I once asked a group of Capcom developers, who at the time were working on Resident Evil 6, what they each considered the series' high point to be. I expected most to choose the PlayStation original or Resident Evil 4 but, instead, the most popular choice at that table on that evening was the Resident Evil remake for Gamecube. Not only did this project make Resident Evil look absolutely sensational, but with the benefit of hindsight director Shinji Mikami made many changes to the game's design, all of which were for the better. New players instantly understood why this game was such a beloved classic. Returning players simply delighted in a brilliantly executed 'director's cut' of a truly great video game.
Capcom is no stranger to milking the back catalogue, and fair enough, but this remake of Resident Evil 2 stands in that lineage, and far apart from the regular ports and HD re-releases. It's been known from the start that this is a 'ground-up' remake, though what exactly that means only became clear when I got the chance to play it for a few hours recently. This is a new game based on Resident Evil 2, on a scale that the label 'remake' really doesn't capture.
Why was Resident Evil 2, the PlayStation original, such a great sequel? It pulled the Romero-esque trick of changing the setting completely, from isolated haunted house to an urban vibe that centred around the Raccoon Police Department, a symbol of government authority infested and sieged by the horde. It doubled-down on the twin character concept, interweaving the stories of Leon and Claire far more intricately than Chris and Jill's infrequent catch-ups. It also based the endgame around 'B' playthroughs: this exceptional idea meant that, after playing through the campaign with one hero – an 'A' playthrough – you could control the other and see their side of the same story. The difference between 'A' and 'B' playthroughs was huge.
It's not that Resident Evil 2 was better than the original game, but it was worthy. It felt like a sequel that understood exactly why the first game was special, and played with those concepts in new ways rather than simply re-treading them. It's been long overdue this treatment.
The Resident Evil 2 remake is, almost needless to say, a visual tour de force. I spent several minutes in an underground parking garage admiring the peeling, aged wall textures, the detail in the overhead pipework, and the various manners in which R.P.D. cruisers had been trapped or looted or abandoned. The facial animation is a new high watermark for Capcom, particularly with Claire, and at points comes remarkably close to naturalistic. Hell, in terms of the production values, probably all I need to say is this: the voice acting's great. IKR!
Old environments are reconfigured and re-imagined. The Kendo gun shop from the game's opening is instantly recognisable, but what happens inside and thereafter is all-new. The R.P.D. itself is still set up for Leon's welcome party, but now the main hall has easier access to the first floor and all those doors don't lead to the layouts a veteran will expect. The single biggest change of all, however, is simply the persistence of this environment. In the original game, room transitions meant the ingenious 'door opening' loading screen and, though it did keep track of the monsters you'd killed, this was a warren of self-contained spaces.
Here the R.P.D. is one big, seamless environment, which means that if you shoot a zombie's leg off and leave it crawling around in a bathroom, then return half an hour later, that zombie torso will still be pulling itself around with groans. This matters because, in what I played at least, Capcom's designers have come up with an ingenious idea that melds the best of the 'B' playthrough with Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. In this Resident Evil 2, Mr. X is back with a vengeance and it changes everything.
Mr. X is a tyrant that turned up in the original game's 'B' playthroughs and was something of a prototype for the later Nemesis. He would appear in certain environments, was more-or-less indestructible, and would slowly but inexorably hunt your character down. As I entered the police station with Leon in this contemporary Resident Evil 2, through a new route, I saw a familiar crashed helicopter and some debris. I heard the footsteps first and thought 'no way', then the debris was lifted aside like empty cardboard boxes and there he was. Mr. X walked forward, I emptied a clip into him like an idiot, then I turned around and ran.
And I kept running. Mr. X didn't stop chasing. I eventually doubled-back and past him into the police station. The footsteps kept coming, louder and louder, until he'd burst into wherever I was and headed straight for me without missing a beat. I realised that not only had Capcom's designers said 'yes way' to Mr. X, but have used him to completely change the rhythm (and difficulty) of exploring the police station. You can't stop and linger over things. You can't take your time picking off enemies. You've got to go through full-on, grabbing everything you see, dodging fights you don't need to take, and trying desperately to stay ahead of those footsteps.
In the end, it wasn't Mr. X himself that ended up killing me. The warren-like rooms that ring around the police station's central lobby take weird little loops, move up and down floors, and are packed with blind spots and inconvenient furniture and, of course, monsters. Zombies will kill your character quicker than ever, with their immobilising grab the worst part in how it allows other nearby enemies to join the pile-on. Lickers are absolutely ferocious, their spear-like tongue and raking dives custom-engineered to flay characters trying to run away.
You're thinking about how to deal with all these horrible things, and the footsteps just keep getting louder. You start taking down a zombie, then the door bursts open and there he is, and in two swift motions he's swept the zombie aside and haymakered Leon to low health. You run away, swerving left and right to avoid the zombies you didn't have time to kill but are now doubling back through. At times the constant pressure makes you feel like just giving up, putting down the controller and letting Mr. X do his worst. There are lulls but they're ever so brief, and one mystery that eluded me was how much of a role my own sound was playing: can Mr. X 'hear' your gunshots? Can you successfully stealth around him by staying silent? Despite my every effort to channel Solid Snake, the bastard kept coming.
When I did eventually die, it was so stupid. There was a licker, I had the time to stop and deal with things properly, but I heard the footsteps, tried to juke and jive through the hallway, and ended up impaled and nearly dead. I snapped a few useless pistol bullets at the thing out of pure fear, and in what was almost a mercy it leapt gracefully forwards and clawed me to death. It was almost a relief; at least Mr. X didn't get me.
It was also an experience that, while feeling authentic and true to the original game, is a million miles away. This Resident Evil 2 is a reinvention of serious panache, one comfortable with challenging its new players just as much as it will undoubtedly delight the old ones. It's happy to pay homage to the older game but it's not going to be bound to those archaic rhythms either, and is shot through with a pace and gory flair that makes everything feel brand new. I was always going to be interested in this game but, having played it, my anticipation is now off the charts. If the police station and Mr. X is indicative of the whole, I cannot wait to once again enter the world of survival horror.