Sunday, 6 May 2012

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

Developer: Slant Six
Format: PlayStation 3

Score: 3.6

I spent the majority of my Easter weekend playing a wonderfully conceived city-based zombie shooter, in which at least three separate design threads – twin-stick high-score chaser, single-player narrative, global metagame – all work in near-perfect harmony. Anyway, enough about Housemarque’s Dead Nation. This here is Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, Capcom’s latest attempt to sully its legendary series.

As an off-shoot of the main games, ORC sits alongside the likes of the Wii’s Chronicles series, by changing familiar Resident Evil game mechanics and putting fresh perspectives on classic scenarios/eras from the past. Operation Raccoon City takes place around the same time as the second and third games in the series, a period that has already been utilised by Capcom (most recently in the second Wii game, The Darkside Chronicles). In Operation Raccoon City the twist is that you play as the bad guys, taking control of one of six different members of the Umbrella Security Service trying to stop the T-Virus getting into the hands of the US military.

What this amounts to is a squad-based third-person shooter from Slant Six, the developers behind the SOCOM series. Once again Capcom’s practice of handing development duties to a Western outfit (see also Dark Void, Bionic Commando) has produced less than spectacular results. Quite why Capcom decided on external help is questionable, when Resident Evil 5 had already made such big strides towards a co-op focused campaign; perhaps ORC is something of a testing ground for the forthcoming sixth game in the main series, which is rumoured to follow a similar simultaneous multi-character set-up. If that’s the case then Resident Evil fans have every right to be concerned.

The problems with Operation Raccoon City begin on the surface; this is a game whose animation and level of visual detail never rises above perfunctory, and where a combination of an awkward camera and sloppy controls will often result in an untimely death. Whatever their faults, Capcom’s marquee games have always boasted glossy production values, but here the suspicion of cynical cash-in stems from the cheap aesthetics and continues throughout into the rest of the experience.

For a title in such a crowded genre as the third-person shooter, it helps if you get the basics right. While the shooting itself is passable, it’s undermined by imprecise melee combat and an unwieldy cover system that doesn’t always work when you want it to; it’s not even possible to move from one area of cover to another without having to stand up into the line of fire. We’re a long way from Vanquish.

The single-player quickly becomes tedious, especially when played solo. Played online it’s better, albeit still fundamentally let down by the wider issues such as bland level design and poor pacing. Although it may be an unfair comparison, Left 4 Dead was such a compulsive experience because it engendered a sense of dependency on your fellow team members, the panic rising to a crescendo as each mission reached it’s end. ORC has little of this vitality; online play is preferable because the AI of your computer-controlled squadmates leaves a lot to be desired, but as an experience it still falls far short of other, more visionary, games.

A glimmer of the game that ORC could have been lies in the multiplayer portion, and in particular Survivor mode. Here waves of zombies descend on the team, which you and your squadmates need to repel whilst waiting for a rescue helicopter to land. Ingeniously, there are only limited spaces on the chopper, which triggers a switch from co-operative combat to selfish scrambling as everyone races to get one of the precious seats for fear of being left behind. The open arenas of multiplayer - without the burden of a directed narrative - are somewhat liberating in comparison to the narrow, linear passages of play in the single-player.

It’s not enough to save Operation Raccoon City though, which ultimately is a title that feels too rushed to warrant any great investment on the part of the player. That it’s sold in such high numbers (at time of writing it’s number one in Japan) says a lot about the strength of the Resident Evil brand which, if ORC is anything to go by, is in danger of being fatally diluted.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.