The first Resident Evil was arguably the most successful game to come out of that initial batch of PlayStation titles (at least in the States). It was challenging, had a perfect balance of camp and scares, and blowing zombie heads off to ridiculous gouts of gore probably helped a bit too. Hype for the sequel was pretty massive, and even managed to survive the infamous year delay after the prototype sequel was scrapped and restarted (resulting in the release of the largely-useless RE: Director’s Cut). I remember partaking of some of the hype pudding myself, especially when gaming rags ran previews talking about how RE2 would take place within the demolished Raccoon City. You won’t be confined to that silly mansion? You’ll actually be inside a town overrun with zombies?? How are they going to fit a whole town onto those CDs?!?
Short answer: they didn’t. Playing through RE2 again, I’m mostly surprised at how safe Capcom actually plays it. Despite some striking early screens, you’re pretty quickly locked inside the town’s enormous police station. It functions identically to the mansion in the original. You’ll spend easily half your game here, unlocking doors back and forth across its two levels, before ending up in an underground laboratory for the finale. You’ll never see those sweet city scenes again.
Similarities to the original don’t stop there. The male character gets the “harder” game and the shotgun? Check. The female character gets the grenade launcher and the lockpick? Check. Pushable statues that release novelty keys for the station’s locked doors? Check. High-tech labs sealed off by inexplicably elaborate secret doors that use arbitrary shit like gemstones as keys? You bet! I’m guessing I’ve combined elements of RE2 and 3 in my mind, because I remembered there being a lot more city areas in the sequel, and a lot less staying inside one huge building and searching every room. Not that this doesn’t work – RE2 is still a fun time – it just shadows the original a whole lot more than I remember.
What has changed is the incentive to go back and play the game again as the other character. You’re now invited to play a “B” scenario that remixes parts of the game. This was advertised as actions you take in the A game will directly affect the B game – such as a weapon taken won’t be available to the second character – but this isn’t entirely true. It’s more, well, a remix, with attempts to show the other character’s perspective at points where the storylines converge. One character will get a glimpse of a monster, while the other character will actually fight it. One character won’t meet a helpful cop, because the first character already watched them die. The biggest environmental change is having to wait for an elevator to return that the first character took, but aside from this, both characters will still be asked to unlock the same doors, or douse the same burning helicopter blocking their path.
The B character will also have to deal with an invulnerable mutant dude in a trench coat. At key, scripted points, he’ll stomp onto the screen until you lay enough firepower into him to stun him and escape. He’ll also be the final final boss, and hey, just like the original, you’ll run around until you get the rocket launcher to actually kill him. Otherwise, he’s not really a factor. It’s clear, though, that he’s the seed for Nemesis in the third game.
Plotwise, this is the game where Resident Evil becomes an ongoing series – for better and for worse. You play as either Leon Kennedy, a cop arriving for his first day, or Claire Redfield, a college student looking for her brother (from the first game). Most of the plot entanglements here revolve around the G-Virus – the first of an endless stream of different bake-a-monster serums that, I guess, are meant to explain the different looks of creatures compared to the previous games. You’ll learn about the virus through the course of the game, how the town got infected, and just what’s up with the rampaging beast with the giant eyeball in his arm.
Each character also gets a sub-character to interact with, and at a handful of points, actually control. Claire will look after Sherry, a little girl of indeterminate age (owing to an adult voice actress trying to sound like a child), who is being pursued by the aforementioned eyeball-arm nasty. Leon teams up with Ada, femme fatale extraordinaire, who claims to be in town to find her boyfriend. The storylines are nothing special or surprising – Claire plays surrogate mommy while Leon gets to be a stud – but controlling the sub-characters does offer some neat variety. Hope your dodging skills are ready to guide little, unarmed Sherry through a pack of hungry hell-hounds!
Mechanically, we’re still on “tank” controls, limited character inventory, and collectable ink ribbons to save. Nothing significant is added here (like RE3’s craftable bullet system). Leon – and only Leon, for some reason – can find upgrade kits for some of his weapons, and these just change the weapon into an enhanced version. It’s nothing you as a player choose to do (though you should, because duh), you either find the kits or your don’t. The greatest, and really only, tweak to an existing system is the addition of two “injured” states to your character animation. As your health falls into yellow and red states, your character will hold their side in pain and limp. It acts as a nice visual cue that prevents you from having to constantly duck into the menu to check your status.
Perhaps I’m being excessively hard on the game in retrospect, and it’s certainly everything you’d expect from a sequel – it’s more of what made the first game great, at a time when that was exactly was people were asking for. And in terms of those core mechanics, RE2 is still top-class survival horror. Limited supplies make every engagement a real consideration. I stood at item boxes FAR too long trying to weigh the unknown of the road ahead against my restricted inventory space – “I have plenty of ammo for the pistol, but not enough space for that and the magnum plus ammo, so maybe I can just take the magnum without extra ammo, but what if there’s a boss?” I love that there’s some randomness to each attack, and barring powerful weapons against weaker zombies, there’s a slight variation to how many shots it will take to down them – just enough to keep enemies from becoming predictable.
I also LOVE the “A” game’s introduction. You find refuge in a gun shop where the owner is packing a stronger weapon than your handgun (shotgun for Leon, a dopey crossbow for Claire). Zombies crash through the glass and chow down. You’re now left with a choice – do you take the distraction to run out the back door, or do you spend your very limited early-game ammo supplies to get that better gun? There’s no real “right” answer here, and I wish the game (hell, the whole series!) had more of these moments. But as said, on a macro level, the entire game is about managing limited ammo supplies and wondering if you can hustle past that crowd of zombies without a shot fired or a health herb wasted.
Graphically, work has been done in all the right places. We’re still on pre-rendered backgrounds with polygon actors, but those backgrounds look great, and those characters have more polys to fill them out. There’s a nice variety in zombie models this time, from different cop and civilian models, new lady zombies, and even the inexplicably naked zombies, now with actual detail on ribs and wounds. It’s not flawless, of course – animation is still incredibly exaggerated, and joints are still a particular problem, but it’s certainly a positive iteration on what we saw in the first. And of course, they don’t fuck around with the gore.
It was also “cinematic” in a time when the industry was still trying to figure that out. The story’s ridiculous, but not yet convoluted by a series worth of backstory, so the execution and the telling works. CG cutscenes don’t drag on too long, and despite featuring extremely plastic characters, get both the action and emotion across. There’s some good scenes, some fairly cheeseball drama, but certainly a large, cinematic feel to the proceedings and enough plot scraps to keep you interested in continuing on.
RE2 also ups the unlockable bonuses significantly. There’s the infinite ammo superweapons (rocket launcher and gatling gun) for beating performance targets (the elusive “S” rank), a few costume changes, but the highlight is the “4th Survivor” scenario. Beat both characters with at least an “A” rank, and you’ll get to play a short new area as a member of Umbrella’s corporate security force. This acts as both a special challenge mode, and a bit of extra story. A variant on this mode can also be unlocked where you play as a block of tofu (yes) armed with only a knife – a response to the weirdos who submitted video evidence of knife-only runs of the original (and this was before YouTube!).
In closing, my major complaints aren’t necessarily RE2’s fault – it barely tries to evolve past the original, and it plants the seeds for the series’ entire storyline to become the hot mess it has become today. Beyond that, it’s aces for fans of the first. Forgive the dopey plot and you’ll find survival horror at its best, with smartly expanded reasons to check out both characters/sides of the story. Just be sure to allot some time to check paintings for hidden keys, and don’t expect to see the marquee city beyond your initial scramble through it.
More of what made the first Resident Evil successful. Plenty of unlockables, and the “B” scenario to encourage a replay as the character you didn’t select. Visual improvements, zombie variety, some satisfying weapons.
Structured almost exactly like the first game. No new mechanics, not a lot of new ideas. Series’ plot starts its trip to insanity here and hasn’t stopped since.
“In case you haven’t already figured it out, the monster that’s been tearing my precinct apart is yet another product of the G-Virus! The ultimate bio-weapon! Umbrella must be trying to cover its tracks! But if I have to go… I’m going to take you with me!” — Chief Irons