Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Resident Evil was not a total and complete surprise for the gaming public, in that it built on a stable of smaller, less ambitious and marketable games, but for the most part the hit that became a franchise knocked everyone sideways. It was a creepy, small, and moody bit of entertainment, a stake in the ground signifying that gaming was shifting to a more adult perspective.
Resident Evil 2 is interesting in part because of the weird path it took to release. A near-completed version of the game (now known as Resident Evil 1.5) was scrapped after an initial build was not up to the standards of the creator Shinji Mikami, and a redesign of the core experience was ordered. Some elements (like the police station) remained intact while others (the sidekicks) were altered or edited out completely. Such revamps are not atypical in the gaming industry, but they also do not bode particularly well for the final released version. Still, despite these concerns, RE2 was an out-and-out hit and became one of the best-selling games in history, as well as cementing the legacy of Resident Evil.
And Resident Evil 2 isn’t just ambitious by the standards of the series. It is ambitious by any metric applied to video game sequels. It grows the world, the fiction, and the gameplay in new and interesting ways, all while capturing the claustrophobia and weirdness that made the first game stand out. The question remains: does it hold up after all these years?
This time around, the zombie outbreak isn’t contained within a mansion on the hill. It has spread through Raccoon City with no sign of slowing down. Umbrella’s tampering with the human genome has had catastrophic results, and once again players assume the role of the uninitiated newcomer, here to contend with the zombie outbreak. People can choose between Leon Kennedy (for his first day on the job with the RCPD) or Claire Redfield (who is looking for her older brother, Chris), and though the game is only shades different for each character, the way the mirrored experiences reveal new story and areas gives players reasons to play and replay the game.
In fact, this two-disc beast offers both an A and B scenario for each player, and finishing the game with one means picking up the other character for a different experience. Completely beating the game is akin to playing it through four times, which says a lot in favor of its value. The game’s breadth dwarfs the previous entry’s by comparison without straying too far from what made it great.
Another note on story: even though the Resident Evil franchise is commonly referred to as survival horror, RE2 goes great lengths to explain how it is also a work of soft sci-fi. There are enough secret labs, robot arms, and experiments gone wrong to satisfy more than just the people jumping at monster closets. Furthermore, the latter portions of the game feel more in tune with Aliens than the ‘of the Living Dead’ universe.
It’s difficult to assess the sequel to Resident Evil without discussing its relationship to the first game, which had some problems: the dialogue was bad, the graphics were blocky, and the controls were somewhat unwieldy. The dialogue is still kind of clunky, but less so than in Resident Evil. (There are no ‘Jill Sandwich’ embarrassments here.) The voice acting is far better than the original’s, and the game is graphically superior is well. The textures are still blocky, but the graphics, overall, are much more refined this time around.
With the controls, improvement comes down mostly to the tank controls. It could be that I replayed both games within a week of one another, but Resident Evil 2 handles so much better than the first, and I was less likely to sprint into the arms of an oncoming enemy. Additionally, the auto-aim of the first game has been replaced with a free aiming system that, though largely superior, still feels awkward, especially from a distance. It is imprecise and even if it doesn’t matter all that much in a corridor with a single zombie, happening upon a powerful foe can be disastrous if the aiming isn’t performed correctly.
The puzzles that seemed almost on par with being in a haunted mansion really stretch the reality of the fiction in a police station, Resident Evil 2 uses a lot of the same puzzle types. You will continue to push statues and place medallions on fountains to unlock doors. (Who knew that a police station would have so many hidden passageways?)
There is still a sense of esoteric clunkiness to them, however, so it may take a few go-rounds to be able to solve each one. You’ll also spend the majority of your time traipsing back and forth across the landscape to find minuscule items, like jewels and chess piece-shaped plugs, but the game is far less opaque in denoting what exactly players need to find in order to solve the puzzles. It’s an improvement that still carries with it a ‘more of the same’ familiarity on level with the first game.
Players familiar with later games will recognize plenty of the key players in this volume: Leon Kennedy, Claire Redfield, William Birkin, and Ada Wong, most notably. These are really a few of the central figures in the whole fiction’s sordid and winding history, so it’s neat to see the inception of their storylines. Not only do a variety of NPCs appear, but RE2 takes a dramatic step in allowing players to commandeer and test drive them throughout the game. It is an unusual but surprisingly refreshing idea for a game that can feel plodding when players are left alone for too long.
But we don’t (necessarily) come to Resident Evil for the characters, do we? We come for the monsters, and RE2 improves upon the original’s scattershot and wide-ranging host of baddies. There are arguably fewer monster types, but they are utilized in much more interesting ways. For instance, zombies are a bit smarter, and the zombie lunge this time is a lot more insidious and harmful, so sneaking around the undead is not easily accomplished.
Moreover, the Licker, a dangerous, vicious addition to the monster gallery, provides a counter to slow, lumbering members of the undead at the heart of the universe, and though the first game seemed to be none too discriminating with regard to enemies, RE2 at least focuses its attention on a few key monster while also including the bizarre creatures associated with the Umbrella experiments. You’ll see upright plant creatures and oversized spiders, along with the Tyrant-type super-zombies, and since the enemies never really change locations or respawn, strategically clearing out high-traffic areas makes for a pretty smooth gaming experience.
This game is longer but not necessarily harder, and for those who, like me, could never seem to find a conveniently-placed safe room in the first game (except for the one underneath the stairs on the first floor), the save ribbons are more plentiful and save rooms more conveniently located, so there’s less of a chance that players will wander into a room with a boss without having recently saved.
Players will wind through the station and descend into a futuristic lab, and as the game reaches its final climax, it becomes clear that the development team learned plenty from the pitfalls of the original entry. To put a finer point on it, Resident Evil 2 not only gives a satisfying backstory to the Big Bad of the game but also teases his ultimate arrival through some memorable sequences, whereas in the first game, Tyrant’s entrance was preceded by literally minutes of ham-handed exposition about the nature of Umbrella and so forth. This, to me, is the great metaphor about the difference between the two and why the second game is superior.
Ultimately, Resident Evil 2 is a longer, more refined version of the first game, but with some great additions. It works to underline what made RE1 so cool. And even though Resident Evil established the franchise, Resident Evil 2 is where the series really hits its stride. The game plays well, looks cool, sounds creepy, and gives you plenty of playtime for your dollar, so have at it. You’ll not regret the decision.
The Final Word: Like with my recommendation for the first game, only pick up the PS1 version if you’re looking for the genuine experience. Otherwise, grab one of the many up-res versions of the game, and it will play similarly but will look substantially better.