“Resident Evil 2” is a top-to-bottom remake of Capcom’s 1998 survival horror game. (I played the current version on an Xbox One X hooked up to a Samsung 4K QLED TV. Even though on consoles it doesn’t natively render in 4K, it’s still one of the better-looking titles on the market.) At the start, one has the choice of playing as either Leon Kennedy or Claire Redfield. Both have the unfortunate luck of turning up in the fictional Raccoon City as the Midwestern locale is collapsing under the weight of a zombie outbreak. Rather than turn tail and skedaddle, Leon remains intent on working as a cop while Claire is determined to find her missing brother who also worked on the regional police force. Both of their campaigns are broadly similar in terms of the environments that they must inch their way through, offering small amounts of variance in terms of the characters one meets and some of the weapons and items at one’s disposal.
“Resident Evil 2’s” plotline, characters and dialogue are utterly disposable. Though I formed no attachment to Leon whatsoever and couldn’t have cared less about the generic backstory surrounding the development of the G-virus that led to the zombie outbreak, I was still taken with the game’s mechanics and level design, qualities that make it a powerful stress generator. If one were to judge a horror title solely on its ability to suspend its audience in a state of dreadful tension, “Resident Evil 2” would be quite accomplished.
Apart from shooting or running away from zombies, one spends at least an equal portion of time solving environmental puzzles by traveling back and forth between rooms collecting things to unlock new places or item caches. For example, to open a locker door in the police station in which Leon (or Claire) is trapped might require taking note of a message on a whiteboard in another part of the building. The brilliance of “Resident Evil’s 2’s” overall design is that it asks players to remain detail oriented while piling on anxiety-inducing situations. It’s notable how the amount of ammunition and health resources lying around is balanced with the number of enemies, making it just possible to get through any scenario without ever feeling comfortable. There is a special kind of panic that arises when you run out of ammo and have to tiptoe or run to try to find more.
Because I always felt like I was pushing against constraints, every box of ammo, health item, or key that I found was particularly valued. But, again, that’s in contrast to the characters and plotline of the game. As someone who has only played one R.E. game before, I was surprised at how invested I became in exploring this ornate puzzle box. “Resident Evil 2” is a perfect example of how game design can overshadow any need to connect to a story.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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