How Resident Evil 2 Manages to Modernize Itself While Revitalizing Horror Games
With new gameplay mechanics and visuals, here's how the 21-year-old game Resident Evil 2 has managed to bring new life to an entire genre.
For over two decades, Resident Evil has been in the forefront in revolutionizing the horror genre in the gaming space. From 1996’s Resident Evil to 2005’s Resident Evil 4, Capcom has set the “gold standard” for survival horror. The series definitely had its fair share of upsets (we’ll get to that in just a bit) but has, in some cases, influenced gaming as a whole.
The upcoming Resident Evil 2 remake is no different; it is revitalizing the horror genre all while modernizing itself. It is truly impressive to see the design philosophies of a 21-year-old game flipped on its head.
How can a remake of an old game revitalize an entire genre of video games? The term “remake” isn’t typically used in the same sentence when conveying the idea of “revitalization,” so why is Resident Evil 2 so special? I believe that if we look at what defined a Resident Evil game, we can answer that very question.
(Warning: Very Minor Spoilers)
Resident Evil: A (Very Very Brief) History
Let’s go back to March 22, 1996. The very first Resident Evil was released for the first PlayStation, garnering exceptional reviews. Allowing you to assume the role of Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, you are assigned to investigate murders just outside of Raccoon City after losing contact with the previously-sent team. After locating the terminated team, a bunch of zombie dogs start to chase you, leading you to an abandoned mansion in the mountains. There is a brilliant FMV intro, and I suggest you watch it.
The story isn’t anything out of the ordinary. After investigating, you find out the creatures roaming the mansion are the result of exposure to the T-virus due to illegal experimentation by the biomedical company Umbrella Corporation. Depending on who you play as and some of the actions you take, these elements will determine the outcome of the game.
However, its story and hilariously terrible cut scenes are not what makes Resident Evil great; it is the game’s design that really set itself apart from anything before it. It presented an environment that was equal parts beautiful — thanks to the pre-rendered environments — and frightening. The claustrophobic hallways would make just two zombies seem threatening. The puzzles and open map design made the mansion feel like a real place rather than just a string of levels to go through.
This would be the series’ cornerstone in terms of gameplay for several years. After that there were several light gun games, one of which was the first in the series to use a more conventional third-person camera, but generally, the gameplay stayed the same. Although it was effective at the time, after Resident Evil — Code: Veronica released in 2000, the tried-and-true game design that defined the series was becoming stale. There were some standout titles between 2000 and 2004, most notably the GameCube remake of the first Resident Evil, but the gameplay was beginning to feel dated.
In 2005, that all changed when Resident Evil 4 released for the GameCube. Not only did it revitalize the franchise, but also would become one of the most influential games ever made. It popularized the over-the-shoulder third-person view which has been used in a plethora of games since then. It was also much more approachable, more action-driven, and didn’t have terrible tank controls. It is widely considered one of the best games ever made.
The action-driven direction that Capcom took with Resident Evil 4 would lay the groundwork for the rest of the series until recently. However, much like the more plodding game design from previous entries, this new take became stale. In some ways, it was worse than stale; it seemed the franchise had really lost itself. What was once a survival horror juggernaut became critically panned with entries like Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, Umbrella Corps, and Resident Evil 6. It was clear the series needed another rework.
Resident Evil VII was the answer that Capcom was looking for. While it was more in-line with modern survival horror games like Outlast or Alien: Isolation, it also resembled a return to form. The action-heavy gameplay was replaced with something more deliberate thanks to its slower movement, a reliance on stealth, and the shift to a first-person perspective. It also had the similar open puzzle designs of the earlier entries. Most importantly, it was scary as hell; it was the revival that the series needed.
The Modernization of Resident Evil 2
So, what defines a good Resident Evil game? In the most compact way that I can possibly think of, it’s the amalgamation of an anxiety-inducing atmosphere containing smart level and puzzle design. Resident Evil 2 is a near-perfect example of all of this rolled into one package.
Let’s begin with that first bit: “an anxiety-inducing atmosphere.” Resident Evil 2 is set in the Raccoon City Police Department which has been overthrown by the undead and other creepily-designed creatures. There are maybe a few moments where you actually feel safe. Most of the time, you’re roaming some dimly lit hallway, scrounging for supplies or an item to help you progress only to be chased down by zombies or worse, Mr. X.
Mr. X is quite possibly the scariest video game villain I have ever had the pleasure of running away from. There isn’t a grand introduction for the character either. At one point, just as you start to get comfortable with taking out zombies or even the lickers, this tall trenchcoat-wearing machine shows up and starts chasing you. The most discomforting feeling I’ve had with a video game is hearing this man’s footsteps: it’s like being chased by Michael Myers or the T-1000 as he walks at a steady pace, enough for you to escape but if your movement falters, he will catch you.
The quietness also helps to create this haunting atmosphere. As far as Resident Evil 2‘s sound design is concerned, it utilizes the absence of sound to create tension; all you hear are dripping pipes, your footsteps, and maybe the moan of a nearby zombie. But when you get attacked, whether by a licker or Mr. X, this wall of noise begins to play, which usually led to me yelling profanities at my TV scream and running to the nearest safe zone that I could find. Resident Evil 2 really is the most on-edge I’ve felt while playing a video game.
Moving on to that last bit: “smart level and puzzle design.” In Resident Evil 2‘s case, this is where the game borrows the game philosophies from its much older predecessors: it may come off as dated at first, but it’s actually quite refreshing. I have felt that the environments in modern horror games, like Outlast or Amnesia, are fairly bland and just seem like a set of hallways rather than an actual place. Although it is reused from the original, the Raccoon City Police Department not only feels new but also real because of its use of backtracking.
RCPD’s map isn’t large by any means. You could probably memorize it to some extent and you always have a map with you so you don’t get too lost. It’s big enough for you to familiarize yourself and feel “comfortable” while still surprising you with new areas that eventually connect with the rest of the map.
That feeling of discovery is due to its puzzle design. In some ways, it’s still archaic: still utilizing differently-shaped keys to open certain doors is a design choice that has been used for ages, especially since the original Resident Evil titles. Somehow, Resident Evil 2 finds a way to make this mechanic fresh, and it all comes down to the synergy between the puzzle and level design. Right when you enter RCPD, you start to see these doors with different emblems on them. Right when you find the key that fits into said door, your first instinct is to head in the direction to what is, more likely than not, a new area. This simple design choice doesn’t force the player to go to in that direction, rather the player is eager to see what is behind those doors.
The keys as well as all the other items you’ll get all feel like they have a purpose, even the little pamphlets and notes you find throughout your adventure. Not only do they provide some backstory, but they may also carry information that will help you in your escape. For example, a good amount of these notes will contain combinations to open safes throughout the police station. You don’t need to grab these items to progress, but all of the items I’ve received were worth the risk. This also got me to explore the map and get more comfortable with my surroundings. Like the keys, most of the items promote thoroughly exploring your surroundings and going back to certain areas without it feeling like a chore.
With all that said though, how Resident Evil 2 really modernizes itself is with its core gameplay. RE2 plays how you would expect a third-person shooter to play, which is the bare minimum it needed to achieve for it to be good. However, it’s not only functional but incredibly smooth. Unlike its predecessors, I never felt like I was fighting the controls. Actually, I always felt in control and any misstep was my fault alone; this is the best a Resident Evil game has ever felt.
The Revitalization of the Horror Genre
Does Resident Evil 2 actually revitalize an entire genre? At the very least, it was the the follow-up to Resident Evil VII that Capcom needed. The past two games have renewed my faith in the franchise leaving me excited for more.
As for its role in revitalizing a genre as a whole, I’m inclined to say yes. This game isn’t just for a niche audience: it uses game mechanics that people are accustomed to and design sensibilities that anyone can understand in exceptional ways. Sure, part of its success will be partly due to nostalgia for the original classic, but this is more than that. This is the modern take that Resident Evil fans have been waiting for since Resident Evil 4, a game that is pivotal in furthering game design as a whole. Just from that, as well as the great reviews it has been getting so far, Resident Evil 2 is revitalizing the horror genre in gaming and reinvigorating my interest in that genre as a whole.