The Resident Evil 2 remake is a gross and truly scary spin on the original's campy horror

Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield didn't really have faces back then. I mean, they did, but in the original Resident Evil 2 they were largely identifiable by some wild haircuts and colorful clothing. Their mugs otherwise resembled those of bargain bin action figures. It was 1998. Making up for the lack of polygons with some imagination came with the territory.

When the Resident Evil 2 remake releases in January next year, we'll be able to see every bead of sweat on Leon's face and the strands of hair in Claire's ponytail bounce and tangle as she moves around. With so many advances in technology and major changes in creative direction, there won't be much left to the imagination. In that way, 2019's Resident Evil is less of a remake and more of an adaptation.

It's also one of the most beloved entries in the series, which makes it precarious to reinterpret, especially with so many radical changes in mind. But after playing the demo available at PAX West this year, this iteration of Resident Evil 2 is headed in a fascinating direction thanks to a slightly more authentic script, the tension provided by a tighter camera, and a new level of gruesome detail that wasn't possible in 1998. 

The undead, born again

The demo opens with Leon at Raccoon City Police Station on his first day on the force, and after all these years there’s some much-needed life brought to the character. Instead of staying silent while zombies shuffle up, he’ll bark out warnings that they need to stop or he’ll open fire. Similarly, if Leon enters a dark corridor, he’ll try to pump himself with some self-affirming words before tip-toeing along. Too often in horror games the illusion is shattered when the protagonist has no reaction to the terrible scenarios they're a part of. 

The tension rockets when the frame tightens on a zombie’s disease-ridden mouth snapping at the air only inches from Leon’s neck.

Leon's contextual dialogue makes him a more palpable character than he was in the original Resident Evil 2 and a touch easier to care about from the start. Obviously, it isn’t hard to take the campy acting and script of an original PlayStation game and improve them, but these little quips add tremendously to the atmosphere.

One of the more contentious decisions is the move from fixed camera angles to the over-the-shoulder perspective introduced in Resident Evil 4, but it’s a change made for the better. When Leon is grabbed by a zombie, the camera zooms in and you get an intimate view of the struggle. The tension rockets when the frame tightens on a zombie’s disease-ridden mouth snapping at the air only inches from Leon’s neck. Whenever this happened I was so caught up in the moment that I nearly forgot about the new defense mechanic, where a timely button press will shove a knife into their chest and force them off. 

There’s a sigh of relief to be had when the camera pans out again to mark that you’re safe, but it's not a win button. In classic form, there are a lot of zombies and little ammo and healing items to carry you through them. Some may consider it heresy, but the over-the-shoulder camera makes Resident Evil 2 a scarier, far more intense game than it was before.

An over-the-shoulder camera also makes the flashlight much more important, too. Darkness was never a factor in the original Resident Evil 2 because the pre-rendered backgrounds weren't capable of dynamic lighting, but with the remake that’s no longer an issue. Every darkened hallway is a problem now. If you shine your light on one zombie too long you won’t see his buddy just off to the right until it’s too late. 

The flashlight’s cone of vision is just wide enough to line up nicely with where you’re aiming, but narrow enough so that you are not just walking around with your gun drawn at all times. And the darkness is truly dark, near pitch black at times. A zombie could be standing a few feet away and you wouldn't know it but for their shallow, raspy breathing. It makes for some legitimate scares and hectic combat. 

Powered by the same graphics engine that debuted with Resident Evil 7, Resident Evil 2 is just as gorgeous. The new engine has allowed Capcom to add some gruesome detail to enemies, and not only in the resolution of their pale, rotting skin textures. When you pick off zombies, chunks of flesh will fly off wherever a bullet makes impact. It’s not uncommon to see a zombie shuffle around with very little of its head remaining, exposing the glistening innards. I rarely feel genuine revulsion playing games, but Resident Evil 2 does it better than most and with enough detail to keep one toe in reality, no matter how ridiculous the scenario.

There are still several months to go until Resident Evil 2’s release early next year, but my experience with the demo affirms that Capcom is on the right track. The essence of the original game appears to have not only been preserved, but enriched by a more personable Leon and a stark, realistic interpretation of the decay and violence we had to think up ourselves the first time around.