A little over twenty years ago Capcom hooked a generation with a new genre of game, designed to do something so few had achieved before - scare. Survival horror established itself with static images and blocky characters combined with cutting edge CGI intended to provoke fear of the unknown and primal horror at what humanity could become and do to itself. The pinnacle for many gamers, myself included, was 1998's Resident Evil 2, an ambitious split narrative with better graphics and voice acting than it's predecessor as it's immediate draws. It set standards for the series that were adhered to right up until Resident Evil 7 rebooted the increasingly arcade style combat and highlighted the "horror" aspect of survival horror again. With time passing, a fresh generation of gamers to hook and technology so much more advanced than that of 1998, Capcom have decided it's time to remind audiences where so many of Resident Evil's best ideas come from with a remake of Resident Evil 2. And damn did they deliver.
From the moment you press start and begin either of the two similar but disparate scenarios, you'll be struck with a graphical showcase that simply doesn't stop. Everything from texture detail to animation and right through to particle effects, depth of field and especially shadows are stunningly rendered. The smooth edges of character models project perfect, soft shadows on surfaces that distort and shift naturally as you pass by, your handheld torch only illuminating just enough to light the way forward without betraying lurking enemies. The wet, fleshy mess that so often covers the corridors of the RPD looks slick enough to slip on while fires blaze and flicker enough to convince and leap over any fiery uncanny valley.
Racoon City's police department, sewers and facilities beneath it all are at once familiar to those who played the original game and equally and impressively unfamiliar and jarring in turn. Hazy memories of which rooms connect and how to access them will punish returning players as much as they reward them, while those unfamiliar will suffer the labyrinthine corridors blindly. It's an interesting aspect of the design that must have been strongly considered to have satisfied me so much, but the feeling that I knew what was coming only to be pleasantly surprised by a fresh twist on a location or event ran throughout the entire game.
On the highest graphics settings on PC, at 4k, Resident Evil 2 demands a powerful system indeed but the return is a graphical showcase to rival the best out there, with small details on textures showing just that little more clearly and the depth of shadows coming through just a little more than it otherwise does on lower settings. That said, even scaled down to a more standard 1080p, the game barely loses an element of it's looks but demands exponentially less powerful hardware. Those in doubt of whether they can run it should look to the One Shot Demo and give it a go, you might be surprised at how well optimized the game is.
Complimenting Resident Evil 2's impressive looks is sound design so effective that it's haunting me in the hours after playing. The soundtrack is a somewhat more subtle element than it was in the PS1 original, with melodies being less overt, but perhaps more effective for it. It sets a quiet, calm tone that makes way for chaotic, distorted, panic inducing noise when the evil residents strike. Simply turning a corner or opening a door can take you from wondering what's next to full panic in the blink of an eye as discordant sound overwhelms the senses. Even in those quiet moments between bouts of action, simple sounds such as footsteps and groans become warnings and reasons to tense up as they interrupt instrumentation, one set of heavy footsteps in particular provoking some powerful dread and worry, in the best possible way. Playing alone in a darkened room at 3am with surround sound headphones lead to numerous yelps, gasps and suppressed shouts in the face of the game's numerous scares and surprises.
When it comes to gameplay, Resident Evil 2 is everything a player familiar with the original could want in terms of smoothness and ease of use and equally should appeal to those lucky gamers who grew up after the demise of tank controls. Leon and Claire are animated beautifully and respond to your control sharply, turning tightly and never being hindered by an elongated animation. The third person gunplay is as polished as any third person game can be, being very much a spiritual successor to the modern RE titles such as 5 and 6 and following similar standards in terms of moving, shooting and equipping sub-weapons like grenades.
While the gunplay and perspective might evoke thoughts of some of the perhaps less impressive Resident Evil games, changes to core gameplay mechanics really elevate what the series was already doing. Gone are the fear destroying roundhouse kicks and backflips that characters pull off to fight off chomping zombies and instead you'll find that Leon and Claire are far less capable of fending off attacks without the correct tools. You've no longer got an infinitely sharp knife to save ammo with and instead have a three use emergency weapon you can use to stop a zombie just before it bites you. Stab a zombie with it and you'll need to get it back if you want to use it again, forcing a quick tactical choice over whether wasting ammo to kill a zombie you might otherwise avoid is worth the return of your brain stabbing implement. Headshots no longer down enemies for good, unless you pop their skull like a bloody pinata and spend a lot of ammo to do so. It might not sound like much, but removing a player's sense of confidence over how many bullets it will take to actually kill something for good provokes some interesting tactical choices, certainly far more than previous games in the series have.
The balance of having to clear safe paths, manage limited ammo and deal with unexpected twists is near perfect, provoking paranoia over whether to stand and fight or turn and run, at first at least. During my first run through the game I found myself moving slowly, trying hard to scrounge up the few bullets I could and then try to save them for an otherwise impossible situation. Fear of the unknown slowed progress and quasi-familiarity with the game's setting confused my sense of direction at times, enhancing fear and tension greatly. On my second run I found that the feeling had changed, as familiarity provoked fearlessness and knowledge of where to go saved extra trips through dangerous hallways. Worry still rose and panic set in when unexpected elements of Claire and Leon's differing paths cropped up, but the feeling was secondary to focusing on Resident Evil 2's gameplay after my first run and bout of extended tension. It's in no way a negative and for many this will seem elementary, but it's worth noting that aspects such as jump scares and unexpected rooms full of glistening, fleshy lickers only strike true the first time.
Speaking of things that only strike true the first time and changing perspective in the face of familiarity, Resident Evil 2 does very well to mix up the original game's plotline and throws in more than enough unexpected elements to surprise people who can clearly remember the antics of the Birkin family and Umbrella Corp. As mentioned previously and as it was in the original Resident Evil 2, Leon and Claire have separate paths through the game, featuring different puzzles, weapons and characters. Split up by an exploding tanker at the start of the game, each character's first run through Racoon City has them escaping from their crashed car from one side while the other character escapes in another direction and ends up on a substantially different route through the game. Finishing Leon's first scenario, for example, will unlock Claire's perspective on those events. Finishing all of those scenarios and doing well unlocks a couple of extra secret characters and scenarios that fans will be pleased to know are faithfully recreated too. As ever with Resident Evil 2, the faithfully served nostalgia mixes very well indeed with fresh polish and evolved gameplay.
To sum it all up, Resident Evil 2 is a near perfect remake full of impressive visuals, grotesque designs, sharp gunplay and a simple, effective plot. With only a couple of incredibly minor niggles such as a occasionally wooden scripting and performance taking the smallest amount of shine off an otherwise beautifully polished and restored piece of video game history, Capcom have proven that even an aged classic can meet modern expectations. Here's hoping Resident Evil 3 is in the works.