header is screenshot from Resident Evil 2
Mastering the Imperfect Arsenal
Joshua Calixto

By default, every shooter holds a similar outlook on weapon design: new guns are introduced for the sake of variety and practicality above all else. When it becomes too boring to use a full-auto pistol, Borderlands gives you a crate of modular shotguns. When enemies are too far away to kill with the assault rifle, Halo gives you a sniper. In most games, every gun is treated as a puzzle piece toward an idealized firearm palette where the guns a) feel good to shoot, and b) contribute to an arsenal that can handle every type of enemy the game throws at you.

Resident Evil 2, like its influential predecessor, is well-versed in the tenets of shooter design and uses that knowledge to subvert traditional mechanics. The innovations of the first game were largely based on resource scarcity, and made each character feel different by giving them varied inventory sizes and survivability. Tension was simple to achieve with this limitation—just give players a low amount of ammunition or healing items relative to the number of enemies they encounter.

Resident Evil 2 builds on that idea to a greater degree, using its myriad weapons to turn scarcity from a simple formula into a complex tapestry. Leon and Claire both have access to completely unique weapon loadouts, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. As befits the survival horror genre, it’s the weaknesses that tell us the most. Resident Evil 2 knows its horrors, and it knows what tools work best for defeating them. But instead of aligning weapon use cases with the type of monsters it introduces, the game intentionally throws each one out of balance—creating a utility gap on top of its resource gap. Where the pistol has traditionally served as a weak but ammo-efficient tool for removing low-level threats, it’s hardly even a distraction in the remake, where an entire clip of headshots does little or nothing to slow down zombies. The pistol is still “useful” by virtue of the fact that it’s a gun, but there’s something deeply unsettling about a weapon that’s not even efficient when you’re good with it. That disconnect contributes to the game’s pervasive sense of unease. In Resident Evil 2, no matter how powerful your weapons are or how much ammo you’re carrying, you rarely feel like you’re equipped to deal with any given threat.

Of course, there are moments where even this baseline is subverted. When you face the venus flytrap-looking monster called Ivy, you pull out Leon’s flamethrower as a reflex and light it up. Surprisingly enough, it works, and the monster collapses to the floor, writhing in its death throes as it continues to roast. In the moment, you feel empowered: something in this game has reacted the way you expected it to, and you feel for a moment that you’ve crested the game’s difficulty curve. This, of course, is a tease. When you replay the game as Claire Redfield, the only flame-based weapon at your disposal is a grenade launcher that holds just a single round at a time, and by that point in the game, you’ve already wasted most of your fire ammo. Instead, you’re forced to deal with Ivy the hard way: by shooting each tiny bulbous weak point on its body one by one.

Even though the map stays largely unchanged across playthroughs, by the time you’ve reached the end of the game with each character, it feels as if you’ve played two very different games. While some of this effect is achieved through clever re-routing and the introduction of a couple new areas, the bulk of it comes from the game’s shifting armaments, which reframe the action and re-center the fear depending on what tools you have access to. It’s economical design, to be sure, but it also showcases Resident Evil 2 as the rare game that creates tension through weaponry and enemy design. This is not a power fantasy, it’s a power struggle between the dynamics of fear, uncertainty, and character agency in a world where everything is capable of murdering you.

More than two decades after the release of the original Resident Evil 2, this is no longer a unique trait. Dark Souls successfully translated the horror of weapon-enemy disparity to a melee format, even though its RPG elements allowed players more weapon and customization options than RE2 ever would. Still, RE2 continues to stand out for the way its weapon design bolsters its character work.

When playing as the brawny rookie cop Leon Kennedy, you’re forced into a more spray-and-pray style. Compared to Claire, you’re given access to more ammo, and you’ve got more all-purpose weapons at your disposal, but your best weapons don’t deal as much raw damage as Claire’s do. The experience fits Leon’s character: although he lacks experience, he’s got some training as a cop and has access to a bigger trove of (mostly) police-approved weapons.

Claire’s arsenal, on the other hand, is jury-rigged from the start. Her default pistol, the SLS60 handgun, feels like a twenty-year-old peashooter someone left in the attic “just in case,” but then, surprisingly, the second weapon you get is a grenade launcher that can kill some of the game’s most horrifying enemies in just two hits. Another of her weapons, a taser on steroids called the Spark Shot, can hit for massive damage—provided you’re able to stand in one place for a few seconds while charging it to full effect. The experience of playing as Claire derives tension from player imperfection rather than weapon weakness. If you’re accurate with every shot, you’re made to feel much more powerful. If you’re an average player (and most of us will be), you’ll find yourself in far more danger than you’ll ever see in a Leon playthrough.

It’s not exactly characterization, which is better accomplished through the game’s solid animation and dialogue, but it all adds to the experience of playing as a distinct character in a virtual world. And maybe that’s why a Resident Evil 2 remake feels so vital all these years later: in a genre where you’re usually given a character and told what their guns can do, RE2 forces us to deal with what our characters can’t do—a limitation that enriches its world and characters in a way that few have managed to replicate since.

Joshua Calixto writes about technology and culture. Find him on Twitter @hitherejosh.