Version tested: 3DS
With The Mercenaries 3D, Resident Evil finally sheds the last vestiges of its horror past and gives in to the third-person shooter urges that have been tugging away at the franchise since 2005, when this game mode first appeared as an unlockable bonus in Resident Evil 4.
It's an unpretentious timed shooting gallery, more interested in leaderboards than atmosphere and dread. You pick one of eight characters, all drawn from Resident Evil lore with their own unique weapon sets, and then dive into thirty stopwatch missions aiming for the best time and high score. There's no story, no pacing – just enemies and locations from the fourth and fifth games, shuffled around and thrown in your face relentlessly.
And it works, at least to start with. Hush the nagging voice that asks "shouldn't Resident Evil be scary?" and The Mercenaries is a solid and often satisfying action game. Control is simple, with movement assigned to the thumbstick, while the right bumper sweeps you into first-person view for aiming and shooting. This being Resident Evil, there's no shooting from the hip or moving while aiming. Well, that's not technically true, since you can shuffle around in first-person view by holding the left bumper as well, but it's fiddly, sluggish and more likely to get you killed than simply dropping your weapon and making a run for it.
The Y button is called into service for most important functions, including the collection of dropped ammo and green herbs, so your thumb doesn't have far to travel in the thick of the fighting. The A button instantly uses a health item, while up and down on the d-pad flick through your weapons. The touchscreen can be used for more detailed inventory work, such as selecting a grenade or mine, but this can be unreliable as you'll be tapping with your left thumb rather than the stylus, and soft flesh doesn't always give the immediate effect you need.
Mostly, however, it's a dependable control map and one that quickly becomes second nature. If the game has a technical failing, it's that the small screen of the 3DS means that peripheral vision is vastly reduced and navigating past low obstacles becomes a problem as they disappear off the bottom of the screen along with your unseen legs. The view tips down automatically if you descend stairs or a ramp, but you'll still spend a lot of time waffling around trying to position yourself over an item or trying to get past a barrier in a hurry.
This claustrophobic feel would be beneficial if the game was interested in spooking you, but with enemies that simply stand around or stampede towards you it can feel restrictive. Enemies won't attack straight away, lunging in close then hanging back so you have time to at least retaliate, but there are still instances where you can be clobbered or grabbed from behind with no way of knowing what was coming.
Some weapons deliver the sort of impact you hope for but others, such as the sniper rifle, feel strangely weightless. Headshots are no longer a guaranteed kill, and it's easy to waste ammo plugging away at an enemy who is suddenly resilient for no apparent reason.
When the parts click into place, however, these wobbles are easy to forgive. Building up a combo streak, alternating between weaponry and melee to rack up points and time bonuses, making use of the environment to stay one step ahead of the throng – this all hits the sweet spot, and it's here that the game really starts to pull you into its bloodthirsty orbit. Sadly, despite this promising bedrock, the game's weak structure holds it back from achieving its potential.
This is a game with solid gameplay but no framework to give it that extra kick into essential territory, and as the missions tick by it too often feels like a disembodied bonus mode. The stages quickly begin to feel repetitive, and the lack of maps doesn't do much to distinguish one mission from another. Your task is always to kill lots of enemies; sometimes a fixed number within a tight time limit, sometimes in escalating waves, and occasionally in a more freeform style, where the goal is simply to keep killing and topping up the stopwatch with melee kills, head stomps and smashing red statues that add chunks of time to your clock.
Advancing through the missions unlocks new "skills", essentially perks that can be equipped (up to three at a time) and which then level up with sustained use, their effectiveness displayed using a mobile phone styled three-bar meter. Along with hidden characters and alternate costumes, these keep you ploughing onwards for a while, but fatigue sets in before the halfway mark. Ironically for a game with a zombie heritage, there just isn't enough meat on the bones.
There's co-op play, of course, which is well realised. Available locally or online, it's easy to get a game started and even easier to get the top SS ranking with two players popping away at the advancing hordes. There's not much room for tactical play, but sharing the experience definitely alleviates some of the more tiresome elements from solo play. Weirdly, the co-op mode doesn't persist from mission to mission – you can't just work through them, instead having to retreat to the menu, manually choose the next mission and then reconnect to another player before you can continue.
There's also nothing in the way of customisation. You can't mix and match the enemies, weapons, modes and locations to create your own variations on a theme, and all the characters are exactly as you find them – there are no hidden depths or evolutionary abilities to discover. [Correction: It is in fact possible to mix any weapon set with any character in the game, though this option is not unlocked initially.]
Visuals can also get a bit laggy when playing online, with monsters in the distance visibly teleporting across the screen in three frames, and the 3D effect is something of a mixed blessing. It's very effective, but it also suffers from the frantic play. With the shoulder buttons playing such a vital role, I found that keeping the screen in that sweet spot where everything is in focus more distracting than immersive. Progress comes much faster when you slap the slider down and play in old-fashioned 2D.
The 3D is more impressive in the demo of Resident Evil: Revelations, which takes a slow enough pace that you can at least enjoy the illusion of depth without having to wrestle los ganados every two seconds. Sadly, even if you take your time, you'll have sampled this teaser in less than five minutes. It's incredibly short – really little more than a couple of corridors and a few creatures that look like they got lost on their way to Silent Hill – so if you were planning on picking up The Mercenaries for a first glimpse at the first "proper" Resident Evil game for the 3DS, you might want to reconsider.
And, of course, there's the whole save file issue. There's no story, so no real need to "start over", but this also means that unlocking the bonus material becomes a more prominent in-game goal. Picking up a second hand copy with everything already unlocked and the leaderboards filled with somebody else's games will feel a lot like buying some trousers from a charity shop and discovering an old tissue in the pocket. Caveat emptor indeed.
Ultimately, The Mercenaries gets off to a promising start, and in the short term it can be a thrilling blast, but by refusing to augment or develop the core idea from its mini-game roots, Capcom has doomed it to second tier status. Anywhere that new ideas could have been injected, the status quo has instead been doggedly maintained. The result is an above average action game that acts as a decent showcase for core gaming principles on the 3DS but does little to justify its own existence for the long haul.
7 / 10