The Best New Idea In Zombie Video Games Lurches Through Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

That moment I knew Resident Evil: Raccoon City could be a multiplayer game worth playing was when I turned the tables on my attacker. The game is a third-person shooter. You can play it competitively, and, as is possible in many games of this type, an enemy player can get the jump on you.

I was playing as a Spec Ops commando. My enemy was a menacing, fully-armed soldier of the evil Umbrella corporation. We were near a gas station, in the dark. I knew he was shooting at me from behind, so I wheeled around.

I'm not a very good shot, so I couldn't just score a headshot from a virtual 20 paces and be done with it.

I think I got him in the body. Not a kill shot, but he started hemorrhaging. Good for me. Bad for him.

Zombies and bio-engineered monsters can smell blood. Lucky for me, zombies and bio-engineered monsters lurch through the multiplayer maps of Raccoon City. As soon as I drew blood with that gunshot, a Hunter — a clawed beast on two legs — scrambled up to my enemy and mauled him.

The designers of Resident Evil: Raccoon City call what I experienced "three-corner combat." I think of it as a gunfight in an urban jungle, where zombies replace the lions.

The Best New Idea In Zombie Video Games Lurches Through Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

This is a good use of zombies and not one I've experienced in the many, many, many zombies games that have come out in the last few years. It got me feeling optimistic about Raccoon City.

"At the beginning of the project, we thought, we're making a third person shooter... 'What do we do with the zombies?'" Masachika Kawata, Raccoon City's lead producer told me in an interview last week after showing the game and letting me play it.

"Using them in this way, where they're not necessarily the main threat of the game but they're always around you, was definitely an idea we had at the early part of development. Like you said, they feel like wild animals sometimes. Even though you're using them as meat shields or you're hiding behind a group of them, as soon as you start bleeding, they turn on you and become a huge threat. It feels a little more random; it feels a little more chaotic. This is the thing that makes this a unique Resident Evil experience."

Resident Evil: Raccoon City will be an odd Resident Evil game, even by the liberal standards of this famous Capcom series. The game is set in the timeframe or Resident Evil 2 and 3, opening in the fall of 1998 with players in control of the bad guys.

The game's producer listed his top goal for Raccoon City: putting "the grit, the dirt and darkness back" into the series, "while weaving an interesting story."

The design is multiplayer-centric and focused on the tactical play of a four-character squad of crack soldiers. Its developers is being overseen by top people at Capcom in Japan but primarily handled by a Vancouver studio, Slant Six, that formerly created a SOCOM game — read: not a horror game but a game about featuring a tactical squad of U.S Navy Seals.

Despite its uncharacteristic playing style, the game is dark and is supposed to feel creepy, more like the oldest Resident Evil games and less like the sunnier, faster-paced new ones. Its producer, Kawata, listed his top goal for Raccoon City: putting "the grit, the dirt and darkness back" into the series, "while weaving an interesting story."

In the game's story-driven campaign mode, players control a soldier from the Umbrella Corporation, the eternal bad guys of the Resident Evil games and creators of the T-Virus that turns people in this series into zombies and bioweapons. You can choose one of four characters to play, each a member of a different class with access to their own set of weapons and special abilities. A hooded ninja character called Vector, for example, has a mimicry chameleon power and a "covert rifle," among his options. He's recon class. Spectre, a surveillance character who can see extra things on the game's mini-map, can have a infrared vision and a submachine gun. Bertha, the media, could be armed with an adrenaline shot and an assault rifle. Beltway, the demolitions guy, could have a frag mine and a machine gun. Those are the main characters but just a sliver of their abilities and armament, more of which is unlocked as the game progresses. One to four people can control these characters through the optionally co-op campaign.

The Best New Idea In Zombie Video Games Lurches Through Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

I was shown a prototype level of the game, which featured four Capcom developers using those four characters to fight through dark city streets, past burning cars, shooting through the zombie hordes. Their enemies were a Spec Ops team sent in for some other mission in Raccoon City that runs counter to theirs. The Spec Ops are the main enemy — and the only enemy who will shoot at the Umbrella team — but the zombies are a threat. While we were shown the game's cover system, its support for blind fire and its advanced dismemberment tech that allows arms and legs to be blasted off, the zombie hordes became more aggressive. They don't crowd the screen the way the Dead Rising zombies do, but they lurk, travel and provide the kind of distraction that needs to be dealt with via some vicious close-quarters combat. The level we were shown climaxed with the arrival of one of the special classes of zombies and bioweapons: a hulking T103 tyrant, dropping from the sky, ready to wreck everyone.

We were shown very little of the game's story. The developers say it will be presented with classic Resident Evil-style cut-scenes. And they promise that playing as Umbrella will put us at odds with the good guys of the Resident Evil games. To make that point, they showed a trailer that began with series hero Leon Kennedy arriving at Raccoon City and the Umbrella people being given the order to kill him. That will be a mission in the game.

The Best New Idea In Zombie Video Games Lurches Through Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

In multiplayer, which I tried four-on-four, one side plays as Umbrella and the other competes as Spec Ops. The Spec Ops forces have the same classes as Umbrella, allowing for an even match. Games are played under a time limit for points. Headshots are worth more points than body shots. Killing regular zombies who get in your way are also worth points, though killing the more advanced bioweapon creatures is even more valuable. The top point-getter I saw involved that move I described at the beginning of this story: shoot an enemy player's character just enough to make them bleed, then rely on the zombie faction to finish them off. The point values aren't locked in yet, and the developers seem uncertain if they are going to reward players for teamwork moves and other more elaborate actions.

Nothing I saw in Raccoon City seemed all that scary. Being a super-soldier, one who can, in a break from tradition, can shoot while running, made me feel like the most powerful Resident Evil protagonist ever. Playing the multipayer, I felt like I was playing a competitive third-person shooter with a twist, not necessarily that I was playing a Resident Evil game (presumably that sensation would be more evident while playing the campaign, if it's anywhere to be had at all.)

There is no doubt, though, that Operation Raccoon City is dark and that the omnipresence of a third, uncontrollable faction in the campaign or multiplayer presents great opportunity for the wild beasts of Resident Evil to turn a standard shooter into something that feels more hellish. If this game is merely SOCOM with zombies in the way, well, that may not be such a bad thing. The promise of a dark-side story in the Resident Evil universe is a promising bonus. Kawata wouldn't commit to the game being canon, so, maybe we'll be killing Leon. We'll see.

Just be careful, if you start bleeding.

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City is slated for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC in "Winter 2011," according to Capcom.