Some videogames attain immortality status and their greatness can never be questioned by lowly humans. The likes of Jet Set Willy, Oblivion and Super Metroid are spoken of in the same hushed, reverent tones as “classic” albums such as OK Computer, Revolver and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and gamers still grow misty-eyed when speaking of when they first booted up the console and inserted the appropriate cartridge. Often included in those hallowed halls of wonder is Resident Evil 2, first released twenty years ago on the original Playstation. Yes, it had wonky polygonal graphics and excruciating loading times – the animation of an opening door was used to hide the buffering between different rooms – but it also benefited from a tone that wavered wildly between unnerving tension and gonzo humour. There was ridiculous dialogue delivered in a vague approximation of the cadences of the human voice but there were also ingenious puzzles, a cleverly designed map that folded in and back on itself, and lots and lots of zombies. Back before the medium was saturated with the undead, the Resi franchise was one of the first to present the shambling horde in all their gory glory. The eccentric approach, in part accentuated by the melding of Japanese and American cultures, provided a unique spin on what would in time be dubbed “Survival Horror”, and Resident Evil 2 was a standout of the genre. It was weird, it was wildly unpredictable and it was wonderful.
Kudos to Capcom then, for not only deciding to reinvestigate Resident Evil 2 but also for giving it such a lavish treatment. Put simply, this is fan service of the purest kind. Far from knocking out a lazy port, the design team have rebuilt the original game from the ground up, combining its story with next generation graphics and a tighter control scheme and interface. The storyline, which is not what one would call understated, remains the same: in the fictional Raccoon City, in the throes of a zombie outbreak, new on the job cop Leon Kennedy and college student Claire Redfield take refuge in a police station where their troubles really begin. Here, you will encounter more groaning, shambling undead, who have an annoying habit of attacking you in groups, penning you into tight spaces from which there is no option but to blast your way out, thus wasting valuable ammo that you will need later when you meet bigger, nastier enemies. The zombies themselves are terrific creations who stumble about unpredictably, making it increasingly difficult to pick them off with headshots, and who, just when you feel safe, crash through windows or burst through doors to get at you. There are, it transpires, few options to avoid them, and this game of zombie chasies or catchy-chompies is further complicated by the presence of feral dogs and “Lickers”, the seminal enemies from the original game. These horrible, lizard-like, inside-out things that crawl along floors, ceilings and walls are blind but extremely sensitive to sound: sneaking past them is an option but this tactic is tricky when there are scores of zombies also knocking about. Consequently, much of the game’s runtime is spent in a state of mild anxiety, a continuous balancing act of combat, stealth and resource juggling while trying to outrun “Mr X”, a hulking brute in a leather trench coat and little pork pie hat who pursues you relentlessly for most of the first half of the game. He is a formidable opponent who stomps around the station looking for you, adding another layer of panic, and the sound design is particularly impressive here: pause for a moment, and you will no doubt hear the big bad walking across floors and down stairwells somewhere in the distance – or perhaps close by – again making it difficult to kill other enemies without attracting his unwanted attention.
The design team at Capcom have done a sterling job of combining all of these disparate elements in one package. From the outset, Resident Evil 2 looks stunning: the blood and viscera, for example, are particularly “wet”, particularly when you pick off a zombie’s limb or spray its brain matter over the walls. The lighting effects, also, are incredibly atmospheric though some players will no doubt be frustrated by the fact that so much time is spent running around in the dark with only a puny torch to light the way. At times, unless you crank up the settings on your television, it is difficult to see which corridors are blockaded with tables and chairs – and, crucially, which shady corners are hiding enemies. Others, however, will love the darkness for the same reason that they might love the use of fog in Silent Hill as it is yet another means of making the player feel vulnerable, particularly when investigating the sewers beneath the city that are home to arguably the most disgusting creatures in the whole game.
It is not all bleakness and blood. Longtime followers of the series will gobble up the many knowing references that are scattered throughout Resident Evil 2, particularly the way in which it both pays homage to and pokes fun at the original title. The eagle-eyed might spot visual nods to other characters such as Barry Burton and Rebecca Chambers, and of particular interest is a brilliant but fiendishly in-jokey sight gag involving a celebration banner with a notorious misspelling. Amidst all of the carnage, Resident Evil 2 revels in its own silliness. The ridiculous puzzles, for example, are unchanged since the original game: one does not imagine that many police stations feature a secret underground lair that can only be unlocked by collecting three medallions from three different marble statues, or a fusebox that is powered by chess pieces or… the list goes on, and it is impressive that Capcom have retained such outdated and potentially alienating core mechanics when the scene is dominated by other more immediate titles. But while many modern games are easily accessible, it has be said that they are shallow and forgettable. In contrast, Resident Evil 2, both the original and this lovingly crafted revision, are built for longevity. There are two campaigns apiece for Leon and Claire that at times interconnect and at others open up new areas, and there are recently added “Ghost Survivor” episodes: bite-sized challenges in which you lead secondary characters from Points A to B without dying. All of these features have been envisioned and tested to be replayed many times over, encouraging shortcuts and speed runs and the like.
In short, Resident Evil 2 remains a classic. Not quite immortal but the undead have been given a fresh lease of life. Ross Thompson