Once upon a time, when flat-tops were still in fashion and people listened to the Spice Girls unironically, gamers got their first glimpse of an all-American town called Raccoon City. The fictional location was situated just south of the Arklay Mountains and fell victim to a biohazardous outbreak, which saw the locals reduced to shambling mutations with an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
This was to become the home of video game horror. An archetypal small-town dense with mid-tier buildings and populated by Regular Joes; the perfect scenario to wreak havoc in. When the original release of Resident Evil 2 hit shelves back in 1998, it was by far the scariest game on PlayStation. Taking the suspense and unshakeable feeling of dread from the first game and building upon it led to a title that has become legendary throughout the years and synonymous with the term “survival horror.” The characters were memorable, the monsters were disgustingly disturbing disfigurations of the human body, and storyline, however silly, was quite enjoyable. Put quite simply, Resident Evil 2 was a masterpiece of its time.
However, more than two decades have passed since Resident Evil 2 first gave us the heebie-jeebies, and we live in a very different world now; a world where all the information we could possibly desire is available at our fingertips, a world where virtual reality is no longer a futuristic fantasy, a world where we are not so easily startled by the happenings of cliched mid-western American towns. In 2018, is there really a chance for Raccoon City to carry the same weight as before and deliver the same frightening experience as it once did?
The Resident Evil franchise, like most zombie-based lore, owes a lot to horror cinema including timeless classics from yesteryear like Night of the Living Dead along with a number of exploitation movies of the ’70s and ’80s. In fact, the blood-soaked and entirely NSFW trailer for the 1980 low-budget movie Hell of the Living Dead (also known as Zombie Creeping Flesh) shows a few scenes that Resident Evil fans would be very familiar with. One such scene shows a collection of undead hands bursting through barricaded windows to latch onto their prey, as seen in Resident Evil 2. Another clip depicts a man turning his head to reveal a deformed and rotted face signifying that he had transformed into an undead fiend; this is uncannily similar to the first zombie encounter from the original game.
Although Resident Evil celebrates tropes from many of the best horror movies, it also falls victim to many of the genre’s downfalls too. One thing that the horror movie genre can never seem to do is reign itself in; instead, it features elongated franchises spreading themselves thin across multiple sequels. I consider the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be one of the creepiest films ever made: everything from the grainy camerawork of the mid-70s to the ruthlessness of the movie’s cannibalistic family chills me to the bone. The movie went on to spawn a number of sequels, each degrading in quality and becoming and more forgettable as time went on. At this stage, the main antagonist Leatherface is legendary, but he is no longer scary. What started off as a maniacal chainsaw-wielding psychopath is now nothing more than a horror cliche due to overexposure of the character over time.
Unfortunately, the same can be said for Resident Evil‘s Raccoon City setting. The first time we entered that old mansion in the Arklay Mountains or the first time we set foot on the city streets only to discover that the whole town had become overrun by zombies: these were genuinely frightening moments for players, at the time. Each decision you made felt like it carried weight, and each hallway could potentially lead to circumstances even more extreme than the ones we were currently facing. It was dark, tense, and terrifying.
Since then though, most of us have been to Raccoon City more times than we’ve been to our favorite holiday destinations. With familiarity often comes comfort: it gets more and more difficult to remain scared by the same setting. Instead, you become accustomed to it and fear, slowly but surely, begins to drift away as you settle into its surreal environment.
So far, Raccoon City–along with its surrounding forests–has appeared in the first three Resident Evil games consecutively. Then there were the Resident Evil: Outbreak titles which were situated in the same location; it also reappeared in the forgettable multiplayer side-game Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. That’s without mentioning the movies and comic books that go hand-in-hand with the franchise’s popularity. By now, in some strange way, the city almost feels like home. The warm rush of nostalgia provided by seeing familiar locations and scenery detracts from that vicious edge needed to scare players. We know we can visit it for a battle with its infected hordes at any time, so is there anything the city truly has left to offer us in terms of fear?
Put quite simply, the answer to this question, I think, is yes! In 2002, just when we had finally become accustomed to Raccoon City’s terrifying ways and we thought we were brave enough to move on, the series creators’ at Capcom launched a gut-wrenching and intense title for Nintendo GameCube simply called Resident Evil. For all intents and purposes, this was a remake of the original game of the same name, but it refused to play by the (at the time) simplistic rules that the series had laid out during its first outing in 1996.
No, this was an entirely different beast. It was designed to feed on that comfortable bond that you had formed with the earlier games, ready at a moment’s notice to take that trust and use it against you. What followed was a particularly atmospheric tour of that classic old mansion, jam-packed full of new twists and turns that ripped players from their comfort zones and threw them right back into the horror they had thought was long-forgotten.
With this in mind, a return to Raccoon City isn’t something to be scoffed at; it’s something to be feared. Resident Evil 2 is not a remaster or even a simple update to its nostalgic ’90s counterpart: this is a full-on remake of its classic creepy predecessor. It’s impossible to say what exactly lies in wait for us, but it would be foolish to think that we won’t be caught off-guard.
The trailers so far have shown us some of the classic locations and scenarios from the first time around, but the graphical advances of the last 20 years make the town feel somber, moody, and downright unnerving. The darkened corners of the game’s iconic police station look even more imposing than ever before, the city streets are littered with wreckage and broken glass in the aftermath of a battle with the zombies, and the body-horror elements that have become a staple of the series are more disgusting than anyone could have imagined back in the late ’90s.
Taking all of these elements into consideration, along with the knowledge of what the remake of the original Resident Evil had in store, the upcoming Resident Evil 2 could set the benchmark once again for horror. Each moment of the game, from the title screen to the end credits, could be an unnerving, edge-out-your-seat experience to ensure that you’re consistently enthralled, but never at ease. There is a lot awaiting us as we return to Raccoon City’s cold empty streets, and it’s safe to assume that none of it is friendly.
Resident Evil 2 is on its way to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on January 25th, 2019. For those brave enough to take a trip to Raccoon City, it can currently be pre-ordered from Amazon. For more on the game, you can also read our recent hands-on preview from Tokyo Game Show 2018.
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