Staying safe(ish) in Raccoon City

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Resident Evil 2‘s long-awaited remake is due out soon, the brief demo and tantalising tweets giving every indication that the team behind it are (praise the sun) attempting to do a true-to-the-original reimagining of the Raccoon City incident rather than lazily shoving Leon and Claire shapes into a quick respray of Resident Evil 6, 7, or even a Revelations style environment. As far as anyone can tell this is going to be survival horror in the 1998 sense of the term, and this is bound to feel a little jarring if you’ve become accustomed over the past twenty (!!) years to kick-flipping off a zombie’s shoulders or mauling the undead with a wide range of crossbows, katanas, Molotov cocktails, mine throwers, and chainsaws at your disposal.

So the purpose of this overly-long ramble is to try and help get everyone in the right frame of mind for this exciting new-old release, and I thought the best way to do that would be to go through some of classic Resident Evil 2’s peculiarities that appear to have survived the transition and attempt to explain how they are directly contributing to the overall survival horror experience rather than being ancient hangovers from a time when we didn’t know any better.

But before we dive into all that it’s very important to take a moment to note that this is not about “correcting” anyone’s opinion of the game, insisting people play it “properly”, nor a call to (sorry) “git gud”. If you’re enjoying yourself then however you spend your time in Resident Evil 2 is absolutely fine by me (and also none of my damned business).  But approaching the game – or indeed any game – in the wrong mindset or with mismatched expectations can make for a frustrating experience and leave a bad impression, and I’d hate for someone to go back to Raccoon City and not have a good time!

So we’ll start with the most straightforward, all-encompassing, and important thing to remember: Resident Evil 2 is an adventure game with zombies in it, it is not a game about laying waste to every bioweapon that squelches into your line of sight. With this in mind it’s important to approach each area as one part of a larger mystery and make sure you investigate any points of interest: If there’s anything there worthy of your attention then Leon or Claire will make a short and to the point observation about it, and if there’s something to pick up it’ll have that eye-catching “twinkle” effect to it. Scattered notes, maps, and diary entries often contain vital clues, codes, and delicious lore, so do take the time to read any you come across and make a mental note of anything that seems to be important: “The safe has been moved to…”, “The login code is now…” and so on. You won’t need to recall these facts and figures off-hand but being generally aware of a weird moveable statue’s existence or that there’s an odd chess-themed lock somewhere in the building is only going to be helpful in the long run.

In keeping with the notion of zombie-killing being somewhere down the bottom of your “Things to do in Raccoon City” list, running away is almost always a better option when you do come across the undead than filling them full of bullet holes – you’re not Umbrella’s clean-up crew after all (and there’s another game if you do fancy that).

The game does two major things to discourage any gun-happy behaviour:

The first is probably the most obvious: It takes about five handgun shots to permanently kill even the most basic run-of-the-mill zombie, ammo comes fifteen bullets at a time, and zombies tend to come in groups of three to five – it doesn’t take a great mathematician to realise that even the sharpest shooter can’t kill them all. But these monsters almost always fall to the ground or at least stagger after just two shots (or in the new Resident Evil 2 remake demo, one good headshot), giving you plenty of time to rush past them to safety.

The second is the opening A-game scramble through the city streets, hordes of the recently-deceased trying to nibble at your ankles as you go. This short segment is essentially a tutorial area, showing off a variety of typical zombie grouping patterns and how to best deal with them. So you’ve got a few wide open areas where they’re spaced far enough apart for you to run out of their grasp (and also give you the room to see just how slow they are in comparison to yourself), very tight areas where you must either barge through – did you notice how your character’s pushback from a grab attack causes the zombies to fall into each other/fall down long enough to run past? – or shoot at them safely from a distance, a distracted group that will leave you alone if you’re quick and don’t bother them, and a brief lesson on aiming/height differences thanks to the crawling zombie on the bus.

To complete the set the final area just outside the front door of the RPD building does its best to really drive home the game’s undead-avoidance policy: Do you take the relatively narrow route straight ahead with two zombies roaming around, or do you go through an extremely minor detour that’s entirely zombie free (unless you’re looking for Brad)?

These early practical lessons are all trying to reinforce the idea that you will always do better if you take a moment to consider what you really need to achieve in an area instead of completely clearing out a room with one easily-reached item in it just because you happen to have a gun.

Or as the original Resident Evil says:

Be smart!

But you mustn’t end up so concerned with avoiding monsters that you become afraid to shoot even if you think it’s going to make life easier for you! Shooting enemies isn’t a failure of your dodging skills but it should be considered as just one of the options in your survival toolkit rather than the first and best response when you encounter an enemy.

And on that note: One of early Resident Evil’s greatest tricks is fooling you into thinking ammo’s more scarce than it really is, and that it’s been thoughtlessly strewn around at random. To go back to the opening areas mentioned above: Consider the tiny no-escape bus segment – it’s no accident there’s a box of handgun bullets right next to you when you walk through the doors, ensuring you have enough ammo to get through unscathed even if you deliberately fired every shot beforehand into a wall and limped your danger-condition self all the way there. Same with the bullets miraculously found in the back of Kendo’s van as the three zombies from the basketball court amble down a tight alleyway towards you with no way around them – the game doesn’t want you to feel safe, but it isn’t trying to deliberately deny you the tools you need to survive either.

And that is why the A-game alone is stuffed with almost four hundred handgun bullets, around a hundred shotgun shells, more than forty magnum shots (Leon), over a hundred grenade rounds (Claire), and over two dozen green herbs and eight first aid sprays to deal with around ninety zombies, thirteen Lickers, and a small assortment crows, dead dogs, evil plants, and yes, the occasional boss. Of those hundred and twenty-ish zombies and Lickers scattered throughout the game you have to kill… none of them. Not one. If we’re being cautious it’s a good idea to put down (temporarily or permanently) about… thirty, forty, maybe? Things will get tight, there will be moments when you’re not sure if you can make it through, but honestly there really is enough of everything to go around.

So with all this extra junk clogging up the corridors in and around Umbrella’s city why do they force you to fit every damned thing you want to carry, from the smallest of small keys to a flippin’ grenade launcher in just eight inventory slots? Why not put important items in a special bottomless pocket? Or keep the keys on a keyring like normal people do?  The item system, like the love-it-or-loathe-it ink ribbon/save system (returning in the remake’s hard mode), forces you to make tough choices and then live with them. You can’t simply load up on weapons and blast everything into oblivion, not without severely limiting your ability to pick up puzzle-solving items and make real progress (and as we’ve already covered, shooting everything in sight is not something you need to do anyway). So you’re faced with a constant stream of personal micro-decisions that could help or hinder: Do you pick up the shotgun shells now or save the space for something else that could be more important? Should you take that cog even though you don’t know what it’s for yet? Or play it safe and fill up on healing herbs but then find yourself either eating herbs to free up some slots or making a dangerous journey back to the nearest save room because you found a key you don’t have the space to pick up? Whatever happens it’s your decisions that have created the situation you’re in and you’re going to have to find a way to deal with the consequences.

And your survival really is all down to you because the puzzles, area progression, and even the location of your treat-this-place-as-a-safe-hub save rooms have been designed with these limitations in mind. There’s an early puzzle in the RPD that requires you to place two gems in either side of a statue to open it and gain one of the crucial chess plug items needed to escape into the sewers. Right next to (literally right next to) this puzzle is the diamond key, another essential item. So although it may not be immediately obvious you’re actually making a like-for-like exchange here; two items must be picked up to progress, but two items must be used up too. This is guaranteeing without you even realising it that you’re creating the space you need for other essential items. This thread runs through the entire game: The final train escape sequence in the “B” scenario forces you to pick up both the Joint S and Joint N plugs as individual items even though they come as a pair, must be used as a pair, and are in your inventory for perhaps a minute at the most. Why do this? Why not bundle them into a single unit? The answer’s revealed not long after: In the final battle against the mutated Tyrant you are thrown a rocket launcher, and this requires two free slots to pick up. Without saying a word the designers have made it impossible for you to enter the final battle without the free spaces you need to finish it off.

Other item-related restrictions are more user-friendly than they first appear too: You can’t throw anything away apart from keys that have no further use – and they genuinely do have no further use if the game’s asking if you want to discard them, and you can’t put something down anywhere other than in an item box, which means you will always have access to everything you have found so far so long as you can reach a save room. As Resident Evil 0 (and much earlier, Sweet Home) has proven, having the freedom to dump whatever, wherever, also means you have the freedom to tediously backtrack to places you’ve already been to pick up something you were sure you were done with but actually still need. Oh joy. Resident Evil 2 isn’t trying to lumber you with unnecessary bloat, “tricking” you at every turn to fill your precious inventory space with things you don’t or won’t need for a while; and likewise there are no red herrings to lead you in pointless circles for hours. Everything has a use, and it has a use in the general “level” (RPD, sewers, lab, etc) you find it in. On the other hand it is also worth remembering that you are under no obligation to unlock every drawer or open every locker either – if you have the ability to leave the area you’re in then you have everything you need to continue towards the ending, no catch.

All that exploration would waste a lot of time anyway – time you might not have if you’re worrying about beating the clock and showing off a screenshot of a nerdily-acceptable clear screen.

The existence of speedruns and time-based rewards for Resident Evil games doesn’t mean you have scream through these classic survival horror titles at the speed of light, not if you don’t want to. Speedrunning is far from the One True Way to play the game; it’s merely something those of us with an unhealthy passion for tank controls and reloading via menus because it’s slightly quicker (Hi, Resident Evil 5‘s Mercenaries mode – I love you!) than watching the animation do to pass the time. See it more as… as fighting giant wyverns naked in Monster Hunter or defeating Metal Gear Rising‘s Senator Armstrong without taking a single hit – if that’s the challenge you’re looking for then go for it! But if that’s not your cup of tea then just see it as a sort of seal of quality, as proof that the game has been so exquisitely crafted that if you take the time to break it down into minute detail you can see how every enemy placement and item location has been laid out with the sort of thought and care that creates a clear “flow” through the maze of burning labs and overrun streets.

I want to wrap this up by repeating something I said at the beginning: If you’re having fun, then you’re doing fine. Take your time. Soak up the atmosphere. Have Leon point his gun at a suspicious shadow for five minutes while you catch your breath. But if it’s a struggle to get on the game’s wavelength then I hope the above helps and if not, no problem! Resident Evil’s a diverse series at this point, there’s bound to be another game out there for you to fall in love with. Oh and if you need help with the original, or just want to have a good old rummage around the series, I recommend spending some time over here.

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4 thoughts on “Staying safe(ish) in Raccoon City

  1. Even as someone who has never played the original game, I’m looking forward to seeing how this game gets received. From what I heard, the original RE2 managed to improve on its predecessor in a number of ways, though I’m not sure what the general consensus is when it comes to whether or not it’s better.

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  2. Honestly the “You absolutely don’t have to kill everything you see” is the biggest re-arrangement I as someone who grew up with RPGs (need that EXP and loot!) has to do whenever I go to certain other genres, especially survival Horror games. Of course then there’s the problem of deciding when using an item is almost necessary or at least making you life a lot easier, as someone with a packrat-mentality that finishes RPGs with 99 healing and res items and still doesn’t use them on the final boss 😀

    I’m looking forward to how much I’ll like RE2, since I tend to prefer the more “intimate” horror game approach that have smaller worlds and less enemies.

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