There's a dividing line in Resident Evil's history, a fracture that tears the series almost neatly into two. On the one side there's the creeping dread of the original trilogy; slow, sometimes cumbersome but rarely anything short of terrifying. And then there are the later games, where the camp is amped up alongside the action until it's something of a chaotic din. They're both enjoyable, in their own ways, even if the older games have a certain class that sets them apart.
Bridging the two has been the series' big conundrum in recent years. Resident Evil 6 took a slightly lumpy approach, bundling everything together in a chewy mess, while the reinvention of Resident Evil 7 did a much grander job, amping up the horror until it was as potent as anything in the series' past. Judging by the hour or so I've spent with the Resident Evil 2 remake, this could be even more effective; equal parts chilling, camp and just about the perfect distillation of all that makes Capcom's survival horror games so beloved.
It works, and it works brilliantly. If you want to know exactly how, and why, our latest look at Resident Evil 2 remake - an extended look at Claire's campaign, shown off at last month's Tokyo Game Show but embargoed until now - has a single moment that shows off the effectiveness of Capcom's approach with neat efficiency. It's a scene that's likely stuck in your craw if you've ever played Resident Evil 2, even if it's been over 20 years since your last encounter; the very first time you come across a Licker, one of Resident Evil's nastiest, most viscerally disgusting enemies.
Back in 1998, your first encounter had you walking down a corridor, its far end obscured by that famous fixed perspective and with a little foreshadowing thanks to a freshly munched-on policeman's corpse. It cuts to a brief CG interlude where you see the perpetrator in all its grisly glory, a skinless inhuman mutation slithering across the ceiling, and one that looks just human enough to be freakishly frightening. Cut back to the game and it limps to the floor before you unload whatever ammo you've got into it until it slithers no more.
I don't want to belittle the power of that original scene. Back in 1998 it was enough to make me flinch, and there's still something primal and unsettling in the design of the Licker that comes across on that more limited original PlayStation hardware. Technology - and expectations - have changed, though, and that scene just wouldn't cut it today. The Resident Evil 2 remake's take on it shows just how much technology has moved on.
It's much more organic, for one. The new over-the-shoulder camera of this remake means the old fixed perspective of the original can no longer be relied upon for a cheap scare, so instead the scene is shrouded in a thick darkness - and that darkness itself has the same grainy blue quality as that of a VHS horror film you'd have got from your local rental store, all part of a dedication to the period that's as exacting and exhilarating as that in a game like Gone Home - through which the Lickers first appear. There's no need for a cutscene to sell how horrifying these creatures are, as that's now plain to see as you face them down.
The Lickers themselves are more dynamic, dancing around the environment and pushing you to be more proactive as you take them down, and they feel more organic, too, told in brilliant, sickening detail. The texture work on them is sublime, if you can call a pulsating slick of raw muscle and meat that. "I can tell you that every time we have a game with a Licker in it, the people that get assigned to design it, you can tell as on their desk is a folder full of images of fresh meat," producer Tsuyoshi Kanda tells me. "I know, because I was doing that on Resident Evil 5. This meat research file just spontaneously arrives on their desk."
The RE Engine that powers this remake also does a wonderful job of bringing the Licker alive. We've seen before how it excels at producing almost photorealistic settings and faces - and in Resident Evil 2 remake it gets to show off how good it is at rendering those faces falling apart in wicked, delightful ways. The gore here is exquisite, on a par with anything you might have seen on one of those scratchy VHS films in the 90s, and part of a 'wetness' that unifies this game's vision.
"When you want to show gore, you could just show something gory but that'd be the end of it," explains producer Yoshiaki Hirabayashi. "What we're trying to show about gore is that it's a change - it's something that wasn't there before that is there now. Kind of an action and reaction, based on a player's actions - so if you're shooting a zombie and you're causing damage or ripping over the flesh. Where there wasn't wetness before, there is now. Our bodies are wet on the inside, and it shows you you've made a change in the game world."
The impact all these small details have together is remarkable, and goes to show that this Resident Evil 2 is more than a remake, and certainly a lot more than a remaster. It's never slavish in how it treats its source material, but it is most definitely respectful - maybe something to do with the fact that the likes of Hirabayashi and Kanda first encountered Resident Evil 2 when they were in their early 20s, simply playing it alongside the rest of us, and no doubt filled with that same sense of wonder so many of us had back in 1998. Remaking the game wasn't so much about returning to the source files and original design documents, and more about replaying the original and trying to get to its very essence that way.
"The game has two aspects, both in being the latest in the series but also one that takes the concept of the original Resident Evil 2 and tries to boost it into a modern context," says Hirabayashi. "The process of going back beyond the original expression and deeper into the concept that was being expressed, and then deciding in every aspect of the game was the expression something we can keep, polish up, make it look great and keep as is, or to what level do we need to revisit the expression of that context. Do we start from scratch, redesign? That's a process we applied throughout the entire project."
From what we've seen, they've pulled it off. There's something uncanny about playing Resident Evil 2 remake, and also something electric about a Resident Evil that might have struck the perfect balance between those two very different strands of the series. It's got the action and spectacle of the latter games, as well as the scares of the originals, mixing the traditional with newfound technological prowess. The dividing line between those two strands of Resident Evil was, of course, Resident Evil 4. If Resident Evil 2 remake delivers on the promise it's shown to date, there's every reason to think it's going to be every bit the equal of that all-time great.
This article is based on a press trip to Tokyo. Capcom covered travel and accommodation costs.