Last week, I spoke to a room full of teenagers at the Brooklyn Public Library about video games and technology. When they asked me what unreleased games I was playing as a perk of my job, I answered that I was getting up to my elbows in an upcoming Resident Evil game.
"Resident Evil 6?!" they exclaimed hopefully. "Nope, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City," I replied, only to met by a collective disappointed "Ohhh…"
Yeah, it's kind of like that.
Resident Evil used to be one thing: a scare-focused, resource management survival nightmare. But it's mutated so much over the last decade that its DNA feels mercurial or even diluted. For a long time, the series meandered inside of its own inbred continuity with games that sketched out a chain of events catering to superfans of the lore. Resident Evil 4 revived the series as an action thriller, with frights driven by gameplay tension rather than atmosphere. RE5 drove things harder into that direction trading fear for frustration. The series became less about getting you to jump out of your own skin and more about mowing down mad-science zombies. Resident Evil doesn't mean what it used to.
And if Raccoon City represents the latest mutation of the Capcom franchise, it's a strain that has only some of the genetics of its ancestors. Part of that's because it's dev studio Slant Six's game is a multiplayer-centric with a campaign overlaid on top. In that campaign, you play mostly as members of the Umbrella Security Service as they try to recover the virus that's turned the titular city into a zombie-infested wasteland. The USS also needs to cover up evidence of the evil corporation's involvement in the destruction, battling franchise heroes and generic Spec Ops grunts.
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City
Developer: Slant Six
Platforms: PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 (version played) / PC
Released: March 20 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Type of game: Class-based third-person shooter with survival horror elements.
What I played: Played campaign levels in solo and co-op across 10 hours, completing about three-quarters of the missions and 12 hours in various online modes.
Two Things I Liked
- Having Raccoon City's upgradeable skills carry over from campaign to multiplayer makes you want to pick a class and work at mastering its role.
- The two tiers of symbiotic healing create a need to constantly manage health and infection levels in your squad, making it feel like an organism that you nurture.
Two Things I Hated
- The whole game's really dark, in terms of lighting. Too dark, really, to get around in reasonable fashion. Sure, you can turn the gamma up but once you do that everything's a washed-out mess.
- Assumes you know -- and care a whole lot about -- the ins-and-out of Resident Evil continuity. Even if you do, the story and character aren't really worth diving into for the gameplay you get in return.
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
- "I never loved you, Leon. Now get to running, pretty boy!" -Evan Narcisse, Kotaku
- "T-Virus? G-Virus? When's Dr Dre's Detox coming out?!" -Evan Narcisse, Kotaku
Yes, that means you're playing as bad guys. But very little in the campaign makes you feel villainous. You're a squad like so many other in video games, with terse expository dialogue, catchphrases and implied camaraderie. Sure, you can dole out vicious melee kills but so do the do-gooder protagonists of, say, Gears of War or Killzone. That alone doesn't make you vile. Any player-as-bad-guy aspirations are further thwarted when Umbrella Corp decides that the USS team is expendable. Beltway, Bertha, Four Eyes and crew aren't going to go down as classic RE rogues like Wesker.
Events happen in Raccoon City that feel they're supposed to mean something -- like when Leon Kennedy shows up -- but the game doesn't spend enough time giving context. If you know and love Leon, then you might be awed by his entrance. If not, then you go back to shooting infected and human enemies. Overall, the plot feels like lots of fan service delivered through the clunky dialogue of newer and blander characters.
Multiplayer content gets a few RE-specific tweaks. Instead of capturing a flag, you need to track down T-virus in vials and bring them back to base. Heroes Mode lets you control iconic characters from the RE games and tasks players with wiping out the other squad before they do the same to you. But the online modes mostly come across as variants of match types found elsewhere.
While chunks of ORC feels standard-issue, the multiplayer experience holds some interesting ideas. The promise of a continuously roiling three-way battle lies at the heart of the game's design and it mostly delivers on that. Slant Six's gone out of their way to give the battlegrounds the specific flavour of a dying city being choked by zombies and horribly mutated monsters.
So, if you get severely wounded by a human or AI soldier, your blood can draw a swarm of undead to attack you. Using this as an offensive strategy turns out to be pretty fun. Players can also get infected by zombie attacks and when your health runs down, you lose control of your character. Teammates can get infected and turn against you; you'll need to use antiviral spray to save them from becoming brain-munchers. But without it, you'll need to ask someone to kill you when you turn zombie and then hope they stay alive to resurrect you.
A glitchy feel and annoying controls will make that a soul-crushing wait, though. You won''t find allies to have fallen where the UI says they did. And when you do, the action button's mapped to too many things. It triggers a dodge while running, picks up items and resurrects teammates. The last two functions clash frequently because allies drop weapons when they die. Almost every time I fought through zombies and ran over to hold the button to revive a teammate, I picked up a gun instead doing what I wanted to. If I didn't need them to help me slog through levels, I'd left them -- and the constant frustration -- to die. Alternate layout made the experience feel even clunkier.
Each character class comes with specific skills -- like laying down trip mines, converting monsters to attacking enemies for you -- and you can max them out fairly quickly. These powers spice things up and add variety to the you-vs-them-vs-monsters calamity that erupts in online play.
ORC's not worth playing as a single-player experience. Put bluntly, it's a mediocre slog with annoying difficulty spikes and gets hampered by dumb AI partners through a world that's not special enough to deserve your time. And as an online-focused game, Raccoon City's got more going for it than its most direct predecessor Resident Evil Outbreak. But like that PS2-era multiplayer experiment, it's probably going to wind up as a costly curiosity that gets forgotten. The germ of a clever multiplayer experience lies within but uninspired execution and Resident Evil fan service don't provide enough nutrients for it to grow into a virus worth caring about.