Okay, look. I liked Resident Evil 3 as much as anyone did at the time. It’s a game that’s almost totally missing the creepy character and atmosphere of the earlier Resident Evil titles, and whose truncated development process ensured that it had a tremendous overreliance on both generic outdoor environments and recycled locations from Resident Evil 2, but the idea of the Nemesis was a good one back in 1999 and after two games of painstakingly conserving bullets and shotgun shells it was fun to unload on zombies with the assault rifle the game hands you from the start1. Despite that, and despite loving last year’s remake of Resident Evil 2, I found myself quickly becoming skeptical over the announcement that they were going to release a similar treatment of 3 just over a year later. That’s nowhere near enough time to develop a modern videogame even if it was in preproduction before the Resident Evil 2 remake released, and so my expectations for the Resident Evil 3 remake were correspondingly low.
Given that, it’s actually a little surprising that Resident Evil 3 still managed to comprehensively disappoint me.
Resident Evil 3’s timeline is a little weird. It starts several months after Resident Evil 1, but before Resident Evil 2; STARS supercop Jill Valentine has been placed on administrative leave and is under surveillance by Umbrella, who are quite ticked off after she blew up their zombie-infested mansion in the first game. She has apparently overslept by quite a bit when the game starts as she has failed to notice the complete breakdown of society and mass slaughter/zombification of city inhabitants that’s happening just outside her apartment window, but Umbrella send her a helpful alarm call in the form of Nemesis, a hulking mutant monstrosity that bursts through her wall, forces her out into the street and spends the rest of the game chasing her through increasingly convoluted scripted encounters. Shortly after this she runs into Carlos Oliviera, Resident Evil 3’s secondary character; Carlos is a member of Umbrella special forces who has been sent into the city to “rescue civilians”, and who is seemingly unaware that Umbrella are the ones responsible for the zombie outbreak in the first place. The two end up working together to try and escape the city, a goal which becomes increasingly urgent after an off-screen time skip (that contains the entirety of Resident Evil 2) accompanied by the news that Raccoon City is being targeted by a nuclear weapon to eradicate the infection and/or destroy all the evidence.
So far, so Resident Evil 3. As with the Resident Evil 2 remake the game hits most of the same notes as the original, but substantially remixed. I was less than impressed with the opening segment in Jill’s apartment, which involves a bunch of generic nightmares and first-person perspective for no good reason and which lacks the badass immediacy of the original’s “Jill combat rolls out of an exploding building and starts mowing down zombies with the assault rifle that she sensibly brought with her to the zombie apocalypse” opening, but once the initial Nemesis chase sequence is out of the way and you’re into the city proper it all starts to feel pleasingly Resident Evil; you do the stereotypical Resident Evil things of collecting bullets and herbs and bolt cutters and lockpicks and using them to bypass various obstacles the game uses to gate you off from your next objective. The zombies are scattered around as more of an environmental hazard than anything else — walking landmines that you can defuse with a gun, if you so wish. However, the big difference in attitude between the Resident Evil 3 remake and its predecessor is carried over from the original game: despite using the same engine with its excellent sound and lighting effects, Resident Evil 3 is a more action-oriented title. Where Resident Evil 2 made ammo scarce and enemies numerous, Resident Evil 3 gives you more than enough ammo to kill every single enemy in the game twice over. It expects you to kill everything you come across. And while that was a refreshing power switch-up back in 1999 after two games of dealing with frustrating tank controls, it’s far less welcome in 2020 because it short-circuits the most interesting updates the Resident Evil 2 remake made to the Resident Evil formula.
The most basic example is resource management, which has always been a key part of Resident Evil but which Resident Evil 2 dialled up to eleven: completing it wasn’t just a matter of spending your resources efficiently, it also demanded that you ask yourself whether you needed to spend them at all. When you looked at a zombie in Resident Evil 2 you weren’t just thinking about the best way to kill it, you were also considering whether you could just leave it alone entirely, or if it’d be better to stagger it with a couple of kneecap shots and then run past instead of wasting 10-12 bullets putting it down for good. You had the escape items such as knives and flash grenades which allowed you to take risks without taking damage if you screwed up, and keeping a storage chest full of unused healing items was also something of a waste if you were really short on ammo; the zombies could have a little nibble on your neck, as a treat, and after your character knocked them back with a mighty shove you could safely run past and heal up. These are all really interesting decisions that defined the Resident Evil 2 remake for me, since they meshed very well with both the zombie damage system and Mr X, who wasn’t much of a threat on his own but whose mere presence made any zombies you’d left standing far more dangerous to be around.
The Resident Evil 3 remake chucks nearly all of that high-level decision making out of the window. At first I tried to play it like 2, going for evasion as my primary strategy and only firing my gun if I absolutely had no other choice. Unfortunately there’s a couple of changes that have been made that make this an unwise course of action, first and foremost of which is that the zombie damage model has been inexplicably toned down. They no longer stagger and fall from single leg shots and the only way to disable without killing is to spend 6-7 handgun rounds to saw through their kneecap completely. When it’s only a few more rounds required to kill them outright, why would you go to the trouble? Grenades are still present in the game but they’re no longer escape items, which both makes evasion far more risky and encourages you to use them to just blow zombies up instead because that’s now the only thing they’re good for. And if you do fuck up a dodge your character no longer performs a mighty space-clearing shove after they get bitten by a zombie; it’s more of a love tap that sends only the biting zombie backwards, allowing any others that are in close proximity to chain-chomp you.
The message quickly becomes clear: these are zombies, you have a gun, and you will shoot them because that’s pretty much the only thing you can do. It’s true that at the start of the game you haven’t yet had the opportunity to scour several maps clean of all items and so you are critically low on ammo to start with, but it’s not a coincidence that this is also the part of the game where the environment is rather conveniently filled with explosive gasoline barrels that will take out three zombies with one shot. Past that point it’s perfectly viable to use your shotgun as your primary weapon as you’re given more than enough gunpowder and shells for it, and once you get the grenade launcher all enemies are nothing more than an ugly-looking joke — as long as you don’t waste rounds on single zombies you’ll have enough to blow everything else into disgusting chunks, while having plenty left over to take out the occasional group. It’s not fully braindead and the game does still do the immediate business of target selection/weapon switching/reloading quite well — there were a couple of high-tension moments where the shotgun reload interval almost got me killed — but Resident Evil 3 is definitely a far less cerebral game than its predecessor.
That goes for its environments as well. Resident Evil 2’s interlocking maps based around and underneath the police station were very smartly put together, with locked doors and secret passages connecting late game areas with early ones. This let the level designers structure things in a quite intricate way, with a key picked up in hour four of your playthrough unlocking a door that you’d come across in hour one, which gave you the final piece of a puzzle that rewarded you with a weapon upgrade or inventory expansion — and so on. The police station was designed for long-term exploration, and for the actual act of exploration to be rewarding, and this contrasts extremely poorly with Resident Evil 3, which is chopped up into a collection of bite-size maps that cannot be revisited once you’ve moved the plot forward. There’s far fewer secrets and optional content to find, and while the level designers do their best with some basic backtracking it quickly becomes obvious that each map only has two or three key locations and you’re just running the same linear route between them. They’re each pretty anonymous – a city district, a secret lab, a (sigh) sewer — and even though you end up visiting RE 2’s police station again this too ends up feeling rather hollow and truncated as your exploration efforts are limited to one wing and a staircase.
The sole highlight of Resident Evil 3 is the hospital level. Perhaps it’s just the current state of world affairs, but walking through darkened corridors piled high with furniture, medical gurneys and corpses was the only time the game even came close to unnerving me. The hospital is just as linear as the rest of the game but it was the only level that felt like it had any character of its own; the Nemesis wasn’t present at the start or end of it (we’ll get to him in just a second, trust me) and for most of your stay there you’re controlling Carlos rather than Jill. The point-of-view character switches twice like this during the game; inventories aren’t shared and Carlos’s offensive options are restricted to a pistol, a disappointingly weedy assault rifle and whatever grenades he can scrounge up, meaning I actually felt the resource pinch when I was playing as him. Strangely enough it’s much more intimidating to open the door to the next room knowing you’ve only got three bullets for your pistol and thirty for your assault rifle (this will kill two zombies at most) than it is to open that same door carrying twenty-six shotgun shells and nine flame grenades. Later you get to visit the same hospital as Jill and all of the corpses he left behind are still present, along with bloody bootprints indicating his passage, and I really wish Resident Evil 3 had played with having two protagonists a little more like this. As it is Carlos is barely given more screentime than he is in the original game and disappears for large portions of it, presumably because most of his gameplay segments got cut for time.
Honestly though, it’s the meta-structure of the game that annoys me more than the layout of individual areas. They’re too small and linear but that’s a constraint imposed by having the game put together the way it is, where you achieve whatever the overarching objective for the current map is which immediately causes the Nemesis to appear and chase you back to the other end of it, which then triggers a forced transition to the next area via a cutscene. Carlos’s bits of the game avoid this because the Nemesis isn’t after him, but Jill’s implement this formula to the point of parody. When you push the big objective button and then turn around and open the door behind you and all of the zombie corpses have disappeared and the street now has a big empty area in the middle of it that just so happens to allow ample room for a trenchcoated monster to burst through a wall or jump down from a rooftop, then, well, it’s hardly surprising to me when that does indeed end up happening because a) I’ve played videogames before and b) even if I hadn’t it’s what happened the last three times I did this in Resident Evil 3. Nemesis starts out as a crap version of Mr X from Resident Evil 2, if Mr X was way more scripted and had a bullshit leap move that let him catch up to you if you were getting too far ahead; he’ll appear and run after you and try to punch you, and this was always the least interesting thing about Mr X, who was far more effective at ramping up the threat level of nearby monsters than he was as a threat himself. The game does spawn zombies on your escape route (it has to because you’ve already killed the ones that were previously there) to try and spice things up a bit, but if the encounter designers wanted that to be a problem they probably shouldn’t have given me all of these bullets.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) this Mr X ripoff phase only lasts for a couple of chase sequences; perhaps aware that he’s nothing more than a pale shadow of his predecessor, Nemesis quickly graduates to being a repeating boss battle interspersed with the odd quicktime event. The boss battles were one of the worst parts of Resident Evil 2, and Nemesis is no better. Worse, in fact, because these boss battles don’t really seem to take into consideration the fact that the series has switched to a modern over-the-shoulder viewpoint that enables boss battles more complicated than “just shoot it a whole lot until it falls over”. In the first proper boss battle he comes at you with a flamethrower, but the flamethrower is on his right side and it’s trivial to keep the large pile of flame-blocking wood between you and it while pouring rounds into his still-very-visible giant head. In the second he runs around you in circles while occasionally coming in for a big melee swipe, and I’m still not sure what the challenge here was supposed to be. Shooting at a moving target, maybe? Fighting him is mostly just a matter of healing at the right moments — some hits will reduce your health from CAUTION to DEAD without you ever seeing DANGER status — and bringing enough bullets to eventually make him keel over. But again, that’s absolutely not a problem in Resident Evil 3; you’re limited far more by the total amount of bullets you can carry in your inventory than any other factor in these bossfights, and even if that were somehow an issue there’s plenty more scattered around the boss arena if you get low.
By reducing Nemesis to a repeating bossfight, Resident Evil 3 somehow makes him less effective than he was in his previous outing 21 years ago. There, he’d come at you in the environment you’d just spent the last hour exploring. He seemed like a much more organic part of the game, especially since you usually had the option of running or fighting, and fighting him would yield useful items in exchange for actually taking the risk. Here, though, even in his first Mr X-like appearances you’ll find that the area around you has mysteriously changed to allow only one route forward, with goofy scripted events popping up along the way to obstruct your path; it’s an entirely linear escape sequence of the sort that Resident Evil 4 popularised many years ago, with no further exploration possible once Nemesis appears. You can stun him with a grenade to get him to cough up weapon upgrades, just as in the original, but you can’t put him down for the count; only making it to the level transition will do that. The key thing is that he has no presence outside of these 100% scripted segments; you figure out very quickly what the rules are governing his appearances and that he’s absolutely not a threat outside of them, and that goes double once he starts appearing exclusively in bossfights.
The original Resident Evil 3 carried the subtitle of Nemesis; he was the game’s signature feature and did enough to feel like he successfully defined it. By contrast I’m not surprised they’ve dropped the Nemesis subtitle for the remake given how unimaginative and ineffectual he is, but the problem is there’s nothing else taking up the slack and Resident Evil 3 feels exactly like what it is: a collection of short unconnected levels that are over too soon and which are given no space to breathe. If anything it has even less content than the infamously rushed original, with the entire clock tower sequence being cut from the game and other signs of “oh shit the deadline’s coming up let’s just bolt together what we’ve got and ship it” metaphorically plastered everywhere. There’s been no time for polish, and no time to add the extra features that gave the Resident Evil 2 remake so much replayability; no alternate scenarios and no bonus modes a la Hunk — I found this especially disappointing given how much I enjoyed the Mercenaries bonus mode in the original. There’s not even any time for Resident Evil 3 to appreciate its own heritage; the Resi 2 remake had some very cool features like the original PS1 models for Leon and Claire and a piece of DLC that replaced the game’s soundtrack with the original music, which was still wonderfully creepy two decades later. Resident Evil 3 doesn’t even have the man shouting “RESIDENT EVIL!” whenever you start the game, which seems like it would have been the quickest and easiest win ever. Instead all we get is a barebones 5-hour zombie blasting romp, which is fine enough on a technical level but which isn’t remotely a good remake and which compares unfavourably to games released eight years ago2, let alone its own immediate predecessor.