Taking another break from the numbered Resident Evils before the sixth installment drops later this year, Capcom revisits the viral zombie outbreak that started it all in Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, the new squad-based shooter throwback spin-off from developer Slant Six Games. Does it do the Resident Evil brand proud or should you avoid it like a horde of hungry zombies? Aaron and I have two very different answers to that question.
Matt: Historically, Resident Evil and multiplayer haven’t paired well. Co-op was pulled off with reasonable effectiveness in Resident Evil 5, the Nintendo 3DS titles – Mercenaries 3D and Revelations – and the two Wii (and soon-to-be PS Move) Chronicles light gun shooters, but the more multiplayer-centric Outbreak games were clumsy (at best) first attempts to take the series online. In all cases, I would say Capcom struggled to find the proper balance in combining the strong loner survival horror experience Resident Evils are known for with team play.
Operation Raccoon City is different. Developed by Slant Six, this game embraces multiplayer – both cooperative and competitive – all the way but doesn’t completely forget about the solo gamer, and this time I think it gets the action / survival horror balance pretty much dead on.
The game is split into two sides. There’s a campaign, which is playable in single player (create a private match if you don’t want anyone bothering you) or in co-op up to four players, and a tidy selection of versus multiplayer modes for eight-player online battles. Let’s take a closer look at the campaign first.
This side-story installment goes back to the time period of Resident Evils 2 and 3, with players assuming command of an elite Special Forces team sent in to Raccoon City by Umbrella to secure the T-Virus and eliminate any evidence that links the corporation to the city-wide outbreak. So, yes, you get to play as the bad guys for a change, although this USS Delta team is hardly what I would call villainous.
Operation Raccoon City won’t be winning any awards for depth of storytelling or character development (the final mission’s split-decision outcome certainly is a flimsily designed conclusion), and the storyline itself comes across as more of a “what if this had happened” modified retelling of the Raccoon City outbreak rather than a canonical extension of the existing narrative. But – for me at least – it turned out to be a surprisingly fun (and somewhat nostalgic) return to what I consider the series’ golden years, and I enjoyed reliving familiar events from a different perspective and with different outcomes.
Seven missions make up the campaign, each lasting between 30 minutes and an hour on average, depending on chosen difficulty, desire to hunt for hidden collectibles, team makeup, etc. A Spec Ops campaign (well, the first few missions at least) is also available in a paid DLC expansion, the prologue episode of which is free. I think it should have been part of the base game so players could play as both factions from the start without additional charges, but complaining about post-release DLC these days is like beating a dead horse.
Gameplay is slanted towards action with a box standard cover-based, third-person shooter design. However, unlike Resident Evil 5 this game doesn’t push the franchise’s bread-and-butter survival horror themes to the wayside. The atmosphere has that B-movie fright factor of the earlier titles, and the sense of being outmanned and outgunned forces you into a survival mentality. Ammo is precious, particularly on higher difficulty settings, so running and gunning will often leave you against insurmountable odds with naught but melee attacks until you find the next ammo box. Other ResEvil staples are present as well, including herbs, first aid sprays, various grenade types, and so on.
Given the placement on the Resident Evil timeline, players face classic enemies in addition to rival military forces on the ground. Zombies, as usual, are the main adversaries, but old foes like the Lickers and Hunters are back and just as terrifying and tough to take down as ever. Tyrants are the same seemingly unstoppable juggernauts, too.
For the most part, the controls handle nicely – no more walking like a tank like the old days, and no more of the not being able to move and shoot at the same time hassles encountered in more recent installments. The cover system takes some getting used to initially — you walk up against a wall or cover point, and your character automatically attaches without need of a single button press – but in general it works without issue.
The main issue I had was with the context sensitive actions. When trying to pick up ammo or weapons, for example, the game seems to have a very small item detection window. You can be right on top of an item, but if you’re not square on the pinhead-sized trigger point, the pick-up prompt won’t display. This can be especially messy when multiple objects are in close proximity, such as when you’re reviving downed allies and their dropped weapon interferes with the revive command. You can be standing directly over the corpse, but if you aren’t in just the right spot, you’ll only be given the option to pick up their weapon. Fiddling with such finicky context-based actions leads to hair-pulling frustrations when you’ve got zombies swarming around you and opposing soldiers drilling you from afar.
AI is another weak point. Your CPU squad mates at times act as if they’ve been lobotomized, regularly finding it a good idea to walk through laser trap mines, mosey into burning fires, run into your line of fire (and yes, there is friendly fire at higher difficulties), clog up doorways and tight corridors, and charge headfirst into a horde of zombies, choosing to melee everything in sight rather than stay behind the safety of cover and blast away from a distance. Luckily, they’re imbecilic actions don’t cause headaches on medium to low difficulties, and on the higher difficulties they’re at least good meat shields to draw attention (and damage) away from you, so just having them as decoys is helpful enough. In some scenarios, it was easier to let them die (or even kill them myself) and clear the area alone before reviving the crew and pushing forward.
Co-op alleviates the AI stupidity and can be awesome fun…when you find a team of players interested in actually working together. Sometimes, though, I had more trust in the AI to cover my back than other, real players. Too often I’ll get on a team with one guy that just runs forward with reckless abandon and another guy who constantly lags behind and doesn’t help at all, while me and another like-minded, well-versed player will be caught in the middle taking all the heat and struggling to get by. When the co-op clicks as intended, it really clicks. When it doesn’t, you’ll be happy that you can quit out and play on your own. Saving co-op for friends you know and trust is probably best.
Aaron: I want to say this with all due respect, Matt, but I think you’ve been doing shots of T-virus while the rest of us weren’t looking. Strong ResEvil nostalgia factor aside, there’s very little about Operation Raccoon City that evokes happiness, whether you’re playing solo or co-op—there are just too many silly and slipshod design decisions weighing the party down.
I’d argue that the game’s four multiplayer versus modes are really the only redeemable piece of Raccoon City, and the only place where the game’s promise delivers at all. I love the clever Survivor mode, in which your squad battle ends with the arrival of a rescue helicopter…a rescue helicopter that has some seriously limited seating, which means, depending on who’s left standing, you’ll likely be going all Hunger Games on your teammates. Not only does Survivor fit with the series’ survive-at-all-costs vibe, but this is the sort of feature—truthfully, probably the only feature here—that the Left 4 Dead team wishes it had thought of first. Heroes mode, which confers the ability to tool around the streets of a burned-out city as ResEvil staples Jill Valentine and Leon S. Kennedy is also fun, playing out like a franchise all-star throwdown.
But even the versus modes have gaping flaws—namely, sometimes jaw-dropping gameplay imbalance and seriously suspect matchmaking. My first Heroes battle had me on a squad facing off against level 75 veterans equipped with tricked out pistols that made my teensy assault rifles seem like a plastic facsimile scored at the dollar store. If you’d like, you can take the vagrant’s approach to evening the odds, trolling the streets and picking up XP by collecting items and picking off stray infected while everyone else battles it out on the rooftops. Not exactly what you’d call glorious grinding.
I can’t imagine anyone misses the signature ResEvil tank-like controls and lack of move and shoot, but what’s replaced it doesn’t exactly kill the frustration factor. The sticky cover system wonks out only slightly less often than the iffy item detection.
The AI in this game is almost universally horrible, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned and more. I particularly enjoyed watching my entire squad—the ENTIRE squad—walk straight into a flame jet, turning themselves into overdone, Kevlar-coated marshmallows. Allow me to add a boneheaded cherry to the top of this stupidity sundae: You can revive your fallen AI squad mates, but they can’t revive you. It’s like Slant Six looked at this excellent feature, an absolutely critical piece of solid shooters like the Gears of War series, and said, “Nah, who needs that?” Unless you only enjoy tooling around the Umbrella compound on Casual, teammate revival is something you’re going to need. And no, I’m not talking about the AI medic who blasts your face with green health mist when you’re still near full health.
It’s not just your squadmates that behave like lobotomized Kardashians—the monsters’ instincts seem to have been liquefied by the Umbrella Corporation’s happy-hour specials, too. Sometimes, they attack with all the rabid abandon you’d expect form a feral Hunter; sometimes, they leap at you, then leap away, standing there and sucking up bullets like a roll of Brawny paper towels on a ketchup spill. And sometimes, you have to go so far as to chase them down to engage them in battle. It’s enough to make you wonder if the Slant Six team’s been tooling around with random-battle JRPGs
Operation Raccoon City could have been a real triumph for Capcom, a nostalgic, revisionist trip back to the world of ResEvils 1 and 2 topped with a blast of multiplayer adrenaline. Instead, it collapses under brain-dead AI and some truly warped design choices, reminding us why the series needed to escape its urban confines in the first place.
Matt: Maybe when I wasn’t paying attention someone spiked my cocktail with a few drops of the T-Virus – and in this case, I would thank them for doing so. Or, perhaps, I could argue back that a shot of the virus has you acting a bit more hostile towards the game than it deserves.
I do not deny that Operation Raccoon City rocks some truly puzzling design faults, but on the whole they were more nagging annoyances than anything that prevented me from appreciating the totality of the experience. Despite some peripheral frustrations, the core third-person shooting feels solid, is perfectly functional, and has satisfied me with hours of zombie blastin’ entertainment. I like many of the control accessories Slant Six added to the mix and hope to see them appear in future installments, such as the abilities to grab zombies as meat shields and to sprint into dives or charge tackles, as well as the Quick Draw mechanic which allows you to hold down on L2 and flick the right analog stick to quickly aim and pick off surrounding zombies.
All told, I’ve gone through the campaign twice, partly to put in equal time playing solo and with a co-op team and to get a feel for the balancing between the various difficulty settings, but also because I enjoyed the ride the first time around and wanted another turn (and I’ve since replayed other individual missions in Free Play just for kicks). For me, the difficulty setting proved key as playing on the default Normal setting rendered the horrible squad AI meaningless – it’s just challenging enough to test you as a solo player, but not difficult enough that you need to fret over what silly things your squad is doing — while attempting a Professional run on my own became damn near impossible at times, mostly because of the presence of friendly fire. Now that’s when the AI becomes a game-breaker – but that’s also when co-op becomes your best friend.
Enemy AI can be boneheaded too, but in over a dozen hours of play the number of times I saw an enemy suddenly stop running and stand perfectly still out in the open or would come around a corner to find a Spec Ops dude permanently glued to cover and oblivious to me pelting him in the back of the head can be counted on one hand. Sure, zombies will sometimes act like nothing more than bullet sponges for easy kills and experience padding, but I don’t think that’s poor AI. They are zombies after all. Some are easy pickings, while many others swarm around in large numbers or charge straight at you in a blood frenzy. I totally felt the tension of having hordes of brain eaters grabbing at me from all sides. They’re equally dumb and mindlessly aggressive – that’s what makes them zombies!
The dynamic of facing B.O.W.s and other human enemies is probably what I enjoyed most about the game, particularly in versus play. At the same time that you’re hunting down other live players, you also have to watch out for zombies creeping out of dark alleys and stalking Hunters. Eventually, Tyrants may even appear to really ratchet up the tension. What’s also cool is how players can be infected and potentially turn into CPU-controlled zombies, and how repeated shots can cause players to bleed, which is like turning them into stinky pieces of chum in shark infested waters – zombies suddenly go crazy and lock in on the bleeding target. This actually becomes a strategic choice in selecting weapons: Do you go for pure damage power in exchange for low ammo and rate of fire or strap on a Mob Special that may not pack as much of a punch but needles opponents to cause blood frenzy at a higher rate?
Versus play has a unique feel to it that I really like compared to the umpteen billion other competitive shooters available right now. The modes you talked about have that special Resident Evil flair, while even Team Attack and Biohazard are varied enough to not feel too much like traditional team deathmatch and capture the flag. The Xbox 360 version also launched with an exclusive Nemesis mode, an extra I’m sad to see missing from the PS3.
Contrary to your experience, I don’t think versus play is imbalanced whatsoever. In any competitive video game you’re going to have certain higher level players who have the upper hand, but this game’s system of advancement isn’t so deep that a player even as much as 25-50 levels above you is untouchable. Each class type has unique abilities and traits to advance, but only a handful, and each skill only goes through three levels of upgrade. Purchased weapons are unlocked universally, regardless of class choice, but don’t feature any modibility that would make a higher level player’s gear superior (at least not that I’ve seen at my current rank of 52). My first-ever versus match had me, all by myself, in a Team Attack battle against two other players well beyond my level. Obviously I was defeated by strength of numbers alone, but I still managed to pile up some kills and keep the outcome reasonably respectable.
I also think it’s a positive—not a negative—that killing off roaming zombies adds to your experience gain. The extra source of experience is a welcome aid in rising up the ranks while you’re still learning the ropes. Co-op and versus progression is all linked together too, so just by going through the campaign you should have advanced enough to upgrade some abilities and purchase a good weapon to take into versus battles.
As you pointed out, however, the matchmaking system is a rocky road to travel. Oddly, finding co-op matches rarely takes any effort, yet when on the prowl for a competitive battle the match finder will fail to initialize or sometimes freeze up entirely, to the point where a system reboot becomes the only way to get back to the main menu to try again. At first I thought a small player base may have been the culprit, but after reading around on forums and cycling through the leaderboards well past 100,000 players, it seems pretty clear that the matchmaking code isn’t properly optimized.
I haven’t seen an official statement on the matter from the developers, but an update was released within the past week or so. I don’t know its exact purpose, but since applying the patch I have noticed an uptick in the matchmaking success rate. Let me put it this way: I’ve been able to get into more matches over the past few days than I was able to during the entire month of play prior. It’s still far from painless – a manual lobby system sure would be a nice option – but the payoff is often worth the wait, I say.
I don’t know what it is, but this game just speaks to me as a gamer – part of it is the setting and atmosphere, but the larger part is that it’s just so much fun to play, even with the design missteps. It looks, sounds and acts like vintage Resident Evil, only with compelling new multiplayer dynamics, controls that don’t feel like you’re steering a robot through a pool of mud, a camera system that actually allows you to see what’s going on, and a brisk, tense pacing that puts a pep in this game’s survival horror step. Will Operation Raccoon City be winning any Game of the Year honors or badges of game design excellence? Certainly not. However, in my opinion it is very much a worthwhile franchise extension, a strong overall third-person shooter, and a game I will be returning to often on my own gaming time. I even bought the first Spec Ops expansion, and it takes a lot for me to buy into DLC. (It was worth it too!) That’s how much I like this game. I say give it a go.
+ Campaign returns to Raccoon City circa Resident Evils 2 and 3
+ Action focus keeps the pacing frenetic and fun
+ Triple-threat battlefield dynamic, teammate infections create a tense survival horror atmosphere
+ Versus modes offer something different from the multiplayer shooter norm
+ Unified skill, gear and level progression between solo, co-op and versus play
– The coding zombies already ate your squad’s brains
– Versus matchmaking doesn’t always want to work
– Split-path campaign ending choice is poorly thought out and executed
– Finicky item detection
– Friendly fire + brain-dead AI = mass frustration on Professional difficulty
Aaron: And I hope you enjoy scouring every inch of Raccoon City. I’ll be busily blasting lambent in Gears of War 3, or any of a number of multiplayer shooters that handle some of these bedrock gameplay issues with a lot more functional grace. Be sure to watch out for those field mines.
I think your comments get to the heart of our differences on this game—ResEvil is a universe that holds a special place in your gaming pantheon, and from that standpoint, I can see how getting to troll backstage, clearing up the mess in the Umbrella Labs, holds a certain charm. Taken in the context of the clunky controls and limited gameplay options that were part of the early Resident Evil games we all enjoyed, ORC constitutes a quantum leap forward. Stack it up against most other modern shooters—especially those within its own genre, like Left 4 Dead 2–and it falls woefully short. I’ve never once had a problem swapping weapons or picking up items in a Halo game. In Raccoon City, lining up your player to execute something as simple as grabbing ammo is like performing microsurgery in the middle of a minefield.
Using the brain-dead zombie excuse for the erratic AI won’t fly, either. It simply isn’t credible to have a B.O.W. barrel down on top of me, attack and slash half my health meter, then jump away and stand politely in place while I blow three clips into its dripping, bullet-sponging hide. There are some well-scripted and white-knuckle battles in ORC, to be sure, but every time one of these glaring AI flubs crops up, it yanks me right out of the experience and tells me I’m playing a product that needed a lot more polish.
Operation Raccoon City has its assets—I’m glad you mentioned the infected mechanic, which is particularly realistic and inspired in versus and multiplayer. I just wish so many of them hadn’t been crippled or ruined by bad gameplay design and poor implementation. Apologies to the gang at Slant Six, but I’m glad they weren’t invited aboard ResEvil 6’s slow boat to China.
+ Fun to get a look behind the Umbrella curtain
+ Versus modes are a clever high point
– Brain-dead AI makes allies, enemies frustrating to manage
– Twitchy context sensitivity
– Your AI teammates can’t revive you? Really?
– Matchmaking’s an utter mess
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 and Xbox 360, coming soon to PC
Developer: Slant Six Games
Release Date: 3/20/2012
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 (2-8 online)
Source: Review copies provided by publisher