Resident Evil 3 peaks early, with a true night of the living dead. The first hour or so of the game unfolds within the early stages of what could colloquially be called the zombie apocalypse, on the streets of a city overrun with shambling, ravenous, reanimated corpses. You creep down alleys, take shortcuts through ransacked pharmacies and abandoned diners, marvel at the spooky spectacle of a multiplex on fire, its marquee advertising fictional movies you’ll never get to see. The outdoors of Resident Evil 3 is not really that different from the indoors of earlier entries in Capcom’s seminal survival-horror series: The devastated downtown you navigate is effectively one very large building, abandoned vehicles setting the artificial boundaries of each “room” and a “ceiling” of dark clouds reinforcing the illusion of even a marginally open world. All the same, putting feet on flaming asphalt and tilting the camera skyward to gaze upon an actual sky creates a different mood, less claustrophobic and more end-of-the-world urgent. And Resident Evil, at its very best, is all about mood.
There is, of course, something unnerving, at this moment in history, about wandering an eerily deserted city during a viral outbreak. But pinpricks of accidental topicality aside, Resident Evil 3 will go down like comfort food—or a rejuvenating green herb—for fans of this long-running franchise. It’s the third official remake in the series, following last year’s excellent Resident Evil 2, which remained admirably faithful to the spirit (and plot) of its 1998 inspiration while sleekly upgrading both the graphics and the controls. Here the déjà vu has been doubled: At once a remake of a sequel and a sequel to the last remake of a sequel (got that?), Resident Evil 3 is a layered nostalgia trip. It offers more of the proverbial same, just with a gorgeous new coat of post-apocalyptic paint.
“More of the same” is basically what the original RE3 offered, too. Apparently anticipating how popular Resident Evil 2 would be, Capcom delivered a return trip to a ravaged Raccoon City just a year and a half later, even guiding gamers back into its beloved central setting, the barricaded police station. The big hook of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was the menace of its subtitle: a frighteningly persistent super mutant with a rocket launcher and a nasty habit of bursting through the pre-rendered environments like a malicious Kool-Aid Man, then pursuing the player room to room. But the Nemesis was just a more dogged cousin to the previous game’s relentless Mr. X, just as the opening race down fire escapes and past shuttered storefronts was an extended reprise of RE2’s own opening sprint for shelter. Resident Evil 3 played like a victory lap, in other words, and was not quite as rapturously received as the games that came before it.
That may be why this new remake exhibits a bit less fidelity than last year’s. Gone are certain locations and boss battles, along with the original’s one true innovation: the addition of a choose-your-own-adventure system that made you decide between, say, hiding from the Nemesis in the kitchen or fleeing from him into the basement. But in broad strokes, this is the Resident Evil 3 fans remember, at least narratively speaking. Set right before and right after the events of Resident Evil 2, it picks up with Jill Valentine, one of the special-forces protagonists of the first game, trying to escape a Raccoon City swarming with monsters. The last of her team still in town or alive, Jill is forced into an uneasy alliance with a group of mercenaries employed by the Weyland-Yutani-like evil biotech corporation Umbrella.
A bait-and-switch prologue adopts the first-person point of view of Resident Evil 7, the franchise’s recent, terrifying return to survival-horror basics. After that, though, the camera slides behind your shoulder, and the control scheme aligns with that of the RE2 remake (minus the defensive application of the knife and grenade, for some reason). This is a shorter, faster, punchier game. The Resident Evil fundamentals are still in place—you’ll spend plenty of time backtracking through sewers and government buildings, cobbling together an inventory of tools and keycards. But the ammo is less scarce, at least on the standard setting, and the creeping dread of the earliest RE installments gives way to more direct combat. The game even borrows a nerve-wracking suspense device from 2005’s series-reinventing, action-heavy Resident Evil 4: a sequence where you’re forced to defend a hospital room from approaching enemies, who keep crashing through the windows in waves. (Can a full remake of that classic be far off?)
Even with a slightly larger stockpile of bullets at your disposal, the monsters—a giant bug dropping unexpectedly from the rafters, a hungry ghoul lurching out of the shadows—still induce shudders and yelps. The coolest revived foe is the Gamma, a weirdly cute and creepy species of amphibious beast that can gulp you down in one bite. But though Capcom’s engine supplies every new-old environment with a breathtaking breadth of detail (as in RE2, there’s always the danger that you’ll get eviscerated while gawking in awe at the hyper-realistic mundanity of a waiting room), none of the buildings Jill traverses here have the diabolical puzzle-box ingeniousness of Resident Evil’s best death traps. The Raccoon City Police Station, for example, was a marvel of sadistic level design, every enemy and item perfectly placed to turn the fetch quests into gauntlets of potential doom. Briefly returning to it in RE3 only betrays the more perfunctory layout of the other maps.
Less effective still is how the game deploys its main attraction. Part of what made the Nemesis so scary in his original incarnation was the sense that he could show up at any time, turning a seemingly danger-free hallway into a danger zone. That’s technically true in the remake, too—the big guy’s in hot pursuit from the jump, opening Resident Evil 3 with a feverish chase through a burning apartment complex. But that dramatic introduction points to a miscalculation in how his “surprise” appearances are handled—namely, through glorified cut scenes that privilege Uncharted-style one-button action, before bleeding into boss fights of escalating difficulty. They’re much less blood-curdling than the real-time pursuits of Mr. X in Resident Evil 2, which ramped up the terror by taking the rampaging Tyrant off-script and -leash. No encounter with the Nemesis here is as unpredictable as any random getaway from his gray-skinned relative.
Truthfully, there aren’t a lot of surprises of any kind in Resident Evil 3. It’s like an especially polished DLC campaign—think Resident Evil 2.5. Again, though, that’s mostly true too of the fan-favorite sequel it’s spit-shining. Back in ’99, Nemesis didn’t just mark the moment that this series started to tweak its infamously (if fruitfully) punishing tank controls, giving gamers the option to fight instead of flee and tilting the ratio of horror to action in the latter’s favor. It was also the first time a Resident Evil game looked a little formulaic, offering variations on stock elements: the temporary mid-game switch to a sidekick; the monster you think is dead but keeps coming back, à la Jason Voorhees; the final mission in a sterile Umbrella laboratory. But as with any horror franchise built to last, the fun is partially in the familiarity. Resident Evil 3 delivers that uncomplicated rush of old pleasure in spades; it should satisfy anyone who’s squirmed through the flagship titles of the series and wishes now for more, maybe to kill some hours in self-imposed captivity. Only in that beautifully rendered first act, though, does Resident Evil 3 threaten to find something new in an old blueprint, bringing a city of the dead to vivid life.