Capcom hasn’t always understood what makes Resident Evil great. Maybe it has never consistently, fully grasped the thing that it has on its hands.
That’s been evident since the original Resident Evil 2, which was famously scrapped and restarted well into its development, ultimately becoming a beloved follow-up to a genre-defining game. After that 1998 PlayStation game, however, Capcom’s zombie series has wavered. Resident Evil 4 was a revelation. Its immediate successors, not so much. But the outstanding Resident Evil 7 showed that Capcom had the thoughtfulness to reflect on what made the franchise so beloved in the first place.
Capcom took Resident Evil 7’s design decisions to heart in its remake of Resident Evil 2, which has not been simply polished with slick graphics for modern consoles and computers, but has been completely remade inside and out. It’s no mean feat; the developers of the new Resident Evil 2 have carefully threaded a needle with their new version of a very old thing. Capcom has woven modern mechanics into its groundbreaking sequel, never abandoning what is truly great about the first Resident Evil 2. The result is a fresh, expensive-looking game that evokes the best memories of the PlayStation original, while also being something altogether new.
The new Resident Evil 2 begins just like its now-primitive ancestor: Rookie cop Leon Kennedy and college student Claire Redfield trek to the town of Raccoon City in search of answers. The two are united by a chance encounter but quickly separated by a terrible accident. What follows is a fight for survival as both Claire and Leon try to escape the city alive, then find themselves caught up in something much bigger.
Resident Evil 2’s main setting, a police station, should be a safe haven for its heroes. It should be stockpiled with weapons, ammunition, and survival gear, the perfect place to wait out a zombie apocalypse. But Claire and Leon arrive weeks into Raccoon City’s ordeal. The entirety of the city’s police force is either dead, zombified, or on the brink of death. Supplies have been expended. The halls run slick with blood. Corpses — it’s unclear if they’re truly dead or reanimated — lay piled around every corner. It is immediately terrifying.
The walking dead stalk me through the station — during my first playthrough as Leon — from room to room. They break through windows and doors, upending my expectations about how Resident Evil’s zombies are supposed to behave. I shoot them in the head, missing every third shot because of their unpredictable bobbleheaded movements, but they don’t stay down for long. I’m wasting ammo, constantly. I curse the zombies. I curse my aim. Leon curses too, annoyed or frightened that headshots aren’t working. Rooms I think are clear of threats are somehow inhabited by new zombies when I return to search for something I missed.
Resident Evil 2 quickly forces me to get back to behaviors I learned in 1998. Conserve ammo. Run away when I can. Hack at a zombie with a knife until I’m 100 percent sure that thing isn’t getting back up again.
The game’s bizarre puzzles likewise take me back to that time. I sprint from room to room in search of a diamond-shaped key for a diamond-shaped lock. I develop rolls of film that reveal a single picture of a padlock combination. A half-eaten police officer dies with a notebook in his hand. The book contains the solution to an elaborate, station-spanning puzzle that requires three medallions culled from three marble statues — and, ludicrously, it’s my only hope of getting out of this place.
How does Resident Evil 2 justify all this? Raccoon City’s police department is actually a renovated art museum, and its architect — either a certified genius or an authentic wacko — has devised this series of convoluted puzzles that stand between me and survival. Resident Evil’s puzzles have felt natural in games where the settings were dark-and-stormy-night haunted houses, but set against the background of a municipal police station, they are absurd. I enjoy completing them immensely.
While the game’s many puzzles root Resident Evil 2 to its past, virtually everything else is gloriously modernized. Claire and Leon no longer move like tanks, but like modern video game action heroes in third-person view. The police station is beautifully, gruesomely realized. Some rooms are dark as night, lit only by the blaze of Claire’s or Leon’s flashlight. Emergency lighting reflects off the water in flooded hallways. There is trash and rot in the attics, piled-up office furniture blocking pathways, and it’s all very realistic-looking.
Claire and Leon themselves look like real human beings, slickly rendered. They become sweaty, dirty, and bloody. They shoot like regular human beings, though, with imperfect aim. On Resident Evil 2’s standard difficulty, there is no aim assistance, a very modern video game convenience that I miss terribly every time I waste precious ammo shooting wildly at zombies. In my second playthrough, as Claire, I play on “assisted” mode, which adds generous aim assistance and automatically regenerating health. Resident Evil 2 is almost too easy, but very enjoyable, on this lower difficulty setting. A “hardcore” mode is available too. It brings with it the requirement that you save the game using ink ribbons — a finite resource — at typewriters, and other punishments I can’t bring myself to endure yet. To play Resident Evil 2 requires a throbbing, constant stress, and to return to ink ribbons at this stage, without having memorized the placement of every item scattered throughout the game, is too much.
But Resident Evil 2 begs to be played multiple times over. As with the original version of the game, Capcom has created distinct scenarios for both Claire and Leon. They meet different people on their journey, battle monsters unique to them, and see the story play out in very different ways. I was pleasantly surprised at just how much had changed, and how fresh each side of Resident Evil 2’s story felt from their different perspectives. They each get a “second run” scenario too, so if you complete the game with Leon, you’ll be able to see what Claire was busying herself with during his adventure, and vice versa. Those second runs play out as more condensed horror stories, and each contains its own surprises. Each scenario was worth the time I spent with it.
Where Resident Evil 2 falters is when the game gives you control of people that aren’t Claire or Leon. A pair of interludes starring supporting characters Ada Wong and Sherry Birkin offer ostensibly new perspectives, but both are bogged down by dull, trial-and-error tasks. While both characters are essential to the plot, their playable scenarios are unfortunate speed bumps on an otherwise thrumming horror story.
Outside of those interruptions, Resident Evil 2 is everything a video game remake should be. It’s faithful in tone and story to its source material, while updating a classic in meaningful ways. It’s exciting in the ways that Resident Evil used to be, when the games were driven not by explosive set-pieces, but a constant sensation of high tension.
Umbrella, the sinister corporation at the heart of the horrors in the Resident Evil games, has never exhibited total control over its creations. That’s a lesson at the heart of Resident Evil 2, in which a virus runs amok, culminating in the destruction of Umbrella’s own underground lair — where those zombie-making viruses were conceived.
Capcom, on a far less dangerous scale, has not always known how to handle its own creation. After mutating from quaint horror to buffoonish action to back again, the Resident Evil series has been wildly inconsistent. But back-to-back Resident Evil games that showcase the very best of survival horror is evidence that Capcom may have its monster under control.
Resident Evil 2 is available Jan. 25 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Xbox One download code provided by Capcom. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.