Monday, March 3, 2014

Resident Evil 2

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Released on October 31, 1999, through a collaboration of Capcom Production Studio 3, Angel Studios (now Rockstar San Diego), and Factor Five, Resident Evil 2 is an enhanced port of the Sony Playstation's 1998 zombie-splattering survival horror classic of the same name.
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The Personal Story:
As a Nintendo diehard in the 1990's, I missed out on a lot of great Playstation games. While my Nintendo 64 kept me satisfied, hearing friends talk about Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and Castlevania got old quickly. Didn't they know those games originated on a Nintendo system? Comfort could be found in the Nintendo 64's own great library, and in calling the Playstation by derogatory names no longer publicly acceptable in the 21st Century. However, not playing those games stung. Resident Evil was one of the most frustrating absences. Capcom had made great games for the previous Nintendo systems. Why couldn't they make a Resident Evil game for the Nintendo 64? Why couldn't any of these great games be brought to the Nintendo 64? The 64 was twice as powerful as the Playstation! In response to complaints like mine, developers pointed to the Nintendo 64's oft-cited weakness--the cartridges were too small to fit all the speech and video data of a Playstation disc. This excuse would be acceptable, but for one thing--standout development houses like Factor Five seemed to have little trouble getting loads of speech into a Nintendo 64 game. Factor Five's 1998 release, Rogue Squadron, featured just as much speech as any Playstation game. Could a Resident Evil game be ported? In a brilliant move, Factor Five is just where Capcom turned to answer that question. Allowing Factor Five to unleash their incredible sound compression technology, and teaming with Angel Studios, Capcom released a Resident Evil 2 port which featured just as much speech and even better sound than its Playstation counterpart, and, defying the impossible --full motion video. Resident Evil 2 was mine.  

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Graphics: The Sony Playstation was a system not known for groundbreaking graphics. While it headlined some great games featuring excellent gameplay, involving storylines, and CD-quality music, its games were very rarely pretty. Resident Evil 2 ingeniously used pre-rendered backgrounds (essentially pre-drawn, non real-time objects) to give every room, street, and building a far more attractive look than the Playstation could ever achieve polygonally. For the Nintendo 64 version, these pre-rendered backgrounds are given a high-resolution upgrade and look better than ever. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time employed pre-rendered backgrounds sparingly on the Nintendo 64 a year before (mainly in the village around Hyrule Castle), but compared to the ones found here in Resident Evil 2, those are blurry and ill-defined. Most of Resident Evil 2's areas are beautiful to see. There are a few small rooms with messier, or murkier backgrounds, but those are few and far between. Resident Evil 2's Nintendo 64 incarnation also features a higher polygon count for the characters and enemies (which all occur in real-time). The character faces look particularly good compared to the work found in many of the game's Nintendo 64 peers. Resident Evil 2's only real graphical weaknesses are less-than real looking water and splash-effects, and the fact that the environments are mostly non-interactive. In a nice touch, bullet casings will bounce off a nearby wall when a gun is fired, but bullets will go straight through. 
Disproving essentially every development house that did not create it, Resident Evil 2 is the only Nintendo 64 game to feature Full Motion Videos. These are cinematic cut-scenes not based upon, and generally of a far higher quality than those produced by a games' in-game graphical engine. While Resident Evil 2's FMV's are grainier than their Playstation counterparts because of the necessary compression, they do a great job of telling the game's story. Nintendo 64 gamers will feel no less suspense during the game's ending cutscene than someone playing Resident Evil 2 on a Playstation. More Playstation games  should have been ported like this. The higher quality in-game graphics the Nintendo 64 could achieve far outweigh the downside of the grainier FMV's the system was apparently quite capable of handling. The fact that no other developer had the courage or skill to attempt to do this is disappointing.

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Sound: Resident Evil 2's score has been designed to unnerve, and it does a wonderful job. The music out on the burning streets is desperate and apocalyptic. The various music heard throughout the Raccoon City Police Station, mainly piano and synthesizer, is evocative of mid-90's police procedurals, but with dark, mysterious, unsettling twists. Most importantly, the few islands of calm in the storm of the game are backed by a reassuring, relaxing theme that makes reaching them all the sweeter. Resident Evil 2's zombie moans, gunshots, monster roars, footsteps, and cries of anguish are all excellently done. Areas like an outdoor stairwell, which features no enemies, but reverberates the distant cries of some malformed beast, will have players aching to get back inside. The game's sound was given an overhaul by several Factor Five developers during the game's conversion to the Nintendo 64, which, ironically, resulted in overall higher quality sound than the version on the system that should have held a comparative advantage (the Playstation). Again, the FMV quality is the only area the Playstation's audio has the N64"s beat. Because of the size compression, the Nintendo 64's FMV's sound tinny and canned. Still, the speech is clear, and the FMV's get the job done. Other developer's could have attempted this, as well. Millions of Nintendo 64 owners would have gladly shelled out $10 extra for a double-cartridge port of Final Fantasy VII. Medal Gear Solid could have been ported on one cartridge just like Resident Evil 2. The grainier FMV's would not have detracted from the overall gaming experience, and the higher quality in-game graphics would have only enhanced it. This developer negligence is a tragedy in video game history, and has altered the trajectory of Nintendo's success for decades. 

Moving on, Resident Evil 2's sound has one major negative across the board--the voice acting. In the mid-90's, hiring voice-acting professionals for video games was not yet industry standard practice. Resident Evil 2's line-readings (sometimes due to the low-quality of the dialogue itself) can be a bit silly at times. This does follow horror-film tradition, but later games in the Resident Evil series thankfully eradicated this downside. As previously mentioned, Resident Evil 2 features a large amount of speech, and the Nintendo 64 omits none--cheesy or not, it's nice to have.

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Gameplay: Resident Evil 2 has one major purpose: to scare the player. This goal is achieved time and time again. From a shocking, window-breaking invasion right near the beginning, to a hallway of crows more terrifying than any zombie, to a lab featuring a rogues gallery of the grotesque, to a stalking, elephantine monster who can break through the wall at any second, Resident Evil 2 will keep the player on their toes. The game is split well between third-person running and shooting, and puzzle-solving. While the puzzles can be a bit silly, or rely on monotonous crate-pushing at times, they break up the action nicely, and only add to Resident Evil 2's aura of dread. When the player character is using both hands to place a medallion into a slot, no hands are available to shoot the zombie or acid-spitting spider that might be lumbering around the corner. Resident Evil 2 is also full of detail. Documents and files containing plot points are strewn throughout the game. If the player isn't interested, they can be ignored, but if one pays attention, the narrative is filled in clearly. Inspired by the film Back to the Future II, Capcom added a second playable character, whose scenario can be played through right after the first is completed. The second scenario takes place parallel to the time the first did--if certain weapons are collected by the first character, they are unavailable to the second. Different areas are also open to the second character, and as the two are in different places at different times, different characters are encountered, and different areas of the narrative are shaded. 
For instance, if the player selects Leon first, they will discover hints that the city's police chief is a sadistic, occult-interested sociopath. When the player subsequently plays through as Claire, they will actually meet the chief, and learn more about his true nature. This element of the game is highly satisfying. 
As far as controls go, Resident Evil 2's are a bit unusual at first, but soon become second nature. The player can run up and down the game's corridors(as pre-rendered backgrounds were used, the actual areas are not fully-explorable 3-D) using the control stick, but must stop to shoot. This can be a bit frustrating, though it does add to the game's suspense and difficulty. Most of the game's flaws are minor. For example, in keeping with the survivor horror theme, the player can, realistically, only carry a limited number of weapons and items. However, quite unrealistically, the player can only put items down and exchange them in interconnected boxes scattered throughout the game. If the player is at full inventory capacity, then finds the key to an unlocked door a distance away, they must search for a box to put something away in, then go all the way back to wherever the key is to finally pick it up. The ability to drop items at will would be nice. The developers apparently agreed, as several future installments of the series allowed the player to do just this, and got rid of item boxes altogether, as well. 
Another minor annoyance is Resident Evil 2's save option. The player must not only find a typewriter on which to save, but a ribbon for that typewriter, as well. If the player is near death, just fought through throngs of enemies, and comes across a typewriter with no ribbon in their inventory, that player cannot save. Thankfully, this is also an element dropped from future installments in the series.    

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Lasting Value: Few games show as much respect for the buyer as Resident Evil 2. If the player plays through the first scenario (this generally takes around ten hours on first attempt), they receive half of the ending. Playing through the second scenario (this will take around six) gives the full ending. The player also has the option to play through on "Normal Mode," which is quite a bit more difficult than the original "easy" mode, and amps up the "survival" element of the game. In this mode, which is available from the start, the player must truly conserve their items, as health and weapons are less plentiful, and enemies stronger. If one can complete both scenarios in "Normal Mode" with a fast enough time, and a minimum of saves and items used, they can unlock an entirely new character and mission, this time experiencing the game from the villain's point-of-view. If the player is truly dedicated, they can unlock a fourth character, which turns out to be a pretty rewarding joke. Resident Evil 2 also features unlockable uniforms for each character, and secrets galore. Turning over every corner of this game takes many a minute, but is well worth the time and effort.

Great looking, pre-rendered environments, and well-animated, high polygon characters. Pre-determined camera angles are horror-movie perfection. FMV's!

Music and Sound
Zombie noises and sound effects are terrifying, and the music enhances the dread. Better on N64. Full speech, throughout, but some goofy voice-acting.

Terrifyingly well-done survival horror with some great action. Some of the puzzles are a little silly, but the game never fails to scare, and scares often.

Lasting Value
Vastly extended by alternate scenarios, a second character mission to play through, and unlockable characters and missions. No multiplayer, though.  


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