Come on in, the water’s fine — and familiar — in Resident Evil: Revelations

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one. In Resident Evil: Insert Slightly Intriguing But Ultimately Irrelevant Word Here, a virus, a secret laboratory, a sneering villain, Jill Valentine, a ship, and bioterrorism walk into a videogame.

After the jump, the punchline

The boat-based Resident Evil: Revelations is nothing if not familiar. I don’t think there’s been a single Resident Evil game without a ship level. Or maybe I’m thinking of Metal Gear Solid. At any rate, the ship this time isn’t just a single level. It’s the centerpiece of the story. Our heroes, taking a cue from movies like Ghost Ship, Deep Rising, Triangle, Chupacabra Terror, and Virus starring Jamie Lee Curtis, investigate a cruise ship. It’s all very timely in that awkward “should-I-even-mention-it?” way. At least the Costa Concordia didn’t end with a ridiculous boss fight against an enormous monster that has tentacles coming out its ears. Yet.

As you wend your way along Revelations’ incoherent plot, the setting fills in where a story should have been. The name of the game isn’t Resident Evil: I’m on a Boat!, but not for lack of trying. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Capcom does enough inventive ship-related stuff to keep this boat from being just another dungeon. If you hate wading through flooded hallways, everything is working exactly as intended. Most of the levels are suitably small and dark — you spend a lot of time on an abandoned cruise ship, after all — although Revelations occasionally breaks out into its own diminutive version of spectacle and range.

Although the ship is featured prominently, much like Africa was featured prominently in Resident Evil 5, the real star of Revelations is the Nintendo 3DS. The 3DS continues to do great visuals and controls. Who thought Nintendo would upstage the PSP so completely? If you played last year’s Resident Evil: Mercenaries 3D, which was a greatest hits compilation of levels from Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5, you knew the 3DS could do a Resident Evil. But because this is an all new game, it feels like it belongs to the 3DS rather than something borrowed by the 3DS.

Assuming that you accept that Resident Evil isn’t a game about running backwards and spewing ammo, you’ll find here another wonderfully tense shooter. The progression system isn’t as good as it was in Resident Evil 5, where you leveled up individual weapons, or even as good as it was in Mercenaries 3D, where you leveled up skills. But it has just enough weapon customization and kick to make it matter. And Capcom has my deepest gratitude for finally letting me throw a grenade without swapping out my gun. In the annals of videogame military history, this is an advancement on par with the discovery of gunpowder.

The monsters are a little spare and silly. I’d much rather have a good old fashioned zombie instead of these shambling plasticky ghouls that look like the artists forget to apply a skin texture. Put some clothes on, fellas. And giant lumpy meat slugs? Really? It’s almost as if, oops, all the graphics power was used up on the main characters and environments. But since the basic premise of a Resident Evil game is that you’re shooting at annoying things you want to be dead, mission accomplished.

However, the real reason to string up a mission accomplished banner has to do with how Capcom can take a corridor shooter, that scourge of enlightened game design, and wring so much gameplay from it. The story missions reveal the ship a bit like a Metroid or Castlevania game reveals a space station or castle. But the story missions also unlock levels to play in a separate mode. These are the same levels from the story, but you play them in the context of an RPG system. Play either solo or cooperatively online, courtesy of a seamless multiplayer matching system. Buy weapons. Earn money. Spend money on ammo. Unlock achievements that give you rewards. Grind for new weapon perks. Level up. Yes, level up.

This is a cheap but entirely effective way to make a corridor shooter more than just a corridor shooter. Like last year’s similarly cheap but effective Fear 3, it’s all in the presentation. Give me reasons to run down this corridor yet again, ideally with a friend, shooting the same guns at the same monsters over and over, and if your gunplay is good enough, I will gladly do it. Resident Evil: Revelations’ gunplay is good enough. It’s like a joke you’ve heard several times and already know the punchline. But like all the best jokes, it’s all in the delivery.

4 stars
Nintendo 3DS