The ‘Resident Evil 2' Remake Is Gorier, Scarier, and More Fun Than the Original

Capcom's ground-up remake of the 1998 survival-horror game makes the case for reimagining more classic titles.

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Jan 22 2019, 8:14pm

Image: Capcom

Several hours into Capcom’s ground-up Resident Evil 2 remake, I made it to an eerily empty interrogation room in the belly of a zombie-infested police station.

Twenty years ago, as a teenager, I entered this same room in the original Resident Evil 2 and stared at the one-way mirror, having seen enough horror films to know that something was going to crash through it. Something did—a horrifying beast with no skin called a “licker”—and teenage me jumped.

Two decades later, I jumped again.

All these years since Resident Evil 2 was first released in 1998, and I’m still falling for the same jump scares, even when I know they’re coming. That’s the power of Capcom’s remake of Resident Evil 2, which was totally rebuilt using modern tech like the studio’s formidable RE Engine. It’s so good that it makes old scares feel new again. More than new, they’re better than ever before.

Unlike the many “remasters” we've seen in recent years hat simply update the graphics of the original title, the latest Resident Evil 2 is basically a new game, leading many to refer to it as a “reimagining” rather than a remake. It so fundamentally improves on every single aspect of the classic game that it’s both an argument for remaking older titles, and a roadmap for how to do so.

In the original Resident Evil 2, players took control of Claire Redfield and rookie cop Leon Kennedy as they traversed night-shrouded Racoon City. Perhaps limited by the technology of the time, it used fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds to build and sustain dread as the player fought through a rotating catalogue of monsters. The original is hard to look at (and play) today, but its sense of place, alternating perspectives, exploration, and the suspense created by limited ammo and inventory space, and long periods of silence, all hold up.

Often, Resident Evil titles begin as survival-horror games and turn into power fantasies. The mostly excellent Resident Evil 7 starts strong and devolves into a shooting gallery in its final act. Resident Evil 2, in its original and modern incarnations, manages to strike a satisfying balance between fear and power that is lacking in most of the series.

The core of the game, now as it did then, involves slowly exploring detailed levels and progressively unlocking them by solving puzzles. Despite the horror setting, there is a kind of zen to the methodical process of criss-crossing the same environment over and over again to uncover the game’s secrets. Rather than giving the player a machine gun and a ton of ammo to overcome their fear of zombies with, Resident Evil 2 allows the player to empower themselves through memory and repetition.

This rock-solid foundation shines brighter than ever thanks to a modern overhaul

This is how I know this design works: after a long session of zombie-killing, I never found myself fixating on the scares, or the plot. Instead, I was dreaming of keys, doors, and level layouts. I mentally walked myself through the game’s environments thinking carefully about what I might have missed. This rock-solid foundation shines brighter than ever thanks to a modern overhaul.

The clunky controls, pre-rendered backgrounds, and forced camera angles of the original game are gone. Along with fantastic new graphics—Leon’s iconic boy band hair bounces and swishes with realistic flair—the control scheme has been overhauled so that it feels less constricted and more in tune with modern third-person shooters. Practically, this makes for a more fluid, and fun, experience. The original game’s stop-to-shoot controls heightened the fear, but also the frustration.

Freeing the fixed camera angles of the original game is also a big deal. The fixed camera of the original game created iconic moments of terror. Often, you could hear the enemy before you could see them—they lingered just around the corner, at an angle you couldn’t see. The free-swinging, over-the-shoulder camera of the remake, combined with top-notch graphics that make ribbons of wet face muscle pouring out of a bullet wound look somehow beautiful, create dread of a different type—an immersive and intimate fear that feels well-earned. The camera focused my perspective, making me creep through halls with a flashlight, barely able to make out what was making the horrid sounds rumbling through the RCPD.

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The remake also does away with the original’s a punishing save system, which required the player to use a typewriter ribbon in order to save the game. If the player couldn't find a typewriter, or ran out of ribbon, they couldn't save. The standard difficulty now has an auto-save feature, while still allowing the player to save manually. It’s a good balance that avoids the frustration of dying and losing hours of progress. Purists can play in a hard mode that disables autosaves and reintroduces ribbons.

Finally, there’s the zombies, which are not fucking around in Resident Evil 2. Visually, they’re the most unsettling walking corpses in the franchise to date. They’re tall, with dirty, blood-soaked clothes, and move with a lifelike, wobbling shamble. Putting them down is simultaneously a dreaded, white-knuckle task and very satisfying.

The zombies usually take multiple headshots with a pistol to kill, and each impact gorily destroys more of their face. The hit detection is incredible, and disgusting. Zombies often get back up no matter how many bullets to the head they’ve taken, meaning you now have an oozing meat-mask that was once a face lurching towards you.

Older video games were sometimes fundamentally limited by the technology available at the time of their creation

Resident Evil 2’s exploration requires a good deal of backtracking, and you’re never quite sure if a zombie you killed earlier will get back up unless its head exploded—a feat achieved seemingly at random with handguns, but reliably so with more powerful weapons like the shotgun.

It’s a testament to the power of this remake that Capcom is able to keep zombies scary after twenty years of not just Resident Evil games, but an unfathomable amount of zombie-related media from TV to comic books.

Ultimately, what the new Resident Evil 2 shows is that older video games, unlike many classic films, were sometimes fundamentally limited by the technology available at the time of their creation. With the right care and consideration, classic games can take on new life and entertain a new generation of players.

The early era of 3D video games lends itself to this treatment. The Super Nintendo and its legendary lineup of 16-bit games— Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, etc—are often re-released, but never remade. They looked and played perfectly when they came out, and they look and play perfectly today. But many games from Resident Evil 2’s generation were figuring it out as they went along, sometimes with mixed results. Were pre-rendered environments and a fixed camera the best choice, or the only choice? Are tank controls fun, or just the best idea Capcom had at the time?

Games wouldn't be where they are today without these games, warts and all, but I'm also not a purist. I love this version of Resident Evil 2 more than the original, and I would love to see other games from this era get the same treatment. Give us a similarly remade Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Remake the criminally underrated fighting game Bushido Blade. Reimagine the psychological horror of Silent Hill for a new era. Do them all.

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