The game begins on September 28, 1998, with a cutscene and brief gameplay set in the previous two nights. The player takes control of former Special Tactics And Rescue Service (STARS) member Jill Valentine in her attempt to escape a ruined and zombie-infested Raccoon City. On her way to the Raccoon City Police Department, she runs into fellow team member Brad Vickers, who is killed by the Nemesis, a bio-organic weapon, for being part of the STARS; as the STARS members are aware of Umbrella's unethical research, the company wants to eliminate them as witnesses, stopping the survivors from continuing their investigation of the company. Later, she encounters three surviving members of the Umbrella Biohazard Countermeasure Service (UBCS): Carlos Oliviera, Mikhail Victor and Nicholai Ginovaef. Nicholai is soon presumed dead after an encounter with zombies. Mikhail sacrifices himself to save Jill and Carlos from the Nemesis. The cable car that the three were in bursts into flame and Jill and Carlos are separated.
A new feature to gameplay is the Nemesis, an experimental type of Tyrant programmed by Umbrella to hunt down and kill the remaining STARS members. He can run, use a rocket launcher as a weapon, dodge incoming fire, and is capable of pursuing the player from one area to the next. Nemesis is encountered multiple times throughout the game as a recurring boss. A variety of encounters are possible, with some being mandatory, and some varying in nature and location based on choices made by the player. Even if defeated in combat, Nemesis will inevitably continue pursuit of Jill.
In a departure from series' conventions, the player cannot choose between two playable characters from the beginning. Instead, Jill is the sole selectable character, with another character named Carlos also being controllable for a brief portion of the main game.
Resident Evil 3 incorporates a dodge move that allows the player to quickly avoid enemy attacks. Stair climbing is also streamlined: whereas in previous Resident Evil titles characters were required to press the action button to ascend or descend a staircase, Resident Evil 3 allows the player to use a staircase by walking directly onto it. The "quick 180 degree turn" was introduced in this game, and has become a mainstay of the series.
The game also features an ammunition creation system, in which new ammunition can be created from different varieties of gunpowder and the use of a cartridge reloading tool, or by combining gunpowder directly with standard grenade rounds to generate different types of rounds for the grenade launcher. For the first time in the series, explosive objects are now present in certain areas. Taking the form of oil drums on the ground or bundles of an unspecified explosive material affixed to a wall, firing on these objects causes them to explode, damaging or destroying nearby enemies. The game also incorporates a randomization feature that varies the placement of items and enemies. Puzzles are either completely randomized or have their solutions selected from a pre-determined list. At certain points in the game, the player will enter Live Selection Mode, in which they are prompted to choose between one of two possible actions. The choice of action affects the direction of the game and story, including which ending the player receives. Each selection has a time limit, with the consequence for going over the limit being either Jill taking damage or instant death.
There is an unlockable minigame titled "The Mercenaries - Operation: Mad Jackal". The player can choose from Carlos, Mikhail, or Nicholai, the three UBCS members that appear in the main game. Each character possesses a different inventory, causing drastically different strategies for survival with each character. The objective of the game is ostensibly to run from the cable car to the warehouse office (two locations in the main game) within a limited amount of time; however, the starting time limit given is insufficient to actually perform this task directly, and the player must continuously receive time bonuses by performing certain actions in order to complete the mission. Eliminating enemies yields a time bonus, with increasing bonuses for multiple kills in a short time span. There are also six hostages to be saved, with each hostage saved rewarding the player with additional ammunition or healing items, as well as a time bonus. Additionally, six "hidden areas" of the map reward the player with an increasing time bonus for each one found.
Upon completing the main game, the player is rewarded with a number of alternate costumes for Jill, with more costumes being awarded for a higher ranked completion of the main game. Also unlockable are eight "Epilogue Files", each detailing the activities of a different character following the events of the game. The Epilogue Files are unlocked individually and sequentially at the end of each successful playthrough of the main game.
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