Parted by an unescapable destiny: Resident Evil 2’s substantial reimagining

The Resident Evil series has, as we’ve seen a few times in this retrospective already, undergone a number of remakes and reimaginings over the years. And it’s interesting how the approaches to this have varied as time has passed.

The first Resident Evil remake released for Nintendo GameCube in 2002, six years after its original PS1 incarnation. This might not sound like a long time when judged against the standards of today’s lengthy console generations, but it was a significant gap back then; gaming technology was advancing at a rapid rate, and the difference of just a single hardware generation between the PS1 and the GameCube made Resident Evil’s remake almost unrecognisable from its source material.

Resident Evil 2

At least in terms of presentation, anyway. Because Resident Evil’s remake still played like the original Resident Evil, divisive elements included. You still had the widely disliked and clumsy tank controls; you still had the limited inventory space, necessitating lots of backtracking for the sake of inventory management; you still had the fixed, pre-rendered camera angles that could, at times, obscure the action in a way that was less scary and more frustrating. The only things missing were the hilarious full motion video intro with real actors (seriously, watch that if you’ve never seen it, it’s incredible), and, of course, the legendarily dreadful voice acting.

All of this was, of course, something of a mixed blessing; few could deny that the Resident Evil remake felt like an authentic reimagining of the original Resident Evil and was, as such, a good remake — particularly as it added a bunch of new stuff. But at the same time, people rightly criticised it for not evolving some things that really needed evolving — like that control scheme in particular. It wouldn’t be until the HD remasters of Resident Evil’s remake and Resident Evil Zero that we’d finally get a much more intuitive — though still somewhat flawed — analogue control scheme.

Resident Evil 2

Despite there being an obvious hunger for remakes of Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3 Nemesis on the GameCube after the success of Resident Evil’s remake, it never happened; the versions of those games that released on GameCube were simple ports of the PlayStation versions. It wouldn’t be until 2019 that Resident Evil 2 would get a remake, with Resident Evil 3 following suit in 2020.

And if you thought a lot changed in the six years between Resident Evil’s PS1 release and its GameCube remake, you’d better believe even more happened in the 21 intervening years between the two incarnations of Resident Evil 2. And this time around, we can most certainly argue that the more significant changes are, for the most part, a positive move for the series as a whole — particularly in terms of bringing modern gamers on board with it.

Resident Evil 2’s remake immediately impresses with one of those introductory sequences where you’re not quite sure if it’s prerendered animation or an in-engine cutscene until you seamlessly take control of protagonists Leon or Claire when it’s over. By contrast, the extremely wooden-looking late ’90s CG models seen in the original PlayStation version’s introduction put a hard divide between “cutscene” and “gameplay” — emphasised even further by the iconic messages that slowly type themselves onto a black screen while the game proper is loading.

Resident Evil 2

Resident Evil 2’s remake lacks these completely — largely because there aren’t really any “load screens” except when you reload a saved game, and in those cases the remake takes the opportunity to provide you with a brief text recap of what has recently happened in the story. It’s ultimately more practical, though I can’t deny thinking it’s a bit of a shame those load screen quotes aren’t there any more; they always felt like an important part of the old-school Resident Evil experience, along with the “This game contains scenes of explicit violence and gore” warning on initial startup, which is also absent from the new version.

But Resident Evil 2’s remake is a different game to its source material, and it makes that very clear from the outset. While being based on the same premise and featuring the same characters, it does not attempt to replace the original in the same way that Resident Evil’s remake did; rather, it feels very much like it’s providing an alternative take on the game, both in terms of gameplay and presentation.

Take the opening to Leon’s playthrough, for example. In the original PS1 version of Resident Evil 2, both Leon and Claire start their runs at the point where they are separated by a crashed truck; in the remake, meanwhile, Leon’s playthrough starts with him stopping at a gas station and individually coming face-to-face with the zombies of Raccoon City, and it’s not until a bit of gameplay has unfolded that we reach what was the opening of the old game.

Resident Evil 2

In essence, we’re getting the opportunity to play through what was originally a non-interactive introduction; while it’s not quite the cold open that some modern triple-A titles favour, it certainly helps to minimise the amount of time between you firing the game up and actually getting to take control — as well as providing an opportunity for the obligatory tutorial, which the PS1 original lacked. Your feelings may vary on that note, but initial interactive tutorials have taken on increased importance since video games stopped being distributed with manuals; the original Resident Evil 2 shipped with a 20-page manual that the game quite reasonably assumed you’d read before you started playing.

Thankfully, the game wisely doesn’t bombard you with constant, repetitive tutorial messages once you’re into the action; instead, we’re presented with a take on Resident Evil 2 that unfolds from a third-person perspective rather than the fixed camera angles of the original. I won’t lie, I was initially concerned that this might detract from the distinctive feel of the old game — particularly as a number of later Resident Evil games are regarded more as action games than survival horror — but I had nothing to worry about.

Resident Evil 2

The game’s love of dark environments lit only by your character’s torch provides plenty of opportunity for skulking uneasily around, and the limited amount of ammunition on hand for various weapons feels authentically “survival horror”. On top of that, the game maintains the classic Resident Evil limited inventory space — albeit with the opportunity to find some items to expand it as you progress — as well as the feeling that, more than anything, this is a game about unlocking doors.

One particularly interesting thing I noticed about Resident Evil 2’s remake in comparison to its predecessor is the fact that you can no longer walk up to random objects in the environment and examine them in order to get a brief text description of what they are. This was always a key part of what gave the old Resident Evil titles a distinctly “adventure game” feel about them, even if the descriptions were rarely relevant to the things you actually needed to do; it helped the locations feel like they had been crafted with the curious in mind, and provided a little reward for those who enjoyed examining everything thoroughly.

Resident Evil 2

Presumably the reasoning behind this is that the high-definition graphics of Resident Evil 2’s remake are so detailed that there’s no need for text descriptions any more; you can simply look at what you can see on the screen and tell what it is. Given the fidelity of the graphics in Resident Evil 2’s remake, even on base-spec consoles, this isn’t an unreasonable assumption, but it does still feel like something’s missing at times — although at the same time it’s quite nice to feel like the game is “trusting” you to parse the relevant information in front of you without it having to spoon-feed it to you.

A good example of this comes in the case of locked doors. In the original Resident Evil games, finding a locked door prompts an on-screen, text-based message indicating that the door is either locked from the other side (meaning you’ll likely find an alternative route around and unlock it later as a shortcut) or that the door requires a specific key.

In Resident Evil 2’s remake, however, all this information is delivered wordlessly; if Leon or Claire attempt to open a door and it just appears to be stuck, it’s one you’ll unlock later from the other side, while if a key is required, you’ll get a close-up of the lock with the required key’s symbol clearly visible. And, in another break from series tradition, you actually have to manually use the key from your inventory rather than this automatically happening — and you even have to discard the keys yourself when you’ve used them on all the required doors, though thankfully the game at least provides a helpful checkmark icon on key items that are no longer useful.

Resident Evil 2

Combat-wise, Resident Evil 2’s remake feels like a blend of old and new. Zombies take a significant number of shots to take down — and often need to be downed several times to keep them permanently out of action! — but the third-person perspective makes it significantly easier to aim at specific body parts. This is also combined with an alarmingly detailed gore system that allows you to completely mutilate a zombie’s extremities; generally speaking, you can tell how likely a zombie is to come back by how much of their head you’ve obliterated with repeated bullet strikes.

There’s a certain House of the Dead-esque satisfaction to this, but you have to be careful not to get carried away due to the limited ammunition available; as with the earlier Resident Evil titles, it’s often best to try and avoid zombies as much as possible rather than taking them on directly, since there are plenty more threats for you to deal with over the course of the game as a whole.

Which brings me to the main point I wanted to make today: despite the fact that Resident Evil 2 is so obviously different from its original PlayStation incarnation, it still feels like classic-era survival horror. It doesn’t feel like a cinematic action game that just happens to unfold in the setting and narrative of Resident Evil 2; it feels like an authentic and natural progression of what classic-style survival horror has become over the course of the last 21 years thanks to improvements in technology.

Resident Evil 2

And that makes me very happy indeed. I associate the original Resident Evil 2 with some very fond memories of a happy time in my life — but from a modern perspective, aspects of its gameplay can make it quite hard to go back to. With Resident Evil 2’s remake, however, I can enjoy it in a whole new way without feeling like I’m diluting its essence — and, if I do end up feeling dissatisfied with any aspect of it, that original version is still on my shelf for me to break out whenever I feel up to dealing with tank controls again.

Now that’s how you do a remake.

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Pete Davison
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