Sunday, May 26, 2013

Game Review - Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City (PC, 2012)

As a big fan of the Resident Evil series, I’m always excited by new chances to explore the franchise’s world.  Of particular interest is the Raccoon City incident, the event that started one of the most iconic zombie infestations in gaming.  Operation Raccoon City presents an excellent opportunity to see a new angle on the original outbreak, but some imbalanced details make the game feel much more tedious than exciting.

Operation Raccoon City’s biggest strength is undoubtedly the plot that snaps into the narrative of the early portion of the Resident Evil timeline.  Set during the original outbreak in Raccoon City, this game follows an elite group of Umbrella agents (led by mysterious series regular HUNK) as they try to destroy any evidence linking Umbrella to the outbreak.

That premise isn’t surprising; you would certainly expect Umbrella Corp to cover up their involvement at all costs.  What’s interesting about this storyline is instead the subtle tone of it all – the way that the management treats its most trusted (human) killing machines is fascinating, even if it’s not really unexpected.  Similarly, Umbrella’s reaction to their own creations and the government Special Forces intervention shed light on the company’s attitudes.  We've never really gotten to see the Resident Evil universe from Umbrella’s eyes, so this perspective is titillating.

Of course, many of the plot points fill in some details about what was happening behind the scenes in Resident Evil 2 and 3.  Sadly, however, the whole story is only worth anything if you’re familiar with the Resident Evil mythos; otherwise it’s just a generic and random third-person shooter.  Fans of the series will find some part of it interesting, but others will probably not care at all.

This disappointment continues into the gameplay.  At its most basic, Operation Raccoon City is a decent third-person shooter.  You run through the various missions (seven in total, each 30-45 minutes or so long) looking over your chosen character’s shoulder, gunning down zombies, Special Forces, and bigger mutants without discretion.  Series icons like green herbs play their standard role (healing), but the gameplay is the natural next step following the last few installments of the main series (Resident Evils 4 and 5).

Shotguns are great for dispatching the zombie hordes.
Some additional depth comes from the fact that you must choose one of six character classes.  Although each class functions identically in direct combat, they each come with a unique selection of five skills to amplify their destructive or survival capabilities.  Your team of four must consist of different classes, and different compositions will play slightly differently.

And those basics are great – Operation Raccoon City is essentially a Left 4 Dead style game in the Resident Evil universe, which is solid.  On top of that, the ability to play the campaign with up to three other players online is great, allowing for complex tactics during difficult battles – if the online community wasn't completely dead.  In a little over ten hours of game time in the campaign, I've only been able to play with another person once, which tears out a major feature of this multiplayer-oriented game.

Furthermore, there are some awkward balancing issues.  Through most of the game, you’re slaughtering tons of zombies or taking cover during a firefight with Special Forces, and both those scenarios work quite nicely.  When you start mixing in aggressive, resilient mutants or end-of-level boss battles, you start to see how uncomfortable the game’s mechanics can be.

For example, hunters (big gorilla-like reptiles) will pounce on you without hesitation.  Hiding behind cover doesn't help, and the control scheme makes dodging their leaps difficult at best and totally ineffective at worst.  As a result, I would regularly get knocked down repeatedly by hunters so that I couldn't do anything to respond, even on the easiest difficulty setting.

The squad's medic staring down a hunter.
Boss battles can be quite frustrating as well, as they tend to last well beyond what’s entertaining.  Sure, it’s more realistic to have to unload hundreds of bullets into a monster to bring it down, but when it takes several minutes of continually circling and shooting at big beasts to end a fight (with no real indication that your attacks are actually dealing damage), the game gets to feel incredibly tedious.  Here, too, the difficulty settings don’t help much, as big battles still feel like a lot of work with minimal reward.

To make matters worse, the spectrum of character classes is a cool idea, but the way of unlocking skills and weapons discourages the player from experimenting with different classes.

At the end of a stage, you’ll be awarded some amount of experience points based on your performance.  You will then spend those XP on unlocking or upgrading class skills or unlocking new starting weapons to take into a stage.  That aspect of the system is fine; the problem lies in the fact that the rate of earning XP is much too low given the cost of those unlocks and upgrades.  After playing through the campaign one full time, I had enough XP to purchase several skills for one character class and upgrade them, but I couldn't afford upgrades for other classes and didn't purchase any weapons.

As a result, you’re faced with a choice: do you upgrade the skills for one class to make it more effective, do you spread the XP around and leave yourself a bit underpowered with weaker skills overall, or do you sacrifice skills to get better weapons?  It seems like you’re punished for experimenting with your XP spending, as you’ll have to replay a mission or two to make a change if you decide you’d prefer a different class/style.

Series protagonists Claire Redfield and Leon Kennedy make an appearance in this well-crafted cutscene.
All in all, it’s a very frustrating experience.  Killing waves of zombies is fun, and the occasional firefight isn't bad, but the overall difficulty, the balance of XP and boss fights, and the general spread of scenarios prevent the game from being really fun.

Perhaps you've noticed that I haven’t mentioned the Versus multiplayer modes.  The reason is simple: nobody’s playing it.  Over the course of a few weeks of searching, I was never able to get into a Versus match, so it’s impossible for me to comment on it at this time.  As mentioned earlier, the online community has already been buried.

Operation Raccoon City is an interesting game for Resident Evil veterans, but its gameplay presents a unique challenge due to questionable design and there’s generally not a whole lot of value within.  While it’s generic and tedious, there are some entertaining bits, but it’s not worth the investment unless you’re a seriously hardcore Resident Evil fan.

My Rating: 3/10 – bad.

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