Revisiting Resident Evil 2
Casting a critical eye on the much-beloved remake
Capcom’s Resident Evil 7 was critically praised for revitalizing the aging horror franchise, but it also left people wondering where the series could possibly go next. Rather than moving forward, though, Capcom decided (much to fans’ delight) to return to the past — to a game that many fans argued needed some remake love. Resident Evil 2 (2019) takes the classic game and reimagines it for modern times. And, while it’s a largely triumphant remake, this version does bring some baggage along for the ride.
Let’s start by defining the parameters of this remake. In terms of story and plot, Resident Evil 2 is largely a complete retelling of the original. The shiny new RE Engine provides radically more fidelity to proceedings, though. Just as you did back in the late ’90s, it’s possible to start the game as either Leon Kennedy or Claire Redfield, taking control of them at the point where they become stranded in Raccoon City following the outbreak of the deadly G Virus. Once you’ve completed one play through as Leon or Claire, you’ll unlock the second play through as the alternative character.
It’s not just visuals that have been upgraded here. The controls are radically improved over the original — the old tank controls and fixed camera angles are out the window, replaced with a more modern over-the-shoulder third-person view with a full 360 degrees of movement. Over-the-shoulder aiming — much like what we saw in Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6 — has been implemented here. A first-person view isn’t available (although PC mods can achieve this, should you so wish). From a game menu/UI standpoint, much is borrowed from Resident Evil 7’s design.
Gameplay has been fundamentally redesigned here, too. And this is really the main reason to revisit Raccoon City.
In terms of gameplay, there are an enormous amount of changes here. Far too many to list, in fact. But I do want to touch on the major differences:
- Knives and grenades are now considered defense weapons, and can be used to avoid damage from an enemy at the expense of the item. Playing on the game’s hardest difficulty (hardcore), this can mean the difference between life or death.
- Instead of finding tons of ammo, you will have to use gunpowder to create new rounds similar to the crafting system of Resident Evil 7.
- All item placements are now different, and all puzzles have been redesigned.
- Weapons can be upgraded, and there are more of them here.
These changes all contribute to a fresher and more unique experience without doubt. But perhaps the most remarkable change here is around the enemy design — Resident Evil 2 features arguably some of the best enemies in any horror title to date.
It’s been a long time since I played the original Resident Evil 2, but from what I’ve seen here, every enemy type makes a return with various modifications. For the first time in the franchise, zombies are truly terrifying and genuinely difficult to fight. Every single zombie moves at a different pace and gait, speeding up or slowing down depending on the damage you’ve inflicted upon them. In the good old days, head shots were one way to do serious bonus damage — now, they’re almost required to kill these monstrosities. Zombies are simply more durable here than they used to be. It’s not even simply a case of shooting zombies in the head — you’ve really got to strike them right between the eyes to do the most damage. Your trusty handgun has what appears to be a random chance at popping heads off, although the shotgun is certainly more reliable.
Zombies will now hungrily stalk you between rooms, with doors being no barrier (certain spaces are exceptions, like save rooms).
Special enemies — like the ever-popular lickers — return to make life difficult. Their inherent challenge dovetails with the new aiming system, where damage is location-based; this forces you to make every shot count. Near the end of the game, you’ll encounter plant-based enemies that can kill you in a single shot if you don’t have a defense item on hand.
All of the game’s boss fights have been redesigned to take advantage of these new systems, of course, but there’s still one major enemy I need to talk about specifically.
The infamous Mr. X makes his triumphant return in Resident Evil 2. After a certain event in the game, he’ll stalk you throughout the police station — if he gets anywhere near you, be prepared to face thunderous punches and bodyslams. Much like the celebrated xenomorph in Alien Isolation, Mr. X will actively track you at specific parts of the game — he seems to be aware of your general vicinity at all times. Importantly, you can’t outright kill him with any weapon, though you can slow him down. Mr. X is Resident Evil 2’s alpha antagonist — it’s a topic I specifically covered in a recent article, if you’re interested.
Mr. X is certainly an impressive figure, but he’s not without flaws — he’s one reason why, to me, Resident Evil 2 sometimes feels more like a haunted house than an outright horror game. Allow me to explain.
There’s no question that Resident Evil 2 maintains a high degree of terror throughout most of the time you’ll spend in its world. But one problem I have with the game is that much of the fear factor comes from scripted events rather than emergent gameplay. To return to my Alien Isolation example, one of its best features was that the xenomorph was always an active threat once introduced; it added genuine unpredictability to the game which helped to bolster that feeling of terror.
In my view, Resident Evil 2 relies too much on scripted enemy spawns and encounters, making it very easy to break the game once you know what you’re doing. Specific events will always trigger enemies to become more active or appear in once-peaceful areas of the world. There’s no RNG here — when you do X, the game will always respond with Y. And, once you are aware of that, the game loses some of its bite (no pun intended) — especially on subsequent play throughs. Speaking of which, I was hoping for a little more differentiation between the Leon and Claire routes through the game. When you play on the “B route”, much of the bosses and puzzles remain the same (though item placements and some puzzle solutions do differ).
As well, you’ll quickly figure out which areas of the world Mr. X and other enemies simply can’t intrude into — this can lead to some unintentional hilarity of Mr. X doing his best to give it to you before being held back by an invisible wall.
In some respects, I feel like Resident Evil 2 struggles to define a clear identity — is it a survival horror game, or an action horror game? Perhaps the distinction seems trivial on the surface, but I think it matters when considering the gameplay design here.
Action horror or horror action?
I’d argue that the Resident Evil franchise had had something of an identity crisis since Resident Evil 4. Some fans wanted the franchise to return to its slower-paced roots. Other fans were happy to see the games lean more heavily into action. Resident Evil 7, for its part, definitely marked a return to the slower-paced, adventure game roots of the series — although it did feature some awkwardly out-of-place action-heavy sequences. In Resident Evil 2, you’ll still be fighting a lot of enemies and bosses with pure brute force.
There are elements of this that do work really well — the location-based damage, for example, allows for more advanced combat tactics.
But the combat systems falls down to a degree once bosses are introduced. Without spoiling things, I’ll just say that each boss is more about dodging and attacking critical points than anything else. You’ll either be ammo-starved to the point where you can’t take them down, or you’ll be a walking armory that can blast through them without much effort.
Ultimately, Resident Evil 2 is definitely an amazing remake — even if it does carry with it some of the identity crisis that the franchise has become known for over the years. Between this and Resident Evil 7, I think it’s fair to say that Capcom has very successfully resurrected the franchise; it is arguably at the peak of its popularity right now. But I hope that the developers take on board lessons from previous games (including some of pitfalls) if/when they produce a remake of Resident Evil 3 (or even a brand new Resident Evil 8).