In the last decade or so it seemed as though the studio behind the Biohazard series would rather do anything but remake their most popular title. In fact for years it seemed as though they’d rather not make horror games at all. After the original Resident Evil was remade in spectacular style for the Gamecube in 2002 many players assumed the next logical step for the studio would be to continue with the revamp and offer similar definitive editions of the second and third instalments. But was not to be, and despite further entries in the mainline series such as the insect infested prequel Resident Evil Ø and the highly influential reboot Resident Evil 4… all things survival horror dwindled as Capcom cited disappointing sales and a narrow market for the genre it had helped pioneer. Like a lot of their big marquee names there was a sense that a wider net had to be cast to reel in new customers… at any cost.
As the franchise reached parts five and six it began to mutate into action schlock and anime style storylines involving clones and military commandos. Boulders were punched, skeletal Tyrannosaurs were fought. Thousands of precious gun cartridges were fired and dozens of quick time events were prompted. To add insult to injury there were a distressing number of lacklustre spin-offs that incorporated elements of Resident Evil 2 while there was no apparent love for the game itself. Since these releases were never intended to be scary at all it was all just window dressing designed to reach a new audience. It was a bad time to be a fan of the series. But under the surface new developments were growing like fungal spores, and after the release of Resident Evil 7 things finally began to get creepy again. Handles were cranked, magic item boxes were used. Maybe this was a testing ground to see what a modern audience (and an ageing fanbase) were receptive to…
For the uninitiated Resident Evil 2 is a remake of the 1998 game of the same game, which saw naive rookie cop Leon Kennedy and no nonsense biker Claire Redfield trapped inside a ransacked police station during a zombie outbreak. After the original game (which saw an elite police unit trapped inside a creaky old mansion) the walking dead have taken over the city entirely, leaving only a few apparent survivors. Leon finds that his welcome party has been cancelled and Claire realises that finding her brother Chris might not be so easy, even though he survived the events of the first game. Instead they found a host of mutants and monsters on the prowl, while some rather shady humans lurked in the shadows. While many players weren’t in love with the control scheme or the pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed camera angles it was pretty cinematic for the time. In a super cheesy science fiction kind of way.
Jump forward eleven years later and not much has changed, and our intrepid duo still arrive in Raccoon City to find that they’re what’s on the menu for an assortment of shambling horrors. Is the plot old hat? Maybe. Is this sort of thing still any good at eliciting a sense of creeping dread? The good news is yes, and then some. This is still a successor to Resident Evil 4 which means that the dramatic camera angles have been dropped in favour of an over-the-shoulder perspective allowing for free aiming without giving total freedom of movement. But there are no dodge rolls or roundhouse kicks here, thank goodness. It actually feels pretty great overall and a lot attention to detail has been given to animation and character weight. You’ll still have to watch your ammunition supply, collect keys and tools, and mix various health items as you go, but overall this is a perfect balance between the old and new. They even let you watch all the cutscenes without any obnoxious ‘press X to live’ moments.
Visually it’s a very atmospheric title with lots of glossy reimagined areas from the original game blending flawlessly with new rooms. The central police station now even has bathrooms, showers and staff lockers. Later sequences have been changed up even further to expand on what were minor sewer tunnels and laboratories. Not everything gels in the later stages of the game where it seems a little too high tech, but for the most part this is a series of locations that are both unsettling and satisfying to explore. There are a few janky surfaces during the opening scene in which light reflections on marble walls don’t work properly, and like any game there are some odd low-res textures here and there. There are also a few oddly rubbery faces on display. But generally speaking it’s both sinister and beautiful when it needs to be, despite some overly dark rooms that require torch light. Creatures are suitably slimy, clothing is crisp and gore is juicy as hell. Even near miss cannibal attacks are impressive as staggered zombies are pushed to the ground by our heroes.
This wouldn’t all be so effective if it wasn’t for the sound design, which is possibly the stand out inclusion. Undead footsteps can be heard moving around and almost every room has a creaky, rain battered atmosphere to it. Things get more distressing as the game unfolds and more enemy types begin to populate the building. If you’re one of the players who remember various creatures giving you grief back in the late ’90s then you’ll be glad to know that their redesigns are possibly more panic inducing than ever. Certain skinless foes are back with a vengeance and a particular trench coat wearing antagonist is now much more than an occasional mini-boss. If these changes are anything to go by then a remake of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis will be a real treat. Let’s just hope they don’t take another ten years to make it.
In terms of the wider game this is a lot like the old-school survival horror titles that came before it. You have to manage your items and know when fight or flee. In some ways the lack of handgun bullets and other items is actually more of a challenge than it used to be, at least until you can master all the enemy types and get that S rank. You’ll need to check every room for precious gunpowder and barricade windows at every opportunity — extra mechanics that add layers to the base gameplay in compelling ways. The survival items from the original RE-Make like knives and flash grenades are also back, but they’re now usable during combat which boosts the play style varieties possible. Newcomers will have a lot of ground to cover while those who’ve played the original version to death over the years will still find a lot of surprises. Enemy weak spots are not always where you’d expect, and puzzle solutions are changed around in ways that should offer a good sense of satisfaction for most players.
There’s certainly a lot of action but most of the time it’s a fairly engrossing (and sometimes gross) experience. Along with exploding heads and spraying blood sounds the music is a key component. It’s used very sparingly but certain cues and themes will hark back to the old days while also offering both stress and relaxation as necessary. The subtle audio is a big part of the experience, particularly when the nastier enemies spot you. Still, for those who want to get back to the days of PlayStation synth tunes you can add the classic score by downloading an optional add-on. The new background music is great for tension building but on subsequent play throughs there’s nothing like the charm of the original which can be swapped on the fly. You can even unlock the old costumes for the main protagonists if you’re in the mood for shoulder pads and pink denim. Besides it adds an extra dimension to repeat runs of the main game.
Replay value has always been a big thing in the classic series whether its the different endings to certain stories or optional dialogue scenes. Did you fight the Nemesis and to see what items he was hiding? Did you let Rebecca die to hit that high score? This is also certainly a game worth playing through with both characters (at a combined twelve to fourteen hours first time) but if I have one complaint it’s the lack of variety. Claire and Leon still meet unique side characters and fight their own end game battles, and there are added extras if you choose them for the ‘Second Run’ mode. But the classic ‘A and B Scenarios’ have been cut down to make it more cinematic for modern gamers, which means that they can’t fight the final battle of their opposite number, and you can’t see multiple versions of certain encounters or deaths. It’s a weird nitpick, but there was fun to be had with the item zapping system that had one hero finding useful items gone because the other had rifled through the place earlier.
It’s also a shame that the original diary and letters system has been overhauled in favour of newer files that lack the same B-Movie flavour. They’re not as well written and they don’t offer the same level of world building that expanded on the situation and filled in blanks for players that skipped the original mansion adventure. Backstory and lore is cut out in place of more basic reading. The same ‘realistic’ approach has also been applied to some of the cutscenes that sometimes feel like real character development moments from a movie, but can sometimes be very detached from the gut wrenching horrors that have been witnessed. Claire is almost too chipper in some cases and Leon comes across as too stoic in other moments. These are minor gripes overall but I guess it would have been perfect if things had been just the way I’d imagined and the tone was more consistent — a more is more approach like Resident Evil 2002 in which every detail was retained or expanded on.
Still, purely as a game this is one of the best in the franchise overall and it’s a welcome return to form after Resident Evil 6 jumped the shark and Resident Evil 7 pulled it back from the brink. The latter is worth checking out for sure, but this is the one you’re looking for. It’s more than a fresh coat of paint and despite some blemishes there’s a whole lot of stuff to enjoy as you uncover the mysteries of evil corporate deals, rampaging mutations and underground lairs. It’s polished and it’s hair raising, which is how it should be. I guess we’ll have to see if the old ‘Extreme Battle’ is back in some guise in future DLC, but there are some other extras on their way in the meantime. Maybe there’s even another remake on the horizon if this sells enough copies. There were some dark times during the release of Umbrella Corps (remember that?) but I guess the real survivors are the fans after all.