Like many of the people who’ll be playing the Resident Evil 2 remake, it was my first experience of Capcom’s survival horror series back on the 32-bit generation. The first game is rightly a watershed moment in gaming history, but the second stepped things up a gear with its two character focus and intertwining stories that demanded more than a single playthrough. It wasn’t just Claire and Leon though that were the characters to watch, the Raccoon PD station proved to be an entity in its own right with the constant creeping dread, locked doors and secret passageways. It was both tormentor and saviour in equal measures. This anthropomorphic personification is what I really want to see in the new game alongside the fight for survival in the two main protagonists. Can it live up to something that has achieved iconic status in my mind?
Resident Evil 2 tells the story of what’s happening to the town of Raccoon City since the zombie virus outbreak in the mansion that hid a secret bioweapons lab from the first game (spoilers!). Although it was thought the situation had been contained, that clearly wasn’t the case and now the entire town has been overrun and descended into chaos. Enter Leon Kennedy (a new R.C.P.D. S.T.A.R.S. officer) and Claire Redfield (sister of a missing S.T.A.R.S. team member) who happen upon each other at a gas station at the edge of the city. Ambushed by the living dead they’re forced to flee with the intention of helping each other out, only to get separated by circumstance and have to survive on their own. It’s this dynamic that drives the story forward and has you choose which of the two you want to play as, with a view of experiencing things from a second perspective in a subsequent game.
Reaching the foyer of the police station and seeing the aftermath of what looks like a precinct that’s put itself into lockdown is unsettling. The main doors are barricaded, the shutters are down and the only route out looks to be through a blood-soaked gap to another wing. A lone CCTV feed tells you there’s an officer with information on how to get out of the station fighting something just out of shot and you’re going to have to brave the gore and head out to help him. Swallowing your fear and pushing through the smallest gap between barrier and floor you set out to reach him, only to have the path seal shut behind you. There’s a partially flooded corridor with no lighting ahead, and you’ve only a small torch that barely penetrates the gloom. Then things start to stir. The moans, groans and squelches audible yet not visible. Are they nearby? Are they locked in side rooms? Or are they behind you? The only choice is to keep going forward. This is what Resident Evil 2 is, what it does, and what it should be.
With the station being made up of a number of interconnected rooms that have different requirements for opening them up, the main gameplay is really solving a giant environmental puzzle, usually with lots of little puzzles thrown in along the way. Keys or objects are needed to open up certain doors or areas, and finding those items is usually a case of heading off to an area that hasn’t been visited and solving the clues that are drip fed. Ignore what might seem like unnecessary backstory reading at your peril, information is usually hidden somewhere within. Due to the converted museum nature of the R.C.P.D. headquarters there are large open spaces cluttered with police kit that transition to tight corridors which force single file movement. Encountering the undead in each situation can mean running circles around them to get to the exit point, or having to back up whilst firing as accurately as possible. These aren’t the Romero zombies that go down with a single headshot, they’re bullet sponges that when they finally do hit the deck don’t always stay there. Thankfully there are save points in the form of typewriters dotted around and nearly all these locations are enemy free zones so there’s a chance to take a breath, regroup, sort the inventory and reload if there happens to be any ammo left. This is the definition of survival horror so don’t expect to be swimming in resources when running away from trouble is a viable tactic.
Whether it’s Leon or Claire picked, the story is broadly the same throughout, and the locations are shared between both except for a couple of rooms here and there that are specific to the different paths the duo take. NPCs met along the way are different with Leon’s sub-plot revolving around spending a large part of his adventure keeping up with the secretive Ada Wong; and Claire’s looking out for Sherry Birkin. Whichever way it’s approached, on the second run there’s evidence of the other protagonists journey through the police station, though items, save points, storage chests and enemies are all changed around, so that feeling of comfort gained on mastering the layout and finishing the game is stripped away immediately. Having started with Leon then moved to Claire I found her battle to simply get into the police station tougher, and it felt like I was encountering higher level enemies much earlier than before. That said, some of the mystery is removed and it clips along at a fair pace when you’ve some foreknowledge of what might be coming up. Standing still and checking out the beautifully realised surroundings doesn’t happen anywhere near as much, but legging it to the next save point before something big and nasty attacks from behind is pretty much constant.
That pervasive fear of death is built by the design of the world and heightened with the short supply of items. If you’re the type of player that goes from A to B and never revisits areas once they’ve passed, you’ll find parts of Resident Evil 2 a struggle. Backtracking is a much relied on part of the game, and knowing when it’s safe to do so is equally important. More powerful weapons, upgrades and secrets lie behind doors and locks that can only be opened once the right code or key is found, and most often these will only crop up later in the game. It’s that tantalising glimpse of a bigger and better weapon that you know will do some serious damage to the particularly nasty Lickers that spurs you into heading back once you think you’ve figured out how to get to it. To support this the inventory and map system are superb, possibly to the point where it could be argued they are too good. Each map area is black until you’ve entered it then it turns red until everything in there has been collected, then it turns blue. A quick flick to the map shows you immediately where you’ve missed something – and even marks on what you’ve overlooked. Inventory management is crucial with the limited space on hand, yet you are given visual clues to what’s important, what has no more use and whether you need to examine something to find out exactly what it does. Always do this, it’s amazing what you might find.
Transitioning from fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds in the original to a tight over-the-shoulder cam for the remake has been done so well that it feels like this was always the way the game should have been played. Being able to properly experience the environments up close and personal in the RE7 engine makes it seem so real. The detailing and lighting is impressive and the way the ancillary pieces have been crafted convey more than the text logs. Seeing sleeping bags smeared in blood next to stockpiled goods gives a huge amount of insight into what’s been going on, and the level of gore is as impressive as it is stomach churning. Never a series for the faint of heart, the vivid and visceral damage on display really does earn the 18 certificate. Whether it’s in a cutscene or a result of firearms damage to a shambling zombies torso, head or limbs, it looks the part… grim. The increased resolution and colour palette offered in current hardware amps up the nastier elements of the T-virus mutations as well making sure that any encounters are really the stuff of nightmares.
Yet is the game actually scary? The music and audio design work to enhance the atmosphere, and the game shies away from deliberate jump scares in favour of being unnerving rather than frightening. Keeping resources tight certainly increases the tension, and having the unstoppable Mr. X continually hunt Claire or Leon down has the potential for a few brown trouser moments when he appears in front of the only available way out; but it’s not intrinsically spine-chilling. As with anything, exposure over time reduces sensitivity and maybe it’s a consequence of 20 years of survival horror games that makes Resident Evil 2 less of a fright-fest that I expected it to be (and maybe also the unlimited saves on normal difficulty). There is an element of dread on hand in the early stages, though that might be more a residual fear I have from my first experience on the PSOne all that time ago. As things progress and more vicious enemies appear they become less terrifying and more an annoyance if you’ve got the right ammo to deal with them, or a frustration if you’ve none. Forcing you to switch into supporting characters for short sections helps break up the familiarity and stops the anxiety levels dropping too far, though the pace things move at towards the end actually compromises a lot of that hard design work because it’s suddenly about racing to the finish.
Capcom have delivered an impeccable remake of a classic game in Resident Evil 2. It’s vibe is intact, the locations faithfully reworked, and a few new elements brought into play to reflect the changes in gaming mechanics since 1998. It’s retained the replayability of the original, kept in the bonus campaigns and silly characters and costumes, and delivers one of the best survival horror experiences in a long while even if it doesn’t scare all the way through. There are some elements out of sync with modern gaming that it does nod towards if you play on the easiest difficulty (like regenerating health), and the way Leon and Claire seem to really care about each other after only 30 seconds together seems at odds with common sense and human relationships. However, this is a title that should be played as the developers intended – with one bullet in your gun, a single green herb in the inventory, and a wave of zombies between you and the R.C.P.D.’s hidden exits. It’s gruesome and glorious.
Resident Evil 2 is out now on Xbox One, PC and PS4 for around £40, and will have new free and paid content released periodically by Capcom.