Set as a side story during the events of Resident Evil 2's Raccoon City outbreak, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City drops you in the heavy boots of an elite Umbrella commando squad. Your assignment: retrieve the G-Virus or, failing that, destroy all evidence of Umbrella's connection and remove any dangerous survivors — Leon S. Kennedy among them — who might blow the whistle on the zombie antics.
It's a scenario with potential, but Slant Six's squad shooter never comes together as a desirable whole, instead emerging as a mutant off-shoot of Capcom's horror series. Playing as the bad guys and attempting to kill off the mainline episodes' heroes should be intriguing, an alternative storyline that could never come to fruition in the main canon, but it's wasted. The characters and monsters we know and love are relegated to infuriating boss encounters, and important events are brushed away in cut scenes that never deliver the promised pay-offs.
Things don't improve when it comes to combat. The cover system is loose, activated by simply walking into walls, boxes, etc.; when you need it most it might not activate, forcing you to back up and try again. Basic aiming and shooting is perfectly fine, but when the bullets reach their targets there's no feedback — enemies are so unresponsive to your projectiles that it's tough to work out if you're hitting them or not, unless they're flying backwards after being met with an exploding grenade. The issue goes both ways: often you can't tell if you're taking damage yourself, leading to surprising, frustrating deaths that seem to come from nowhere. The only indication of downed allies are small icons that don't catch the eye; quick time events are advertised through the same means.
At times Operation Raccoon City is unnecessarily unfair. Go face to rotting face with bigger foes such as a Tyrant and you'll naturally be smacked about with a vicious melee attack. If you're unfortunate enough to be in a tight spot, though, they'll trap you and continue the beat down relentlessly, leaving you no chance to escape and regroup. Their attack animation is shorter than your recovery – just as you've nearly clambered to your feet, they've already reconnected their fist to your helpless head. On smaller enemies this can be exploited by you too: it's possible to slash them endlessly with knife strikes until they're killed all over again. You might as well make use of this as opponents are bullet sponges, taking unreasonable amounts of punishment before they go down, which is even worse given the lack of feedback.
It looks and sounds like a Resident Evil game, albeit a slightly unpolished one, with many trademark sound effects and locales carried over. However, these are supplemented by effects that look cheaper than you'd expect from the series, as well as the odd issue with draw distance — it's uncommon, but we witnessed several instances of zombies popping out of thin air right in front of us. There are also invisible walls, particularly egregious in the lead up to and during an early boss fight, perfectly wide open tunnels inaccessible because the developer wants to make an encounter more difficult or force you down a certain path.
The new characters don't offer any respite either, and are universally unlikeable. Each squad member is either sociopathic or just boring; they speak of the mission and their orders flatly, the only slivers of their wretched personalities revealed through potty mouths and the occasional disdainful comment about human life. One scene depicts them scornfully mocking people who've been locked in a room filled with zombies. We know they're evil – they work for Umbrella after all – but when you're expected to spend six or seven hours with them, some redeeming qualities or humour would have been welcome. You just don't care about them – they'd be more interesting as zombies.
They're not even fun to play with. Such is the low IQ of your team mates' artificial intelligence, there might as well not even be a squad trooping around in single player mode – they're of absolutely no use whatsoever. They stand still, sometimes not even shooting, while enemies swarm around; if you're stomped to the ground or come close to death, they simply ignore you. They get snagged in animation loops, running on the spot towards walls; they're incapable of finding the correct paths or working things out for themselves, instead trailing around after you, watching as you fulfil all the necessary objectives by yourself.
Due to all these issues, Operation Raccoon City is absolutely not worth it if you're only going to be able to play in single player. The only way to experience the campaign with any degree of enjoyment is through online co-op, where you can team up with as many as three others and have a bit of a chat. If you can't fill all the slots, AI will round out the numbers – they suffer the same problems as in solo play, as does the rest of the game, but it isn't quite as noticeable as you have at least one other competent ally actually aiding you. It's still not fantastic, but with other people by your side it ranges from 'tolerable' to 'a bit fun', which is much more than can be said about playing it alone.
ORC is very online-focused, acting like a multiplayer game even when played solo. Experience points are handed out at the end of levels or versus matches, which can then be spent on new weapons, characters, special abilities and perks to make things a bit easier; improved bullet resistance or unlimited fire for a small time period, for example. When setting off a campaign your primary options are geared towards co-op; you choose between a private story mode, for friends and invitees only, or allow anybody to pop along in public. You can, of course, play offline if you sign out of PlayStation Network, but if you've got the chance to get other people in your game, even strangers, then do so. The matchmaking is efficient, so it's very easy to find a game, and connection speed is decent.
Though co-operative play improves things massively, there are still some issues. It's never announced when somebody has joined your game, you just have to look around and spot them; a split-second frame rate drop often accompanies arrivals. There's no option to boot wayward players that refuse to move forward and horse around, thus stopping the entire team's progression. A beacon system to direct partners, or a small number of basic commands such as “wait” or “follow me”, would also have been useful – if you're without voice chat, there's no way to show others where to go or what to do, short of dancing around them firing your rifle haphazardly or waving your knife like a maniac.
The best part of the package is versus multiplayer, which is instantly more fun than the campaign. However, nothing about it is a particular revelation, nor does it use the Resident Evil licence in a meaningful way other than as a skin over modes we've seen dozens of times before. Biohazard is capture the flag, only with G-Virus samples as the desired objects; Survivor has you battle for your life for a time before a helicopter lands to rescue the lucky few that race to it first and fill the limited number of seats.
Team deathmatch is essentially the same team-based gun fight that features in just about every multiplayer shooter. Heroes mode tries something different, separating players into teams tasked with assassinating the 'heroes' on the opposing side, and the first team to kill all key targets wins. Each player starts off as a hero, but once you're killed there's no returning in the same guise; you're allowed to re-enter the game, but only as a grunt to help out the remaining members of your team.
The only thing that distinguishes these modes as Resident Evil-specific in functional terms are the monsters that stumble around the stages. They add an extra layer of danger and chaos, but really they're just additional cannon fodder from which to accrue match-winning experience points. Your only real dangers in multiplayer are other players – except when the hunters roll out.
Unless you're going to play with others, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City isn't worth your time. Single player is infected with poor artificial intelligence, lack of useful feedback and abusive enemies. Rope in a couple of friends — or open your game up for anybody to join — and ORC improves, still beholden to many of its problems but better for the replacement of its inadequate AI with human players to help deal with its viruses. The versus multiplayer modes are the highlight, though they do nothing outstanding – they're mainly Resident Evil-themed versions of game types found in any number of shooters already out there. Most disappointingly, there just isn't enough bite to Operation Raccoon City's curious scenario; it doesn't take full advantage of and adds nothing to the franchise's lore, even as a 'what if?' side-story.