upon the creaks, rattles, and moans that engulf the player throughout the RPD and remind them that no one is coming to help. The prerendered, brightly-lit backgrounds of the original looked great in 1998, but they weren’t inherently unsettling like the dark spaces in the remake. Scary music made more sense in the old format. In the new format, it’s distracting.
Dynamic binaural audio not only ups the creepiness but is crucial for echolocating Mr. X…and you need to know where that thick boy is at; otherwise, X gon’ give it to ya and believe you me, you don’t want X to give it to ya.
Gameplay and Mechanics
In a welcome departure from some elements of Resident Evil 4 and practically all of Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6, RE2 feels organic and grounded. It takes what was good about RE4’s format and dials it back. Gone are the quick time events, the slow-motion backflips and roundhouse kicks, and all other manner of things reminiscent of Keanu Reeves’s filmography in the early 2000s. If RE2 is a taste of things to come, then Capcom have finally found the right formula for the survival horror genre in the 21st century.
RE2 balances well what was good about RE4 with what was good about the tank-control titles in the series. The new POV gives the player a greater sense of control, and limiting the player’s actions to running/walking and aiming/firing keeps things grounded. You’re not playing as action heroes, but as regular people thrown face-first into an insane situation. Limited controls reinforce RE2‘s tone, something Capcom seemingly stopped caring about starting with RE4.
The fact that monsters can follow you between room is a game-changer; the player is now “never safe.” While this is not technically true in all cases, it is tonally true in substantial ways. In the original, exiting to a different room meant you were safe from the area you’d just left. This is no longer a thing. Zombies will pound on a door and bust through if you don’t handle your crap like an adult. Remove the head or destroy the brain; this ain’t new, y’all!
The single best manifestation of this “never safe” principle is Mr. X. This (language warning) compendium of streamers meeting him for the first time is basically a case-in-point. Anyone can memorize jump scares or clear out rooms to move safely. But when you are being mercilessly followed by an invincible enemy, you actually have to play the game differently. This is a new degree of tension that was not in the original. Even Nemesis in RE3, due to technological limitations, did not accomplish what Mr. X accomplishes here. X’s success as an element of chaos bodes extremely well for a future RE3 remake. Nemesis in this format will be Mr. X on steroids. It will be absolutely exhausting, and that is a very good thing.
To some extent, the RE games are one-trick ponies. If you understand that, you can keep yourself from disappointment.
I mentioned in the opening that there are some holdovers from the original RE formula that haven’t been addressed. Mr. X is not the answer to these holdovers. Anyone playing a RE game for the first time should savor that first playthrough. Once you’ve figured the games out, they lose the fear of the unknown that drives the tension of playing. Once you memorize the jump scares and master the rudimentary movement and shooting mechanics, there isn’t much at all to be scared of.
This issue plagues any linear story in the horror genre. But with today’s tech, there are creative workarounds. How about an algorithm that moves around the placement of enemies every playthrough rather than predictably between one difficulty and another? If the Left 4 Dead games (circa 2009) can throw enemies at you at different times and places depending on how well you’re playing, why can’t RE2? I’m spitballing, here.
Mr. X is the prime example of what RE2 needed more of. What removes the fear from a horror story is predictability, and Mr. X neutralizes predictability because he is an agent of chaos. Even this being the case, X is still hamstrung to some extent. He can’t follow you everywhere, and once you understand his basic mechanics, he’s only a threat if he catches you in a narrow corridor when you don’t expect him.
What makes RE scary is the overall effect of its mechanics and its tone, but when much of the tone is lost due to predictability, only mechanics remain. Without the inherent fear that chaotic elements like Mr. X create, RE2 is a mechanically simple, predictable game. Most of the enemies can be easily avoided either by baiting them, kiting them, walking instead of running, or straight-out avoiding them. The extra scenarios (Fourth Survivor, Ghost Survivors) add content but have no respect for tone; they are all about action and mechanics, which is not what the original games were about. Essentially, these scenarios give the player a little bit more to do, but like the rest of the game, they follow a set path and become predictable in short order.
Capcom is attempting to keep things fresh by introducing weekly challenges on their RE.Net service, but all the challenges circulate around playing the same game with constraints. “Beat the game in X time without using X item.” That’s not tension; that’s mastery of the game’s rudimentary mechanics.
The reason I’m harping on this is that I played the originals, and while this game is a valiant reimagining of what many agree to be the best entry of the original trilogy, it still suffers from the same fundamental flaw of its replay value plummeting after about ten hours of gameplay. With today’s tech, it wouldn’t have been—heck, it still wouldn’t be—that difficult to introduce unpredictability into the standard game to keep the tension fresh every time I start a new run.
Plot, Writing, and Characters
Tonally, RE2 hits all the right strides. It strikes the right balance between respecting the source material while bringing things into 2019. This is not only true in the technical aspects of the game, but in the writing.
All the characters feel more realistic and honestly motivated. The Birkins are no longer melodramatic mad scientists. Irons is sinisterly amicable, whereas he was awkwardly lordly and formal in the original. Marvin Branaugh’s inevitable death now carries emotional weight. I could go on.
The dialogue overall has shed many of the Japanese idioms that crossed the translation gap in the original, and they clearly had a professional voice director keeping tabs on things. Not only the voice work—which is stellar—but the language itself matches well with contemporary spoken English. The experience is wholly cinematic, dramatic, and believable. All the awkwardness of the original has been shed.
Claire, Leon, Sherry, and Ada are the most significantly improved out of everything, but special emphasis should go to Leon. Several of Leon’s core characteristics come across much more clearly in this remake than in the original, most importantly: his naïve senses of justice and authority. This does not come across at all in the 1998 edition. Now, this helps set up his character arc as an eventual government agent working to expose Umbrella.
The main issue with the writing and plotting is the chronology.
Why the Chronology Matters
In the late 90s, RE2 was a crowning achievement in survival horror; excellent graphics and sound design, and a tonally coherent horror narrative that took place in an urban environment. It was cool. What was even cooler was the dual narratives of Claire and Leon. To that point, most games that allowed you to play as one character or another did so to the exclusion of the unchosen character; this was even the case in RE1.
RE2 made a revolutionary move by differentiating two intertwined “runs” of the game based on which character you played as first. This wasn’t arbitrary; you couldn’t actually experience the game’s “true” ending until you played a single timeline as Claire first, Leon second, or vice versa. In the first playthrough, you could choose to sacrifice powerful weapons and items so that the second character could use them in what was always the harder of the two runs. All-in-all, this led to no less than four significantly different playthroughs of the game. This was in 1998.
Here is a list of all the ways I counted that Claire and Leon’s stories meaningfully overlap in the 1998 game (SPOILERS for those new to RE2):
- Leon and Claire first reunite in the STARS office and are able to coordinate their plan; they trade radios to keep in touch.
- When Leon opens the path to the sewers, he radios Claire to notify her there’s a way out of the RPD; on Claire’s playthrough, there’s a cutscene of her receiving this message.
- When Leon is shot protecting Ada, Claire is the one who finds him injured. Ada abandons him to go after Annette and bandages him later.
- When Ada throws Annette into the sewer channel, she climbs out in another location and meets Claire.
- When Claire and Sherry board one of the train cars, it is already damaged from a battle Leon and Ada had earlier against Birkin.
- When the lab’s self-destruct sequence activates, Claire and Leon are each in different locations in the lab and must escape by their own unique paths.
- After the mortally-wounded Annette shoots Ada in Leon’s scenario and then collapses, Claire and Sherry find Annette dying on the same bridge where Ada was shot.
I’m not suggesting the remake needed to mimic the original beat-for-beat, but this (incomplete) list of crossover moments helped solidify the timeline and believably communicated that players really were engaging in actions that had a real impact on the other character’s playthrough. Not only was that cool back in 1998, that’s still cool. I can’t fathom why Capcom would have gone for a half-baked, token version of this element in the remake.
The end result of all this is more trouble than it’s worth, as it will likely leave players wondering why they’re replaying essentially the same events with a different character in a secondary plot that is made out to be a chronological parallel to the first but cannot possibly be. Better would it be for players to assume that the second playthrough is actually a very loose retelling of the same main events with the other character as the star. These are not two overlapping threads of one larger story as in the original, and if they hadn’t gone for that this time around, I’d have been fine with it. The problem is that it seems like they were going for it on the one hand but then executed it all wrong.
This is disappointing, and it didn’t have to be. On the other hand, this is one of two major criticisms I have of the game, which goes a long way in saying just what a quality product it is.
The Paid DLC Content
For me, the only worthwhile part of the premium DLC content is the original game audio—which in some instances is scarier than the remake music and is fun to have around for nostalgia’s sake. The STARS handgun you get is better than your starting handgun, but it’s not that much better. Paid alternate costumes as a concept are whatever in my book.
Capcom blew this one out of the water, and there’s already talk of an RE3 remake in the style of the RE2 remake. Frankly, I’d pay for all of the original games to be remade in RE2’s style; it’s that good.
If you played and enjoyed the original RE2, you should play this remake. If you like survival horror games, you should play this remake. If you simply appreciate well-crafted games, you should play this remake.
See how I wrote “play” instead of “buy?”
I think that if you have the option to play scenarios one and two without purchasing RE2, you should. Then pick it up for keeps once it drops down to $20 on sale or get it used. Unless you are a serious fan of the genre or the series, there is not enough replay value in RE2 to warrant a $60 price tag. There aren’t enough customization options to make the gameplay terribly unique, and once you’ve got the scares memorized, much of the tone is sadly neutralized. It pains me to say it, but that’s my honest perspective on the matter.
That said, I’ll probably pick up the remake of RE3 the day it comes out. I’ve always been a glutton for punishment.
The Bottom Line
RE2 strikes the right balance between respecting the source material and bringing the game into 2019. Returning fans and brand-newbs alike will not be disappointed.