For a franchise as established and acclaimed as Resident Evil, attempting once again to venture away from the models and components which made it great is risky business, even for spin-offs. After all, most of the previous lurches in gameplay have been less than successful. Even the major shift in dynamics heralded in Resident Evil 4 was not welcomed by everyone (although they were broadly a victory for Capcom).
Resident Evil: Survivor, the last sub-series which attempted to take the RE universe into shooter territory was a failure, and its two sequels only fared marginally better. Even the 'Chronicles' games for Wii and Playstation 3, although their critical reception far exceeded the light gun compatible games, are by no means as popular as the trusted third person (now over-the-shoulder in the more recent additions) survival horror. After all, survival horror is how Resident Evil made its name. Straying too far from that is dangerous, and many feel that even Resident Evil 4 and 5 have leant too far towards action gameplay and away from the franchise's horror roots.
So comes Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, eager for a taste of Left 4 Dead's success, trying once again to take the series in a shooter direction. Purists hold tight. Capcom are banking on two things to sell RE:ORC. Firstly, they are hoping that the game's setting, between Resident Evil 2 and 3, widely believed to be the franchise's best pieces of storytelling, will hook all the existing fans into the main campaign, which can be played solo with three AI squad members, or with up to three other players. Players control a member of the four-person squad representing the Umbrella Security Service (USS), tasked with eradicating all evidence of the Umbrella Corporation's involvement in the Raccoon City outbreak, which everyone will remember from RE2. Many people will also probably remember encountering members of the USS (albeit mostly dead ones) in RE2 - they were the guys littered around areas of the game in black bullet-proof vests, gas masks and helmets. Indeed the first recognised returning character from RE2, of which the game promises many, is HUNK, the protagonist of one of the two unlockable missions, who leads the group at the very beginning of ORC. Several points in the game relate directly to events which occurred in either RE2 or 3, sometimes with details which the player can alter.
Secondly, they've (over?)loaded the game with multiplayer modes, hoping to get a substantial piece of the online gaming craze that RE5 failed to make a significant mark upon. They have worked, for the first time, with Slant Six Games, for whom this is their first release to not be part of the PS3/PSP SOCOM franchise, and while for Resident Evil it's almost all new territory, retaining the over-the-shoulder third-person aspect of RE4 and 5, it plays like a cross between PS3’s SOCOM Confrontation and Lost Planet, without the expansive terrain and an unimpressive lack of physics. Bodies vanish in a shower of blood regardless of the method used to kill them, hits to arms and legs do not affect targets differently to the body, doors swing open with no character animation (although they did bother to animate the use of first aid sprays for the first time) and so on, so there's no more taking down an onrushing enemy with a well-aimed bullet to the leg and finishing them off on the ground. It just feels like the kind of attention to detail modern gaming demands is missing.
Most fans will probably have been pre-warned about the gameplay style of this offering, but for anyone who hasn't, it's got some of the Resident Evil staples, like herbs for health (you can't carry them anymore, just use them as and when you find them, but you can carry a first aid spray and an anti-viral spray), the boss weak points often being the giant orange eyeballs, lots of cramped spaces, and a whole lot of getting hounded by enemies in areas that seem both too narrow and too short to dispatch them at range, but it eschews most of the puzzle solving and strategy which formed the core of the regular games (the next of which is due towards the end of the year). Only things like finding keys/cards to unlock certain doors remain. It's basically a shoot-anything-that-moves romp, very similar in many respects to the larger areas of RE5 with hordes of enemies. In a sense it doesn't feel like it is a Resident Evil game, rather a new iteration of one of those other games, with a Resident Evil skin, but they have done a deceptively good job of giving it the desolate atmosphere of RE2 and 3, even if all you're doing is clearing an area of enemies, looking around for ammo, health, grenades or something for a side mission, and then running to the next point marked out for you. Even the keys you need to collect are surrounded in a glowing white light so you can't miss them. No, puzzle solving is certainly not the idea here.
There are some more fundamental problems here though. Because it's a squad game, and the makers are so desperate for it to be played with several people, the gameplay is linear, often with the next area blocked off until all members of the squad are in the same place, when a previously locked door will miraculously become unlocked. And not a crank handle in sight! Once all the enemies in an area have been killed (and the music changes accordingly) you can explore the area more fully to find hidden pick-ups like grenades, but you probably can't go back into any previous rooms anymore, the doors having magically locked themselves. Genuine bugs also occur, like doors failing to unlock even when everyone is there (this occurs most often when resuming a saved game), or pieces of scenery enemies are supposed to be interacting with completely disappearing during cut scenes, suggesting that at least part of the development was rushed.
Some things are just plain frustrating. For instance, there are very few things in video gaming more annoying than getting trapped in a corner, unable to move, by an enemy who attacks too quickly for you to even be able to get up and so much as attempt to evade or fight back. This happens in Operation Raccoon City A LOT, particularly with Hunters (most of the non-boss enemies, apart from the US Spec. Ops soldiers, are returnees from previous games, including swarms of Lickers), and it’s more luck than judgement if you manage to get out of such situations. Enemy set pieces move the action along, often irreversibly, and when they do invisible barriers prevent movement in certain directions, sometimes even preventing you from turning all the way around when you're in a sequence where the designers have intended for you to keep shooting until the next set piece. This is particularly prevalent in the first mission, where the team is being pursued by a large BOW (bio-organic weapon) for much of it.
AI characters who can't hit a thing (or run off leaving you to fight the oncoming enemy alone) are the bane of many a co-op game too. Here, although there is a perfectly good cover mechanism for hiding behind things and blind-shooting over the top or standing up to take more accurate aim, the AI squad members will often just stand in plain sight, taking multiple hits. Other times, when a section is finished, they'll just walk blindly into a wall until you open the next door. They will also, with disturbing regularity, run straight through laser trip mines. And when AI squad members are killed, you can revive them (they never revive each other) and carry on, but when you die, it's back to the last checkpoint with you all.
On the controls side everything mostly makes sense, except for running, which can be problematic. Your standard movement is the classic military jog seen in most games of this kind. You can run fast, but this is achieved by pressing the left stick down while moving it. Unsurprisingly, your sprint is likely to suddenly cease, without you intending it to do so, at irregular intervals. It’s not required too often, so it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the only dodging mechanism available to you, a dive, requires you to be sprinting at the time to achieve it.
Continuity is also a problem. When loading a saved campaign you have to re-select your squad and weapons instead of simply resuming with what, and whom, you left off (although this is an opportunity to purchase weapons and abilities). Similarly, when you are killed and respawned at the last checkpoint, your weapons and ammo revert to what you started the game with, not what you had at the time when you passed the checkpoint.
In the multiplayer arena, there are several modes to choose from (sadly none of which are available as solo modes with AI squad-mates) and a fair few neat ideas thrown in. Modes themselves aside for a moment, some new concepts (to RE at least) include bleeding, whereby you get weaker and quickly die if you are badly wounded and fail to heal yourself (which is most likely to occur because your screen goes red and you can no longer see a damned thing), using zombies as shields when under fire, and actually becoming infected with the virus if you're bitten by a zombie. This latter twist becomes especially cool when you turn into a zombie after a period of being infected, and last until one of the human players takes you out. These things can also happen in campaign mode, but it's rarer.
As for the modes, there's your standard team versus team set up (called Team Attack) where you are either on the side of the USS or the US Spec. Ops, with the zombies in the middle wantonly attacking everyone, Biohazard mode where you are tasked with rounding up samples of the virus, a unique twist on the "capture the flag" scenario called Survivor where you are battling for your place on the last helicopter out of the city, and the eagerly anticipated Heroes mode where players control one of a number of favourite characters from the second and third games, either aligned against Umbrella, or employed by Umbrella. Against includes Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield from RE2, Jill Valentine circa RE3, and Carlos Oliveira from RE3, with HUNK, Ada Wong from RE2, Nicholai Ginovaef from RE3 and a new character called Lone Wolf fighting for Umbrella. The six USS and US Spec. Ops characters are also available, but so far none of the other minor characters from RE2 or 3 (like Mikhail Victor) appear. In truth Heroes mode is little more than Team Attack mode with different characters; another attempt to suck in the longer-term franchise fans.
All characters, including the ones from the main campaign, have unique abilities to unlock via an experience points system which carries over between the single and multi-player modes, and there is an arsenal of weapons to unlock and/or purchase as well. Throughout the campaign there's very little in the way of collectables, so most of the achievements are for multiplayer stunts and accumulated kills. The only collectables in the main game are seven Raccoon City mascots (actual raccoons), and a large number of unspecified data disks (containing intelligence which you can occasionally upload using an available laptop to unlock gallery items in the main menu). The rest of the single-player achievements are simply for completing each mission in the game, and gaining upgrades. There are also numeric side-missions like destroying all the security cameras in a building.
One more mode has been promised for Xbox 360 only, called Nemesis Mode. This is where players fight for control of the Nemesis creature from RE3, and once they have him, they can actively use him to wipe out the opposing team. This is not yet available, but trailers already released suggest it will be soon. For those who do invest and keep hold of it long enough, there will also be a free Special Ops. mission DLC on April 11th, and until then there will be five weapons/costumes packs, costing 400-640 points each, to download. Some UK retailers are offering one of these free with pre-orders.
So the results of Capcom's latest attempt to get Resident Evil into the consciousness of the online shooters fanatics are mixed. The campaign mode does get better, but it doesn't last long enough. There are only six missions in all (until DLC) and they are reasonably repetitive. The enjoyment is really in the surprisingly engaging atmosphere and the neat hand-offs to other bits of RE history. The whole exercise has enabled them to offer a workable multiplayer option, but the modes are, when it comes down to it, just subtle variations of the same team versus dynamic and offer little to dislodge established kings of the genre like the Gears of War and Call of Duty series, amongst many others. And maybe that's the biggest problem RE:ORC will face, apart from its more fundamental flaws mentioned previously. There are so many others already that simply carrying the Resident Evil tag won't be enough to significantly break into the market beyond attracting die-hard fans of the storyline. Especially when there are already highly successful zombie-shooting entries out there as well. This is probably still in "Resident Evil fans only" territory.