Capcom has always seemed a little conflicted about the direction of Resident Evil. On one hand, the horror series is about well-timed scares and surviving a terrible situation with very few supplies. But just as players start to get used to conserving ammo and running past zombies, Capcom flips everything and turns the series into an action game. Thanks to a decade's worth of fast-paced spin-offs, Resident Evil has something of an identity crisis.
Capcom's mixed signals aren't made any clearer with Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, a Gears of War-style third-person shooter that attempts to liven things up with big explosions and tons of multiplayer modes. There are no important items to pick up, doors to unlock and puzzles to solve. Gone are ink ribbons, magical treasure chests and that sense of dread you get from being locked in a scary mansion. All that has been replaced with heavy artillery, emotionless soldiers and an endless stream of firefights. Needless to say, this is not your typical Resident Evil game.
Despite the jarring change in tone, I was ready to give Operation Raccoon City the benefit of the doubt. Although I prefer my survival horror to be scary, I'm not opposed to seeing the events of Resident Evil 2 from a completely different perspective. In fact, the idea of playing a group of mercenaries sent in to clean up the zombie outbreak is certainly compelling. It gives us a chance to fight against mutated monsters and the army, all while hundreds of brain-hungry zombies get in the way. Even if it's antithetical to the franchise, that sounds like a lot of fun.
You play a member of the Umbrella Security Service Delta squad, which has been sent to retrieve the G-virus before the U.S. Government can get their hands on it. Unfortunately, things don't go according to plan and the deadly T-virus finds its way out to neighboring Raccoon City. Now that the town is overflowing with zombies, it's your job to destroy all evidence and clear Umbrella's name before anybody finds out. Oh, and you also have to shoot a bunch of zombies and avoid getting killed by the U.S. army, but that's secondary to your mission.
This mission takes players all over Raccoon City, including places we haven't seen since Resident Evil 2. Expect to see the remains of city hall, the local hospital, the spooky cemetery, a power plant and, of course, the unmistakable Raccoon City police department. There you'll battle your typical T-virus baddies, such as crimson head zombies, undead dogs, lickers, hunters and, worst of all, the near-invincible Tyrant. And if all the supernatural baddies weren't enough, you spend a lot of your time battling still-living soldiers and even a few familiar faces from past games.
The good news is that you won't be doing this alone. Regardless of whether you play this solo or with a group of friends, you'll always have somebody on your side. Beyond offering additional firepower, your partners are also able to use various sprays to revive health and keep infected mercenaries from turning into a zombie.
In a proper multiplayer game, players are able to revive their fallen squad mates, though the computer AI frustratingly won't return the favor. Sadly, the multiplayer elements feel squandered, since there are few (if any) moments where the team must work together to solve a puzzle or get out alive. They're really just there to keep the firefight going, something that gets boring after the first stage.
The third-person action is predictable, with players simply going from room to room looking a safe place to wait out the attack. Much every other game that has tried to ape Gears of War, your job is to hide behind a crate and pop out whenever the enemies are reloading. This relatively simple task is marred by a couple inexcusable gameplay mechanics. For starters, the character automatically sticks to walls whenever they get close. At least, that's what should happen in theory. Half the time my character either didn't hide or didn't get in the position I was hoping for. All this could have been resolved by allowing players to use a button to get into and out of a defensive position.
Furthermore, I found most of the gunplay to be middling at best. It's not that the aiming is bad or anything, but rather that we're treading familiar ground. I've shot soldiers before in countless other third-person shooters (most recently in Deep Black: Reloaded), so the only thing new here is the addition of zombies and mutant monsters. Towards the end of the game I was through shooting soldiers, instead choosing to simply run from one checkpoint to the next dodging everybody in my way.
Of course, all of the large-scale battles are better when you have friends involved. I can see this being a lot more fun if you're playing with a group of strategic thinkers with good communication skills. But even then, the campaign is no more than four hours long and the whole experience is as anticlimactic as a game can be. The developers aren't quite sure how to end the game, especially when there aren't any real bosses to speak of. The closest they get is a tough battle against two Tyrants, but that comes before the final level and feels tacked on to hit that four hour mark.
Thankfully the competitive multiplayer modes are slightly more exciting. Sometimes you'll be working together to kill zombies and other T-virus baddies, while other times you'll be fighting against each other with these undead villains as collateral damage. There are a few inspired modes, such as one where all players are trying to get to a rescue helicopter with only four available seats. This is fun because you have to work together right up until the point everybody gets selfish and will do anything for one of those four seats.
Despite a few good ideas, Operation Raccoon City's multiplayer pales in comparison to Left 4 Dead and its sequel. Outside of the third-person perspective, there's little here that feels specific to the Resident Evil franchise. Scrub off a few Umbrella references and this could have been any one of the countless zombie-filled action games of the last few years. Resident Evil deserves better.
Even if the combat was always exciting and the play mechanics were better, that still wouldn't make up for the pitch black graphics. I'm not sure if the developers realized the game wasn't very pretty or what, but they have decided to make the game as dark as humanly possible. I had to turn both the game and my television's brightness up just to make out what was going on. It's hard to appreciate the level designs when they're shrouded in the darkest blackness I've ever seen.
Sadly, the graphics aren't much better when the brightness is all the way up. The character designs look good, but there are a lot of repeating backgrounds and zombies. Apparently all of the cops in Raccoon City look identical, because you'll be seeing a lot of that one zombie police officer over the course of the night. It feels like there were a lot of corners cut in order to get this game to retail, which is probably why the game's default brightness is set to barely visible.
Despite the game's poor presentation and boring campaign, I can't help but think that there are a few good ideas in Operation Raccoon City. The problem this game has is that it's too closely aligned with Resident Evil 2's storyline, all the way down to saving Leon Kennedy's life at one point. There are great moments here, but not enough to warrant a full game. It would have been more interesting to see this squad bounce from one outbreak to the next. Perhaps they parachute to the Code Veronica island or take a trip to Europe and fight the not-zombies from Resident Evil 4.
Between the boring characters and simplistic story, I was letdown by Operation Raccoon City. It has a few good ideas here and there, but not enough to keep my attention for long. Even the multiplayer is marred by some bad checkpointing and questionable gameplay mechanics. Fans of the series are better off waiting a few months for Resident Evil 6.