Version tested: Xbox 360
As anyone who completed Resident Evil 5's campaign will know, you unlock The Mercenaries mode when you finish the game. It's a rather nifty little offline mini-game where the focus is on blasting as many enemies as possible within a time limit, in a series of enclosed environments. Like a good old-fashioned arcade game, it's all about racking up as high a score as possible, which means trying to keep increasing your combo count by making sure you go no more than 10 seconds between kills. The bigger the combo, the higher the score, and the better the grade. Simple.
While you could play The Mercenaries in offline or online co-op mode with a buddy, Capcom evidently realised that this mode could easily translate to a competitive online multiplayer affair with a few tweaks to the rules. And so, 1.86MB and 400 Microsoft Points (or GBP 3.99 at the PlayStation Store) later, we get the new Versus add-on, using the same eight maps - Public Assembly, The Mines, Village, Ancient Ruins, Experimental Facility, Missile Area, Ship Deck, and Prison - and the same score-attack principle.
All of the four play variations within Versus allow you to choose from ten characters - only two of which, Sheva and Chris, are available by default. The rest (no spoilers!) you'll have to unlock by getting scores of 40,000 plus, gradually giving you the ability to choose characters with slightly more exotic load-outs. Rather than the default pistol being supplemented with a shotgun (for Chris) or machine gun (for Sheva), you can go into battle armed with a flaming bow and arrow, or a grenade launcher. As you'll note once the action gets under way, these can make a big difference in getting points on the board quickly.
Each gameplay variation revolves around the same score-attack principles. Kicking off with a five-minute time limit, the priority is to go looking for kills as soon as possible and get the combo count up. A simple kill might be only worth 300 points, so you can't just cautiously creep around the map and pick off enemies one by one. To stand any chance of winning the round, you have to dash around and find where the action is so you can gain maximum points from your efforts before the ten-second kill buffer disappears.
Seeking a good, sheltered choke-point might provide the perfect opportunity to rack up kills while giving you the opportunity to get out of the way of unexpected human attacks, but the feeling of never quite being safe is omnipresent. With limited ammo always at the forefront of your strategy, it's a game in which you're constantly on the run. As players of The Mercenaries will note, the multi-tiered maps can leave you quite exposed to projectile attacks if you're not careful - and with human opponents now thrown into the mix, that threat is multiplied exponentially. It's an interesting dynamic, because while it's fairly straightforward trying to fend off the attentions of the shambling undead, you run the permanent risk of being caught unawares.
Strangely for an online multiplayer game, there's no opportunity to vary round times beyond the basic five-minute limit, which feels like an oversight. You can extend the round times slightly while the matches are under way by kicking time bonuses and killing enemies a certain way, but for the most part you're stuck playing very short rounds regardless.
Similarly annoying is the way that, once a match ends, you get dumped back to the Versus start screen, giving you no opportunity to replay the match with the same group of players. Likewise, you can't enjoy a best-of-three round, or, in fact, do any of the kind of match customisation you'd find in most online multiplayer games, which is disappointing considering the premium paid to access the content in the first place. As usual you can play ranked or player matches, and each of the eight maps feature four online leaderboards. Sadly, the leaderboards feature only the baseline score, and no stat breakdown of how the score was reached in the four modes.
Speaking of which, what of these four Versus variations? First up: Slayers. Present in both single and 2-vs.-2 team flavours, it's is a straightforward fight to the death, where each player or team competes for the highest score in a single round. In solo mode, each player is only concerned with killing whatever's in front of them, so whether it's a fellow human competitor, or hordes of infected Majini, everything must perish.
Some players might prefer to limit the scoring potential of their opponents more than focus on their own efforts, so each match tends to play out slightly differently. Sometimes you're aware of maniacs doing nothing but hunting you down, other times everyone kind of goes about their killing business in their own corner of the map, while Majini respawn all around them. Horses for courses.
Team Slayer, meanwhile, adds the all-important co-operative element, and while it feels much the same, the strategy is subtly different. Hunting together, for example, can be useful for helping each other out when caught in a melee struggle, or when you're in dire need of a health boost. It's also useful, in theory, to be able to work together and cover each other's backs. With enemies continually respawning, it's quite easy to be caught out - not only by the AI foes, but by the human ones, so if you can play this online with a friend who understands the benefit of sticking together, do.
Elsewhere, there's another subtle twist on the score-attack formula in the shape of Survivors and Team Survival. Once again using the same eight maps, these four-player affairs penalise you for shooting the AI monsters, meaning it's all about hunting down your human enemies. Just like the Slayer mode, you can see roughly where your enemy is by virtue of their 'P1' icon being visible through scenery, so the element of surprise is somewhat lessened. That said, in these modes it becomes much more about which weapons are most powerful.
For example, while a shotgun can be great for seeing off tons of AI enemies at close proximity, trying to use it against the git with the flaming arrows is only going to end one way. You'll quite often find rounds turning into a bit of a mismatch if you're playing against people who've unlocked the more advanced characters ahead of you. On the other hand, once you know the placement of collectables dotted around the map, you can make a beeline for the RPG and get around any unfair advantage that way.
The outstanding question most people will have is: how on earth can the 'stop-and-pop' combat work in competitive multiplayer? Surely the inability to move while firing reduces the combat to a ludicrous game of who shot first? To some extent, yes, it is patently laughable to have an online multiplayer shooting game where you can't move while firing, never mind strafe. There is an undoubted comic element to the proceedings as each player stands with feet nailed to the floor hoping that their weapon does the most damage quickest - but there is a positive side, in that it does make the game feel very distinct from the hundreds of samey shooters in the market. On the other hand, it can be hugely frustrating to not even be able to slide quickly out of the way when an RPG whistles towards you.
Likewise, the slow aiming process can be initially irksome, and the glacial default turning speed might wind people up. But that's Resident Evil. Deal with it. If you make a few aiming speed tweaks, stick with the unusual control system and go with it, few of those initial irritations will persist.
What's harder to defend is Capcom's decision to charge for this in the first place. The file size of 1.86MB is an obvious giveaway, and once you actually play it, you'll soon realise that you've paid for some subtle rule changes to The Mercenaries mode, albeit with additional players. Admittedly not everyone who buys Versus will have even seen The Mercenaries yet, given that you have to actually finish the main game to unlock it, but that's not really defensible. Capcom is renowned for providing a ton of added value in all past Resident Evil games via unlockables, but this time it has decided to monetise that with extra content that was blatantly already on the disk.
And while all the modes within Versus are fun for a while, Capcom has missed a trick by not even including basic customisation options which are the very least you expect from an online game in 2009. For a few quid you'll get a fair bit of enjoyment, but the fact remains that there's a putrid whiff of exploitation about this one. Let your wallet be your guide.
6 / 10