Survival horror is pretty much dead. Ironic, I guess that it didn’t … survive. It was very much a product of its time, when pre-rendered graphics and static camera angles were the height of sophistication. And c’mon, how long could monsters jumping out of windows stay scary? Things are different now. Silent Hill has been franchised to death, though a dubious remake of the original creeps on its way. The Resident Evil series mutated into an action game in a weird cyclical cannibalistic situation — Resident Evil 4 spawned Gears of War which spawned Resident Evil 5 and, ah, the rest of this generation.
Although, really, Resident Evil’s been an action series since Resident Evil 2. Beyond a few jump scares it’s a straight-up shooter with a few puzzles sprinkled on top. The game’s packed with ammo and weaponry despite the rudimentary aiming system. You just hold R1 to aim, swivel in one spot to select a target and mash away on the X button. But hey, 11 years after release, Resident Evil 2 remains a tense, effective game. I still jump, my heart still races and I still remember where every monster and item is, and that doesn’t take away from the experience to this day. It’s snappy, simple and constantly rewarding.
So I think I’ll just spout out what I love about it.
Raccoon City’s one of the best settings in video games. I love the way it’s introduced too. Depending on which disc you pop in, either Leon Kennedy or Claire, you watch them drive into town to find it deserted. The CGI intro movie’s a dated now (artifacting and blobby shadows, ugh!) but for the time it was state-of-the-art! One of the best intros ever for a while. It set the stage perfectly with perfect, moody music, creative angles and cutting — Claire opens the door, Leon’s there pointing the gun straight at her, “Get down!”
The voice acting gets a bad rap, which I always found unfair. I always figured RE2 has one of the better voice casts in video games. Its Saturday morning goofiness, sure, but it’s perfect. For me anyway. Jubilee from the 90s X-Men cartoon voices Claire Redfield for crying out loud, and she does a fantastic job! Or rather, a good enough job to come back for CODE: Veronica and the Degeneration movie. Leon’s voice actor did not fare as well, although I always liked this wimpier guy more than his replacement in RE4. He sounds like such a doofus, which is perfect since no one in the game listens to him no matter how much authority he tries to assert. At one point in the game, he asks aloud to himself “Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to me?” He’s still a doofus in RE4 but they gave him a gruffer voice, which I suppose makes him an even bigger doofus. The guy’s always the butt-end of some joke, or conspiracy.
RE2’s conspiracy plot is still solid, by the way. Revealed in well-written little notes sprinkled throughout the game — a secretary’s diary, a filed police report, a memo from a sewage plant manager — the story that unravels cuts through a few American fears, mainly the corruption of big business, the police sworn to protect us and the nuclear family. In a mere night, Leon and Claire find out that the all-American Raccoon City (seen through the lens of the Japanese — a Taxago gas sign is a favorite Easter egg) has been bought by Umbrella Pharmaceuticals to be a testing ground for their bizarre genetic experiments, that the threat behind the outbreak is the obsessed patriarch of a scattered family who injected himself with his own creation and now seeks to impregnate his own daughter, and that the chief of Raccoon City Police is an insane rapist who wants to stuff the mayor’s daughter full of saw dust.
That’s one hell of a night, which also includes Umbrella spies, sleazy journalists (is there any other?), a gas mask-wearing merc named Hunk and a hunk of tofu named … Tofu.
Let’s go back to the father of the Birkin family, William. The guy injects himself with his own creation, the G-Virus (superior to the zombie-creating T-Virus of the first game), which rapidly and grotesquely mutates him into a hulking behemoth of muscle, bone and bulbous eyeballs and each time you encounter him he undergoes a new mutation, looking less and less human. By the end of the game the guy is a multi-limbed mass of teeth and sinew. One of, or rather, several of the best monster designs I’ve seen. Pyramid Head from Silent Hill always gets a lot of love. I always thought it was unfair Birkin got left in the cold.
The whole game is incredibly well-designed. It just flows so easily, from the burning wreckage of the beginning, through the city, to the ridiculous police precinct where you need to rearrange statues to find red gems to shove in half a suit of armor to grab keys and Unicorn Medals and African animal Legos… or something. OK, it’s ridiculous but well-designed ridiculousness. From the precinct to the sewers to the construction site to the final lab, the scenery refreshes every hour or so and it still looks great. The lab, infested with plant roots and vegetation in some parts, is a real standout.
There are a lot of other little things to mention. I love how Sherry Birkin, William’s daughter, hugs her knees when Claire gets too far from her. Her Japanese school girl outfit is so wonderfully out of place, too. Claire and Sherry’s relationship clearly mirrors Ripley’s and Newt’s from Aliens. You can find a lot of Aliens in RE2 if you look hard enough in fact, right down to chestbursting creatures, self-destruct countdowns, rescues, and a big fucking monster that attacks the evacuation vehicle right at the end when you think everything’s safe. It may sound a little unjust to call RE2 an Aliens copycat since that movie influenced the entire video game medium, but the James Cameron influence continues further with Resident Evil 2’s B-side scenario.
You see, after you beat the game once as one character you can replay it as another character in a whole new scenario. The setting’s the same but some events and characters, items and monsters are rearranged. There’s also the important addition of a brand new monster, Mr. X, a bald Terminator-like mutant in a trench coat who follows you around the whole game. He bashes through walls, grabs you by the neck and keeps you on your toes again, just when you think you have the game all figured out. It’s a blast, and the endgame for Leon’s and Claire’s B scenario has one of the all-time best pay-offs. It involves a vat of molten lead (hello, Terminator 2), a Tyrant, a last-minute rocket launcher rescue and that aforementioned “Queen Alien returns one last time” moment.
Damn. Have I said enough? Is it clear yet how much I lurve Resident Evil 2? I first discovered it in the January 1998 issue of Official PlayStation Magazine, where a glowing review convinced me I should beg my parents pick the game up. I read it while my brothers played basketball in a park on a chilly weekend afternoon. The few times I go by that park I remember discovering RE2 and showing my bros the article. I still listen to the soundtrack time to time, somber and lonely, full of great piano pieces. I remember meeting a friend downtown to discuss the game as we pored over his copy of the Versus Books strategy guide.
It’s a landmark game, I think, with few flaws. Any that exist I either don’t notice or don’t really care to acknowledge. I play it with nary a complaint. It’s still playable, fun and relevant. Similar to the first Silent Hill, RE2 is also getting a reimagining this season in Darkside Chronicles for the Wii, yet another lightgun House of the Dead thing. It seems that’s where the series is going now thanks to RE5’s tepid reception. I wasn’t impressed with Umbrella Chronicles so I’m not too jazzed about it. I don’t know. It definitely can’t hold up to the original but maybe the fanwankery will be worth it. We’ll see.
I’d rather they re-issue the Dreamcast release (lulz sure) or put the N64 version on the Virtual Console. I never did try the Dual Shock version out either though I can’t imagine 3D analog control would work in a game with a static camera. RE2 fans, feel free to weigh in. Have any good speed runs lately?