Before E3 this summer we knew that the remake of Resident Evil 2 was coming, but after radio silence for a fair while the hype was at a simmering level, and it wasn't until summer when the trailers started coming in that things were turned all the way up to boiling point. It was with high hopes that we stepped foot into the game at a recent London preview event then, which provided an entirely new demo to the ones we've been witness to before, and from two different perspectives.
The first demo we played threw us into the shoes of Leon Kennedy and - without spoiling details for those who haven't played the game originally and don't know what happens - this took us to the sewers as we chased after Annette Birkin. Well, it wasn't all sewers, as we also took a look inside the gun shop, out into the street of Raccoon City, got into hot water with a furnace, and got to spend some quality time with another famous face, Ada Wong.
In the longer demo that followed, we then got to take control of Claire Redfield, who has been somewhat overshadowed by her floppy-haired counterpart in the promotional material thus far. Here we got an introduction to Police Chief Irons and the lickers - both of which are unpleasant in their own way - and got to explore a much wider area in the police station itself. Unlike Leon's section, this was more about exploration and uncovering secrets and became a sight tougher as we looked for power modules to unlock a crucial door.
It's no secret that the game looks gorgeous, as we saw at Sony's press conference back in June, but it's worth reiterating just how polished everything is. In both Claire and Leon's sections, the level of detail was superb, and it just goes to show how good the RE Engine is to make things look this good almost two years after it was first deployed with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. Raindrops glisten on the hair and clothes of all the characters, each face looks convincing and realistic, and all the environments are delicately made.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the visual presentation is the lighting, as the night is pierced by dim lamps and the beam of your torch a lot of the time, all of which not only looks great but builds atmosphere effectively. Hell, there were even a few times where enemies lurched at us and scared us out of our skin because we hadn't seen them in the poorly lit rooms, and that's what Resident Evil fans have come to expect, especially with these classic titles.
The audio design works to build tension as well, and we're not just talking about zombies bursting through doors or hollering at you when you pass nearby. We're also talking about Tyrant, the big hulking monster who showed up in both demos we played, and who can easily throw you to the floor and beat you to death in moments. What's great (or horrifying, more accurately) about Tyrant is that he stomps around the place, and you can tell how close he is by how loud those footsteps are, meaning real panic moments if you're in a confined room with no way to run around him.
Both sections were a way into the game, so we had some equipment at our disposal, but even considering what we started with and the equipment we accumulated this was survival horror at its core. Fans of the genre and indeed of the original will be pleased to hear that ammo is scarce, zombies take a lot of bullets to stay down, and healing items don't grow on trees (well some are herbs, but you know what we mean).
What this amounts to is a challenging experience where one mistake can really undo a lot of hard work. At the normal difficulty we were on it took only a few hits to die and with narrow corridors, it was very hard to avoid zombie lunges and licker pounces. It's all about making wise decisions and choosing your approach carefully, and we were punished more than once for thinking we could rush through a room to get an item inside without taking the proper care needed.
With regards to movement and combat, it isn't quite the same tank controls as we saw back on the original PlayStation. Movement is a lot looser now and you can swivel 180 degrees to get away from bad guys, with the over-the-shoulder camera reminding a lot of Resident Evil 4, but make no mistake, this hasn't turned into an action game. While looser, every move you make is still heavy enough to mean that you can't easily dodge attacks; the emphasis is still on making good choices to prevent running into danger in the first place.
The combat is built with the same philosophy in mind, as again you won't be running and gunning, not only because of the scarcity of ammo and the ineffectiveness of bullets but also because aiming isn't always the easiest. Both Leon and Claire need to be standing still to get the best shots away, and when enemies get real close it becomes almost impossible to hit them at all. Considering how weak the knife is too, that's also not really an option, although so-called sub-weapons like this and the flash grenade can be used to instantly get you out of a zombie's grip if necessary. Basically, you're the one being hunted in this game, not the other way around.
When you're not wrestling with the undead or other horrors of the night you'll also be trying to figure out the game's many puzzles, optional or otherwise, a multitude of which we saw in Claire's demo. From jewels that need to fit in boxes to keys to go in certain doors and statue hands to fix, there's a lot of the obscure here, and with the size of some of the areas, it's a real toughie to balance finding the items you need with surviving the various altercations to obtain them. Experienced players will surely have the best time with this, as their past experience will stand them in good stead for the adventures ahead.
In the few hours we got to grips with the Resident Evil 2 remake we saw just how good the game looks and how faithful it is to the challenge of the original, and while the changes are obviously drastic, they aren't to the detriment of the core essence of Resident Evil 2. This is still a tough survival horror game dripping with atmosphere, except this time it looks much better and might even have a few surprises for those who originally survived the police station back in 1998. For now though we only have a month and a bit to wait for this reinvigorated classic, and we're looking forward to seeing how Capcom handles the whole package.