I’m not one to turn up my nose at zombie games just because there are so many of them. I know some people like to say that there are too many zombie games, but sit me down with a Dead Rising or a State of Decay and I’ll be happy. Still, I can see why people say the genre’s getting stale, when every zombie game has basically become a mass murder simulator. Individual zombies have become less intimidating and more just cannon fodder. It’s the same difference between the original Night of the Living Dead and World War Z.
One thing that Capcom did with the recent Resident Evil 2 remake is remember just what makes zombies a formidable foe in the first place.
This isn’t really a new lesson for the series. The original games knew that even one zombie could serve as a significant obstacle for the player. But where the first three Resident Evil titles made them scary by disorienting players with their cameras, the Resident Evil 2 remake actually makes the zombies themselves significantly more deadly.
There are a few things in the zombie designs that really stand out. Their animations, for one thing, are genuinely terrifying. Whether they’re slowly stumbling towards you or dragging themselves across the floor, there’s something genuinely creepy in how the zombies move. Some of them jerk their heads around, while others stoically, steadily approach you like undead Buckingham Palace guards. Resident Evil 2’s facial animations are fantastic for both the living and the dead, but the amount of detail packed into a zombie’s face, and the way that it’s tortured screams really look like they’re coming from a human mouth, is never not unsettling.
Then there’s the speed. Zombies can sneak up on you. They never run, but their ambling gaits are surprisingly fast, and before you know it, you’re out of time. I think their speed falls somewhere between Leon and Claire’s walking and running speeds, and it’s that uncomfortable middle ground that makes their movement unexpected. The player is used to two different speeds, and the zombies don’t fall into either category. It’s a subtle effect that really helps to make them seem dangerous.
Of course, their attacks make them terrifying, too. RE2’s have a surprising range for where they can grab you. You’ll think you’ve just snuck past one when it grabs you from behind and takes a bite out of your shoulder. In most horror games, when I’m finally caught and attacked for the first time, I find it somewhat relieving. It’s like yanking out a loose tooth when you’re a kid: You dread it until it actually happens, and then it’s not so bad. That’s definitely not the case with RE2’s zeds. Not only do their attacks take one-fourth of your life away, but having to watch helplessly as they chow down on your favorite character always manages to be a disturbing experience.
All of these attributes mean that even just one zombie can become a real issue. Seeing one at the end of a long corridor can actually make you second guess your current path—until you turn around and see two the other way. As much as Tyrant’s incessant stalking or G’s Cronenbergian form might steal the show, it’s the zombies that make Resident Evil 2 a truly standout modern horror experience.