Resident Evil 2 Review: A New Landmark in Survival Horror

This review contains scenes of explicit violence and gore.

When Capcom announced a long overdue remake to Resident Evil 2, I genuinely couldn’t hold my excitement. Much like everyone else.

Back in the distant 1996, when the horror genre was still in its infancy, Resident Evil took the throne by introducing survival horror. It featured a number of playable characters, intricate puzzles, and a unique setting.

Exploring the gloomy Spencer Mansion was terrifying — at least for its time. And fending off decaying monsters with a limited amount of resources made for an even more tension-driven experience.

Two years later, in 1998, Resident Evil 2 instantly became a high point of the series and to this day is considered the best by many. It retained the horror aspects established by the original, while also placing players in a brand new environment, introducing two new characters and therefore telling the story from two vastly differing perspectives.

An important point came in 2002 when Capcom decided to completely remake the original Resident Evil, exclusively for the GameCube. Not only did it remain faithful to the original version’s tone, but improved upon it in every way, setting a new industry standard on videogame remakes.

It took Capcom almost 15 years to consider providing Resident Evil 2 with a similar treatment.

But how do you approach the process of remaking such a pivotal title without compromising its integrity? Well, ask the developers at Capcom because they clearly know the answer. Over 20 years ago on the original PlayStation, Leon and Claire survived the nightmare at Raccoon City. And now, they are back once again to enter the world of survival horror.

It all began during that fateful night of September 29, 1998…

As Leon S. Kennedy prepares for his first day as an officer of Raccoon Police Department, he stops at a nearby gas station. With this opening sequence, the remake already differentiates itself from the original, yet maintains a similar tone.

Proceeding inside, Leon quickly senses that something might be amiss and decides to investigate. Not even moments later, things turn south and Leon gets ambushed by several zombies barely escaping from the scene with a new-found ally, Claire Redfield.

Meanwhile, Claire is in search of her brother Chris, a S.T.A.R.S. member from the original Resident Evil. Forming a somewhat legendary tandem, they rush towards the police station, in hopes of finding refuge there.

But as they soon discover, their nightmare is only just beginning.

Resident Evil 2 retells a beloved story with familiar characters, nostalgia-filled environments, and adds a more in-depth perspective to them. Certain scenes were added or changed, while others, like when Leon meets Claire, invoke a pleasant sense of nostalgia.

It isn’t just an old story with modern aesthetics, either.

For instance, we now find out exactly what happened to the trucker at the start of the game. We are provided with a deeper insight into the sick mind of police chief Irons. And the owner of Kendo Gun Shop is no longer a simple, angry douchebag; his tale — albeit brief — is packed with emotion.

Unlike in the original, Gun Shop Kendo doesn’t make an appearance until much later.

Conversations between characters are often cheesy and some lines feel out of place; a trademark of the series since the very first iteration. But characters frequently spew out witty remarks, especially during combat, or when a zombie won’t go down even after several shots to the head.

They swear constantly and don’t shy away from the “F” word. This adds a welcome degree of realism to them and is very much how a real person would react.

Claire’s reaction during her first encounter with Mr. X is particularly memorable: “Bet he’s not on the rescue squad”. Phrases such as this one make characters believable and greatly enhance their personalities.

As excited as it made me seeing Resident Evil 2 at E3 2018, I thought that characters looked rather plastic. I’m glad that Capcom proved me wrong.

Character models are highly detailed; fluid facial animations accurately portray their feelings. They have moles and scars, they become grimy and bleed when wounded, their faces and clothes become wet in the rain. By the time the credits roll, they look as if they’ve survived a zombie outbreak.

Likewise, environments, both familiar and new, shine on the RE engine. Whether city streets lined with abandoned cars, tight alleyways or the unmistakable courtyard of the police station; every locale looks astoundingly wonderful. And the addition of a raging rainstorm provides a welcome layer of tension to the horror atmosphere.

Though, perhaps somewhat arguably, the main star of the game is the already mentioned police department. With its many sculptures and paintings, the R.P.D. is indeed a unique environment to explore.

Especially now, when its interior has gained a second life with many remade, yet familiar rooms, such as the main hall and the library.

The main hall of the police station looks better than ever before.

Traversing the station has become seamless since there are no loading screens whatsoever. No more scenes with opening doors, which means more freedom for the player, but also for the threats around.

Resident Evil 2 is about horror and frights, and there are plenty of those, particularly in the early hours within the station. Masterfully designed environments provide a perfect horror setting.

Proceeding through a dark hallway with rain clapping against the windows, or sneaking past a Licker while having nothing but a handgun at your disposal, makes your heart pump at an entirely new level.

Zombies still roam the dreary hallways of the station and disposing of them is more satisfying than ever, largely due to the new third-person over-the-shoulder perspective. Similarly to Resident Evil 4, this perspective allows you to aim at any body part and achieve varying results.

Walker models are now extremely detailed, with multiple variations, both male and female. Shoot a zombie in the head and a piece of rotten skin will blow off. Puncture a walker’s kneecap and you may just inhibit their ability to walk; repeat to tear the limb completely. After this, the poor disabled corpse will desperately crawl towards you, hoping for a taste of fresh meat.

Each shot produces a juicy splatter of blood and if you’re lucky enough to land a critical shot, then a zombie’s head explodes like a watermelon.

But most of the time they don’t simply wait for you to put them out of their misery. They approach much faster if aggravated and even break down doors if necessary. At this point, you hopefully have a knife or a grenade to retaliate, before having your carotid artery torn out.

A knife is no longer a tool for the hardcore player to display their bravado, it actually is crucial for combat. It develops chips and becomes covered in blood after extended use. With enough damage, entire limbs can be cut off. Eventually, it breaks and you must find a new one.

Wounded zombies fall and seldom flinch when you walk over them. But come back later and they will pounce at you with replenished vigour. This makes the knife excellent for checking if a zombie is dead.

Zombies have always been great at acting, but this time they may as well deserve an Oscar for their efforts. Not only that, but they often move erratically and approach faster if provoked, making it even more difficult to land an accurate shot. They are also extremely lively and survive even after you’ve made a colander out of their heads.

But it’s not just about zombies, either. Iconic enemies like dogs and Lickers make a return, while others, like Spiders, were left out for whatever reason.

And yet, after several hours of exploring the station, collecting items, solving puzzles and downing zombies, I grew increasingly comfortable with my surroundings. I already knew how to quickly reach the West Office, how to efficiently deal with most threats and how to manage my inventory space.

That sense of relative comfort and certainty quickly dissipates once Mr. X enters the scene, fully revamped and endlessly terrifying. Witnessing a hulking 7-foot tall cluster of testosterone lift a wrecked helicopter as if it was a toy and promptly rush towards you, leaves you with a “WTF” expression and a swift turn towards the nearest exit.

Sir, the steroids section is on the first floor. Umm… sir?

Unloading bullets into him turned out to be futile, as even multiple rounds from the magnum neutralized him for only thirty seconds. Afterwards, he stood up and resumed the pursuit as if nothing happened.

Thankfully, he doesn’t follow into save rooms and certain rooms like the S.T.A.R.S. office. But even if you manage to escape and hide in one of the numerous save rooms, you can still hear his cumbrous footsteps outside, or even on the floor above.

This made me hang out in such rooms much longer than anticipated, aiming a handgun at the door, as if it could do anything more than puncture a hole in his black coat.

Speaking of save rooms — item boxes and typewriters make a glorious return.

Like before, inventory slots are limited, which is especially prevalent during the early segments. And playing on Hardcore difficulty even requires an Ink Ribbon to save. I did, however, miss the relaxing theme of these rooms. It still plays in some, but only once and it’s very subtle.

This may be a tiny detail in the grand scheme of things and completely irrelevant to players on other platforms. But on PlayStation 4, the controller’s lightbar actually displays a character’s current health. E.g. green when fine and red when in danger.

I appreciated this addition. It made checking your status easier, without having to open inventory screen every time. And it also reminded me of a similar system on the Dreamcast’s version of the original Resident Evil 2, where the VMU was utilized in a similar fashion.

Resident Evil 2 does have its shortcomings, however, and one of them is the B scenario. Unlike in the original, playing through the game a second time barely feels any different. This subsequent playthrough features a new set of weapons and solutions to some puzzles are shuffled.

But puzzles themselves remain mostly unchanged. Both characters experience similar cutscenes and even fight the same bosses, which simply doesn’t make any sense story-wise. It seems like a lazy attempt at providing more replayability without adding any actual content.

Certain classic segments felt slightly underwhelming. For instance, the encounter with an alligator ends up being more of an interactive cutscene, rather than a tastefully re-imagined boss battle. It almost feels like running from a boulder in Resident Evil 4.

Unfortunately for the reptile, it doesn’t see the warning label.

Thankfully, Resident Evil 2 doesn’t end on a bad note. Hunk and Tofu make a comeback in The 4th Survivor — a mode unlocked after completing both scenarios. And if that doesn’t suffice, then additional costumes and weapons become available depending on your rank in the main game.

By no means is this remake perfect — it certainly has its flaws — but even so, it’s the best entry since Resident Evil 4, surpassing it in many regards. Resident Evil 2 stumbles when it comes to telling a story from two different perspectives, but accomplishes other important aspects.

Characters and environments look wonderful, combat feels extremely satisfying, and horror features rise to the top once again, in years, if not decades. Capcom re-establishes Resident Evil 2 as the mightiest representative of its genre and everyone else should take notes.

Let’s hope that Resident Evil 3 isn’t too far off in the future.

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