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The Return of ‘Resident Evil 2’

The remake of the 1998 game is a faithful adaptation of the original story, even as it attempts to break new ground in the franchise’s expanding lore

Capcom/Ringer illustration

Capcom debuted the Resident Evil franchise 23 years ago, and what began with a simple horror story premise—cops vs. zombies—has transformed into a sprawling universe. The 13 games in the series can be wildly dissimilar, offering an arguably irreconcilable assessment of what distinguishes the series. The Resident Evil 2 remake, released last Friday, is a faithful adaptation of the original story, though it strays far from the original game’s design.

The games all disagree with one another on some level: in design, player mechanics, camera perspective, and dramatic tone. Some Resident Evil games are terrifying and some are just wacky. Some are quiet; some are blustering. Some are puzzle games, and some are mindless grind house shooters. They all follow a straightforward story about evil villains leading secret conspiracies from underground hideouts, ending with inevitable self-destructing sequences, but all of these things amount to an overpopulated soap opera about bioterrorism. It’s a disorganized franchise that has expanded beyond the original video game. There have been six Resident Evil movies which share core characters with the video games, but those characters don’t share any unified continuity.

Rookie cop Leon Kennedy and civilian Claire Redfield are the main protagonists of Resident Evil 2. They meet in the midst of a T-virus outbreak, which has transformed the nearby Raccoon City into a flaming war zone overrun with zombies. Mad scientist William Birkin, betrayed by the devious Umbrella Corporation, has unleashed the T-virus into the Raccoon City sewer system. Leon escorts Claire to the Raccoon City Police Department, where she hopes to find her brother, Chris, a member of the special forces unit, S.T.A.R.S., which opposes Umbrella. Leon and Claire arrive to find the police station also overrun with zombies, and Mr. X, a hulking, super-mutant strongman starts to stalk Leon and Claire throughout the precinct. Eventually, Leon and Claire stumble upon the underground facility where the virus was developed. The player leads Leon and Claire to the origin of the outbreak, where they confront the mutated Birkin and destroy his laboratory.

The remake is faithful to the original game’s main story beats, though Capcom has tweaked some characterizations. The story is, and has always been, somewhat beside the point, though; each Resident Evil game is mostly distinguished, for better or worse, by its design principles and its dramatic tone. In Resident Evil 2, Capcom has scrapped the most distinct and dated mechanics from the original game: the static camera angles, the smash cuts from one hallway to the next, the inability to move Leon or Claire forward while shooting. These gameplay constraints, primarily dictated by technical limitations, kept the player at a thrilling disadvantage against the many zombies and mutants roaming the police station’s hallways. These constraints forged unique gameplay rhythms and a distinct visual style: There’s nothing quite like turning a blind corner in an old-school Resident Evil game. As the hardware improved, Capcom revised the game’s signature features. Resident Evil 4 (2005) locked the camera over Leon Kennedy’s shoulder, thus streamlining the player’s movement and naturalizing the player’s view. Resident Evil 7 (2017) limited the player to first-person view, which enhanced the tension in navigating the dim and cluttered hallways of its setting, a Louisiana bayou estate. The games are all designed around their respective vantage points. To turn Resident Evil 2 into a modern third-person shooter means creating a fundamentally different game.

The new Resident Evil 2 improves the player’s mobility (as all the games since Resident Evil 4 have). It also makes it more difficult to kill the zombies they encounter (as the maligned Resident Evil 6 did). It’s easy enough for the player to stockpile ammo and upgrade their guns in the first hour or so—but good luck killing the undead. Frequently, Leon will mutter in disbelief as the player lands successive headshots against a zombie who keeps closing distance, undeterred. Mr. X is the worst and most resilient of these foes. Umbrella has dispatched Mr. X to exterminate S.T.A.R.S. and all other human survivors at the police station. In the original Resident Evil 2, Mr. X was a threat who could be dealt with. The player might drop him for a short while by hitting him with heavy, prolonged firepower. This is no longer an option in the the remake. The player cannot incapacitate or misdirect Mr. X, nor can they reliably hide from him. The player must run. From puzzle to puzzle, from one fumbled doorknob to the next, the player must listen for Mr. X’s leaden footsteps while minding their few viable escape routes in case he bursts through a nearby wall.

Resident Evil loves to unleash a blood-thirsty stalker to pursue the player: Lisa Trevor in the first Resident Evil remake, Mr. X in Resident Evil 2, Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, and Jack Baker in Resident Evil 7. In the latest edition, the shadow cast by Mr. X is similar to Alien: Isolation, the 2014 game based on the Alien movie franchise, which pits the player against an exquisitely fearsome Xenomorph. In Alien: Isolation, the Xenomorph spends most of a 19-hour gameplay experience stalking the player based on even the slightest environmental cues. The player and Xenomorph study each other, and there’s a learning curve. Ultimately, there’s a relationship. The inscrutable Mr. X is hardly so sophisticated or sentimental in his dealings with Leon Kennedy. Mr. X doesn’t learn; he pursues. The Xenomorph is clever and, worse yet, invincible, but it’s also designed to ensure fair and intelligent play. Mr. X defies fairness. The Xenomorph paralyzes the player; Mr. X keeps the player moving. The police station is small in Resident Evil 2 compared to the Sevastopol space station in Alien: Isolation, and the corridors are all narrow; it’s only a matter of time before the player runs into Mr. X by chance, if not in hot pursuit.

Mr. X is the most distinct and exciting challenge in Resident Evil 2, though he embodies the game’s glowering self-seriousness. This remake is self-conscious in its mission to follow the very first Resident Evil game with higher stakes and a more respectable dramatic outlook. The first Resident Evil was a silly, B-horror-movie game about cops struggling to break out of a haunted mansion. Capcom is a Japanese company, and the North American localization for Resident Evil produced the most delightfully stunted English-speaking voice acting in the video gaming canon. The game’s tension derived from its constricting atmosphere and its stammering mechanics. The original Resident Evil 2, and the first Resident Evil remake, “solved” the original game’s tone; now the Resident Evil 2 remake has “solved” the mechanics. So, the remake is faithful to the original game, for whatever that’s worth: Resident Evil 2 assures players that these games are only getting smoother, darker, and even more deeply committed to cultivating an expanding lore. There’s no V-Jolt lying around, is there? There’s no backtracking now.