First off, don't worry about playing the Resident Evil games in order. It's a wildly inconsistent series, and it's not worth enduring the bad games (of which there are many) to get to the good ones. Instead, focus on the gold. If I've put a game in the must play category, you should make it a priority. If it's under maybe play, it's a good game, but not essential. And avoid speaks for itself. If this is your first stab at Capcom's long-running survival horror series, the route I've laid out below will ensure you experience it at its best.
Resident Evil 2 Remake (2019)
This is currently the best possible introduction to Resident Evil for a new player. It features all the elements that have come to define the series: namely tense survival horror, puzzle solving, item management, claustrophobic environments, and groaning, brain-eating zombies. But it presents it all in a supremely playable, modern way. This is one of the nicest feeling Resident Evil games, with snappy, responsive controls and a general air of polish throughout.
Set almost entirely in a grand old police station that used to be an art gallery, it follows two playable characters, Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield, as they fight to survive a zombie outbreak in Raccoon City. It's a slow, methodical survival horror game, with incredible lighting that makes every corridor of the RPD building drip with atmosphere. From the gleaming marble of the entrance hall, to the warrens of messy back offices, flooded and lit by flickering bulbs, this is one of the best realised (and scariest) Resident Evil settings.
Added to that, the puzzles are well designed and satisfying to solve, and the over-the-shoulder combat is superb. Zombies react to your bullets in a wonderfully kinetic, dynamic way, tumbling down stairs, falling into each other, and crawling after you if you shoot their legs off. And then there's the Tyrant (also known as Mr. X), a giant bioweapon in a hat and trenchcoat who hunts you relentlessly, and whose pounding footsteps will have your heart racing.
Read more Our Resident Evil 2 Remake review
Resident Evil HD Remaster (2002)
This remake of the first Resident Evil is the best way to experience the original story. It retains the fixed camera angles and challenging survival horror of the 1996 game, but with vastly improved visuals and smoother controls. Playing as either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, you're trapped in an isolated rural mansion infested with zombies, searching desperately for a way to escape.
The real star is the Spencer Mansion itself, which remains one of the very best Resident Evil settings. This dusty old manor is stuffed with hidden passages, arcane puzzles, and dark secrets. Building a mental map of its maze-like layout as you play, backtracking and steadily unlocking more of it—all while dodging shambling zombies (and worse)—is the quintessential Resident Evil experience.
The PC version is based on a GameCube game from 2002, so the pre-rendered backgrounds aren't as crisp as you might hope for on a 4K monitor. But the quality of the art direction, and the powerfully gloomy atmosphere, make up for its technical shortcomings. This remake also expands on the original, including the addition of the terrifying Crimson Heads: zombies that can only be permanently killed with fire.
Read more Our Resident Evil HD Remaster review
Resident Evil 4 (2005)
When it was first released, this was a bold reinvention of Resident Evil. The game's director (and original series creator) Shinji Mikami dropped the fixed camera angles and languid pace, switching to an over-the-shoulder perspective and heightening the drama and intensity of the combat. The result is arguably the best game in the series, following Resident Evil 2 star Leon S. Kennedy on a mission to rescue the President's daughter from a remote Spanish village.
But Resident Evil 4 is not a total departure from the classic games. There are quieter moments here that recall the originals, plenty of obscure puzzles to wrap your head around, and you still have to be careful with your limited supply of ammo and health-restoring herbs. Similar to the Resident Evil 2 Remake, this is the best of old Resi, but polished to a sheen and given a modern edge.
It's also one of the most perfectly balanced games ever made, leaving you constantly on the edge of your seat. You'll wonder how you're ever gonna get through that swarm of parasite-infected cultists with the handful of bullets you have left. But you always manage it, somehow, thanks in part to a reactive difficulty system that doles out items based on your current performance. Put simply, it's a masterpiece—and the most recent PC version rights the wrongs of Capcom's first godawful port.
Read more Our Resident Evil 4 HD review
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017)
Another series reinvention, this time shifting to a terrifyingly intimate first-person perspective and putting the focus back on atmospheric, slow-burning survival horror. A reboot of sorts, Resident Evil 7 stars Ethan Winters, a man searching for his missing wife in the swamps of the Louisiana bayou. The hunt leads him to a dilapidated ranch, where he encounters the murderous, deranged Baker family.
Some parts of RE7 have more in common with the likes of Outlast and Amnesia than a typical Resi experience; an example of Capcom, the old master, learning from the new wave of horror games. But outside of these moments it's business as usual—and actually reminiscent of the first Resident Evil in a lot of ways. The Baker house is like a smaller, grimier Spencer Mansion, with elaborate puzzles to solve and grim secrets to uncover in its maze of creaky corridors.
There are no zombies—at least not in the traditional sense—but the twisted Baker family are some of the most horrifying enemies in the series' long history: particularly the relentless patriarch, Jack. This hulk of a man shrugs off bullets like mosquito bites and has a nasty habit of smashing through walls with a giant, rusty axe when you least expect it. Easily the scariest Resident Evil.
Read more Our Resident Evil 7: Biohazard review
Resident Evil 2 (1998)
If you want to play a classic Resident Evil game, this is the one. However, the PC port isn't great, so you should emulate the PlayStation version for the best experience. With the first Resident Evil, Capcom was in the process of inventing (or at least establishing) a genre, so it's a little rough around the edges. But the sequel is tight, confident, and polished, following Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield as they search for survivors in the Raccoon City Police Department.
The remake is arguably a better way to experience this story for the first time, but the original has its own charms. The detailed and atmospheric pre-rendered backgrounds are some of the best examples of the '90s PlayStation aesthetic. The set-pieces are memorable, the music is incredible, and both characters' journeys through the station feel nicely distinct, something the remake lacked.
The pixelated visuals and clumsy (by modern standards) tank controls might take some getting used to if you're new to the series, but look past that and you'll find one of the all-time great survival horror games. Resident Evil 2 is superbly paced, the level of challenge is pitch perfect, and the hammy voice acting is so bad it's good. And if you've played the original, the references to it in the remake will hit harder.
Resident Evil 5 (2009)
In this so-so sequel, Chris Redfield and a new character, Sheva Alomar, investigate a bioterrorism threat in the fictional nation of Kijuju, Africa. There are similarities to Resident Evil 4 here, but the increased focus on flashy action over survival horror proved to be a major misstep for the series. The game is designed with two-player co-op in mind, and you'll enjoy it a lot more with a friend. It definitely has its moments, but the dumb story, forgettable set-pieces, and sticky controls are a problem whether you're playing with a buddy or not.
Resident Evil (1996)
The original Resident Evil is still a classic, with some of the best moments in the series. But it's feeling increasingly dated, and the HD remake improves on it in pretty much every respect. If you want to experience a piece of history, and get a feel for what Resident Evil was like in its earliest incarnation, it's an interesting historical artifact. It's remarkable how much of it still exists in the series today. And ultimately, it's still a great survival horror game—if you can overlook the odd rough patch. The PC port is terrible unfortunately, so again, it's better to emulate the original PlayStation version.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (1999)
The weakest of the PlayStation-era Resident Evils, but by no means a bad game. Starring returning hero Jill Valentine, the game is set on the apocalyptic, zombie-infested streets of Raccoon City, which gives it a very different feel from other games in the series. But it's the arrival of the Nemesis, a towering bioweapon bent on killing you and any other survivors of the first game's mansion incident, that really spices things up. You never know when Nemmy (giving him a nickname makes him less scary) will turn up, which really keeps you on your toes. I sound like a broken record at this point, but the PC port is bad (what a surprise), so emulate the superior PlayStation version for best results.
Resident Evil: Revelations (2012/2015)
These two spin-offs have developed something of a cult following among Resident Evil fans. The first game stars Jill Valentine and is set aboard a zombie-infested cruise ship. In the sequel, Claire Redfield teams up with Barry Burton (a familiar face throughout the series) to find his missing daughter. Both games are a return to the survival horror of earlier Resident Evils, but with snappy, almost arcade-like combat, and sections where you have no weapons and have to evade rather than attack enemies. The Revelations series is one of the better Resi spin-offs, but I wouldn't call either of them essential.
Resident Evil 6 (2012)
This is arguably the worst entry in the mainline Resident Evil series. Leon S. Kennedy and Chris Redfield return, joined by Ada Wong and Jake Muller, in a battle against a bioterrorist group called Neo-Umbrella. There are only the faintest traces of survival horror here; it's a big, dumb action game with a truly idiotic story. And everything else aside, just a poor third-person shooter. Don't bother.
Resident Evil Zero (2002)
In this prequel, police medic Rebecca Chambers (a supporting character in the original game) forms an uneasy alliance with an escaped criminal, Billy Coen. You control both characters simultaneously, which is a neat idea in theory. But the ludicrous story, tedious inventory management, and stifling pace make this one to miss. Zero tries to capture the magic of the original, even setting part of the story in a mansion, but it feels like a bad cover version of a popular song.
Resident Evil 3 Remake (2020)
This is a major disappointment after the Resident Evil 2 remake. The Nemesis was marketed as a relentless, dynamic foe who would hunt you down at every turn. But all of his appearances are heavily scripted, and after a first, tense encounter, he's relegated to cutscenes and pedestrian boss battles. Throw in a parade of forgettable, dingy environments, zombie physics that seem to have been massively simplified, and a short length, and there really isn't much here to recommend.
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City (2012)
This is a Resident Evil game in name only. There's no survival horror here; instead, a cheap-feeling tactical squad shooter with questionable AI, bland environment design, and weak combat. You can play with friends or bots, but you really shouldn't bother. The story takes place at the same time as Resident Evil 2 and 3, and you play as a group of elite paramilitary mercenaries hired by the evil Umbrella Corporation to clean up its mess. A neat premise, and a rare chance to play as the bad guys, but sadly wasted on a below-average squad shooter.
Umbrella Corps (2016)
Another combat-focused spin-off, this time an attempt by Capcom to create a competitive multiplayer shooter. Umbrella Corps is a mess of sluggish controls and bland cover-based combat, and has a chronic lack of personality. Bad level design, poorly balanced multiplayer, and singleplayer missions that feel like an afterthought sealed its fate, and not long after launch, finding a match was harder than the game itself. The story is about competing organisations fighting over the remains of the recently collapsed Umbrella Corporation, which again feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. Oh well.
Good, but not on PC
Resident Evil - Code: Veronica (2001)
I'm not sure why this hasn't been released on PC yet. Originally a Dreamcast exclusive, an HD remaster has since appeared on a number of consoles including Xbox 360. Starring Claire and Chris Redfield, the game is set on a remote prison island that is, unsurprisingly, crawling with zombies. It's a Resident Evil game in the classic mould, but one of the first games in the series to use fully 3D, rather than pre-rendered, environments. Code: Veronica is one of the most atmospheric Resi games, although it does feel a bit clunky to play by modern standards. If you want to play this on a PC, you're gonna have to emulate one of the various versions out there. GameCube is your best bet.
Resident Evil Outbreak (2003/2004)
These two experimental spin-offs were only ever released for PlayStation 2, so you'll need an emulator to play them. But if you're a Resident Evil fan, they're worth seeking out. Set in Raccoon City during the outbreak, you get to choose from a number of distinctive characters including a cop, a mechanic, a surgeon, and a journalist. And the character you choose determines the difficulty of the game and where items are placed, which makes each playthrough feel quite different. Both games were designed to be played online in co-op, so it's not quite as good solo, but there are some great moments here; particularly the zoo in the second game, where you run into a massive zombified elephant.