By Nick Romano
January 22, 2019 at 03:22 PM EST
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At their best, remakes can be an opportunity to reassess something through a newer, more modern lens. At their worst, they can note a cash-grab strategy to market a product through some nostalgic peg. Resident Evil 2 is definitely the former. Delivering the first major video game release of 2019 — even before the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III — Capcom manages to take a ’90s classic and contort it into a fresh horror story with familiar faces and brand-new scares.

If you experienced the original, you know the premise: playing as either rookie cop Leon Kennedy or college student Claire Redfield doesn’t change that the world has gone to Hell. A zombie outbreak tore through the noir-vibed Raccoon City — there are even bonus Noir costume options for your avatars — and you seem crazy enough to dive right into the thick of it.

Leon needs to check on his fellow officers, a premise that still holds some bit of absurdity. You fight your way to a zombie-riddled police station only to have to break out of it? Claire, meanwhile, is determined to find her brother, Chris Redfield from the earlier game, amongst the chaos. Each has their own separate but equally playable campaigns that aim to paint a more complete picture of one night’s events. They will stir and disturb fans of the franchise by playing with the tension and, more importantly, the atmosphere of this apocalyptic scenario.

In the original, for example, the opening cinematic brings Leon to a gas station, which he must investigate in order to have his first encounter with the walking dead. In the remake, you’re not just a bystander; you play it all out. The flashlight in your left hand is the only illumination you get while tracking the trail of blood behind the dark curtain of shadow draped across this cluttered space. The score and cramped setting enhance the sense of unease as nightmarish creatures pop out for a spook.

The sequence is a promise to the player that the remake will deliver throughout the game: moments from the original will be expanded in different ways. Cut scenes become playable, character encounters become more involved, and passing locations may become more pivotal. But with these changes come tweaks to the story, like them or not. Leon was once a junior cop who recently broke up with his girlfriend and was late to his first day on the job from drinking the night before. Now, in the revamped take, he was simply asked to hang tight. Without hearing anything else from his superiors, he decides to investigate the situation centered around the shady Umbrella Corporation.

He and Claire are fine enough protagonists but come off as one-track, two-dimensional minds, especially when put up against some of the side characters like Ada Wong, an agent investigating the city’s outbreak. Despite clear differences — Claire has more to do with the mysterious little girl Sherry Birkin, for example — both end up leading similar campaigns and encountering similar plot points, which diminishes the impact of the premise about two diverging paths connecting at various intervals.

The higher graphics also mean more blood and gore to enhance your mission of survive-the-night. How do you know something is truly dead and won’t rise again at your back right as you pass by? The handy head-exploding feature is a nice visual cue to put you at ease. Vicious dogs marred by the viral outbreak, Lickers (those inside-out-looking mother-freakers), and one of the more terrifying figures (the updated and far more hulking leather-coated Tyrant) are all back, and they are all tougher to kill. A zombie, even the most basic breed, takes multiple shots to put down, which all go to deplete your ammo. Lickers feel impossible to subdue and are easier to sneak by quietly (as they’re blind), but that ups the adrenaline factor as one wrong move or one step too quick will alert the beast to its next meal.

Fixed camera angles are dropped to create the experience of stumbling about in the dark where you may turn a corner and find yourself faced with a horde of decaying, gluttonous zombies. The action is itself a puzzle to complement the actual puzzles (another feature that has been overhauled) you must solve in order to progress. Ammo and carrying space are finite, herbs can be combined to boost your health, gun powder can be mixed to create new ammo, and knives (your only real weapon alternative to fending off but not killing the dead) are breakable. Is it better to engage or flee to secure your safety?

Maintaining this tension over long periods feels like the biggest challenge. By the time you’ve solved most of the puzzles in the police station as Leon and head into the underground bowels of the building, the zombies feel more like an annoyance than a fright. The addition of upgraded beasts bring it back, but there’s the risk of the motions growing as stale as the dead themselves. But it’s a smaller side effect of a story that injects a new strain of dread directly into your veins as you plow through an onslaught of horrors.

Those preferential to the 1998 release, that became a genre-moving fan favorite of its time, may recognize additional throwbacks to the franchise as a whole. While the concept is very much Resident Evil 2, the mechanics veer closer to the ease of later installments. It’s impressive to see that, after 21 years, these games still manage to reinvent the game.

Resident Evil 2 will be released this Friday on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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