The stinky shambling awesomeness of Operation Raccoon City

, | Game reviews

The developers at Slant Six are mostly known for successfully packing Sony’s SOCOM series into the PSP a couple of times. In Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, they’ve tackled an equally ambitious project: packing Resident Evil into a Lost Planet style team-based shooter with asymmetrical characters, persistent progression, some fancy zombie concepts, and online co-op and versus play. All the while, zombies and spec ops soldiers fight it out around you. Jump in whenever you’re ready. It must have been one hell of a design document.

After the jump, the unfortunate matter of the game itself

The first thing you’ll notice — and you’ll keep noticing it as you play — is that this game looks terrible. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say Operation Raccoon City looks like it was built to port to the Playstation 2. It’s been a long time since I could say that about a shooter. The textures, the animation, the level design, the lighting, and the amount of detail are all horrible, low-rent, and about five years past their sell by date. To be kind, you could say it’s like standing in a large dark room full of zombies; your eyes will eventually adjust and you’ll be able to appreciate how many zombies they can fit in here. Because if you’re going to have an ugly game, please make sure it can support lots of zombies. There’s nothing quite so gratifying as facing thirty zombies when you have a heavy machine gun and no shortage of ammo. Thank you, Operation Raccoon City.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Operation Raccoon City wouldn’t be a Resident Evil game without embracing some of Resident Evil’s worst tropes, including awful boss fights. You know you’re in trouble early on. After a couple of quick “RT to fire, LT to aim, X to reload” tutorial firefights, you come to an overly scripted and poorly explained boss who comes at you fast and hard. But this isn’t a boss fight. It’s a boss flight. And even though you’re supposed to flee, Slant Six does everything in their power to dissuade you from doing what you’re supposed to do. It’s a staggeringly amateurish example of incompetent game design. “Fuck it,” said someone who’d joined my team the time I played. We’d been playing for less than ten minutes. “This shit is retarded,” he concluded over his mic before disconnecting. I suspect he never played Operation Raccoon City again.

And there’s more where that came from. I cannot overstate the game-killing absurdity of four players running circles around a boss emptying hundreds upon hundreds of rounds into his head, refilling their ammo, and doing it over again while the boss slowly plods after them like a fat kid who wants his lunch box back. At this point, we are no longer an elite team of mercenaries staving off a zombie horde. At this point, we are peeing bullets into a bullet sponge with no idea how much it can absorb and we’re going to do it for as long as it takes because, goddamn it, we’re not going to come this far and not get our xp, so we soldier on with the bullet peeing for what seems like an hour. And that’s on normal difficulty.

As a team-based game, you will always play with three other characters. Ideally, these should be controlled by other players, because the friendly AI is ridiculously bad. What’s more, it doesn’t even use a character’s special abilities beyond the medic chick occasionally spritzing you with Resident Evil’s trademark healing spray. Hey, Beltway, move your fat butt out of my line of fire while I’m trying to shoot the guys that are shooting you while you stand around doing diddly squat. Why don’t you go use that special mine-laying ability I unlocked for you? No? You’re just going to stand there, looking at me while you get shot? Okay, that’s fine by me, because it means you won’t be standing in my line of fire. I’ll come rez you after I’ve finished playing this room.

The story is literally a retread of Resident Evil 2, or thereabouts. It’s a nod to fans for how it uses familiar characters as bosses. It introduces folks like, uh, hold on, let me check Wikipedia. It introduces folks like Leon Kennedy, Claire Redfield, and Ada Wong, using cutscenes fans will recognize from the other games. If I cared one whit about the story of Resident Evil, this would be pretty nifty.

But I don’t. So why do I like Operation Raccoon City? Glad you asked, because everything after this point is going to look like it belongs in a review of a good game. It’s confusing to me as well.

The six characters each have unique gameplay options that you’ll probably pine for any time you play another character. That’s a hallmark of good design: when you have to overcome the momentum of attachment to switch to a new character, faction, or class. It’s something I’ve recently experienced in games as diverse as Conquest of Elysium 3, Xenoblade Chronicles, the Guild Wars 2 beta, and Mass Effect 3. The sensation will be familiar to players of Team Fortress 2, Starcraft II, and Alpha Protocol. So many options, many of them distinct enough that you’re essentially playing a different game.

Each character has a pair of passive abilities and three active abilities to unlock and upgrade. However, you can only select one of the active abilities when you play a mission. Some of the choices are puzzling, and my first instinct is to think this is sloppy design. Why would I ever choose the surveillance guy’s infrared vision instead of the omniscient minimap radar that extends to everyone on my team? Why would the assault class ever go into a mission with the infinite ammo burst instead of the invulnerability power?

I suspect the answer is that Slant Six makes no distinction between single-player progression, head-to-head competitive progression, and co-op progression. Everything gives you experience points you can spend to unlock weapons and abilities that you use in every other mode. An ability that is useless in single-player games might be very useful in multiplayer games. While the recon character’s disguise ability might not do anything when I’m just plowing through zombies in a co-op mission, I can imagine it’s pretty key in a multiplayer match where I can insinuate myself among the other team. Hold on a sec, I’m going to run through the police station to get enough points to unlock that ability.

Okay, I’m back. I ran through the police station level with my surveillance character, who can see all the collectible data on the map that I can turn in for an experience point bonus. Plus, I’m pretty familiar with most of the police station’s CCTV cameras that I can shoot for extra points. He’s basically my xp farming character. Since any character can wield any gun and toss any grenade, it’s not like he doesn’t hit hard. I also unlock extra anti-infection medicine for my scientist character, who can also turn zombies over to our side.

I’m a sucker for this sort of advancement, particularly after rolling Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer dice for so long to no avail. Connecting character progression and basic gameplay mechanics is a sound design choice, even if the trade-off is that you have to play to unlock cool parts of the game.

Some of the cool parts are easy to miss if you fuss much with not liking the game. “Blood frenzy” is a bit like having a boomer vomit on you in Left 4 Dead, which brings zombies running. But in Operation Raccoon City, this is related to certain weapons. Each gun has a stat for how effective it is when it comes to making a human target bleed. Pile enough of this effect onto a target and he’ll shoot out silly red blood spurts, which means local zombies will swarm him.

Another distinct gameplay mechanic is infection, which is a part of zombie lore all too often missing from zombie games. When a human character — you, another player, or even an NPC — takes damage from a zombie, he might get infected. This means he’ll slowly lose health until he dies, at which point he turns into a superzombie. If this happens to you or someone on your team, you have a chance to use anti-viral spray. But if you don’t have anti-viral spray handy, you’ll either turn into a computer-controller superzombie, or you’ll have to contend with a computer-controlled superzombie. Kill him and rez him and all will be well again. But when things get hairy, the last thing you want is another superzombie thrown into the mix where there used to be a teammate.

These are the sort of touches that make it easy enough for me to look past what a shoddy game this is. Because, really, it is pretty awful in some important ways. But sometimes being awful is no reason to dislike a game. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City is one of the worst games I’ve really liked in a long time.

3 stars
Xbox 360