One Game At A Time: Resident Evil 2 (2019)
I was a PC kid growing up with a console-owning friend: an ideal situation for a kid in the 90s. My buddy Matt had an SNES and later a PlayStation, so I watched him play a lot of the big 90s console classics. This included the original Resident Evil 2. I had always thought I didn't like horror, since my exposure to film was through my Dad who is a total wuss, though I always got a thrill out of films like Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park. I know I'm not the first person for whom Spielberg was a gateway to horror, but Resident Evil 2 was part of that, too. I recall being totally compelled by RE2. The setting, that ridiculous gothic police station, seared itself into my mind and the feedback of the action was addictive even though I wasn't playing the game myself.
In the 20 years since the original I've become both a console owner and a PC enthusiast, as well as a massive fan of horror. Horror video games have had a huge resurgence this console generation spanning all budgets, tiny experimental titles like Kitty Horrorshow's Anatomy, small-studio gems like Amnesia, and AAA titles like Alien: Isolation. (Isn't it fun that all those games start with the letter 'A'? What's up with that?)
Capcom's own Resident Evil 7 was a revelation that totally hooked me: a playable Texas Chainsaw Massacre that masterfully captured both the tension of first person horror with the wild tonal shift and B-movie writing of the best Resident Evil titles.
So, in preparation for RE2 I played a half hour or so of the PC version of the 1998 original. (Here's a guide on how to do that, if you're interested.) I didn't remember that game being so hard, though to be fair I wasn't playing it myself, but I'm glad I took a little tour into the opening hour. It made me appreciate the remake a lot more.
January 28 2019:
Last night I finished the Leon campaign, which took me just under 7 hours. The game has two characters, Leon and Claire, each with totally separate stories that occasionally intersect. Upon beating one, you get access to "2nd Run" versions of the stories which slight differences. I don't know what those are yet.
This game is scary! The police station is just as ridiculous as before, but now whole wings of the building are plunged in inky darkness. The storm raging outside rattles the windows, and so do zombies clattering on the glass trying to get in. In a nod to the classic Resident Evil scare tactics, those zombies will eventually smash those windows and tumble into the hallways of the station. You can find wooden boards to carry around the stop them coming in, those these take up precious inventory space.
The golden rule of Resident Evil is avoid the zombies you can, put down the ones you can't. That's easier said than done, as I often found myself taking unnecessary damage trying to avoid using ammo. The game's pacing is masterful, and when I say pacing I mean the way it doles out ammo and items. You're always short on ammo and healing items, but I never felt stuck. You learn to conserve, but you never end up with a ton of useless junk you'll never use. (Except for blue herbs, which cure poison and can give you a damage resistance buff. I didn't use those very often.) Zombies take a lot of hits, even headshots, which are hard to nail especially when you're under pressure. Knocking zombies down and running past them is the best option, but they might be stood back up next time you enter that room.
You will be re-entering the same places, and often. The game is structured into three large areas (the Police Station, the Sewers, and an underground Lab) and each as rooms and passageways that are initially locked but can be opened. It reminded me of the structure of Dark Souls, as locked doors are often opened from the inside after finding another way around. As the situation deteriorates and more monsters infest the building, the game becomes an exercise in route planning. You'll spend a minute hiding in a save room, staring at your map, trying to memorize the number of turns required to get from point A to point B. Zombies can bash through doors but the more monstrous creatures, like the infamous Licker, can't, so strategically clearing out windowless rooms can be give you some breathing space.
One monster that can open doors is The Tyrant, and holy shit is this thing a masterclass in horror game enemy design. Tyrant is an eight-foot-tall behemoth dressed like Dick Tracy (complete with a fedora you get a trophy for shooting off) who is completely invulnerable. Bullets ricochet off his trenchcoat, and head shots only make him flinch. Grenades, flashbangs, shotgun blasts to the face--these will knock him down to one knee long enough for you to escape. Taking cues from Alien: Isolation, once Tyrant is unleashed on you in the campaign, he is always around and the game's sound design never lets you forget it. If you're in the same general area as each other, you can hear his heavy footsteps through the floors and ceilings and he can even smash through walls to get to you. Later, the game uses those unmistakable footsteps to announce the reintroduction of Tyrant into the story, and I swear I said "Oh NO!" outloud each time, as he always reappears at the worst moments. In creating the Tyrant, Capcom has accidentally created a blueprint for the greatest Terminator game ever made and someone needs to get on that.
Leon's campaign is sold fun from beginning to end and I'm really looking forward to starting Claire's story tonight. The story structure of RE2 deserves special mention: chopping the story into four (6 if you count the "secret-not-secret" extra characters) chunks encourages replayability for players who only have a few hours a night to play games. It reminds me of the structure of God of War, which used the different realms to chop up its story. I'm really intrigued to see where Leon's actions affected Claire's, and how her actions explain some of the surprises in Leon's story.
January 29, 2018
I put some time into the "2nd Run" of Claire's story last night and it was not what I was expecting.
At first, I thought I had made a mistake and almost went back to pick Claire's "new game" option. The game fast-forwards through the bits of story that overlap, so you get a truncated version of the opening cutscene - anything that you already saw as Leon is all quick-cut edited to give you the gist. I was a little disappointed in this because I really like how the game starts and I assumed that Claire's intro would be different. I now realize that the New Game versions of each story are structurally identical, with a few changes, and the 2nd Run is designed to be played after completing the first playthrough.
I did the thing I was supposed to do, is what I'm saying.
So Claire's 2nd Run is a sort of "behind-the-scenes" of what she was doing while Leon was running around the police station, except it's not really. Some doors that Leon opened are closed, some are still open. Lockers and safes are still closed, enemies are still around. It feels like a ROM hack of RE2 and once I got over the initial strangeness of it, I was able to buy in.
There's a funny side effect of this style of storytelling - since the enemies are tougher and more numerous, and since the player is so much better at playing the game now than they were the first time round, whoever you pick as your 2nd Run character ends up coming across as way more competent than your first pick. In my story, college student Claire just unloads incendiary rounds from a grenade launcher at the first glimpse of the unstoppable Tyrant whereas highly-trained cop Leon ran away like a baby.
The game is also messing around with my expectations. The appearance of the Licker in the original Resident Evil 2 is an iconic video game moment. In the remake, you enter that same hallway, which is still covered in blood, and round that same corner to find… nothing. Only the evidence of the Licker's passing - claw marks, corpses, and gore. In the 2nd Run, not only did they return the Licker to its place on the ceiling, but they even added it scurrying past a window just before you see it in another nod to the original.
Speaking of the Licker, I didn't realize until this playthrough that they're blind and can only detect you with sound. I haven't found a way to fully sneak by them yet, they're too fast, but it would be cool of Capcom had included a (brief) sequence where you have to be stealthy to evade them.
The 2nd Run really picks up when the stories diverge. In Leon's campaign, you face off against the monster G in the bowels of the police station, before joining forces with Ada Wong. Claire meets up with Sherry Birkin, has a run-in with Police Chief Irons, and meets up with Annette Birkin much earlier than Leon. So far, it feels like Claire's story is more connected to what's going on, whereas Leon feels like more of an outsider. The story is happening with Claire, and to Leon, if that makes sense. Just like in Leon’s campaign, you briefly take control of the supporting character: in this case it’s Sherry. Sherry’s sequence is absolutely terrifying as she evades a serial killer through the halls of an orphanage. There are a ton of horror references in this sequence, not the least of which a direct homage to The Shining, and it makes me excited for the recently announced Ghost Stories DLC.
I'll also note that there is some ingrained sexism in this: Leon gets to hang out with a sexy superspy in a red dress, where Claire is stuck looking after a little girl. The writers of 2018 do good work with material that's 20 years behind gender representation, but it's annoying all the same. It's definitely not a deal breaker, it’s actually nice that even pulpy video game narratives have come so far as to make something like this noticeable.
Once I slowed down and stopped playing 2nd Run in a rush to "get to the story" I enjoyed it as much as my first trip through the game. I'm excited to see where things change and where they stay the same, even as I dread taking another trip into the sewers.