At first glance, Operation Raccoon City feels like one Hell of a change of direction. But in truth, there's no surprise here. Take a look back and you'll see Resident Evil has been spiralling toward third-person shooter status for years.
It all started with the spectacular success that was RE4. That game that reinvented the horror genre by throwing in an over-the-shoulder viewpoint and tons of eye-catching action. But it was the fifth major instalment which completed Resident Evil's shift from heart-pounding horror story to bombastic blockbuster - for better and for worse.
Operation Raccoon City takes Resident Evil's third-person shooter bits and runs with them. Or rather, sprints with them. Races towards a burnt out car, takes cover and blows apart a bunch of zombie heads with blind fire.
Capcom's idea was to create a dark, gritty shooter with smooth controls and a focus on multiplayer. It's not about fear any more. Perhaps that's why SOCOM: Confrontation developer Slant 6 was drafted in to make it all work. Resident Evil's Japanese producers saw the Vancouver studio's expertise in networked gameplay, co-op and online multiplayer as the perfect fit for their vision of a "true" third-person shooter set in the Resi universe.
The result is a fast-paced co-operative and competitive shooter. The action takes place across the storylines of Resident Evils 2 and 3. Umbrella is attempting to hide the truth behind the T-virus outbreak that devastated Raccoon City. You play as one of four soldiers in the Umbrella Security Service, a Black Ops team sent in to clean up the mess made by your maniacal paymasters.
The move to the third-person shooter genre is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows, but Resident Evil diehards may be more concerned by the retconning this spin-off forces upon the universe in which it's set. In one of the game's missions you're charged with chasing and killing squeaky clean rookie cop Leon Kennedy. We don't remember the USS and Leon even crossing paths in Resident Evil 2, let alone clashing with handguns.
"It's not a numbered title," producer Masachika Kawata explains at Capcom's Captivate event. "There is a way to play it where it fits in with the fiction. There's also a way to play it where you interrupt that cannon and make your own dark USS player decisions as well."
We assume this means you can decide whether to kill Leon or let him live, but who knows? And how many other central Resident Evil characters turn up in ways that, for some, make little sense?
Onwards and upwards. Four characters are playable: Vector, Spectre, Bertha and Beltway. Yes, really. Vector is the recon class, the ninja. He has skills such as camouflage and mimicry, each designed to help him evade enemies. Spectre is the surveillance class, with special vision modes that allow him to detect enemies through walls.
Bertha, a blonde female, is the medic class. She can heal, use status ailment abilities and inject an adrenaline shot that makes players faster and more accurate. And finally there's Beltway, the "big guy" demolition type. He's tougher than the others, dishes out and takes more damage, and plants mines.
Each class has nine abilities available, all of which are unlocked and can be upgraded as you progress through the game. Weapons fall into four categories: assault rifle, machine gun, sub machine gun and shotgun. They are also upgradeable. This is the extent of the game's player progression options.
Kawata takes us through a prototype level that won't be included in the final game. It's set in an urban area of Raccoon City blackened by night. The streets are burning, zombies are shuffling and government soldiers are littering the streets. Bio-Organic Weapons (BOWs) - REORCS' version of Left 4 Dead's special infected - are sporadically added to the mix.
It's impossible to overstate how different REORC feels compared to other Resident Evil games, even Resi 5. That is to say it feels like a third-person shooter, a SOCOM game. Your targeting reticule darts about the screen like a bee disturbed from its hive. Your character covers ground quickly with a simple click of the left thumb stick.
Turning, the simple act of changing direction, feels responsive. From cover you can blind fire, lob grenades or pop in and out for deadly accurate shooting. And, shock horror, you can move and shoot. In the face of such power, from four of you, what chance does poor Leon and his tank-like movement capability have?
Up close you're just as strong. A multi-directional melee system means mashing the CQC button is usually enough to down an enemy, at least to the point where you get the icon to perform a brutal finisher and spray the camera with blood. Alternatively, grab a zombie and use it as a meat shield, firing with your sidearm, then kick it into other zombies. There's dismemberment, too – arms, legs and of course heads.
Against your powerful weapons and speedy movement, zombies pose an almost negligible threat. This is deliberate: they're designed to be your plaything, to be used like toys.
"The zombies in this game should not really even be that scary," director Yasuhiro Seto says. "You're using them as tools. You're using them as shields. You're kicking them, maybe trying to confuse other players, maybe even hiding in a group of zombies. However, it can suddenly change on you where you're actually surrounded and being attacked."
The US Special Ops soldiers aren't much cop, either. They act as most enemies do in third-person shooters, conveniently popping in and out of cover so you to dispatch them in whack-a-mole style. But the BOWs, they're well hard. They're the ones that force you to work as a team, stacking abilities on each other and flanking where possible.
At the very least, they demand deeper strategy than 'hide behind cover and shoot'. When a T-103 Tyrant turns up at the end of Kawata's demo, the only option is to run away.
The frantic firefights are occasionally broken up by more atmospheric moments in which the chaos quietens and well-worn horror scares make you jump. They're short and sweet, but they're there. Still, the meat of the game is moving through each level, one street at a time, killing enemies, completing objectives and protecting Umbrella's credibility. Shooting zombies, shooting soldiers, shooting BOWs - this is what REORC is all about. You versus them versus them.
While the campaign is hands-off for now, a four-versus-four competitive map is playable. Here you pick a class from the USS or the US Spec Ops. Both sides offer exactly the same class options, devaluing the named USS characters and their silly back stories somewhat. The map on show is lifted from a campaign level set on Stagla Street – an area of Raccoon City that rekindles memories of Resident Evil 3.
The mode on offer is Team Attack. Whichever team has the most points after five minutes of play wins. Everything you do scores points. Killing zombies, landing headshots, downing other players, defeating BOWs – all of it adds to your team total. But player-controlled characters offer the most points, so it's best to seek them out, ignoring the zombies for the most part.
There are some interesting elements at work here. Playing as Spectre, for example, and using infrared vision while up on a roof to camp and snipe heat signatures, is a good strategy. But given there are always zombies baying for your blood, you can't camp in one place for too long.
And, on the three minute mark, the game drops in a BOW that instantly heads for the match VIP. Hunters, for example, can navigate the environment at a blistering speed, and can jump and leap on top of roofs. "And what if you could control them?" Kawata teases.
Despite these elements you can't help but feel that unless Operation Raccoon City has something special up its sleeve, it could falter when held up against the likes of Gears of War 3's four-player co-op and Uncharted 3's competitive multiplayer - both games it will face off with when it launches this winter.
Judging by what's been shown so far, this game is at risk of being another generic, by the numbers third-person shooter with underwhelming visuals. It also feels experimental, as if it's a low-risk precursor to something we may see in the inevitable Resident Evil 6.
So will Operation Raccoon City turn out to be a Resident Evil revolution or a simpering spin-off? Right now the most interesting thing about it is the gory loading screen. A twitching, dismembered arm with an open wound surrounded by flies hammers home the point that this is a darker, more violent Resident Evil. The trouble is, according to Capcom, it may not end up in the final version at all.