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Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

Reboot or revolution?

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.

Zombies can be used as meat shields.

"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?