Red Herb Review - Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

I’ve been putting off discussing this spinoff of my favorite video game series for a lot of reasons.  Laziness accounts for a heaping portion of those reasons, but there’s another nefarious excuse that kept me from dissecting this game the moment it dropped.  It’s definitely not for lack of play – I’ve been clocking in so many hours in Operation Raccoon City that you’d think I was getting paid for it.

In just a week, I’ve bore into every mode developer Slant Six coded on disc – the campaign (online and off), each of the Versus offerings over and over again, and have played around with each of the classes enough to have unlocked a bevy of different skills and a veritable armory of weapons to stave off the virtual apocalypse with.  I did it all, numerous times, going at the maps, levels, and enemies different ways; teaming with partners or hoofing it solo.  Through it all, I think I was searching for something I knew wasn’t there from the very first hour: a good game.

Honestly, I wanted to love RE:ORC.  Unlike a lot of purists that found RE4’s action-heavy metamorphosis of the series a terrible crime against Resident Evil’s tank controlled, item hunting, backtracking survival horror roots, I find myself welcoming spinoffs and expansions to the franchise’s core concept.  Yeah, it’s a damned shame Capcom thinks it needs to contort the series into mainstream shooters to vie for relevance, but I’m not going to cry afoul when developers go bold with gameplay mechanics  – innovation is sometimes the happy accident of meddling.  That’s why the notion of a squad-based shooter with a heavy focus on character classes piqued my interest; especially after learning Slant Six wanted to return to the zombie infested mecca of RE lore: Raccoon City.  Conceptually, ORC had every right to be quality.  That’s why, as a fan, it breaks my heart to have to tear this game down like the Berlin fucking wall.

ORC flips the script and places you in the shoes of Umbrella Security operatives tasked with ensuring no shred of evidence – living or otherwise – is left in the wake of Raccoon City’s infamous T-Virus outbreak of ‘98.  Versus or campaign, six operatives are available to compose a team of four, each character representing a class (like “Assault,” “Recon,” or “Medic”).  Your character choice impacts the paper thin story only as much as changing which terrible one-liner you’ll hear, but the variety that stems from the class system deserves praise.  Each class gives you unique perks – some passive skills that upgrade your operative permanently or others that must be selected between missions and require the tap of a button to use in game – that keep opposition at bay, or completely demolish them like Lupo’s incendiary ammo or Four Eyes’ ever so useful control over B.O.W.’s.  These perks are extremely conducive in co-op, as each player can contribute immeasurably to their team once they’ve mastered their class.

Being the first actualized third-person shooter in the franchise (barring the third-person-esque advancements made in 4 and 5), basic movement is handled well and mapping the sprint button to the left stick a la Call of Duty is a comfortable choice.  But that’s as intuitive as it gets.  Like with every layer of this game, control is seemingly smooth from afar, yet falls to shambles the moment it’s scrutinized.  Aiming and shooting – what some refer to as “fucking fundamental” in the realm of shooters – feels off, and the shoddy hit detection only furthers the sensation of combat being broken.  By default, the control scheme implements snap-to auto targeting that would be helpful in theory if the targeting system didn’t consider the limbless corpse not facing me a priority threat over a Spec Ops agent (or human combatant online) feeding my face bullets.  And you should fear straight firefights more than the zombies swarming around you once you learn the cover mechanic only works once you hit a very certain sweet spot along a barrier.  Trying for this invisible length of interactivity will dwindle your health in combat as you suddenly become a very easy target, bobbing your head about in order to find safety.

Worse yet is the game’s fixation on you fully utilizing the stiff melee button for CQC encounters.  Your character flailing their knife and limbs at enemies looks cool enough at the very least, and the canned animations can easily be pointed in the direction of what you want punched but, again, the flaws bubble to the surface the instant the mechanic is stress tested.  Against online opponents, you’ll often get locked into a hail of their CQC until they can perform an execution on you or if you somehow – equally as cheaply – return the game’s glitchy version of a combo lock right back at them until you deplete their oddly-high-for-online-play health bar.  Similarly, special enemies the likes of Lickers, Hunters, and even Tyrant(s) can exploit your helplessness during a stumble since the game doesn’t prevent them from swiping you down to the ground again halfway through standing up.

Although the executions I mentioned previously are fun to watch in their rampant brutality, you’ll grow tired of their inconsistency to activate when you want.  And you’re sure to grow just plain annoyed after the twelfth time it initiates on a zombie already down, leaving your character to massacre the air in front of them, and opening you up wide to soak in damage.  The intent to evolve melee from its context-sensitive form in RE5 is admirable, but falls flat on its face.

I promise you there’s some good behind ORC that I’m getting to, but I have to wade through some thick bullshit before we get there.  Which brings me to the contentious AI.  Your AI controlled teammates are the single greatest reason to never play this game by yourself.  Your enjoyment of the brief four-hour foray that is the campaign is more than halved once you opt to start it off with your three USS chuckleheads.  They make RE5’s Sheva look like she owns a doctorate in AI while these suicidal idiots struggle to spell GED.  Standard problems present themselves during the game’s quieter moments; nuisances like the AI always getting lost like a dejected dog if I stray too quickly away – a problem alleviated by group-spawning checkpoints.  But once combat gets hot, teammate intelligence implodes.  Your AI partners will stupidly walk into gunfire, allow themselves to be slapped around like ragdolls by B.O.W.’s, and get downed more times than you can manage.  And, yes, I do mean “you manage,” as your CPU teammates are barred from the ability of reviving one another.  Let’s rephrase that: the AI punishes you for how stupid it is. The AI becomes harder and harder to ignore the higher the difficulty.  On Professional difficulty, it looks like ritual sacrifice the amount of times they allow their heads to be caved in.

Another thorn in ORC’s playability is the fact that everything you encounter across all modes are unflinching bullet sponges.  Damage to zombies is more obvious, as the engine permits appendages to be blown off.  It’s harder to ascertain if you’re making a dent on bigger enemies and human enemies, however, as they’ll absorb your gunfire in the same way they’d recoil to a light summer rain.  There’s no telling how close you are to taking something down until it decides the eighth clip you’ve unloaded into its head was the final straw.  Combined with the hit detection imbalance and finicky targeting, fixing these issues sound to be much too tall an order for patches to handle, which is depressing because that means the game will always feel defective.

What works in Raccoon City is far from groundbreaking, but palatable.  It’s a fine touch that experience is cumulative, adding to your ranking online or off, and let’s you spend XP on whichever character you want.  There’s quite the arsenal to choose from, but it’s unfortunate Slant Six didn’t take a cue from the main series and let players customize different aspects of a weapon (reload speed, rate of fire, stopping power, etc.) to their liking.  Still, there’s enough weapons and character skills to buy to entice gamers to keep chugging away at the title’s featured versus modes.  There aren’t many to select between; two variants of team deathmatch – one with USS versus Spec Ops, the other basically the same except with the gimmick of playable Resident Evil vets. The other two modes are a simple capture-the-flag riff called Biohazard and an endurance mode called Survivors that can’t let Horde Mode well enough alone, and shoves versus down its throat.

No online shooter would be worth its salt without the beaten and flogged team deathmatch.  ORC’s spin on versus warfare is that harnessing the RE license gives Slant Six free reign to litter maps with all sorts of nightmarish distractions.  Discouraging lone wolf tactics, the game is best played when huddled with teammates, a sight trained on anything and everything, your immediate concerns dictated by whatever is presently gouging your eyes out.  There’s a keen unpredictability to gunfights since a losing fight can tide over the moment a zombie latches on to your enemy, opening them up for a shot.  Aim for the body and you’ll suffer your enemy a bleeding wound that sics every ghoulie right after their ass.  Sure, it’s goddamned frustrating to have the same visited upon you or to have a hunter pounce on your back when you’re about to score a kill, but them’s the breaks during an outbreak.  Unmarred by shitty AI, half-assed story telling, and script events, the versus modes strip Operation Raccoon City to barest, most serviceable embodiment.  And this is polarizing as all hell because the game is at its best strictly co-op, not when angrily shooting down other people online.  But the campaign is such a damaged beast that I can’t, in good conscience, recommend it as anything more than elongated training for online play.

The story kicks off with little fanfare and even less exposition besides the fact that you work for Umbrella and that you’re in Raccoon City.  If I were a newcomer, I’d sure as hell want to know why a pharmaceutical company has its own elite team of murderous mercenaries, but the game hinges on your knowledge of previous games.  And that might have been fine if ORC weaved a tale that fit snuggly beside canon, except Slant Six tells a tale that mostly disregards the series’ story and favors randomly injecting familiar monsters and characters in the same reference-y fashion the Milla Jovovich films have been riding on for years.  The score, the sound design, and level design (which sees you coasting through ruined streets and sterilized laboratories) are all appropriately RE, but the story borders on “military shooter,” which is exactly as boring as it sounds.

Your team of Umbrella neo-Nazis help matters little, their characterizations only going as far as their looks and whatever scraps of information you can find on Resident Evil’s Wiki instead of anything that naturally flows from the game’s narrative.  After tiring of the story, you’ll come to know the rough embrace of boredom as the actual campaign doesn’t offer diverging paths or differing enemy placement.  For a game that strongly calls to mind Left 4 Dead, it could have wisely borrowed the idea of specials and zombies attacking en masse randomly based on your performance.  Instead, you’ll find less and less motivation to replay the campaign.

Oh, and remember how it was toted you can make canon altering decisions like killing Leon S. Kennedy?  Sparing or taking Leon’s life is actually the only arbitrary choice you get to make, and that happens in the game’s final five minutes.  Then the game ends exactly like Double Dragon.If I hadn’t known Resident Evil 6 was on the way later this year, I would’ve taken this game like I pass kidney stones: pissing and screaming.

I softened my impression when I first played Operation Raccoon City.  Months of anticipation diluted my initial response to the game’s inherent flaws.  My opinion was “This isn’t very well done” or “That could use some work” when I should have admitted “This is bad” and “That’s plain broken.” Resident Evil is a sixteen-year-old name this year and the truth that gnawed at me my first playthrough is the one I must admit now: while mindlessly fun, this is a vanilla shooter born from a team with a history of vanilla shooters, and this franchise deserves something more ambitious than that.  What’s truly infuriating is that I can see a game like this working.  Huddled together, managing what few health items we had, and fending off the hordes with a living, breathing team of people whilst smack dab in the middle of the iconic Raccoon City is a concept that works and could still work.  We’ll just have to wait for the next apocalypse until it does.

(This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.  Operation Raccoon City is also available for the Xbox 360 and is planned to release on PC May 18th.)

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