The original Resident Evil 2, released back in 1998, was my first Resident Evil game. I was only fifteen at the time and it was rare for me to buy a game for full price, however, I read a couple of glowing reviews in my magazines of choice and loved what I saw in the screenshots. Plus, Resident Evil 2 came on two discs which meant I was practically saving money by buying it. You had to be crazy not to.
I loved it. Zombies weren’t overplayed at the time, it was nice and gory, and there were moments that scared the shit out of me and my mates. The two intersecting stories rewarded multiple playthroughs, as did all the rewards that got dished out depending on what rank you were awarded at the end of the game. My magazines assured me that you could play as a piece of tofu if you were good enough, but I’ll be damned if I ever managed that.
And then there was the story. A dodgy pharmaceutical company, corporate cover-ups, crooked cops. Resident Evil 2 offered up everything fifteen-year-old me wanted. I went back to play Resident Evil 1 to understand the backstory a little more, but it’s the potential for future stories that had me excited. With hindsight, I’d become a fan of the series and a guaranteed customer of future titles. I suppose nowadays, I’d be considered a member of the community, although we were just customers back then. As you can tell, I’m nostalgic for the good old days and that may color this review in ways I’m not able to identify.
Resident Evil 2 somehow stays faithful to the original despite undergoing a huge change in gameplay style and visuals. It’s a modern game with dated elements except the dated stuff isn’t a drawback. The puzzles are definitely “of their time,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable. This isn’t like sticking with a lives system long beyond the time they served their purpose. I do not want a return to the days of having to start from the beginning of the game if I die to the final boss. I wouldn’t mind a return to the days of desperately running around to find three medallions to open a secret door under a statue that leads to sewers underneath a police station all the while being chased by Inspector Gadget on steroids.
You play as either Leon or Claire who meet up early on at a gas station before being separated due to an unfortunate incident with an oil tanker. Whoever you chose to play as first, your goal is to make it to the police station to find help, although of course, there isn’t much help left to be had. From then on, your goal becomes to escape the city which leads you all over the police station, through the sewers, and into Umbrella’s lab. A single playthrough will likely only take you around eight hours the first time, however you should definitely play it at least twice to see Claire and Leon’s story.
The remake brings the locations to life. No longer is the police station a bunch of stationary backgrounds; it’s a complex maze of rooms, locked doors, and dead ends that combine to create some of the best level design I’ve experienced in a while. I spent hours exploring this police station, learning which routes were clear of zombies, which had to be ran through at full speed and which had to be crept through without a sound for fear of attracting the attention of lickers.
Even better than the locations are the enemies, who look incredible. I love the way they move. There’s no consistency to their AI and they are relatively unpredictable in the best possible way. When they spot you, they’ll make a general effort to head in your direction, but they don’t have full control of their bodies. Sometimes they’ll amble straight to you, but more often than not, they’ll be looking in your direction while walking off to the side as if their brain, or whatever’s left of it, hasn’t managed to relay the message to the legs.
The unpredictability of the zombies is one of Resident Evil 2’s greatest strengths. I got into a habit of avoiding zombies by keeping an obstacle between us, however, some of them will simply throw themselves over desks to get at you instead of politely walking around like I hoped they would. There was one scene where I was in a basketball court with dogs barking on the other side of the fence. They couldn’t get to me so I took my time to pick up the ammo and other goodies, only for the dogs to clamber up the huge fence and fall over the other side before running at me.
Thankfully the voice acting is a hell of a lot better this time. The writing is generally decent and there are some excellent scenes involving side characters such as Marvin and the Gun shop owner. Leon and Claire, however, have their fair share of dodgy lines. Leon is still spectacularly dumb for a cop and, even after hours of shooting zombies, Claire still wonders aloud why people are walking around trying to bite her. I don’t demand OSCAR-worthing writing in my horror games, but Claire’s continued shock at the stupidest things was one of the more distracting parts of the experience.
Resident Evil 2 front-loads some incredibly graphic moments which do feel a touch gratuitous, but for the most part, the gore is there for a reason. Being able to shoot off legs and arms isn’t just there to look shocking; it’s a core part of how you’re expected to play the game. You’ll have to get used to it because shooting off legs is a lot more useful than going for the head. Early on, you’ll no doubt go for headshots only to realize that they don’t do much good. The zombies in Resident Evil 2 are incredibly tough to kill and even after 3 playthroughs, I’m still not entirely sure how the damage system works.
Here’s my educated guess. Shots to the head don’t necessarily do more damage than to any other part of the body, however, there is a chance you’ll get a critical hit which will explode the head for a permanent kill. This crit chance is fairly low with the starter pistol and higher with guns like the shotgun and magnum. You can improve your chances by aiming for a few seconds before shooting and letting the reticule shrink to focus on your target. Even so, the chances of blowing off their heads are slim. That’s not to say headshots aren’t worthwhile. They’re good for staggering enemies which can be just as useful as a kill if you don’t need to return to the area.
If you do get grabbed, you can use a counter item such as a knife, flash bang, or grenade if you have them in your possession. I’m always tempted to use these immediately when grabbed however I recommend not using flashbangs or grenades unless you’re really low on health. You might be better off taking the hit. Knives are great for counters because they can be reclaimed from zombies once you’ve knocked them down but they degrade a little too quickly for my taste.
Getting caught by zombies is one of the few areas that often detracts from the experience more than it adds to it. There are rough transitions between gameplay and the canned animations which play out when you’re grabbed, which are particularly noticeable with the larger enemies such as the ones in the sewer. They completely block your path and although I could occasionally clip through them without taking damage, I would usually get hit in the process. I tried grenades and flashbangs however even when stunned it can be tricky to get past these things. Sometimes you’ll clip through them, other times you’ll have to eat the damage.
A particular favorite among the enemy types is the blind lickers who you need to sneak past as quietly as possible. That’s easy enough unless they happen to already be in your way, or you’re being harassed by zombies, or being chased by Mr. X. Actually, I guess it’s not that easy. Speaking of Mr. X, he is absolutely incredible here. You’ve probably already seen the gifs and DMX mashups and you’ll almost certainly have a few gif-worthy meetings of your own. The moment when he first lifts up the crashed helicopter and slowly walks towards you is stunning and there was an unforgettable jump scare that I won’t spoil.
Mr. X continues to stalk you around the police station, his strangely loud footsteps an ever-present haunting sound in the background as you wander around solving puzzles. He refuses to enter certain rooms—typically save rooms—although that only provides a temporary respite. You know you’ll be seeing him again soon. There are so many things that Capcom needed to nail with this remake and Mr. X was definitely one of them. It’s a job well done.
Another core aspect of the old-school resident evil games is those quirky puzzles that have you placing books in statue’s hands and plugging chess pieces into electrical sockets. Maybe I’m just looking at this all through blood-tinted glasses, but to me, these puzzles are more charming than they are dated. There is a vague attempt to contextualize it all this time because we’re told that the police station used to be an art museum. None of the puzzles are especially difficult so long as you don’t forget that you can turn the page in the book you find early on… which definitely didn’t happen to me.
The most challenging puzzle is inventory management which I usually absolutely despise, but it wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game without it. You start with only eight inventory slots and everything from guns to keys takes up at least one slot. You spend a ridiculous amount of time deciding whether to take that flashbang you found and risk not being able to take a puzzle piece you need later on. You can dump items in large crates dotted around but getting to those crates presents a risk. It can feel a little silly at times. A keycard takes up the same amount of space as a pistol and a wristband takes up space even though you’re wearing it on your wrist.
All this inventory management probably sounds tedious as all hell, but it’s an absolutely crucial part of the experience and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I might make a few minor changes though. I’d like to be able to drop items and come back to get them later, even if you have to drop the items in the exact places that you pick up other stuff. There was one particularly silly situation where I needed to pick up a cog and put another cog in its place except I couldn’t because my inventory was full. It’s a shame there isn’t an option to swap pieces in situations like this.
These slight niggles are unlikely to cause any major headaches, especially because this remake is easier than the original. There are excellent quality of life changes such as being able to see when you’ve completely cleared a room by looking at the map and getting markers for any items you’ve left behind.
On the normal difficulty setting, you get infinite saves at the typewriters littered around and there are generous autosaves as well. If you do prefer the ink ribbon system, which requires you to find an ink ribbon to save your game, then hardcore mode is for you. There’s also an easy mode complete with aim assist, although most people should stick to normal for a first playthrough. I found normal well balanced for both of my first two runs. I was typically low on ammo and health but always just about had enough. Hardcore mode grants you better rewards on completion however I prefer to chase rewards after I’ve already got what I want from the story. The first time you play, I recommend you take your time and soak in the atmosphere without an eye on the clock.
While on the subject of how you should play the game, I want to briefly discuss all the A route and B route stuff because I saw a lot of conflicting explanations around release, and certain publications made a bit of a hash of explaining it. I’ve seen people on the extreme ends claiming that Resident Evil 2 is a roughly 8-hour game that you play once or that you need to play it through four times. The truth is somewhere in between.
You choose between Leon and Claire for your first playthrough, which is referred to as the A route. Both characters play through the same environments and solve most of the same puzzles however they meet different people along the way and go to locations that the other doesn’t. It would be disingenuous to describe these as two completely separate playthroughs or imply that only playing one is missing out on 50% of the game, however you’d also be doing yourself a huge disservice if you stopped playing after completing route A once.
Let’s say you pick Leon for your first playthrough. After completing the Leon A route, you unlock the option to do a second run as Claire, referred to as Claire B. Or vice versa of course. This is not the same as starting a new game as Claire which would be Claire A.
This is where things get a bit confusing because in some ways the Claire B route is presented as seeing what happened from Claire’s perspective while Leon was off doing his thing in the police station, except that’s not the case at all. Most of route B is the same as route A. You skip some stuff at the beginning but otherwise you retread the same ground. Completing route B is necessary to unlock the true ending which is why I recommend you do it in addition to getting some new content.
Once you’ve done an A route and B route, you can switch things up and do the same again the other way round. This doesn’t offer enough variety to make it worth playing for the sake of new content, however, this is where you should consider going for higher rankings or perhaps upping the difficulty to hardcore. Or both. Getting S ranks unlocks new weapons with infinite ammo for use in future playthroughs, so it’s well worth doing.
In fact, Resident Evil 2 constantly dishes out rewards for completing playthroughs, such as old school costumes and even bonus modes that let you play as a piece of Tofu. The wealth of content on offer is ridiculous, with free DLC now available as well.
Throughout my entire time with Resident Evil 2, I was always aware of the passion the developers clearly had for the project. You can feel the love and care and attention to detail in every scene. That’s not to say other developers don’t put in the same level of effort, it’s just that it shines through more here. There are even awesome little callbacks to the original which had a misspelled “WELLCOME” sign in the police station. It’s now spelled correctly, but there is an extra “L” on a nearby desk.
I’m always reluctant to throw around high praise and label games as the best the genre has to offer. Games tend to be overhyped on release and then the love dies down over a few months and you end up looking a little stupid. Here’s the thing though, Resident Evil 2 really is that good. It actually is genre-defining. It is one of the best triple-A experiences I’ve had in years and it will be in contention for my game of the year. You can believe the hype this time. Resident Evil 2 is phenomenal.