Leon S. Kennedy is a little bit like Marmite. Some people love him, holding the man as one of the best protagonists in the Resident Evil franchise: his naivety and purity are both charming as he desperately tries to keep the world together as it falls apart around him. Others hate the floppy-haired emo because, well, it was once popular to hate on floppy haired emos.
My first encounter with Leon was in Resident Evil 4, my favourite game of all time. It was my first foray into the franchise, and it — and by proxy, Leon — will always have a special place in my heart. So it was with great relish that I installed Resident Evil 2 on my PlayStation 4, drew the curtains and sat down with a hot cup of coffee.
I’m pleased to report that Resident Evil 2 did not disappoint.
That’s not to say that the game is perfect — far from it, in fact. There are a fair few things that I would change, given the chance. But all in all, this game is a close contender for my second favourite game in the series.
Resident Evil 2 tells the story of Leon’s first day at the Raccoon City Police Department. For newcomers to the party, Raccoon City is the nearest settlement to the mansion where the first Resident Evil is set (hence the name Resident Evil). When the zombies escape the confines of the house, Raccoon City is inevitably the first place they wind up. Sadly for Leon, this makes for a hell of a first day. We’ve all had our first days at work, but no matter how bad your boss is, you’ve never had a first day this bad.
The game is so visceral, the story so enticing, that it genuinely feels like it’s his first day on the job. The little pep talks Leon was giving himself, telling himself he can do this and holding his nerves as he walks down the corridor, tightening his grip on his gun and nervously watching the lights flicker, felt so real, Resident Evil 2 just drew me in and held me tight. If you’re a fan of survival horror, you will love this game. That coffee I mentioned earlier was ice cold by the time I remembered I had made it.
First things first, this is a remastered game done properly. I’ve said a few times over the last few years that simple HD remasters no longer cut the mustard. Some things in video games just don’t age well. Resident Evil 2, when it was first released in 1998, built on the first game in the franchise in a way that blew everyone’s minds. It was survival horror done right, but it was still held back by the limitations of the time — ‘tank’ controls, of course, being the main offender here. The latest version of Resident Evil 2 builds on 2017’s soft reboot, Resident Evil 7, in much the same way: rather than simply giving it a fresh coat of paint and shipping it out the door like Shenmue or the Hitman HD Enhanced Collection, Resident Evil 2 got the Crash Bandicoot/Spyro the Dragon treatment. The game has been rebuilt using the RE Engine and it shows in every detail. The tank controls have been replaced with modernised ones, so the game handles like a dream. The graphics, while far from perfect, are still a feast for the eyes (moreso if you can make the most of the 4K resolution) and the binaural (3D) sound design is the pièce de résistance that makes Resident Evil 2 a serious contender for Capcom’s Game of the Year, despite its mid-January release date. This is a game which deserves to be played at night, in the dark and with headphones.
The plot is equally appealing. You’re tasked with first escaping the police station, and then the city. As with most games in this genre though, ammo is scarce, the baddies and plentiful and they eat bullets by the fistful. This is probably the worst thing about the game — when you take four 9mm rounds to the head and still have the strength to throw yourself at me teeth-first, something has gone wrong. The bullet-sponge enemies are the game’s biggest flaw and they’re there from the very first zombie you see to the fast-moving ‘Lickers’. If this is your first foray into the franchise, it would be very smart to play it on Easy mode. Playing it on Normal was challenging enough and I’m a veteran to the franchise.
On a brief aside, I put my VR headset and headphones on to block out all ambient light and really throw myself into it. I’m not exaggerating when I say the Lickers are nightmare fuel. I had one jump at me and, even though the game wasn’t in VR, its scream as it came towards my face, fangs bared, was certainly not an experience I’d recommend.
Back to how the game is supposed to be played, however, Resident Evil 2 is significantly easier on your second playthrough. When you start a new game you’re asked whether you’d like to play as Leon or Claire Redfield — another mainstay of the franchise and sister to Chris Redfield (the wall of muscle on the box for Resident Evil 5). Surprisingly, and I must say, unfortunately, the two largely follow the same story the first time round — whether you play as Leon or Claire, you’re the one who makes it through the front doors of the police station at the beginning of the game while the other is forced to take the long way around. This is slightly different to the way it used to be; where the original game had four different scenarios, the 2019 remake is a little more streamlined to avoid spreading the story too thin and making playthroughs repetitive, as the game’s producer Yoshiaki Hirabayashi said in a 2018 interview. And yes, while there are two separate campaigns, you don’t see the ‘B-side’ story until you unlock second-run mode. Until then, the character you don’t pick is simply your support character, rather than the person who did a certain thing at a set point in time.
This makes for interesting storytelling, as you see the same thing from two different perspectives; the characters you meet along the way will treat you differently depending on whether you’re rookie cop Leon or the civilian Claire, which does give a new dimension to the story, but these things always feels like a cop out to me. There are differences in the two campaigns even on your first run, of course — without mentioning anything spoilery or story-based, they start out with slightly different weapons and they each have their own reasons for being in the city — but I’ve always been one to ask that developers give characters an actual journey right from the start, rather than simply making their protagonists transposable at any part of the story. I would have much preferred something like Resident Evil 4’s Separate Ways campaign and had Claire and Leon’s story completely unique and different, or the B-side be playable from the start so you can establish the story’s canon before transposing the characters.
Onto the way the game looks and sounds, the 4K texturing is a sight for sore eyes. The rain looks stunning, the blood drips in the cutscenes look believable and the Lickers are more terrifying than ever now that their deskinned torsos have been reskinned in HD. There are graphical issues, however, such as when part of Leon’s face is too close to the camera it blurs (as you would expect with fixed focal depth perspective), but it does so in a way that leaves a sharp, noticable edge on the blur. This just requires a minor quality-of-life patch and is mostly just nitpicking, though — it’s far from game breaking.
The audio is where the true beauty of Resident Evil 2 lies. The sound has been remastered and the binaural sound engineering is both flawlessly executed and a massive boon. When you hear a zombie over your right shoulder, you know which way to turn, making for the most immersive experience you can get outside of VR. Coupled with the dialogue, which is unashamedly cheesy at times, this makes the whole experience so much more engrossing and an absolute joy to play.
Veterans to the franchise can expect the usual affair when it comes to puzzle solving and inventory management — there are special doors that can only be unlocked with particular keys and you start with just eight item slots. Fortunately, items of the same type stack and the shotgun only takes up one slot, unlike in some of the others where the size of the weapon dictated how much of your inventory is used. Unfortunately, keys and key items are the same size as your pistol or your shotgun. Newbies will have to learn to manage their items, storing what they don’t need in their trusty chest and conserving ammo to the best of their abilities. They will also learn to fear the weapon degradation which makes melee combat more frightful than ever — if you lose your trusty combat knife, or if it breaks in an enemy, you’re going to struggle.
One final addition I want to touch on is that the 2019 remake of Resident Evil 2 makes great use of the DualShock controller. The lightbar shows you how much life you have left (ranging from green to yellow and then red when you’re on very low health), and the internal speakers click as you unlock doors and crackle into life when your walkie talkie (this game is set in 1998) kicks into life. These are minor (and the sounds are lost on you if you take my advice and play with a pair of headphones on), but they’re certainly a nice touch.
Resident Evil 2 is an excellent example of how games should be remastered. A game first released on the original PlayStation has been rebuilt from the ground up for a console three generations later so that newcomers to the franchise can experience one the best games the survival horror genre has to offer. It makes the most of the modern hardware and, for all its faults, it is a brilliant game that I will probably come back to several times over the coming year as I try (and probably fail) to get the platinum trophy. I strongly recommend Resident Evil to anyone who has the guts to play it.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*
Resident Evil 2£39.99
- Resident Evil 2 is a faithful remaster of a game that has not aged well, bringing an excellent game to a new generation in more ways than one
- The updated graphics, sound and control scheme all help make this the very best that this game can be
- Simple touches like using the lightbar and speaker make the game more engaging, but the binaural sound (3D audio) engineering makes for the ultimate Resident Evil experience
- The plot is visceral and the story is engrossing – everything you want from a survival horror game
- The graphics aren’t quite perfect – they blur in weird places as part of the perspective, but the end of the blur can be quite hard at times
- The contextual X button is finicky – you can select things behind you by mistake if you’re not standing close enough to what you’re trying to click
- Enemies are horrific bullet sponges and the difficulty on normal is a real issue; if you’re new to the franchise, or even this title, I’d strongly recommend you play on Easy first
- It’s a little disappointing that Claire and Leon’s campaigns don’t happen in different parts of the police station – they just stand in for each other