Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Then and Now: Resident Evil 2


After Resident Evil wowed gamers with its survival horror gameplay, a sequel was guaranteed to happen.  Yet, development wasn't easy.  The original version of Resident Evil 2 was scrapped because Shinji Mikami, creative director of the first game, wasn't proud of what he saw.  With a little help from a then unknown Hideki Kamiya, Resident Evil 2 was reworked and released, becoming one of the highest selling PS1 games.  21 years later, Resident Evil 2 was reimagined for a new generation.

Leon S. Kennedy is driving to Raccoon City to work his first day as a police officer for the RPD.  He arrives, only to discover almost all the populace has been zombified.  While fleeing the undead he runs into Claire Redfield, Chris Redfield's sister.  She's looking for her brother since he went quiet and hasn't been heard from.  The two make their way to the police station, hoping to find sanctuary from the madness outside.  Instead, they find zombies, a corrupt police chief, and a rapidly mutating monster that was once a human being.

Like any good sequel, Resident Evil 2 raises the stakes and introduces new characters who went on to become series staples.  It also has a clearer focus and a better tone.  As I said in my previous review, the first Resident Evil is like a carnival haunted house.  The frights seem scary, but they're not.  This isn't the case with Resident Evil 2.  The atmosphere is one of isolation and hopelessness.  Raccoon City is a ghost town, and the only sounds are the howling wind and moans of the undead.

Fire in the hole!

Trekking through the police station, you see signs of a last stand.  Dead cops and civilians lie about the station, while hastily put-up barricades clue the player in on how dire the situation is.  Diaries and notes detail the final days of struggle between the living and the living dead.  The first half of the campaign is tense and eerie, once you reach the sewers, the tone becomes action packed.  It's a race against time as the characters try to accomplish their goals and escape before everything explodes.

What makes the story unique is its use of perspectives.  The original Resident Evil 2 features "A" and "B" scenarios in which the main characters experience the same sides of the story but from differing points of view.  The first Resident Evil toyed with the idea by offering separate campaigns for Chris and Jill, but the sequel expands upon it.  Choices you make playing as one character effect how difficult or easy the other character's journey will be.  It's a fantastic system that boosts the game's replay value, and while the idea is in the remake, it's not as in-depth as it is in the original.

Let's talk about Leon and Claire.  Leon is a rookie unsure of his potential as a cop and the outbreak doesn't help his uncertainty.  As the game progresses, he becomes more confident in himself and is willing to take a bullet for others to ensure their safety.  During his adventures, he meets Ada Wong, a woman claiming to be looking for her boyfriend.  This is a cover-up for her real mission, to find samples of the G-virus.  She doesn't think much of Leon, but when he saves her from being shot, she starts developing feelings for him.

As for Claire, she finds herself protecting a young girl named Sherry Birkin.  Sherry is the daughter of William and Annette Birkin, Umbrella scientists who were working on a new strain of the T-virus dubbed the G-virus.  William is cornered by government agents assigned to collect the virus.  When he is accidentally gunned down, Birkin injects himself with a vial of the virus and begins mutating into a horrific monster.  Birkin's mutation causes a chain reaction that leads to Raccoon City's downfall.

Birkin's mutations are horrific with a capital H.

The relationship between Claire and Sherry is reminiscent of Ripley and Newt from Aliens.  Claire becomes a big sister to Sherry and is willing to keep an eye out for her, something Sherry's parents didn't do.  She also gets entangled with Bryan Irons, police chief of the RPD.  Irons is in dirty with Umbrella.  Even after the surviving members of STARS attempt to explain what happened at the mansion, Irons dismisses their claims.  He's an asshole and a total creep, which makes his death more satisfying.

Like the Resident Evil remake, the Resident Evil 2 remake preserves the plot and characters but makes a few tweaks.  Instead of looking for her boyfriend, Ada is posing as an FBI agent.  Sherry immediately recognizes the Birkin/G mutant as her father, whereas in the original, she was oblivious to who it was until near the end.  Tonally, the two games are about the same, but the remake plays up the creepy factor.  The atmosphere and lighting are used to create feelings of uncertainty and dread.  Also, the zombies are now terrifying creatures whose guttural screams will send chills down your spine.

Another thing the remake does better is expand upon minor characters, namely Marvin and Kendo.  Marvin is a police officer that warns you about the zombie infestation before telling you to leave the west office.  When you encounter him again, he's a zombie, so you blow his head off.  When we meet Marvin in the remake, he's in the lobby instead of the west office, and he gives Leon or Claire an important piece of advice, never let their guard down, no matter what.

Kendo, a gun store owner, is made into a more sympathetic figure.  His appearance is brief, but you can see the toll the outbreak has taken on him.  His wife his dead, and his daughter was bit.  It's a short scene, but an effective moment.  Compare that to the PS1 original, where he's frightened and gets quickly overrun by the zombies.

Resident Evil 2 and its remake are wholly different experiences.  Whereas the remake of the first Resident Evil felt like a fully realize version of the original, the Resident Evil 2 remake is a brand new experience, one that pays lip service to its predecessor while doing its own thing.

Florida's not the only one with a gator problem.

In both games, the goal is to escape the police station and Raccoon City itself.  Finding a way out won't be easy due to the zombies and other nasties lurking within.  Whereas the first game emphasizes puzzle-solving and item-finding over combat, the sequel strikes a balance.  You'll solve puzzles and collect items necessary for progression, but you'll also blast through dozens of enemies.  Ammo isn't as scarce and there are some new tools of destruction to mess around with.

Claire gets a handgun, a grenade launcher, a crossbow, and a six shooter.  The grenade launcher can be equipped with flame, acidic, or explosive rounds.  Leon gets a handgun, a shotgun, and a magnum.  Unlike Claire, Leon's weapons can be upgraded with parts you find.  The pistol becomes a burst-fire machine, while the shotgun turns into a cannon.  There are also one-off guns to find including a spark shot, the flamethrower, and a submachine gun.

Even though ammo is more plentiful, you still need to be conservative with it.  Never waste bullets on minor enemies and evade them as much as possible.  Besides having different arsenals, Leon gets the lighter and Claire has a lockpick.  Neither character's campaign is more difficult than the other.  However, your choices may make certain parts easier or challenging.  If you find the weapon room keycard, you can equip either pouches for extra inventory slots or a submachine gun for extra firepower.  If you find wires, you can use them to reactivate the shutters and keep the zombies from getting in.  The shutters will short circuit though, allowing the corpses to get back in.

Both campaigns feature one-off sections where you play as Ada or Sherry.  These are a nice reprieve and mix up the experience.  While Ada has a pistol, Sherry has nothing to defend herself with, so she needs to avoid enemies.  Speaking of which, the enemy roster features some familiar faces and new threats to contend with.

Zombies, spiders, cows, and dogs are joined by lickers.  Lickers are creatures who crawl on all fours and attack with their tongue.  They can't see but are attracted to sound.  If you're crafty enough, it's possible to sneak by lickers and then bolt before they get the jump on you.  Late in the game, you'll face a giant alligator, moths, and plant monsters.  Then, there's Mr. X.

Resident Evil 2 Remake revisits the age old question, "How do you kill something
that's already dead?"

During the "B" scenario, Umbrella deploys a Tyrant nicknamed Mr. X to kill any survivors.  He's slow but his hits deal a ton of damage.  Despite his intimidating stature, Mr. X isn't much of a problem.  It's easy to fake him into punching before running by him like he's nothing.  You can try taking him on, but it's a waste of time since he gets up when you leave the room.  Mr. X is cool on paper but lacking in execution.

This also applies to William Birkin.  He's constantly mutating throughout the campaign, each form less human than the last.  It sounds neat, but the fights are underwhelming.  You stand in a corner, unload your most powerful ammo into him before he flees or is temporarily incapacitated.

Resident Evil 2's remake overhauls the gameplay in many ways.   Instead of fixed camera angles and tank controls, the game is an over-the-shoulder, third person shooter.  Even though the game is modernized, there are many old-school flourishes in its design.  On normal or easy, the game autosaves at regular intervals, and saving on a typewriter doesn't require an ink ribbon.  Autosave is disabled on higher difficulties and you need to find ink ribbons before you can use the typewriter.  Puzzle-solving and item finding are an important part of the gameplay as is resource management.  

As for combat, it's a wholly different experience.

By today's standards, the zombies in the original Resident Evil games aren't a threat.  They're easy to dodge and go down after a handful of shots.  Like the Resident Evil remake, the Resident Evil 2 remake reinvents the walking dead into deadly creatures.  These shambling corpses will chase you from one room to another and can soak up a lot of damage before going down.  Even a close-range blast from the shotgun will only scar them.  Sometimes, the best thing to do is stun them with a headshot and run by in an effort to conserve ammo.

These zombies are tenacious, so don't be reckless.  Ammo isn't plentiful, but you can mix and match different types of gunpowder to create more bullets.  While zombies behave differently, other enemies like lickers and dogs function the same as their PS1 counterparts.  Pro-tip: try tiptoeing around lickers as much as possible, you'd be surprised by how effective this tactic is.  Spiders and moths are absent, while G-mutants populate the sewers.  The plant monsters are now plant/human hybrids that can only be killed by burning them or shooting their weak spots.

Mr. X is another story.

Instead of being an inconvenience that's exclusive to one half of the story, he is an unstoppable juggernaut that stalks both Leon and Claire.  Be ready to have a back-up plan if you run into Mr. X as he will make your life a living hell.  One time, I was moving bookshelves to form a makeshift walkway.  I heard a door opening and the footsteps of Mr. X increasing in volume.  I quickly stopped to see where he was, only to notice him go through the next door.  I resumed what I was doing and got across before he had a chance to come back.

Don't bother shooting Mr. X unless you REALLY want the trophy for shooting
his hat off.

The reworked combat and enemy behavior require you to think about what your objectives are, what the best paths are to take, and where the save rooms are in case you need breathing space.

Boss fights are an improvement.  While most of them rely on hitting weak spots to hurt them, they're a step up from what was in the original.  The bosses pursue the player, have attacks to avoid, and require you to keep your eyes open for windows of opportunity.  Because of this, I found the fights with the mutating Birkin and even the final fight with Mr. X to be more enjoyable.  The only exception is the giant alligator, which is now a scripted sequence, but the way it's been redone reminds me of the boulder chase from Resident Evil 4.

Both versions of Resident Evil 2 are loaded with content.  Besides the campaigns, there are extra modes, hidden weapons, and alternate costumes.  Beating both campaigns in the original unlocks Extreme Battle, where you need to make your way from the underground lab to the police station, collecting four bombs along the way.  There's also the 4th Survivor, where you play as the agent HUNK and need to escape the lab.  Beat that, and you unlock a version where you play as a block of tofu.

The remake features three bonus missions in addition to hidden weapons, costumes, and concept art.  One of these missions is a remake of the 4th Survivor, while the other two are "what if" scenarios where you play as Kendo or the mayor's daughter.  These missions are challenging.  Each character has their own loadout, plus distinct enemy types to square off with. They're tough, but also a great way to test your familiarity with the combat.

Resident Evil 2 on PS1 boasts a bit more graphical polish.  Characters and environments are more detailed, and there's more variety to the looks of the zombies.  The CG cut-scenes are an indicator the developers had a bigger budget to work with.  As for the remake, it looks fantastic.  Every character, location, and gun are rendered with incredible detail.  The physics and gore system are impressive.  Dead bodies crumple in realistic fashion, and when you shoot at limbs, they slowly detach and fall off in visceral detail.  If nothing else, the remake wins the award for most detailed hamburger in a video game.

Tofu: the true hero of the series.

Sound design is great in both games, but the original is better for one reason: the music.  Instead of cartoony synth, we get a proper soundtrack that sets the mood.  The police station theme provokes emotions of mystery, intrigue, isolation, and uncertainty.  Then you have Ada's theme, which is calm but romantic.  Also, the fully upgraded shotgun packs a wallop.  While some of the dialogue has that trademark Capcom cheese, the performances are a huge improvement.

The remake features excellent sound work, but the music is lacking.  It's ambient, and at times, the music lifts motifs from the original, but it's nowhere near as good.  Fortunately, the voice acting is stellar.

If I had to rank my favorite Resident Evil games, Resident Evil 2, both the original and reimagined version, would sit comfortably in second place.  I think both games are great for different reasons.  The original Resident Evil 2 built upon what its predecessor did.  The game was more focused and less obtuse.  While I like the first Resident Evil, it can be confusing at times, not the case here.  I also like the characters and how it expands the universe in interesting ways.

Resident Evil 2 does what a remake should, honor the legacy of the original while doing its own thing.  It adheres to both modern and old-school gaming tropes to create a satisfying survival horror experience.  The game is tough but fair.  The zombies are tenacious bastards, but with a little patience, you learn their tricks, and become a better player for it.  Resident Evil 2 has the polish of a big-budget game but the depth of an Olympic swimming pool.

Final Score: 8/10

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