About five minutes into the Resident Evil 3 remake, I uttered the word “brilliant.” I don’t use that word often. I don’t know if I should have used it then. Brilliance is an incredibly rare thing, but Resident Evil 3 hooked me from the start. So I used the word. It is an explosive game brimming with intensity and some of the best action in the series. If you’re looking for a moody horror experience, this isn’t it. If you want furious chases, sudden death, and overwhelming zombie horde, Resident Evil 3 will gladly kill you.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis released in 1999 for the Sony PlayStation. The original Resident Evil was claustrophobic and puzzle driven. Resident Evil 2 upped the stakes with more zombies but carried a sizzling anxiety underneath pockets of violence. Nemesis operated on a different ethos: Set during the height of the zombie outbreak in Raccoon City, the survival horror was mixed with straight out action. There were assault rifles, dashing monsters, and quick maneuvering through open streets. The titular Nemesis loomed above all, a hulk creature all but impossible to kill. It stalked the player around the city and could appear at nearly any time. It remains terrifying to this day.
The Resident Evil 3 remake transplants that experience into a modern framework and ratchets up an already intense experience into something downright exhausting. I mean that in the best possible way. Resident Evil 3 is a better modernization than last year’s fantastic Resident Evil 2 remake. Where that game was still puzzling out a change in format and occasionally struggled to forge an identity, Resident Evil 3 proceeds with wonderful confidence. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but Resident Evil 3 knows what it wants to be.
Video game horror operates on two different philosophies. In the first, players walk up to a closed door. Anything could be behind it; the horror comes from the unknown. That model, while effective, has a downside: players choose when to open the door. They can prepare—both mentally and with in-game supplies—to face whatever lies ahead.
The second philosophy allows monsters to open the door whenever they want. There’s no time for deep breath or pep talks. You will never be safe, even in the places where you think you are untouchable. No lock is big enough, no weapon strong enough, to stop what is coming. This is the philosophy at the core of Resident Evil 3. It is louder and meaner than what came before.
Set after the events of Resident Evil and slightly before (and then concurrent with) Resident Evil 2, the story focuses on Jill Valentine’s escape from a zombie outbreak in Raccoon City. Jill is a former member of the Raccoon Police Department’s Special Tactics and Rescue Service, or STARS. These rapid response experts were all but eliminated in Resident Evil after venturing into a monster-filled mansion. The virus responsible for the monsters was created by the nefarious Umbrella Corporation and spread into the city proper. Jill, placed on leave by the Umbrella-owned police chief, plans to leave the city under the cover of night. The sudden zombie outbreak and arrival of a tireless killer monster codenamed “Nemesis,” which has been specifically programmed to hunt down STARS members, throws that plan into disarray. What follows is a desperate struggle to survive through the worst parts of the outbreak.
Resident Evil 2 featured another dangerous enemy called T-000, also known as Mr. X. During key portions of the game, Mr. X would patrol the police station and chase down the player. While he could be stopped for a time, he could not be killed. The segments with Mr. X were among the most terrifying in the game. Resident Evil 3 makes that terror the core of the experience. Right from the start, the Nemesis is chasing you. While there are moments when you’re safe, he is a far more dogged foe than Mr. X whenever his is around. He is faster and runs after you at full speed. He is more intelligent and can use weapons. If you’re far away, the Nemesis can grab you with slimy tendrils and pull you closer. Try to run away and the Nemesis might leap over your head to block the way. Knock him down with a grenade and you might buy some time, but even if you get away he can and will show up when you least expect it.
At one point, I thought I was in a safe room, but he entered it anyway. I’d journeyed through the back alleys to a power station, where I rerouted subway tracks for a train full of survivors. The city teemed with the undead and parasitically infested super-zombies. A single grab from any and I would die. Then I heard the music shift, a subtle flutter of strings indicating that the Nemesis had found me. I slipped into full-blown panic. This wasn’t my first time dealing with the Nemesis, but I’d never been at such a disadvantage before. Staggering every step of the way, blowing zombies out of my path with frenzied shotgun blasts, I entered the safe room. I thought I would have a moment to breathe. I thought I would be able to save my game or rifle through my storage box for healing items. Then, the Nemesis entered. With nowhere left to dodge, I was unable to slip out of the Nemesis’ path. He slammed me to death against the floor with a juicy crack of my skull.
I knew this was possible in theory. Before I received my review code, Official Xbox Magazine reported that the Nemesis could kill players in safe rooms. This claim was ultimately disputed by Capcom. “Safe rooms,” it was said, only qualify as such if soothing music plays when you enter. I have reviewed the footage of two separate playthroughs and the previous times I entered the room, there was indeed the soft and comforting piano music of every other safe room. Resident Evil 3’s trick isn’t that there are rooms that are truly “safe” and those that just happen to have typewriters for saving your game. The trick is that Resident Evil 3 can occasionally change the rules, if only for the smallest of moments. Perhaps that room was truly “safe” before—that lovely piano tune and type writer suggests that it was—and perhaps there are rooms that are always safe. In this instance, it wasn’t. I didn’t get to prepare myself and open the door. The Nemesis opened it for me.
You’re not entirely helpless. Jill is an experienced police officer, and this isn’t the first time she’s dealt with the undead. While Resident Evil 3 is a more dangerous and punishing game than the Resident Evil 2 remake, players have a few tricks up their sleeve. The most important is the quick dodge: With the press of a button, Jill can juke away from zombies or other enemies. Time it perfectly and she rolls completely out of harm’s way. It functions on the same principle as action-game mechanics like Bayonetta’s “witch time”-granting dodge moves. Time slows down in these moments, making it possible to quickly draw your weapon and land a crack shot on any zombie nearby. From time to time, you also play as Umbrella special forces soldier Carlos Oliveira. He has access to heavy weapons like an assault rifle and a powerful counter punch if a dodge is timed perfectly. Both characters have a knife that, unlike the melee weapons in Resident Evil 2, never breaks. If you run out of ammunition—which is rare, as the game doesn’t skimp on ammo—you can switch to the knife and slash away. This is risky, but Jill’s stabs are quick and come with a small hopping movement that makes it easier to fall back. These two changes sound small but give the player greater control than Resident Evil 2. Regular zombies aren’t a major threat so long as you are attentive and play things right. The result is a faster paced game.
In spite of these tools, Resident Evil 3 can be incredibly punishing. While the player has options for handling rank and file zombies, many enemies have the ability to kill in a single strike if you aren’t careful. Some enemies can cause a dangerous status effect that can quickly seal your doom. This will please players eager for a challenge but will certainly piss off others. There are enemies in the game that all but require perfectly timed dodges to expose their weak points. This can be avoided if you use special weapons, but there will be times when your survival skills are pushed to the limit. Resident Evil 3 also loves to spring traps on the player. That can mean a tiny room full of nearly a dozen zombies bearing down on you. It can also mean a lone lizard-like Hunter that leaps from a distance and slits your throat in the blink of an eye. Resident Evil 3 is eager to toss players into the most dire circumstances and harshly punish any mistakes. I found myself limping around at death’s door plenty of times.
This focus on action and danger, as compared to anxiety and dark exploration, means that Resident Evil 3 is more focused on set pieces than other games in the series. There are frantic ascents through burning construction sites and lengthy defense sequences against waves of zombies. This might feel antithetical to Resident Evil—after all, excess action in later installments ultimately alienated fans—but it works well here. Resident Evil 3 moves at a consistently exciting pace. As much as I appreciate peeking around corners in a cramped mansion, the action helps the game forge a unique identity and feel. Resident Evil was a haunted house attraction with rooms to explore and monsters in the closet. Resident Evil 2 functioned like a roller coaster with occasional drops into danger before rising into periods of stability. Resident Evil 3 is a falling elevator. Like it or hate it, the ride doesn’t slow down, and the pit in your stomach doesn’t let up until the end.
This action underpins a story of espionage and survival that has more focus than Resident Evil 2. Jill’s attempts to escape the Nemesis weave in and out of the growing intrigue affecting Carlos and his fellow soldiers. What starts as a battle for survival spins outwards as the possibility of a vaccine for the zombie threat emerges, all while a mercenary soldier seeks to profit off the chaos. Jill and Carlos have an instant rapport, and their actors bring a playful camaraderie to each scene. Jill Valentine is a goddamn hero and acts accordingly, even in the face of the pulpiest plots. Carlos is a goodhearted man reckoning with his role as an Umbrella grunt. They are capable equals who face their situation with confidence. It’s not the deepest story—Resident Evil 3 sometimes channels the controversial Paul W. S. Anderson films and even some of the wry pulp of S.D Perry’s old novelization—but it’s told with just enough seriousness that I wanted to know where the story would go and where it might deviate from the original game.
This is helped by Resident Evil 3’s commitment to graphical realism. It’s always a gamble to bet on photorealistic graphics in a medium where stylization is a calling card, but Resident Evil 3 threads the needle well. Capcom’s RE Engine is a remarkably powerful framework to build a game on, and it’s astounding how much detail is poured into each character’s performance.
The Resident Evil 3 remake doesn’t completely follow in the original’s footsteps when it comes to plot structure. The original game had key moments where players could decide on Jill’s actions. These created branching paths that led to slightly different endings. Resident Evil 3 ditches these in order to keep the story more focused. It works out in the end, but it distances the remake from the original. That’s fine—remakes forge their own paths and create their own interpretations of events—but the change makes the Resident Evil 3 remake a slightly more limited experience. Besides a few puzzle segments where you might need to pause and think, the story rushes along from beat to beat. An initial playthrough, assuming extra caution from the player, will only take 4-6 hours. Replaying the game to complete hidden challenges and special items has a lot of appeal, but multiple paths could have helped flesh out the world in a more satisfying way.
There was an anxiety underpinning my experience, but it wasn’t one that Resident Evil 3 could have known about. I hopped into Resident Evil 3 in the middle of a global pandemic that’s seen increasing sickness and death toll around the world. As I write this review, the United States has surpassed every other country for confirmed cases of covid-19. Resident Evil 3 opens with newscasts and press conferences outlining a growing viral outbreak, and starts with the total breakdown of life within Raccoon City. It’s a surreal experience to wander through a fake hospital, scouring through corpse-laden isolation wings and finding desperate notes from doctors outlining their dwindling supplies and fast-filling beds. In any other circumstances, these images would be a pulp fantasy. Now? Well, it doesn’t feel quite so fictitious.
That isn’t to say that Resident Evil 3 is suddenly some profound social commentary or deeply relevant emotional experience. It’s mostly a game where a big scary dude chases you and you pop zombie skulls with your shotgun. But we bring as much to games as they give back to us. Resident Evil 3’s terror mostly relies on high octane chases and immensely deadly enemies, but these days there’s an entirely different fear underneath the action movie hi-jinks.
“How could this happen?” the citizens of Raccoon City lament as government officials and corporations underplay and seek to profit off the outbreak. I get it now.
Resident Evil 3 is loud. It is a snarling dog too close to your face, spittle flying everywhere. For some players, the intensity will be a turn off. The original version is the link between the earlier games’ simmering spookiness and Resident Evil 4’s bold action. It marked the first step in a tonal shift that arguably went too far: As the series progressed, the action grew too excessive. The remake threads a spectacular needle. The explosive boss fights and ever-present cat and mouse chases never feel out of place. Windows shatters as the zombie horde bursts in, giant lizards swallow you whole, and the Nemesis slams down behind you at the worst moment. The terror doesn’t fade simply because you have an assault rifle or grenade launcher. For good and ill, Resident Evil 3 takes last year’s Resident Evil 2 remake and hones it into something meaner. Embracing that chaos leads to an intense and confidently executed Resident Evil experience.