The Resident Evil series is not generally known for its spin-offs, and with good reason. Promising concepts like Outbreak (eight-player co-op in an infested city!) end up as lukewarm compromises, and even the Wii's on-rails shooters topped out at decent. With Operation Raccoon City, a co-op run-and-gunner set during the events of Resident Evil 2 and 3, the time has surely come for something better.
Keep on dreaming. Operation Raccoon City is an under-designed and under-produced nightmare, a game that delivers the bare minimum in every category and stops right there. Its campaign is played in teams of four online (AIs fill gaps, but never revive players and rarely kill stuff) and, over seven missions, takes this forgettable clean-up crew of spec ops soldiers on a whistle-stop tour of Raccoon City 'highlights'.
Both of the original games this setting draws from, Resident Evil 2 in particular, show how spectacular Capcom's early 3D environmental design was. In Resi 2, almost every room has a story implied by its details. Operation Raccoon City handles this kind of example with careless hands; even the environments it recreates directly are shorn of the little touches that brought them alive.
Most of the locations are more loosely inspired, and here, there are some winners. An all-too-brief section fighting in the streets against mercenaries and B.O.W.s dropping from the sky can be horribly frustrating, but its scattered wrecks, dead bodies and battered shop fronts make it feel like a no man's land. Too few of the other levels have anything like this sense of place, and the vast majority just feel like generic designs with 'Raccoon City' and 'Umbrella' logos slapped up every so often.
You spend this much time thinking about environments when you're bored. Operation Raccoon City is a boring game, even for those of us into Resi big style. The most surprising thing is that, having all of the long-established visual and narrative elements it does, it never feels like Resident Evil. You associate that series with a certain level of polish, great visuals and gory monsters. Operation Raccoon City is so bland it feels like a copy rather than a Capcom production.
As for the action, it can only be described as attrition. Though zombies are easy enough to down, the lickers and hunters that soon start turning up have been blessed with huge reserves of health. This is developer Slant Six Games dealing with multiple players through the simple expedient of nerfing gunplay. The shooting is fine, inasmuch as the bullets go where the aiming reticule is - but when you pump six shotgun blasts into a hunter and the thing doesn't flinch, it feels pointless.
So much of Operation Raccoon City's combat involves pouring bullets into big targets and nothing else. Sure, they go down eventually, but by that stage everyone's lost interest - and the bigger they get, like a late elevator battle with a Tyrant, the more embarrassingly easy and tedious everything becomes. Opposition mercenaries pose more of a threat; by the late game, they are witheringly accurate and have to be fought using a cover system.
It's not a classic of the genre. The most unusual feature is that when strafing horizontally, you move out rather than sticking to the end of whatever cover you're using, leading to plenty of accidental damage. Luckily, most mercs will either die in the first salvo of fire from your team or pick a spot and stay there until shot.
Two mechanics are intended to spice this up. The first is that the bioweapons and the mercenaries fight with each other as well as your own band. Though you do see examples of this throughout the campaign, it often feels highly stage-managed rather than being of any consequence. In one hilarious sequence, you'll enter one room after another where mercs and zombies have been living together in harmony - until you appear and they suddenly decide to start fighting.
The second mechanic is the risk of infection, but this is implemented in such a cack-handed way that it rarely has a meaningful impact. When bitten by the undead, there's a risk of becoming infected: this causes your health to ebb away, and if it reaches zero your character turns into a zombie and starts attacking things (which, unbelievably, is not controllable by the player). Plentiful immunisation sprays cancel this out.
But why bother when you could just use a bullet? If a mate gets infected in Operation Raccoon City, it often makes more sense to kill and then immediately resurrect them, because they'll respawn almost instantly with full ammo and more health. You'd think it wouldn't be possible to do this mid-fight, but it is. Just a little trick every spec ops soldier should know.
There are so many problems. Whole sections can be sprinted through, enemies flailing ineffectually in your wake. Returning enemies and bosses look like slightly melted action figures of the originals, while new creations like the scuttling parasite are poor copies of ideas from other games (in this case, Dead Space). Enemy squads enter the battlefield and take cover behind exploding barrels. The data-gathering and camera-shooting side missions are pointless. The special equipment is piss-poor. The whole thing feels half-baked.
Operation Raccoon City's competitive multiplayer has a lot to make up for, then, but it at least manages to wring something more from the B.O.W.s. Even an average shooter is made so much better with friends, and this makes the dreadful campaign somewhat bearable. But when it's player-on-player with monsters in the middle, you get occasional glimpses of why this game seemed like a good idea.
Though the shooting remains fundamentally unsatisfying, monsters are a great way to liven up deathmatches. Operation Raccoon City sets teams of four against one another in an environment crawling with zombies and small clutches of bigger nasties. You quickly learn that even though the enemies can be danced around, they'll occasionally make a grab - and during a firefight with another player, these lost seconds make all the difference.
It's still deathmatch-by-numbers, but this little bit of gambling occasionally sparks it to life: an opponent delivering the final shot gets clocked by a hunter before they can squeeze the trigger. A sniper clips an enemy and makes them bleed, sending a small horde of zombies rushing towards the enemy team's position just as you start tossing the grenades. These are great moments, and Operation Raccoon City should have had many more of them.
Instead it has modes that offer nothing you haven't seen before, a terribly long results screen after every match, a levelling system (running in parallel to that of the single-player) of no consequence other than unlocking kit, and kit that isn't worth unlocking. There are no long-term prospects here because it's not a game built for the long term. Its matchmaking may be relatively speedy, but the infrastructure around online play is simply inadequate.
Operation Raccoon City is the latest product of Capcom's experiment in working with western developers. Previous games like Bionic Commando, Dark Void and Dead Rising 2 are a mixed bag at best, but this is the poorest result yet, with a show-stopping franchise in the hands of a studio that's clearly not up to it. The brand on Operation Raccoon City guarantees it many sales - perhaps millions. And for every one of those buyers, the name Resident Evil will lose a little of its lustre.