Friday, 7 October 2016

October Nightmares II #7: Resident Evil 2 (1998) - It Bit Me

Now this takes me back. Resident Evil 2 was the first ever game I ‘reviewed’, written as part of a school project on what we did during our summer holidays. I must have thought I was the dog’s bollocks back then, a pint-sized Hunter S. Thompson, as I signed off on the piece with “from the desk and heart of [name redacted]”. Once a hack writer…Despite the passing of almost twenty years, my opinion on Resident Evil 2 hasn’t really changed; it’s still my favourite entry in the series. Well, only if we are excluding Resident Evil 4 of course. RE4’s about saving the US President’s daughter from men in campy costumes; how could a self-respecting John Carpenter fan not appreciate that?

With Resident Evil 2 (released on the PS1 two years after the original), developer Capcom demonstrated a surprising level of genre awareness. By design the game achieves what all good horror sequels set out to accomplish: expanding the isolated events of the original story into a setting broader in scope. The first Resident Evil was confined (mostly) to a creaky old mansion in the mountains; which gave it a sort of The Shining vibe. Cut off from civilisation, it was up to the player to navigate the dusty rooms and tight corridors and fend off flesh-munching zombies and mutated wildlife. RE2 raised the stakes completely, with the nightmarish virus spilling onto the streets of Raccoon City, and forever transforming the series into something akin to the apocalyptic vision of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

At the time of Resident Evil 2’s release I was a mere eight years old, and thought the game was the absolute business. Savagely gory, moody, and harder than a blue-balled golem, RE2 upped the ante considerably. The opening cinematic depicting Raccoon City’s rapid descent into chaos is perfectly pitched. Instead of the failed attempt at horror that was the original game’s live-action action intro, RE2’s opening scene is as overblown as possible. Hammy Thriller style zombies, an explosive truck chase scene รก la Terminator 2, and endlessly quotable lines of dialogue: “That guy’s a maniac, why did he bite me?” and “What's up with that guy? That was a clean hit." If this were a movie it’d have Michael Dudikoff in the lead role.

RE2’s opening works because it establishes the game as a more cinematic experience than its predecessor. The first game plays out like an episode of Through the Keyhole, as you slowly attempt to uncover the mysteries of the mansion. During RE2’s first thirty minutes, the player is forced to fight their way through a burning city in chaos. Debris and ruin stretch across the screen for as far as the processor can handle, shambling corpses stalk the living, and the haunting wails of the dead fill the night air: the outside world is a burning battleground that resembles London during Black Friday. The best bit has to be the encounter with the survivalist in the gun store. He makes the cardinal mistake of standing at the window with a big 'eat me, I taste like bacon' sign pinned to his back. And once the man with more guns than Anders Breivik is turned into a fountain of gore, you know there’s no reprieve coming from the horror as you’re pushed further into the nightmare, and are forced to shelter in an embattled police station. You’d think a police force as gun-ho as the American police force would have no problem fighting off a little zombie apocalypse. Perhaps they were preparing for the African zombies in Resident Evil 5.

The original Resident Evil is a tough act to follow, but I actually feel that RE2 has the better set pieces and enemy design. 
I mean did RE1 have a 100ft fucking crocodile? Lead villain/recurring boss William Birkin gets the body horror treatment throughout – morphing into ever more painful looking mutations, one of which has the fucking Eye of Sauron jutting out of his chest. You know when he’s coming because he announces his arrival with a roar that sounds like he’s just caught his nob in his zip. There’s a secondary villain called Mr X, a hulking brute of a monster in a flasher jacket, who continually hunts down the player in a sequence of rather well executed set pieces. Whether breaking through walls or suddenly advancing upon the player who is trapped down a dead end, Mr X has a nasty habit of popping up uninvited like your least favourite relative. The sombre, piano heavy soundtrack, adds to the overall sense of desolation as you wander the battle-scarred halls of the police station knee deep in the dead. It's a lonely experience; the two separate, yet interconnected, campaigns keep the co-leads isolated for much of the game. And the characters you do come across are either untrustworthy or deranged.

If there’s one thing that lets RE2 down, it’s that it sticks so rigidly to the formula of the first game. I’m not talking about the strategic resource management, tank controls, or the constant struggle against overwhelming odds: that’s a part of the rich tradition of survival horror. There’s nothing scarier than seeing the ‘Licker’, the monster with the Gene Simmons tongue, crawl past the window and you know you only have like five pistol bullets. Instead I’m referring to the ludicrous puzzles and backtracking for novelty keys to open specific doors. This police station, with it's mable floors and classical statues, feels too much like a museum. I guess we know where all Raccoon City's budget goes. It simply doesn’t gel with the gritty battle against the undead hordes that the game world attempts to immerse the player into. Maybe it’s fine for a bizarre mansion setting, in an eccentric The Munsters meet H. H. Holmes kind of way, but not for a police station. Just imagine the blood bath that’d be caused when the cops couldn’t get to the doughnuts because Officer Dimble left the fucking Shield Key at home again.