It would've been very easy for Capcom to make Operation Raccoon City a naked cash run, and to its credit, it isn't. A simple Call of Duty clone with Resident Evil branding all over it would probably have moved a few million units before anyone noticed, but they've gone the extra mile to make ORC, if not unique, at least interesting. It's a third-person, team-based shooter from Slant Six, the development studio responsible for the SOCOM series, and at its best, you can see that expertise at work. There's a pretty good multiplayer game buried somewhere inside ORC, but there are a lot of glitches and poor design decisions holding it back.
It's also yet another Resident Evil game set during the Raccoon City disaster, the viral outbreak that formed the backdrop for Resident Evil 2, 3, and the Outbreak games. (At this point, the vast majority of the RE series has taken place during the last five months of 1998, like the entire franchise is stuck in some kind of Groundhog Day time loop.)
In the campaign mode, up to four players can cooperate as members of the Umbrella Security Service's Delta team, also known as the Wolfpack. At the start of the game, the Wolfpack is sent as backup to another Umbrella crew, to help deal with the guards in William Birkin's lab so they can steal a sample of his new G-Virus. As people who've played the past games know, the mission goes badly, Birkin consequently mutates into a nearly-unstoppable monster, and while he's tearing his attackers limb from limb, he releases the T-Virus into Raccoon City's sewer system. About ten minutes later, the city’s overrun by zombies and mutants.
As this is about as perfect a definition of the term "mission failure" as you could hope for, the Wolfpack ends up stuck in Raccoon City while it's burning down around them. To both redeem themselves in Umbrella's eyes and earn a chance to be evacuated from the city, they have to carry out a series of missions aimed at destroying evidence and eliminating sensitive personnel. This puts them into conflict with the zombies, the mutants, a few dozen squads of the U.S. Special Forces, several of Umbrella's mercenaries, and eventually, Umbrella itself.
ORC's campaign puts a heavy emphasis on cooperative play. Running off on your own isn't always, inevitably fatal, but you can't really get too far away from the rest of your squad, and most of the enemies in the game have some kind of vicious grapple or status ailment that they can slap on you pretty much at will. CPU characters are almost totally useless, so playing it with less than three people is a recipe for frustration, and several of the scripted encounters could've used a little more work. When the secret to passing a lot of the stages on higher difficulties is to pick the guy with a stealth cloak and bypass as many encounters as you possibly can, something has gone seriously wrong with your game.
One of the major marketed features of the game's campaign is that it's an alternate reality scenario, allowing you to play as a group of villains during one of the major events of the main Resident Evil series. At the game's end, you're able to choose to either defend Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield, the heroes of RE2, or execute them on Umbrella's behalf. The game's marketing made it sound like this would allow you to unravel the games' plot and see the results of your decision, but in the final version, it's just a binary decision you make right before the final battle. The marketing's been misleading.
The multiplayer is more interesting, but it's got its own problems. In all modes, you play on one of two opposing teams of four, in battlegrounds set somewhere inside Raccoon City during the outbreak. This means it's you and your team vs. the enemy team vs. the zombies and mutants. You can use zombies as shields, shoot an opponent in the gut to make them bleed and attract zombie attacks, or, more frequently, watch as your dumbest teammate dies in seconds to NPC monsters before you even so much as see the other team. (That's not the developers' fault, of course.) That three-way conflict, humans vs. humans vs. monsters, is easily the best thing about ORC and can create some really hectic, entertaining scenarios.
On the other hand, character specializations are way out of whack. Each player can pick one of six classes, which are determined by the individual character: Lupo is always Assault, Four Eyes is always a Scientist, and so on. That gives you the ability to pay XP to unlock passive and active abilities, as well as new weapons for you to start with.
Many of the abilities are fun and let you screw around with the basic rules of the match. Scientists can enslave monsters and send them after the other team, a demolitions expert gets to plant trip mines, and the recon troops have a very short-lived cloaking device. In practice, however, all of them get obliterated in seconds by whoever managed to get their hands on the Assault trooper.
The big go-to ability for Assault characters is Super Soldier, an activated ability that amps up a character's damage and protects them from the next four to six attacks. This means that once every couple of minutes you can push Triangle or Y and win the fight, with no skill or forethought required. Their passive ability also includes a flat 30% reduction to incoming damage from bullets, which further tips the scales in their favor and means they get to control most of the match. ORC is a reasonably high-stakes game, which means any exchange of gunfire only lasts a few seconds before somebody dies, but the gameplay breaks down to Assault soldiers with shotguns vs. everyone else. It's a battle where everyone is made of glass, but two lucky competitors get to use hammers.
A few major glitches further mar the game, but that can probably be ironed out with patches. In co-op, zombies have a habit of teleporting around and shrugging off shots that should've killed them due to lag. In Versus play, it's not unusual to see a friendly character that's just a flickering outline surrounding a floating gun, and the netcode in general has a habit of causing hard crashes.
The idea of two teams of humans fighting it out in the middle of a zombie outbreak is pretty solid, and it's worth exploring further in another game. Operation Raccoon City is more frustrating than fun, though, with one class dominating the others and a lot of seriously questionable choices marring the co-op campaign. It's easy to imagine a theoretical ORC2 being a great game, both offline and on, but this isn't it.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City provided by Capcom.