Twenty years after the release of the original Resident Evil 2, Capcom comes to us with this ambitious remake. Given its immensely successful redo of the original Resident Evil — and the subsequent remaster of that version — Resident Evil 2’s second go around has expectations at an all-time high. Luckily, Capcom knocked it out of the park once again with this stunning retelling of the fall of Raccoon City.
Resident Evil 2 is set a few months after the original and documents the demise of Raccoon City due to a zombie outbreak. Our heroes are Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie cop arriving for his first day on the job, and Claire Redfield, the sister of Resident Evil protagonist Chris Redfield. Trapped within the city, our dynamic duo must find a way to escape while also uncovering the mystery of how the infection started.
For the most part, Resident Evil 2 is a faithful remake of the 1998 title. It’s a classic survival horror affair with limited supplies, brutal combat, and a host of esoteric puzzles to solve. The major switch is the change from the fixed-camera angles of the original to an over-the-shoulder camera à la Resident Evil 4.
A New Look at Horror
The behind-the-back camera makes combat and navigation infinitely more palatable, especially by modern standards, but a real effort was made to maintain that claustrophobic feel of the original. The camera is uncomfortably close, limiting your field of vision and ensuring an overbearing, oppressive atmosphere throughout. Capcom accomplishes with framing and lighting what the original PlayStation game did with unwieldy tank controls.
Aiming is naturally easier from this new perspective, too, so gone are the days of firing vaguely in the direction of scary noises and hoping for the best. To counter this, Resident Evil 2’s zombies shamble around erratically. Their heads bob and weave along with their jerky, stilted movements. This makes landing those all-important headshots an actual nightmare.
Visually, Resident Evil 2 is drop-dead gorgeous in the most disgusting way possible. While the textures and lighting are stunning, it’s the disturbing level of detail in the gore that draws the eye. An early cutscene shows a man getting ripped in half by zombies, his blood-drenched guts glistening under the eerie lighting. It’s not a game to watch while tucking into a pulled pork sandwich — that’s for sure.
Your own deaths never reach that level of grim spectacle. Nor is there anything quite as wonderfully brutal as the chainsaw beheadings of Resident Evil 4. Nevertheless, it’s still harrowing to watch Leon get dogpiled by two zombies. It’s sickening to watch him desperately grasp for aid as they tear into his neck.
Death and Inventory
Speaking of dying, you’ll have to get used to it — especially if you play on the harder difficulties. Hardcore mode is particularly brutal, as your character can only take a couple of hits before lying down to serve themselves up as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Your avatar has the survivability of a soufflé in these modes. Combined with the limited nature of ammunition, that forces you to make a vital fight or flight judgment call in every combat situation.
But you listed off the most iconic features of the Resident Evil series, then just below zombies, but mercifully above boulder punching, you’d find bizarre door puzzles. These make a welcome return in Resident Evil 2. The playing card-themed keys, animal-engraved medallions, and chess piece-shaped spark plugs are as silly and satisfying to use as ever. Their puzzles are well-integrated (in terms of pacing if not in-world logic) and challenge you just enough to make you feel smart, without straying into cryptic crossword levels of difficulty.
But Capcom wasn’t content to simply slap a gross, new coat of paint on a classic and call it a day. In fact, one of the remake’s most impressive feats is its use of the player’s own memories of the original to mess with them. The locations of items, enemies and even the layout of the station itself have all been shifted ever so slightly to throw off your expectations (if you played the 1998 classic).
Having played the first Resident Evil 2 to death, I knew where a certain enemy would make its first appearance. I went in prepared, armed to the teeth and ready for our reunion, but the wretch stood me up. There was myriad of evidence that it had been there, but no beastie itself. My memory betrayed me almost immediately. The change set me at maximum clench, creeping around every corner, waiting for the infernal thing to pop out and savage me. It was a beautiful manipulation of my expectations.
Of course, not everything is different. Playing the original will still serve you well when it comes to finding your way around. These touches may benefit Resident Evil 2 veterans, but the remake has plenty of unnerving atmosphere and tension for newcomers, too. Typical environmental storytelling is a fantastic fit for the classic zombie nightmare — not only as a means to tell the story of events before your arrival, but also to bombard your senses with threats. Open windows and corpses on the floor are the biggest culprits.
Meanwhile, Resident Evil 2 features four campaigns. Secondary campaigns for both Leon and Claire unlock when you finish your first run with the opposite character. Each character’s version of the first and second campaigns are almost identical, though, so it’s essentially just two fully unique stories. The map and item locations stay largely the same between different playthroughs, but there are a few significant differences as your second run unfolds. Alongside the main campaigns, there are also extra unlockable missions where you play an Umbrella mercenary or a sentient piece of tofu (just go with it).
Rewind and Try Again
If there is a major complaint to level at Resident Evil 2, it’s one that has followed the series since its inception; despite its gory trappings and horrifying monsters, Resident Evil 2 is a puzzle game at heart. A lot of the mystery and difficulty evaporates once you know the solutions. This isn’t just true of the puzzles themselves, but also the monster encounters. It’s often “optimal” to run in, scope out an area, then reload a previous save and try again with the foresight of what fights lie ahead. But even this turns to Resident Evil 2’s advantage, with a focus on replayability through player rankings and timed runs.
Beyond that, there are some other minor annoyances. Certain enemies didn’t make the transition to this remake, so don’t go expecting giant spiders or zombie crows bursting through the windows. While we’re talking about giant pests, it seems the developers forgot they took them out, too, because the game is littered with blue herbs. These cure poison, but I never came across an enemy with poison attacks during any of my playthroughs. The herbs only took up precious inventory space.
UPDATE: There are enemies with poison. They’re just different than the ones in the old game. Our reviewer never actually got hit by one, but I know this because I just got poisoned in my campaign…
But these are only minor blemishes on an otherwise phenomenal effort from Capcom. Resident Evil 2 is a masterclass in remakes, using the original as a jumping-off point to create something marvelous, rather than just wallowing in past success. The good ideas remain, the bad were tossed aside, and our expectations have been weaponized against us to create an outstanding survival horror experience. Umbrella might have the G-virus, but Capcom is the new master of bringing games back from the dead.