Review: Resident Evil 2 (N64)

The horror continues

Leon Kennedy's having a tough first day at work. As with every new job, there are new people to meet and new challenges to face – namely, zombies and killing said zombies.

Capcom's Resident Evil 2 follows two concurrent storylines: that of Leon, a police officer, and Claire Redfield, who's in town to investigate the disappearance of her brother Chris of Resident Evil fame. It's a good thing that she's got those fighting Redfield genes, too as they'll both be on their own after a zombie-piloted 18-wheeler crashes into their vehicle in the streets of now-infested Raccoon City.

You begin here, surrounded by zombies and cornered against a burning wreck. You're thrown right into the action as either Leon or Claire, and it's a while before things calm down. You're not exactly knee deep in the dead, however – for every incorporeal alley there's a creepy uninhabited lane, and every seemingly safe spot is nevertheless suspect, so you're always on edge. The zombies aren't always standing around waiting for you, either – you might walk in on a group of them in the middle of a fleshy meal, or they might burst through a window to come after you just when you thought you were in the clear. You'll quickly grow attuned to listening for their shuffling steps when you enter a dark alley, but even when you're mostly certain that an area is empty, you'll still doubt yourself and tread carefully. Even gunning foes down is somewhat unpredictable, as you'll learn the first time you shotgun one in two, only for the top half to start crawling across the floor in pursuit.

Two major factors help drive the nightmarish feeling that follows you. The first is the soundtrack, the distant moans and haunting music of which still have the power to disturb. Capcom knew how to implement silence as well: when startled by an especially gruesome monster scuttling past a window in the direction in which you're headed, as you freeze in terror you'll become at once aware that no music is playing; a paralysingly still hush surrounds you, and you'll only have the sound of your footsteps to keep you company as you proceed toward the inevitable horror.

The other main ingredient is one with which some have taken issue, though without it the atmosphere would feel far less threatening: the fixed camera. This ties into the game's notorious use of pre-rendered backgrounds – imagine photographs plastered over every surface of every area. As the system simply reads these as flat images, the designers could make them as detailed as they liked within the limits of image capturing. This has a two-fold effect. A lot more detail is visible than would otherwise be technologically possible, and its high level, quite impressive for the PlayStation original, has been slightly enhanced for the Nintendo 64, even moreso if you're utilising an Expansion Pak. On the other hand, surfaces are completely non-interactive and while you'll still be able to pick up items and examine specific areas, it never gets any more complex than that. There's also the much-maligned downside of the limited view: you're often only able to see a portion of each room at a time, and as you cross into hidden territory the view will switch, like a closed circuit security system. There are a few rare times when you'll get cocky and rush smack into a zombie, but this will only put you on your guard and heighten the tension even more. There's nothing much creepier than hearing a moan and a shuffle and having no choice but to move toward the unseen threat, or listening to a nearby dripping or scuttling sound that you can't yet identify. Indeed, the narrow hallways you'll traverse give the adventure a claustrophobic ambience, and the limited view augments this to quite creepy effect.

Dread is your constant companion in Resident Evil 2, and the designers skillfully combine all of the aforementioned features to give every room and moment its own personality. Who could forget the feeling they experience upon entering the police station for the first time, the synthesised chimes and organs filling the air of the capacious lobby with a sense of looming danger as the ominous angelic statue rises up to greet them? What about the strange, dark back corner decorated by a fireplace and cluttered with unused equipment, a bizarre satanic painting of a hanging nude above? And the towering wall overgrown with infected plant life? Every minute detail adds up to create a tone that stays consistent from location to location while remaining fresh and tensely exciting throughout.

While the graphics definitely show their age today and some of the enemies are resultantly less horrific (though the sinewy Licker is still pretty disturbing), it was quite a feat to fit all of the elements – complete cutscenes included, though sometimes with a slightly less crisp look than in the PlayStation original – on a Nintendo 64 cartridge. All in all, the game maxes out the available space with a bulky 64 megabytes, crammed down from the PlayStation's original two-disc set without any of the load times that made Miyamoto averse to the optical format for so long.

Another way in which the presentation shows its age is in the oft lamentable script and voice acting. Though there's nothing too laughably dreadful in this iteration, the characteristically bad timing, cheesy writing and big, swooping arm gestures can easily take one out of the moment. It never ruins the experience, but it's certainly unfortunate that this area of the game suffers so much as to make its shortcomings so notorious.

The action is split between exploration, fighting creatures – usually with a gun – and puzzle solving. The designs of the latter are by no means Layton-worthy, however, as the mind games are rarely more complex than pushing a box or searching for an appropriately shaped object to fit into a crevice. Your limited inventory will tax you more than this as you'll always have to consider what's important enough to take with you and what you must leave behind in spacious storage chests, each containing what you've placed in the others rather than holding their own unique stashes. There are instances when you'll miss a clue and subsequently run around exploring the area for the overlooked item, but Resident Evil 2 won't trip up the average player too much in this area.

The police station is where you'll spend the majority of the game, but these are no ordinary headquarters. The chief has a soft spot in his heart for decorations that suggest the demonic and occult, and the spooky building itself is quite reminiscent of the original's mansion, complete with a library, a darkroom and a clock tower-esque attic. You'll start on the streets and eventually proceed past the station to further locales, however, and the entirety is pretty vast if not exactly sprawling. Unfortunately, the map system leaves something to be desired as there's no key to remind you where you've been and where to go next or what each colour entails.

That's not to say that the game suffers for replay value. There are two difficulty modes, Easy and Normal, and they're so far apart that each is like its own unique game. In Easy, after you master a few strategies you can get through the quest relatively painlessly, though that's not to say it's a cakewalk; there are still plenty of challenging and moderately difficult areas. When you enter a room of zombies, being the good gamer that you are, you can comfortably finish them all off and rarely have to worry about ammo – at least, that is, once you get used to keeping your eyes peeled for boxes of bullets. When playing as Leon, you start out here with a handgun loaded with 18 bullets, a knife and 120 extra shells. Normal mode, on the other hand, simply furnishes you with the first two items, and it doesn't get any easier from there. Enemies are tougher and more numerous, ammo and health are more difficult to come by, and you're wounded more easily. This changes not only the game's difficulty but the player's mindset. You can only eliminate the most dire threats as one bullet can mean the difference between life and death, and you'll spend more of your time running away than standing your ground and fighting. Evasion is a must, and it makes everything much more tense and scary. Ink ribbons, which are required to save your game, are also fewer, a genius move on Capcom's part – you'll most likely barely notice their limited quantity in Easy mode, but in Normal, each one is precious. This means that you'll accomplish a great many challenging feats between saves, so if you die, you lose even more progress than you otherwise may. Everything becomes more important, the tension mounts, and all the atmospheric features that work so well in Easy come alive and teach you the true meaning of "survival horror."

As mentioned previously, the game tracks two concurrent stories – Leon's and Claire's – and both of these are unique enough to warrant exploring both. You'll meet different characters, use different weapons, solve different puzzles and take different routes, though most of the terrain is the same. Both stories inform each other as well, and you're able to play one after the other, some of the actions in your first run-through affecting the events of your second. But there's more – things change dramatically during your return trip as a brand new enemy, the seemingly indestructible trench coat-clad tyrant, will stalk you throughout your quest and serve as a mini-boss who you'll face multiple times and who will add an all new dimension of terror. There are plenty more scares as well, with more Lickers dropping from more ceilings and zombies appearing in places where before there were none. Altogether, then, that makes for eight unique ways to play. There's also the unlockable 4th Survivor mode, which lets you battle your way through a portion of the setting as Umbrella agent HUNK, and the even more secret Tofu Survivor mode that has you go through a similar experience as a knife-wielding block of the titular food product.

Angel Studios, now known as Rockstar San Diego, included a few unique extras for the N64 port that extend the game's life even further. Though the other versions have some extras not featured here, like the Extreme Battle mode, you can unlock an item randomiser as well as alter the graphics for a slightly more family-friendly zombie slaughter, changing the level and colour of blood splatter. While at the time of the game's release some considered this semi-censorship an outrage, today it makes for just one more way to customise gameplay, albeit slightly. Load times are much reduced thanks to the cartridge format, and this version boasts surround sound support, missing from the PlayStation original.

Throughout the game you'll pick up documents that tell the story of the zombies' origin and the backdrop of the nefarious pharmaceutical corporation Umbrella's greed and corruption. It fleshes out the universe and makes everything feel more real and captivating. Unique to this version is the inclusion of the EX Files, a new batch of these documents that better link the plot with Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and Code Veronica while adding another layer to the tale detailing more minute accounts of the former lives of Raccoon City. By no means Pulitzer-quality writing, it's still quite enjoyable to read the back-story of the gun shop owner or of the shame-filled cop who was too afraid to save his heroic friend. Some will feel compelled to collect every bit of documentation and learn as much of the story as they can, and for them, the inclusion of these 15 scraps make the Nintendo 64 release the definitive version of Resident Evil 2.

One cannot talk about the early Resident Evil titles, however, without mentioning what are popularly known as the tank controls. They are what they sound like – you move like a tank. You can turn while walking straight, but your precision is severely limited, and in order to alter your angle more sharply you must be standing still – which will certainly hamper your experience as you clumsily pivot in place during tense situations, trying to turn and face your attackers. After getting used to this, which actually isn't very difficult at all, one might wonder why everyone makes such a big fuss about the scheme. They'll only have to face a corridor of leaping, bounding zombie Dobermans to find out why as their turning speed will nowhere near match that of their attackers. The Nintendo 64 version of the game alleviates this a bit with the addition of what it calls first-person controls: here, you move your character relative to the camera, with the ability to face any direction without all of that awkward pivoting. This is a huge improvement, but the slow pivoting returns when you aim your weapon – in other words, when you need quick-turning the most. Lock-on aiming controls are also included, but these aren't always precise (not to mention taking away the surprise of finding out whether a zombie is alive or dead by being forced to walk past them – instead, you can just press the auto aim button and see if your gun detects an enemy). On a related note, you thankfully don't have to be the best shot to defeat your foes, so the cumbersome controls shouldn't upset your aim too terribly. There's also no way to reload with the press of a button, instead being forced to wait until your ammo runs out or combining it with your weapon on the inventory screen. All in all, the controls are problematic and sometimes frustrating, but experience will alleviate most of these issues and all in all the much maligned system is nowhere near a deal-breaker.

Conclusion

Dread and looming terror accompany those who explore the haunting, unique, blood- and personality-soaked locales of Resident Evil 2. Its once-stunning graphics show their age a bit and the controls take some getting used to, but beyond its niggling flaws lie a game that will keep you entertained for a very long time, featuring what amount to eight unique ways to play and a storyline that, while paling in comparison to some narrative-heavy games of today, will still draw you in and keep you and captivated from beginning to end.