With Resident Evil 2, Capcom have delivered one of the most ambitious and impressive re-imaginings of a video game we’ve ever seen.
Remaking a beloved classic is a tricky business, more so in video games than in any other medium. Tastes and preferences of gaming audiences are always shifting, while rapidly evolving technologies also mean that the state of games today is radically different from what it was like a couple of decades or more ago. Things that may have been perfectly acceptable, or even staples, back in the day might not apply anymore. Core mechanics and designs from twenty years ago might seem ancient and clunky by today’s standards.
On top of that, there are a lot of tough questions that developers need to ask themselves as they undertake the enormous task of remaking a classic. What should they retain? What should they change? What should they remove? What should they add? What was it that lay at the centre at the experience, that formed the core of that game’s identity? What was it that, if they touch, will fundamentally cripple the remake? Should they even remake said beloved classic? Is the risk of tainting its legacy, and as a result incurring the wrath of millions, too great?
One way to go about making a remake is to stick to the source material as closely as possible- modernize it with current-gen visuals, polish up the writing and the voicework, maybe fix any control issues that may have existed before, but otherwise stick to what the original release did. It’s less risky, and as recent remakes like Shadow of the Colossus, Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy, and Spyro Reignited Trilogy have shown us, can yield excellent results. Plenty of developers decide to go down this path, and it’s hard to fault them for doing so.
"There are a lot of tough questions that developers need to ask themselves as they undertake the enormous task of remaking a classic. What should they retain? What should they change? What should they remove? What should they add?"
The other way of remaking a classic is much riskier- to completely reimagine the game, by figuring out what the essence of the original experience was, but trying to translate it into contemporary design philosophies and tastes. All too often, developers who attempt to do so run the risk of misunderstanding what the strengths of the game they’re remaking were, or go too far with changes or new additions, to the point where the new experience is unrecognizable from the game that endeared itself to millions years ago. Such undertakings can fall flat all too often. Look no further than Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes for a prime example of this.
The remake for the original Resident Evil fell somewhere in between the two categories- though it added new concepts and content, it largely stuck to what the original release did back in 1996, with the remake’s primary purpose being to bring the experience up to the quality of contemporary games of the time. When Capcom revealed in 2015 that they were working on a remake of Resident Evil 2 as well, many expected that they would take the same direction. Fast forward to E3 2018, where Capcom unveiled Resident Evil 2 officially- gone were the fixed cameras, gone the tank controls. This wasn’t going to be your regular remake- Capcom made it abundantly clear that it was more a re-imagining than anything else. The fact that they were calling it simply Resident Evil 2, rather than Resident Evil 2 Remake, was emblematic of that. But though it looked top notch, there was some amount of nervousness among fans. How would a game that looks and plays so differently from the one it is based on manage to do justice to its source material, as a remake should?
It was a risky move, but one that, as it turns out, paid off in spades. Resident Evil 2 changes a lot. It adds plenty. It even removes some stuff. At first glance, it’s almost impossible to tell that this is a remake of a twenty year old game- show the game to anyone not in the know, and they could easily mistake it for a full fledged sequel. But at its core, it’s still Resident Evil 2– the same game that millions fell in love with two decades ago, the game that was perhaps even more responsible for the fame and legacy that the franchise is associated with today than its predecessor was. The game is both new and old at the same time- stunningly modern and decidedly old-school, simultaneously.
"Resident Evil 2 changes a lot. It adds plenty. It even removes some stuff. At first glance, it’s almost impossible to tell that this is a remake of a twenty year old game- show the game to anyone not in the know, and they could easily mistake it for a full fledged sequel. But at its core, it’s still Resident Evil 2."
Take the fixed cameras. Back in the day, the need for these arose out of technical limitations on the PlayStation, while the cinematic look they lent to each shot was also something Capcom considered vital to the experience. In terms of moment-to-moment gameplay, though, the effect that they achieved was profound- there was just so much that was always out of the player’s vision, so much you couldn’t see. Moving from place to place felt constantly threatening, because you never quite knew what to expect, never knew what dangers lay ahead.
Dropping the fixed cameras in favour of an over-the-shoulder perspective should surely have ruined that, but Resident Evil 2 manages to retain that feeling. It does so by making the vast majority of the locations you visit completely and absolutely dark. Armed with a flashlight, Leon and Claire can see only what their torch illuminates, and with very little ambient light (or none at all), that’s not a lot. Not only can you not tell what’s around that next corner, all too often you can’t even tell what’s just a few feet in front of you.
What that shows is that Capcom understood the effect that the fixed cameras achieved, and were smart enough to figure out that it was that effect, and not the fixed cameras themselves, that was central to the experience. And they did the same thing with tank controls as well- the effect that tank controls achieved was that of turning every combat encounter into a desperate struggle. By wrestling with the game’s controls and having to work within the confines of your character’s severely limited and hampered movement, encounters with enemies involved a need for spatial awareness, positioning, and, if you ever got outnumbered, knowing when to bail.
"Capcom understood the effect that the fixed cameras achieved, and were smart enough to figure out that it was that effect, and not the fixed cameras themselves, that was central to the experience."
In the remake, in spite of having a completely different way of moving around, that effect is still achieved. Your reticle is at peak accuracy when you’re completely still, and if you move even slightly, it blooms significantly, slashing your accuracy. Zombies are always moving about, and aiming for their weak spots is always a challenge (unless you play with a mouse and keyboard, of course), while the simple fact that each of them takes a lot of damage before going down also makes them that much more threatening. Just like the original Resident Evil 2, coming up against enemies is always a struggle, which keeps on ramping up in challenge as the number of enemies increases. It’s all too easy to get backed into a corner if you’re not aware of your surroundings, of when to run, and of where to run. Add slow movement speed and the fact that zombies that appear dead may not always be dead, and the challenge ramps up even further.
The moment-to-moment feel of Resident Evil 2, then, is wildly different from the original on a surface level and from a pure visuals perspective, but still very much the same. Then there are things like the level design, which portrays a good balance between respecting the source material and being merciless with required changes. Iconic locations such as the RPD have been brought forward into the modern era with great love and devotion. Many rooms are locations are almost exactly as you remember them- or rather, what they would look like if Resident Evil 2 had been made in 2019 instead of 1998. But there are also plenty of new rooms, while one entire location in Claire’s campaign is completely new as well.
There are also new puzzles, or new or altered solutions to puzzles, while the timing or places for finding certain items has also been changed, and in several instances, enemies that you might expect to see in certain locations are no longer there. Resident Evil 2 is very playful with such things- it understands and respects its source material, and shuffles it around just enough to keep even the fans who have the 1998 classic memorized like the back of their hand always on their toes. New mechanics, like boarding up windows, or mixing gunpowder to concoct your own ammo to suit your needs (which was originally introduced in Resident Evil 3: Nemesis) also add another layer to the proceedings.
"The moment-to-moment feel of Resident Evil 2 is wildly different from the original on a surface level and from a pure visuals perspective, but still very much the same."
When required, the remake also has no qualms with cutting out content. Enemy types such as spiders and moths are nowhere to be found in this new rendition of Raccoon City, but their absence is barely noticeable, because the developers knew that they accounted for a minuscule part of the original experience. The story has also received many changes- even back in 1998, Resident Evil 2 was a campy zombie story. To bring it up to today’s standards, when video games have progressed enormously as a storytelling medium and have made significant strides in how to frame and weave a narrative effectively, Capcom have put in significant work, including a complete re-write, new voicework, adding altered events, and even expanding character arcs.
Marvin appeared in the original Resident Evil 2 for all of three milliseconds, handed Leon a keycard, then died. In the remake, he has a much more prominent role, which is brought to life by an excellent performance and impressive facial capture (much like almost every other character in the entire game). Other characters have also received similar uplifts. For instance, Ada’s backstory, and the way she crosses paths with Leon, has seen significant changes, to bring her more in line with the new tonal direction the Resident Evil series seems to be headed in following Resident Evil 7.
Then, of course, there are the more obvious changes, which Resident Evil 2 pretty much had to make- those of the audio-visual variety. As excellent as the original RE2 was (and still is today, in all honesty), it was very much a product of its time. It was constrained by the hardware and technological limitations of a late 90s console. Those restrictions are no longer in place, and armed with the RE Engine, which has to be one of the most impressive pieces of tech in the industry right now, Capcom have turned the remake into a visual powerhouse. And no amount of praise can ever be enough for the game’s excellent audio design- if you’re the kind of person who gets incredibly jumpy at environmental creaks and noises in tense and foreboding situations, Resident Evil 2 is going to be hell for you.
"And there lies the biggest strength of this remake. It isn’t content with just modernizing or touching up Resident Evil 2- it enhances it."
And there lies the biggest strength of this remake. It isn’t content with just modernizing or touching up Resident Evil 2- it enhances it. Capcom saw this as an opportunity to improve upon an already legendary game, and to use current technologies to realize the original vision they had for the game two decades ago, and they grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Resident Evil 2 does its job as a remake, and then some. It improves upon a masterpiece, impossibly enough, but it also paves the way forward for the franchise as a whole.
In 1998, Resident Evil 2 represented Capcom at the peak of their powers, and Resident Evil at its best. More than twenty years later, that much hasn’t changed. It’s a very early and very strong game of the year contender, in spite of being a remake of a twenty year old game that we’ve all played countless times- think about that for a second.
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