I have played a lot of Resident Evil since the series’ debut in 1996: Some I adore, some I quite like, and there’s one I can’t even bear playing long enough to finish it the once (and no, it’s not 6). This third entry has always sat somewhere in the middle for me, never doing anything so wrong I can point to it as a particular issue, but never really grabbing me the way its closest cousin Code: Veronica – rage-inducing moth hall and all – does with its memorable boss battles, fantastic soundtrack, and the unabashedly hammy introduction of Super Wesker. I found the streets in Jill’s solo outing confusing, the random item layout and “live selection” system made forward planning difficult, and as heart-stopping as being chased by Nemesis is in the moment there was never any doubt that Jill would eventually get the better of Umbrella’s latest hideous experiment. Resident Evil 1 and 2 have specific and distinct feels to them and you can prefer one or the other, or be more in the mood for one of them that day, but even with the shotguns, the tank controls, the dual leads and all of those zombies that bind them together there’s still more that sets them apart. 3 was always painted as being left behind, a reheated jaunt through Raccoon City without the polish or gravitas of the previous game nor the full-3D next-gen-ness of the Dreamcast’s Code: Veronica (the Nosferatu fight seems to have been made to showcase what could be done with the series in modern (for the time) 3D, using the sniper rifle’s first-person point of view to take the boss out with precision). On the surface Resident Evil 3 held little value for any one of the millions of people worldwide who were already exposed to the series: The city is actually a front for Umbrella’s underhanded activities and filled with elaborate unlocking mechanisms and secret labs before getting wiped off the map forever? Those weren’t grand reveals even in 1999, just business as usual for the genre. It was clear from the moment you took control back in Resident Evil 2 that there was going to be no happy ending for that small midwestern town, so seeing the place get super-destroyed after everyone you cared about had already escaped had little emotional impact. Even if you view it as a promise to finally move on (Final Fantasy XIV would use a similar death from above tactic to great effect fourteen years later) after what felt at the time like an unstoppable wave of minutely different ports of the first two games it didn’t work, and it was a surprise to absolutely nobody when Capcom went back and revisited both the general location as well as the exact scenario presented within these early games many times in the years that followed.
So what is Resident Evil 3, other than “not as good as 2” or “not as pretty as Code: Veronica”? What 3 allegedly is is “the action one”, from a time before that meant worrying about QTE’ing ourselves away from giant enemy statues or punching boulders to avoid complete global saturation. But as the game was still shackled to the old prerendered background/3D character base and the series wasn’t quite ready to abandon the horror atmosphere and puzzles combination that had served it so well (Dino Crisis 2, free from the crushing weight of those sorts of expectations, was able to really show how far Capcom could take action-tank gaming) rather than reinvent the undead wheel Resident Evil 3 instead expresses this new action bent through the sheer quantity of enemies it throws at Jill: Once upon a time three zombies to a corridor would have been considered a dangerously crowded area, but in 3 that’s considered more of a quiet lull. Anywhere that isn’t filled to bursting with decomposing humans can be relied upon to have multiple dogs, crows, Hunters (two varieties), or Hunter-likes (Drain Deimos and Brain Suckers) roaming around, and it’s all topped off with the occasional Nemesis encounter just in case you were starting to feel a little confident – you can almost count the number of threat-free rooms on one infected hand. Not even the ground underneath Jill’s feet’s a reliable friend here: Save rooms may remain the sacred sanctuaries they’ve always been but anywhere else might be on fire, have giant worms crumble the ground beneath her feet, zombies clawing their way out of the dirt, or force you to choose between pushing your foe off a bridge or leaping off into the unknown yourself.
That may be how it looks on the surface (the intro has Jill escaping an explosion before being chased by a horde of zombies, swiftly followed by even more zombies, before the game starts proper with a man locking himself in a container because of all the zombies) but underneath it’s very much business as usual and you really don’t have to shoot anything outside of three boss encounters. Even ignoring Jill’s raw speed and her all-new abilities to run up stairs without pressing a button first, quick turn, and dodge (perfectly judged so the timing is lenient enough to make it worth trying in a sticky situation, but strict enough to prevent you from wandering through the decimated streets like Neo in a miniskirt) there are still only a few places where you’re better off attacking the shambling hordes with the shotgun (the game is designed so you can dump the handgun within a minute of the game’s opening and never need to even think about it ever again) than running by. In this regard, and for all the visual army-of-crows-suddenly-shattering-the-windows bravado to the contrary, Resident Evil 3’s actually a lot like the original “mansion incident” adventure – there’s a large gap between the implied threat and the actual danger, so long as you can keep a level head and not allow yourself to get pressured into attacking. This divide between the danger as presented as part of the cutscenes and the amount of conflict Jill has to participate in is perhaps best demonstrated by the final battle of the game against Nemesis’ squishy acid-spitting form – a fight that very helpfully occurs right next to a fully-functional rail cannon. You’re stuck in a tight spot against the toughest enemy in the game, the dramatic music’s kicked in and you’re carrying every last scrap of ammo you’ve got left – if there was ever a moment to unleash everything you had, surely this would be it.
You’d be wrong.
Not that there’s anything stopping you from unloading the contents of your item chest into what’s left of Nemesis, or that it wouldn’t be effective (eventually), but there’s a better option in the room, one that will allow you to win whether you limp into that final room brandishing your last two bullets or heaving a rocket launcher over Jill’s shoulder. Or as the original Resident Evil put it:
That rail cannon isn’t something saved for a dramatic finisher but a device that once activated will keep charging and firing at set intervals until Nemesis is defeated – it’s free damage (and life-ending for Jill if she’s caught in it), a weapon that doesn’t require precious inventory space to start up or to fire. And this all means it’s impossible to fight tooth and nail to what should rightly be an exciting climax only to be stopped in your tracks without enough ammunition to take him down or maybe even worse, you’ve loaded yourself up with so much stuff there’s now no room in your inventory for a necessary fuse or five inches of vital cable. The series may have been in the process of letting go of the past, but it wasn’t about to forget the things that really mattered even as the classic style was going out the door.
All of the above is more about identifying the gap between the game’s outward style and internal design philosophy, but we do also need to take a moment to address a genuine misconception: That Resident Evil 3 is just another tour around Resident Evil 2’s main locations only this time you play as the one character everyone picked in the first game and there’s a new kind of Mr X in tow. This is not true. And that’s not down to me being a nitpicky “If you were a real fan you’d appreciate what they were trying to do” kind of person or “Well that’s technically untrue because…” irritant either – the fact is the only time the two games cross is when Jill makes a very early and very brief return to her desk at the RPD to collect her lockpick, which in the interest of reusing as many commercial-grade assets as possible looks exactly the same as Claire’s home-made set from 2 and not the professional tools of a well-trained master of unlocking. Even if you were to try to force your way into a Jill-themed replay of Resident Evil 2 you’d soon find your way blocked off by impassable doors and an absence of all the key items needed to make even the most basic headway to what used to be common areas in the previous game. There are – and yes I counted them – just eleven areas across two police station floors shared between the two games, and that’s including the yard outside the front doors, minor corridors, and all the optional rooms you never need to be in. For comparison: there are nineteen areas on the first floor alone of the original Resident Evil 2’s RPD. This brief detour for a key item is meant to be a grounding point – somewhere familiar so you can relate to the city and make some sense of the surrounding jumble of shattered streets and death-filled back alleys. It’s true to say it’s a little disappointing to see them reuse the exact same location shots – I couldn’t tell you if that was done for speed/cost purposes or if they originally intended to do a Director’s Cut style reshoot but no longer had access to the original files, but a few fresh angles in such a memorable location would have definitely helped put some visual distance between the two games and possibly have helped quash this untruth before it took hold.
So it’s the action one that’s not actually all that actiony, and the “lazy” retread that actually shares very little with its better-selling prequel, so what is Resident Evil 3 really?
Resident Evil 3’s biggest and boldest move isn’t found in the either/or “live selection” system, Jill’s new moves, or even in Nemesis – this game sets itself apart from everything before and after with the unpredictable variety of its item and enemy placements. Yup. Honestly I know this doesn’t sound like much but it’s a huge deal: On your first few goes you might feel that these are entirely random, a cruel game of chance in a game that’s already trying to kill you off. But if you dig a little deeper…
We’ll start with standard consumables – herbs and ammo, that sort of thing. Most of these placements are completely unchangeable under any circumstances, always remaining in the same spot on every playthrough until the end of time. These are always left in important life-saving positions – you’ll never find yourself stuck with a poison status you can’t clear for a lack of blue herbs (if anything Resident Evil 3’s overly generous on the anti-poison front) or be without a first aid spray before a tough fight due to the RNG not going your way. Everything else is of a fixed quantity, but their exact location varies from game to game – if they aren’t found at X, they’ll be at Y. These alternative locations will always be within the same territory as each other, meaning if you can’t find a couple of life-saving green herbs at one street you’ll find the same amount a few equally-accessible screens away in another. The thing to remember here is while you can’t ever predict where they’ll spawn (the game makes each decision separate from all the others rather than deciding at the beginning you’ll be dealing with “Item Placement Chart C” for the entire run, for example) you’re not being denied anything, you just may have to make room for something now instead of later, or hold on just a little longer than you were hoping for. With practise and a few runs under your belt you start remembering these alternative locations and learn to slightly adjust your plans rather than outright panic when those gunpowder bottles you were counting on weren’t where you expected them to be, although never being able to be certain remains as uncomfortable as it was the first time through.
Randomised ammo location swaps work on a like-for-like basis: You may find mine thrower ammo (hard/heavy mode only) when you expected grenade rounds and vice versa but you’ll never find either of them swapped out for a derisory box of handgun bullets, making these outcomes something that might force you to use a weapon you dislike or may have left in a chest but never actually putting you in a worse position than you would have been if things had gone the other way. A really easy to spot example is found in the STARS weapon locker – there’s a 50/50 chance it’s either a magnum (very useful) or a grenade launcher (also very useful). Whichever one you don’t find there is waiting for you in an optional room inside the electrical substation later. But what if you did want a few handgun bullets, or longed for a box of shotgun shells to quickly knock down a few troublesome Hunters? This is where the all-new and exclusive ammo creation system system comes in, allowing you to create anything from regular handgun bullets to freeze rounds for the grenade launcher (do make freeze rounds for the grenade launcher, they’re very useful) so long as you can remember the right combination of two different gunpowders. There’s even an invisible experience system running in the background here, where working more often with a particular standard gunpowder type will increase the quantity and quality of the ammunition produced. As an old-fashioned fan of the original Resident Evil in particular for a long time my personal opinion of all this unpredictable shuffling was to consider it borderline heresy, but in the long run it really does help keep things interesting without ever breaking the delicate balance of the game.
The randomised item system rears its unpredictable head during your search for key items too: There’s one instance where you need to find two gems to open the doors by the city office to proceed, the blue one is always found in the RPD’s evidence room but the other green gem is either in a small area at the back of the restaurant or found on a desk at the top of the Raccoon Press building. Unlike other random item situations that use a fixed percentage chance to determine what goes where, here the green gem is always in the last place you look – if you open the hatch in the restaurant the gem will be in the press office, and if you explore the press office first you’ll find the gem in the restaurant. It’s possible this was done as an attempt to solve the problem of certain locations becoming completely superfluous in Resident Evil 1 and 2 once you knew what you were doing but in any case as both locations are quite close to each other as well as near where you need to use the gem you find in them – and as there’s an exciting an encounter with Nemesis in both – it never feels like you’re being lead on a wild goose chase or suffering through some needless padding.
If you’ll allow me to briefly take you away from the randomisation system for an item-related aside: Another huge yet under-celebrated change found in Resident Evil 3 is the placement and use of all the special plot-progressing thingamabobs – almost everything’s single use and meant to be used close to where you find them – some items are even used in the same room! Keys, once thought to be the cornerstone of any survival horror experience, now have one – just one – use, and that will be on the way to your next location, not something you have to keep around forever “just in case” like the original’s mysterious MO discs or 2’s card-themed set of RPD door-openers. It’s simply impossible to be left jangling a massive bunch of keys here – you’ll always use up the last one to get to the next, naturally freeing up inventory space as you go and allowing you to focus on pushing ahead instead of making constant timid laps back to the nearest item chest. The exceptions to this helpful new rule are the lockpick and lighter used in various locations throughout the whole game, but seeing as you start with eight inventory slots and soon upgrade to ten you can easily keep both in Jill’s inventory from the moment you find them until the end of the game without any planning or consumables shuffling on your part, even when tackling the most item-heavy puzzle of the game – the clock tower gem/clock puzzle. To complete this you need to place three gems in three dishes to turn the centre clock’s hands to midnight, a feat that requires either a lot of experimentation, some maths, or a sticky note on the side of your monitor with all of the possible outcomes scribbled on it. If this had been in the older games you’d have looked at that riddle and rolled your eyes before scurrying off to find all the bits needed then dutifully cleared out your carry bags before carting them across the map, but here the three gems are found just a few steps away from the puzzle and can be picked up and put down one by one, virtually eliminating any and all inventory-based woes. Another clock tower segment has you finding and then combining two cogs before placing them in the main clock mechanism – which is literally right next to an item chest and again spares you from being a single item slot away from victory. The only real exception to this commitment to single/immediate use items is found in the lengthy quest at the beginning to find three (you end up needing four) items to start up the cable car, although as this is designed to be a significant scene-changing landmark event in Jill’s last escape – much like the original’s crests/masks and Resident Evil 2’s chess plugs – it’s easy to see why that particular fetch quest behaves a little differently to the puzzle design found throughout the rest of the game.
Enemies have not been forgotten in Resident Evil 3’s mission to make your adventure as uncertain as possible, and just as it is with items while many bioweapon placements are set in stone the rest have an equal chance of being one of anything up to three different types, and others are further influenced by something you did or didn’t do at an earlier “live selection” point in the game. As with the ammo-related randomness these alternatives are always designed to work out to roughly the same total threat/damage/shots-to-kill ratio no matter what you end up with – an army of zombies is “worth” a couple of Hunters or a few fast-paced dogs for example, or they might do a straight swap between two Drain Deimos and two Brain Suckers. The only time it isn’t balanced is when there’s the chance any of the above will be swapped for the a group of Sliding Worms but as those are incredibly weak and mostly harmless that’s a decision that goes in your favour, a small relief rather than an unfair punishment. Sometimes the amount and type will remain the same but their positions within their area changes: the RPD west office room (the one with Leon’s desk and Marvin in the original version of Resident Evil 2) is a good early example, having two very different potential zombie setups that change your route through the room as well as how long you have to react to them – one set has a tight-knit group of zombies placed further away from the door, the other has the same quantity better spread out but with one bearing down on you the instant you enter the room.
Now then, Nemesis… Nemesis is not random. Well, not anywhere near as random as it may feel when he’s rushing at you at full speed or tossing Jill around like a ragdoll. His appearances (and disappearances) are actually quite heavily scripted, always matching specific points in your progress and the decisions you make during the “live selection” sequences. Sometimes he’ll be in one street if you don’t find him roaming around another, but that’s really as far as it ever goes with him. As with “Mr X” in Resident Evil 2 and its remake certain areas are places he will never enter, because trying to investigate areas and solve puzzles with him tentacl’ing down your neck may involve both survival and horror, but it wouldn’t be much fun. Knowing these appearances are highly controlled might make you feel that he’s not much of a threat, but being this scripted means he will always show up in the most dramatic fashion possible, and usually standing between Jill and the door you need to get her out of. You end up with the nagging feeling that him not being present all the time doesn’t mean you’re safe, it only means you’re safe for now. Everything you do will only create further unavoidable encounters with him and when he does appear you can be sure he will make short work of Jill’s health if given the slightest chance.
So it turns out the biggest thing in Resident Evil 3’s list of changes is the one that’s commented on the least, and the one that’s perhaps most likely to be misunderstood. The unpredictable nature that underpins Jill’s game is not anywhere near as random as you may fear – this isn’t a roguelike that may suddenly decide to become nigh-impossible to finish due to a few bad spawns, or a game that might make things unbearably difficult by pure chance. This isn’t like modern adaptive difficulty either – the game isn’t adding or removing things based on how well you are or aren’t doing, if something isn’t where you expected it here then you can be sure you’ll find it elsewhere if you go look. The thinking behind Resident Evil 3’s randomness is that no matter what you do or how refined your abilities become there will always be unplanned hiccoughs along the way – leaping Hunters where last time you skilfully avoided zombies, or gunpowder pickups left in a less convenient spot. It’s not trying to make things harder or easier, just different and unknowable – and it works. Even when you know everything, even when you know all the possible alternatives to every outcome, you still can’t predict exactly what will happen or what you’ll have to react to once you step through one of those iconic doors. You can never prepare for what’s ahead in this last escape, you just have to deal with it – making this often overlooked “between” Resident Evil perhaps the ultimate expression of the original survival horror concept out of all of them, being as it is both tightly designed as well as genuinely unpredictable at all times on every play.