It’s sheer perfection, my precious G Virus,
nobody will ever take you away from me,
–Dr William Birkin
“The following is a contributor post bythe Bizzaro Mage.”
Resident Evil, a franchise with many entries.
Some are genre-defining masterpieces, some are awful, bloated car crashes of games and a good few sit happily in the middle, good games in their own right even if they aren’t reinventing the wheel. This critique will be looking at an entry that is very much in the first bracket, indeed many consider it to be the definitive Resident Evil experience. It’s even getting a full remake soon. Yes, we are looking at 1998’s Resident Evil 2.
Developed and published by Capcom, Resident Evil’s first sequel turned a lot of heads. I remember the hype for this game being absolutely off the charts at the time and many a conversation on the school playground centered around what fresh horrors the Japanese studio had dreamed up this time. For all of the hyperbole that my 12-year-old self and his classmates dreamt up, we were not disappointed when Resident Evil 2 finally hit stores in the UK.
This much anticipated sequel was released a year and 9 months after the Spencer Manor met its fate at the hands of the elite STARS team, continuing the story of the evil Umbrella corporation and its role in the destruction of Raccoon City. Resident Evil 2 was supposed to be a very different game initially, featuring many different characters and locales, yet the game’s now legendary producer wasn’t happy with the way it was developing, calling the game slow paced and boring. So, at 80% complete, Capcom canned the project and started over, placing more emphasis on the story and overall atmosphere. The canned version is widely referred to as Resident Evil 1.5 and is, in some capacity, actually playable and exists in the shadier corners of the retro gaming internet community.
But hey, we aren’t here to discuss what could have been, we’re here to look at Capcom’s finished product: a beloved survival horror classic. Simply put, does Resident Evil 2 hold up? Is it worthy of that remake? Let’s find out!
As previously stated, Resident Evil 2 comes down from the forested mountains in which the incident of the first game took place and places the gore and nastiness right in the middle of a metropolitan area, the fictional Raccoon City. Visiting the city is one Claire Redfield, a college student searching for her missing brother and former police officer Chris, who some may remember as one of the heroes from the first game and member of the STARS special forces team.
On her way into town she runs afoul of the rampant undead, who have completely trashed the city and killed most of its inhabitants. Whilst trying to get off the streets, she meets the game’s second protagonist, Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie police officer who has transferred to the city for his first shift. Together, battling through hordes of hungry zombies, they manage to reach Raccoon City’s police station, where they begin to seek the truth about the calamity that has befallen the city and the whereabouts of Chris.
Naturally, it doesn’t take to long to discover that the villain from the previous game, Umbrella Inc., which has been developing a new bio weapon, the G Virus, beneath the city itself. Faced with very few options, our heroes must stage a life or death escape from Raccoon City. There will be many obstacles along their way, including zombies, the skinless, whip-tongued Licker, a towering “tyrant” class mutant that unstoppably hunts the duo, and Dr William Birkin, a scientist turned into a monster by his own creation.
Somebody skipped leg day…
Resident Evil 2 takes the player on a journey throughout several locales including the burning streets of the city, the mysterious and (frankly absurdly) puzzle-ridden police station, the sewers and Umbrella’s subterranean research facility. All of these areas are distinctively designed, atmospheric and are full of all kinds of little details that really made use of the PS1’s power.
Graphically speaking, this was the case across the board in 1998, though obviously by today’s standards, the less charitable toward retro gaming may think of it as ugly. The characters and monsters are 3D rendered polygonal models that, in quite a few cases, look almost comedically blocky by the standards of today. Yet, if one can see past this and put themselves in the shoes of the average gamer of the late ‘90s, this game does have its own particular graphical charm. The scenery is all hand drawn and, whilst the character models stand out against this a little, it is never jarring to see Claire or Leon interacting with their surroundings. The hand drawn scenery also allows for a high standard of detail in the surroundings, as I have previously mentioned. Desks are cluttered, floors and walls are splattered with claret and the burning streets of Raccoon City are covered with crashed vehicles and strewn rubbish.
Worst first day ever?
Pickups such as healing items, ammunition and weaponry are rendered in 3D also, which allows them to stand out against the backgrounds with the help of a little glittering animation, helping the player better search their surroundings to find these much needed boons, though many items are hidden in cupboards or drawers that require the player to manually search each room. Examining different things will bring up a little vignette about them, like Leon mentioning that an office is trashed or that a photocopier is actually very normal and not eerie at all. These little thoughts add an extra layer of depth to the overall experience and really help with the overall immersion.
One last thing to mention here, the fixed camera angles that featured in Resident Evil persist here. Whilst this is clearly a limitation due to the hand drawn scenery, a way of stitching all of the different screens together whilst hiding the seams as it were, they can create some rather hairy moments that often ends in the player expending health and ammunition for something that they could not have seen coming. For instance, you walk down a long, straight corridor but fail to see the zombie stood at the midway point because it is just past the camera’s position and only appears once Leon or Claire step into the next screen. This is a classic example of the limitations of early 3D games however, a great many titles on the PS1, N64 and Saturn/Dreamcast shared these issues. Indeed, some games to this day are still plagued by camera troubles.
Resident Evil 2’s audio is, for the main part, very much up to scratch, with one or two caveats. The musical score is excellent, each piece of music really captures the situation that Leon or Claire find themselves in at the time. The opening minutes set on the streets of Raccoon City are scored by a heavy, ominous piece that positively drips with dread, mirroring the frantic speed with which the player will have to react in order to steer either survivor clumsily through the initial horde of zombies. Save rooms have a piece of music that sounds like the musical equivalent of a sigh of relief, as Leon or Claire finally catch a breath in a safe area and sort out their gear, preparing to once again delve into the nightmare just past that door.
I would be remiss, however, to wrap up talking about the music in Resident Evil 2 without mentioning the super creepy music that plays in the main hall of the police station. If I had to write down my top 10 video game nostalgia triggers (now there’s an idea!) then that score would be easily in the top 3. Memories of sitting in front of a tiny CRT television with my brother, daring each other to play the next section, are very much intertwined with that damned main hall and its music.
Time to solve all these puzzles to get to the break room…
Sound effects are also very well done. Guns discharge with a satisfying punch, apart from the starting handgun, which has more of a sad pop. Though to be fair, the little plink noises as the shell casing falls to the floor is a very nice touch. The monsters all sound satisfyingly scary, the tortured moans of the zombies are absolutely chilling when you can’t quite see where they’re coming from and the hiss of a Licker is never a good thing to hear as it skitters down a corridor toward you. First prize for scariest monster noise though, in my humble opinion, goes to Dr. Birkin, whose enraged and twisted bellows are about as welcome to the ears as that free U2 album that somehow wormed its way onto my iTunes a few years back.
Speaking of unpleasant, let’s address the last slice of the audio pie. Anyone who has played any of the early Resident Evil or Silent Hill games will know what I am referring to. Say it with me gang… it’s the voice acting. Yes, this game has some really, really hokey voice work and, in a weird, ironic kind of way, I really love it. Characters never quite seem to get their levels of urgency right, supposedly fast paced conversations are full of awkward pauses (and so much arm flailing) and the script may as well have fallen off the back of a cheese wagon. This video clip is a prime example and I can still remember every ridiculous word of this cutscene verbatim.
Whilst the voice work is legendarily terrible and campy, it does seem to pass through the realms of awfulness and reappear somewhere beyond, in a strange realm where you know everything is just the worst and yet, at the same time, you would stand up for it in an argument. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia glasses talking here, maybe I myself am completely mad.
Resident Evil 2 is without question a bigger game than the original. Whilst a single playthrough may seem about the same in length to Chris and Jill’s misadventure in the Spencer Mansion, the sequel has a trick up it’s sleeve. Whilst playing as either Leon or Claire serves up a fairly similar story, albeit with a few different characters and sections, each character also has a “B Scenario”. For instance, when the player completes the game as Leon, Claire’s Scenario B is unlocked. Scenario B follows Claire’s journey during the time frame of Leon’s Scenario A, which opens up whole new story elements and some new scenarios, as well as providing some extra endgame content. This also works the other way around, Leon’s B runs alongside Claire’s A with similar results.
Leon and Claire meet different characters throughout their journey that provide the player with some nice variation and occasionally the chance to play as another character for a while. Raccoon City is home to a few different survivors, including the enigmatic Ada Wong, a mysterious woman who teams up with Leon in order to get to the bottom of Umbrella’s mess and a little girl called Sherry, whom Claire chooses to protect from the twisted Dr. Birkin who seems to be relentlessly stalking her. There are a few other characters that crop up during the game. Some are good, some are bad and some are only around to be brutally ripped apart by the undead legions.
Perhaps the most interesting antagonist, however, is Umbrella Inc. themselves. An avaricious pharmaceutical company, they once again have tried to create the ultimate bio weapon and have, once again, somehow made a complete mess of it. Throughout the course of the story the corporation throws various obstacles at the player, the most interesting example being Mr. X, a hulking beast and the only surviving subject of the original game’s T Virus, that takes plenty of ammunition to put down and keeps coming back for more. In many ways he is a blueprint for things to come, a basis for the Nemesis monster that shows up in Resident Evil 3. The series moved away from Umbrella’s direct involvement at about the point of Code: Veronica and, whilst many were glad to see the frankly ludicrous bad guys leave the stage, I was somewhat saddened by its loss. I don’t know, maybe the latter Big Bads just didn’t capture my imagination as much.
Days since last accident: 0
One last enemy that the game throws at you is perhaps its most abstract: its inventory system. Just like in the original, this game only allows the player to carry a very limited supply of healing items, guns, ammunition and puzzle-related items at any one time. Extra items must be stored in large chests in safe rooms, though thankfully your stashed items are accessible out of any one of these chests, eliminating a need to run around Raccoon City looking for that shotgun with a single shell that you stashed way back at the beginning of the game. Nonetheless, this system adds a real challenge to the game as you cannot simply charge around with all of your guns and first aid sprays, instead having to deliberately leave some of your gear behind in case you find other items as you progress. There are unique items out there that increase your inventory space, but they can be easily missed.
To close off the proceedings here I would like to talk a little bit about Resident Evil 2’s inspirations and other works that it takes some of its ideas from. Whilst this game is undeniably Japanese in flavour, with its silly voice acting and often challenging nature, it lifts its themes and locations from the classic horror movies of Hollywood. The most obvious of these would be Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s seminal 1968 classic that really gave traction to the zombie movie in the first place.
The visual style and themes of David Cronenburg are also evident in Resident Evil 2, mainly in the body horror design of monsters like the Licker and Dr Birkin. Watching Cronenburg’s 1987 remake of The Fly recently reminded me quite a lot of the mutated creatures in this game.
Resident Evil 2 builds upon the solid foundation of the original, adding larger gameplay areas, more variety, a larger selection of enemies to kill or be killed by and a plot that, whilst very much derivative of many horror tropes, will certainly keep any fan of horror gaming gripped from beginning to end.
Or at least until Capcom drops that remake…
The future of zombie slaying?
The 8-Bit Review
There’s no skirting around the elephant in the room here, Resident Evil 2 has aged terribly in the graphics department for the most part. 3D models, including monsters and the player characters, look like they’ve been built from Lego bricks and their movement doesn’t always come across as natural. During dialogue, characters wave their arms around wildly and some of the more unique, one-off animations look almost jerky and in slow motion.
But it isn’t all bad, the quality of the scenery is overall good, backdrops are full of little details and the halls and corridors of Raccoon City look pretty believable. There’s plenty of blood and snot up walls and puddled on the ground and it does add a lovely, macabre feel, adding to the horror atmosphere. The hand drawn images that go with inventory descriptions are also well done. Some of the weapon art in particular is impressive and far outmatches the 3D models as wielded by the characters.
The graphical complaints are fairly common across the board in games of the 32 and 64 bit era, the limitations of the hardware at the time has rendered some games pretty much unplayable to newcomers (Syphon Filter, anyone?) yet I would say that the early Resident Evil games are still accessible, if not a feast on the eyes.
Faint praise, perhaps, but praise none the less.
The Resident Evil series overall has suffered one infamous curse: the complete lack of any voice acting talent (arguably Resident Evil 7 bucked the trend). Resident Evil 2 is no exception to this. To be frank, the voice acting is endearingly terrible. As mentioned above, nothing sounds in the slightest bit natural, the pacing of conversations is way off and the whole thing sounds like an amateur dramatic society making a play about zombies.
It is perhaps a relief then that the rest of the game’s audio is of better quality. Sound effects are almost universally excellent and often used to great effect to heighten the feeling of isolation and horror, with props going to the monster noises in particular. Weapons sound nice and meaty for the most part and other sounds are of a decent quality.
The soundtrack is particularly excellent, with background music that conjures all manner of feelings from edge of your seat, against-the-odds terror to that overwhelming sense of relief as you finally stumble into that safe room and save your game. Whilst a lot of the musical score blends seamlessly into itself, there are a few standout tracks that will stay with you for a while afterwards, such as the police station lobby music and the pulse-pounding music that plays when facing off against boss creatures.
Despite the visual veneer cracking over the years and the voice acting adding a little more horror than it should, the overall game experience at Resident Evil 2’s core remains as strong as ever. Surviving Raccoon City can be as hard as nails, mainly thanks to the scarcity of resources like ammunition and healing items. Even saving your game is ruled by the amount of ink ribbons you can find in the environment, which can be hell for over cautious players like myself.
Umbrella’s warped monsters can take a lot of bullets to put down; even the basic shuffling zombie will take most of a handgun clip to put down for good. This encourages the player to get good at avoiding the danger instead of tackling it head on, though this isn’t always possible.
Leon and Claire handle like trucks, thanks to the now classic “tank” controls. No matter the placement of the camera, the up button always moves the player character forward. This was a setting that could be switched off in the PS4 re-release of the original game and it became very confusing to control Jill around the Spencer Mansion, watching her suddenly change direction mid chase scene and run back into that pack of snarling dog zombies. So whilst the controls can seem clumsy in Resident Evil 2, I do feel they’re the most effective within the fixed camera angle structure. That said, the player characters do have the turning circle of a battleship whilst running, so dodging enemies will continue to be difficult up to the next release in the franchise.
Whilst the inventory system is divisive amongst fans, I personally believe that no Resident Evil game is complete without carefully choosing your weapon load outs and trying to work out which puzzle item or key you’ll need next. Whilst inventory space is limited I do feel that it helps to keep the player immersed and on the defensive during their romp through Raccoon City.
It has been 20 years since Resident Evil 2 hit the shelves and a good many horror titles have been and gone in that time. A good few of these trump Resident Evil 2 in the horror stakes (especially the Silent Hill games) yet I do truly believe that Capcom’s classic is still plenty scary. The overall theme of scientists playing God without oversight throws up some truly horrible concepts, indeed the very idea of a tiny vial of liquid turning an entire city into a charnel house is pretty terrifying in and of itself, before we even look into the creatures that the G Virus has created.
Zombies, whilst slow, are a nightmare in enclosed spaces and their constant moans and shuffles really can make turning that next corner into a real battle against your own wits. The monsters only get scarier from there; creatures like the lickers and giant spiders hit harder, move faster and will kill Leon or Claire in seconds if the player is caught unawares. Then there is the outright grotesque body horror of William Birkin, a towering wall of warped flesh, claws and at least one giant eyeball that clearly was, at one time, a human being. When this nightmare is chasing you around, the adrenalin level can get pretty intense, and one or two swipes of its claws are a trip to the game over screen. The enigmatic Mr. X is much the same, an implacable hunter that stalks the player throughout Scenario B. He can be knocked down for a while if you’re willing to burn through some ammunition, let alone go toe to toe with the brute, but running is always the better option.
The overall atmosphere of Raccoon City has a great horror feel to it, from the dark, mysterious streets to the gore splattered laboratories deep under the city the visuals are all designed to look dingy and uninviting, like every corner has something lurking behind it. The soundtrack really helps to keep this feeling up, too, very rarely bubbling up to the fore but maintaining a more subtle vibe in the background. It always suits the player’s current situation and is perhaps one of the game’s strongest points.
The only thing that detracts from Resident Evil 2’s scariness factor is, once again, its voice acting and script. Sometimes that feeling of pure dread can be burst by some campy, hokey dialogue. It is hard to be scared when your first reaction is to roll your eyes at Leon shouting “don’t shoot! I’m a human!”
Resident Evil 2 is, for first time players, hard as nails. If the first time player is only used to modern games then even more so. The protagonists can’t take many hits before they die and healing items are in short supply throughout the game. To make matters worse, the scarcity of ammunition encourages fleeing from enemies rather than taking them head on, a fact that is apparent from the opening minutes of the game and stays with you even toward the end, when you’re fully tooled up with all manner of weaponry yet still lacking bullets to fire out of them.
The way that Leon and Claire handle also acts as a massive handicap when it comes to avoiding the lunges of enemies, there is little to no finesse in their movements and a lot of the time dodging attacks seemed like a complete lottery to me.
The puzzles in Resident Evil 2 are, for the most part, nice and easy, though a few later in the game might have you scratching your head working for a solution. They never seemed as obfuscating as the ones in Silent Hill, for instance and taking a moment to slow down and figure the problem out usually meets with success. That said, I have no idea how Raccoon City’s finest got around that police station on a day to day basis without going just a little bit insane.
There are a couple of boss encounters in this game which are pretty hardcore and will test the player’s resolve and make some dents in their inventory as all of the bullets and healing items are whittled down. Whilst one or two of these engagements are ended by means other than combat (a niftily placed gas canister or another character dropping a new weapon into the arena, for instance), most engagements are about learning patterns and staying out of reach, snatching scant seconds in which to pop off a couple of rounds from your biggest guns. I had a real hard time with one or two of them but the feeling if finally toppling them is a high worth the frustration.
Though some of its challenges are borne from its aged mechanics, there are still others that were built into the experience deliberately and overall this game can be pretty challenging indeed.
Resident Evil 2’s replayability is perhaps its secret weapon. In order to experience this game to its fullest, you’ll have to complete it four times, both A Scenarios and both B Scenarios. Each run has different story beats and some even have unique boss encounters as well as cutscenes. It really is worth doing in order to experience the full package.
As an added bonus, you are also graded at the end of each playthrough (thinkMetal Gear Solid), rated on such things as the amount of times you used healing items and how many times you saved the game, which was always my biggest downfall. Perfectionists and high score hunters will undoubtedly find this a great reason to come back to Raccoon City again and again.
Resident Evil 2 was fairly original back in its day, similar only to the first entry in terms of its mechanics. However, 20 years is a lifetime in gaming and a good few similar brands grew in the survival horror genre during that period. Series like Silent Hill, Dead Space and even Capcom’s own Dino Crisis all clearly evolved from Resident Evil’s gene pool and all improved upon its formula in some way or another. Even the last entry in the series, the first person Resident Evil 7, is clearly an offshoot from Resident Evils 1 to 3 in terms of how it handles inventory, puzzles and supplies.
That being said, the scenario system was pretty out there in its day and I’ve not seen very many games try a similar approach since.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
When I think back to my favourite years in video gaming, those being 1997 to about 2002, Resident Evil 2 is one of those games that just sticks with you. To me it holds up against games like Final Fantasy VII, the Oddworld games and Metal Gear Solid.
Perhaps nostalgia goggles are in full effect here and I couldn’t blame anyone for coming to that conclusion. So, just to be sure, I popped my copy into my PS2 a couple of weeks ago and gave Leon’s Scenario A a playthrough. I was very relieved to find that I still really enjoyed it, even if I did have to come to terms with the fact that age has not treated this game well at all.
Yet, despite the seemingly ancient graphics and awful dialogue, Resident Evil 2 lives on through good use of sound, solid and challenging gameplay, plenty of scary moments and a sometimes silly but ultimately enjoyable science fiction horror story that kept me hooked not just as a scared 12 year old but as a slightly less scared 33 year old too.
In short, Resident Evil 2 is a little worse for wear nowadays it’s true.
But it’s not a sad, shuffling zombie at all.
It’s a lumpen, malformed but plenty scary William Birkin.
Aggregated Score: 7.1
Stepping from the shadows into the light, the Bizzaro Mage somehow functions as an average human being most of the time, just one with a faire few retro games cluttering up his tiny house. Check out his rambling attempts at sense over at winst0lfportal.wordpress.com
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