Another last escape

Resident Evil 3 HD

It took me far too long to truly appreciate what the original Resident Evil 3 was trying to do with its  Live Selection system and alternative locations for everything from grenade launchers to key items – and then just as I finally saw the beauty behind its unpredictable nature and quickfire decision making this shiny HD remake came along and took away all of those clever PlayStation features and replaced them with – oh – with nothing at all. They’re just gone.

We do however get a deeply unsettling and all-new opening nightmare to distract us from this gameplay-gutting, making fantastic use of a first-person point of view to force use to look through Jill’s rapidly decaying eyes as her immediately recognisable form (once again the new Resident Evil team do a great job in matching preexisting characters to new models – I’m almost ready to forgive them for Resident Evil 7‘s not-Chris) corrodes into bulging veins and torn grey skin, the inevitable loss of her humanity to the T-virus only seconds away – a fate so awful the only possible response is to blow her own brains out in front of her bathroom mirror.

And then she wakes up at her desk, the surface covered in a bewildering array of notes and files, and she can hear the tap in the bathroom running…

The game could have gone off the rails right here and never recovered: If the development team had got its treatment of Jill wrong – if they’d spent the game making her suffer in a way that felt the only reasoning behind it was something ridiculous like “Because only women can truly express this level of fear” – then the game would’ve only been fit for the bin before it had even started. What Resident Evil 3 does instead is always make it perfectly clear that Jill is doing a brave and difficult job under extraordinary circumstances; it gives her the space to celebrate her victories and when she does take a tumble the action is always careful to present this physical battering as something remarkable – you can almost hear the director saying “Look at what Jill’s survived this time! Isn’t she incredible?” with every shot. There’s no doubt – not even for a second – that she’s capable, she’s in charge, and she’s going to end up bloody and bruised and smelly and victorious no matter what happens, you’ve just got to stick by her long enough to see her win. Resident Evil 3 doesn’t want you to focus on the times Jill gets knocked over, it wants you to cheer when she stands up (and then enthusiastically take a shotgun to whatever just caused her trouble).

After that shocking introduction we run straight into even more new content as Brad Vickers, the utter coward piloting the STARS helicopter in the original Resident Evil, calls Jill to warn h- and before he can explain what’s happening Nemesis, fully wrapped up in his constrictive mutation-dampening binbags wrappings, bursts through the wall and makes a concerted effort to kill her that’s only prevented by your own mad dashing and one perfectly timed door-filling collapse of flaming rubble. It’s another jaw-dropping scene, the raw violence of his non-announcement and the level of destruction that follows absolutely appropriate for the towering semi-intelligent monstrosity and a clear contrast to Mr X’s more reserved (yet equally frightening) debut in Resident Evil 2‘s remake.

After that Brad himself appears to try and guide Jill to safety in person and between the supportive memo he secretly had stuffed into the takeout pizza box sitting on Jill’s counter at home and his apologetic dialogue it’s clear the remake wants players to view this character not as a chicken-hearted team abandoner but more as a man who knows when he’s in over his head. And you know what? This new way of approaching the only character who survived the mansion incident without any effort works. Between their current dire situation and what we as players now know about Umbrella from later entries in the series Brad’s (outward) “head down, mouth shut” reaction to the all-powerful bioweapon manufacturer is at the very least an understandable one even though he’s officially part of a team that’s otherwise filled with brave heroes and sunglass’d villains (and Rebecca Chambers). There’s no question that if he squared up to Umbrella his actions would at best get him fired and at worst see him bitten by zombies before bravely making a last stand against a horde of the undead so Jill can… oh dear.

And after that’s all played out… well, this is kind of the trouble with the remake. Resident Evil 3, as it’s unhelpfully titled, doesn’t really give you free run of the decimated streets of Raccoon City to carefully puzzle-shoot your way through as you try to find a route out of this mess, it’s just a string of lightly disguised A to B’s with the occasional optional minor diversion along the way (these usually have another hip pouch at the end in my experience) and a lot of people shouting things like “Hey, get to the roof!” as “Objective: Go to the rooftop” appears on screen just to make sure you don’t have to do anything drastic like, ooh, think for yourself or possibly go a teeny-tiny bit in the wrong direction for a short period of time. For all the painstaking levels of environmental detail and fancy modern graphical flourishes it never really makes you believe you’re standing in Raccoon City alongside Jill, that you’re stuck there and you’re going to have to adjust to Umbrella’s twisted way of thinking if you want to survive this mess. Instead the remake feels more like a licensed rollercoaster ride at an expensive theme park: It’s pretty and it’s polished – and it’ll go through the same set of motions every single time. I felt this “No, the next bit’s over here” design philosophy most keenly in Jill and Carlos’ extremely inconsistent range of context-triggered physical abilities, all those times they’re able to squeeze through some gaps but not others, or effortlessly leap over certain allowed obstacles only to completely ignore other equally benign blockages of the same height in the same room because that’s not how the story goes.

How the story does go is a very tightly controlled affair: Oh look here’s Nemesis, right on cue! Here’s the cutscene where you’re set off running away from him through the only place Jill can go, that for all the destruction and creeping flames there’s very obviously only one safe route through, and when you reach the predetermined arena-like dead end at the top (there’s a classic typewriter just before in case you somehow weren’t absolutely sure a boss battle was coming up, looking more charmingly out of place amongst the burning scaffolding than any other Resident Evil typewriter ever has) you’ll find enough herbs and ammo to take him out and then it’s off to perform a variety other tasks in order until you reach the next walled-off battleground where you’ll do something very similar all over again. You already know how the final (final for-real-we-really-promise-this-time) boss battle’s going to play out just from the clear view you get of the area before it all kicks off – and from the detailed memo found in the save room Jill had to walk through to get there in the first place, the one explaining exactly how the special rail gun works before you even knew there was a rail gun in the room. Oh and if you don’t spot the glowy shootable pustules spread across Nemesis’ surface and end up dying during the fight even with all the first aid sprays lying around nearby? No problem, the game will make a point of mentioning them and why it’s worth shooting at them as the battle reloads.

Resident Evil 3’s not so much scary as it is scared – scared you might be very slightly annoyed if you don’t work out one of its barely-there puzzles first time, scared you might not have enough ammunition on you to defeat whatever version of Nemesis it’s thrust upon you this time, scared that maybe you’re not sure where to go next. That’s not a very survival horror way of thinking, is it? All of these abundant caches of ammo, location-sensitive loading screen hints, automatic continue spots if you die, and offers to turn on assist mode if you’re really having a hard time are about as far away from the original’s “make do and pray you don’t need to use the knife” as a game can get. PlayStation Resident Evil 3 was a challenge that never promised me anything whereas the remake behaves as if it owes me the ending just because I turned it on.

…But doesn’t it though? Aren’t games expensive, money tight for most people, and free time a rare and precious thing? Does any of this railroading make it less satisfying or exciting when I perfectly time a shotgun blast to go off just as a Gamma’s bright red split mouth fills the screen? Don’t the convenient restart spots help keep the disaster-movie pace going far more effectively than playing it “properly” ever would? Am I not always moments away from a dramatic explosion whenever I turn the game on? And perhaps most importantly of all – does any of this, whether I feel it’s good, bad, or just different, erase my good old black bottomed PlayStation CD-ROMs from existence?

This is the impossible situation Resident Evil 3’s remake has found itself in: The game it’s based on was a beautifully crafted action-leaning survival horror experience… twenty one years ago. Games have changed – the people playing them have changed (yes, even those who were there first time around) – and far too much time has passed for an actual REmake style remake with puzzle pieces for puzzle pieces, ink ribbons as standard, and fixed camera angles to even be suggested with a straight face on a specialist fan forum, never mind seriously considered as a viable business decision. There are general expectations surrounding a modern release from a developer like Capcom that just didn’t exist back when the next mainline game in the series could fit on a single shiny disc: It’s got to look nothing short of amazing if it’s going to save itself from a million “PlayStation 2 called. It wants its graphics back.” comments in user reviews. If it is going to have an infinitely replayable battle mode on the side then it’s got to be some sort of online co-op thing. And it sure as heck can’t have even a whiff of those ancient tank controls. This modernisation is also true for the game’s story, with the remake changing or outright omitting a laundry list’s worth of locations, monsters, and smaller plot points: There’s no graveyard worm to battle, no church to take shelter in, no chance to blow away Nicholai in his helicopter – and this isn’t the devastating canon-rejecting problem it may appear to be. Nobody remembers the original (and admittedly bland) name of the Spencer Memorial Hospital without looking it up first, nobody’s seriously bemoaning the lack of bell-pushing Carlos does this time around – that all happened decades ago on consoles the majority of current players might have kicking around in a box somewhere, maybe? So the remake of Resident Evil 3 instead sensibly sticks to aligning itself with the one game most people playing are going to be most familiar with – and the game that’s very easy for them to reuse expensive and highly-detailed assets from – the remake of Resident Evil 2. This is why the game makes an event of Carlos blowing the hole in the shower room wall that Leon and Claire would later walk through, why Brad is shown biting Resident Evil 2’s Marvin on the steps of the RPD (nice going, Brad…), why Jill’s encounter with Kendo fits in with the relatively fresh memories of his daughter’s unfortunate condition shown in Leon’s adventure.

This remake of Resident Evil 3 may be based on a game from the past but its been designed with the present firmly and foremost in mind: There’s simply no point in expending any energy complaining that this release is not something it was never trying to be, and to constantly compare this remake to the original is to miss the point – unlike REmake, which wanted to be (and was) the original Resident Evil’s zenith, the aim here is to bring an older game up to modern standards. Resident Evil 3 is a game well aware of its target audience, of the gap between the sort of person who broadly remembers enjoying a few big scenes and “STAAAAAAAAAAAARRSSSSSSS” and looks forward to playing through that story again without being tied to a control scheme that thinks “quickly turning around” is a mind-boggling new feature, and those ever-vocal “real” fans like myself who read every pre-launch interview and fumed when it became clear the original’s Live Selection events had been axed even though we all know in our hearts that within a week the internet would have thoroughly tested out every possible permutation and collectively agreed which routes were the “best” and from that moment on nobody would have ever bothered look at the others, rendering all of that imagined hard work wasted.

Even so I do feel there are some honest problems with the remake regardless of whether you’re a desiccated a husk of an ancient survival horror player or a freshly-turned corpse: I don’t know who told Capcom those hard-to-kill “Pale Head” zombies – naked bipedal assemblages of rapidly regenerating skin and teeth – were fun to fight but they were very, very, wrong. The swearing is just strange in places too – I know the UBCS are supposed to be a rag-tag bunch of barely-legal “countermeasure” units but that doesn’t make opening an official written communication with “Good news, limpdicks!” sound any more natural. The St Michael Clock Tower’s absence feels more obvious than the other cut areas, a chilling location lost. And all that business with the lockpicks and the bolt cutters at the beginning just wasn’t much fun. But these are all ultimately minor quibbles about a polished and pragmatic game that delivered exactly what was asked of it, turning out an appealing AAA-looking multiformat Resident Evil created (as far as general information would have me believe) on time and on budget. Does it sting a little that I can check inside Jill’s fridge and see a high-definition bottle of Raccoon Milk (that’s Raccoon Milk, not raccoon milk) but I can’t get all the actual gameplay content of a twenty one year old PlayStation game? Yes it does. Was I annoyed that the game didn’t really ease up on doing the “Ooh, look!” railroading business until the hospital section – the penultimate area of the game? I was. But if this is what a remake looks like these days; not a half-hearted “remaster” followed by a flurry of apologetic patches but a true reimagining that captures the same excitement and adventure I felt that first time around in a proud, professional, and easily accessible package, then I say bring them on – bring them all on.

[Ko-fi donations – and quite literally only Ko-fi donations – are responsible for this post’s existence! Thank you for your kindness!]

3 thoughts on “Another last escape

  1. I heard Capcom’s B-team was responsible for this, and are rumored to be working on an RE4 remake. If so, it definitely explains why it feels like such a worse experience than the RE2 remake.
    As someone who never played the original, this remake seemed ok, but hearing all the stuff that was cut (several whole AREAS?) brought down my opinion of it significantly.

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    1. This was kind of the point of the blog post: All this talk about who (apparently) made it and content not recreated (different from create but later axed) for a port released ~over twenty years later~ and most likely to be played of people who haven’t touched the original doesn’t change the quality of the game we actually got to play, and what’s here is good.

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  2. A modern game, one that released in the same year no less, on this blog? This can only happen for Resident Evil. :P
    Overall, I thought the remake was okay. I am not a big fan of the original, so I’m not that upset about the things they changed. Though removing the whole clock tower section was a bit of a shame. What bothered me more is that it so heavily adhered to what modern action games seem to consider absolute musts. Aside from a lot of boom-boom action cinematics, it especially was that scene in which you have to defend the hospital that annoyed me the most. I hated those kind of segments in RE4 and I dislike them just as much here. The thought of experiencing that again is what’s kept me from playing through the game a second time. At least the rest of the hospital section was actually pretty good.

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