Warning: Playing The Next Resident Evil Alone Might Bum You Out

It might be as fair to write about playing Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City solo as it would be to rate a fish's ability to haul itself across dry land. But during this past weekend, I played March's multiplayer-intended Resident Evil game as a single-player game.

I hope this fish can swim better than it walks.

As with many video games, there is a commendable idea in Operation Raccoon City. This game could be good.

We're foot soldiers in a battle that isn't the typical two-sided video game skirmish. We're part of a conflict that has three sides. One of those sides is as mindless as a pack of jungle animals, so the whole experience of Operation Raccoon City should be like two small armies fighting each other in the same square mile where a a pride of lions live. That's how the game was presented when I first saw it in Miami last spring, at a showcase for games coming from the Japanese game publisher Capcom.

The playing field in the game is primarily Raccoon City, circa events early on the Resident Evil series' long timeline. The game chains a sequence of missions that are set, at least early on, in buildings and streets full of tragic zombie outbreak, all in the darkness of night.

In multiplayer, ORC may frequently feel just like a small war set among wild animals. But in single-player—in the first three levels of single-player that concluded when I sighed at the game and decided to stop playing—there isn't much of a three-direction war. You can see small, small glimpses of that triple-threat configuration, with the player operating as one of the ostensibly nasty members of the evil Umbrella Corporation's security service and once or twice having to shoot at enemy special ops troops while some T-Virus-infected zombie people play the shambling lions.

Most of the time in the first three missions of ORC, however, you're in a simple two-sided conflict—that is if you consider the computer-controlled morons you're with as being on the same side as you. These crack security agents are uncannily good at walking through laser tripwires, so maybe they are a whole other faction of fools representing some secret fourth side. If so, they may harbor a secret allegiance with some of the enemy special ops, a breed of soldier so special they will sometimes kneel stoically while you shoot at them. The worst of these clueless commandos will stand dumbstruck as you eye them, perhaps because you are too far away for the game's programming to tap them on the shoulder and tell them that you are there.

At most moments of playing Operation Raccoon City on single-player, you will be dying—sometimes virtually!—for the addition of some of some human intelligence. These first three missions, I suspect, would be far better with human beings controlling my Umbrella Security Services allies. And that's probably how they were made. The entire campaign of ORC is made to support a full crew of four gamers, similar to a mission of Left 4 Dead or even Gears of War 3.

The creation of Operation Raccoon City is being overseen by Japanese developers at Capcom, but the game is mostly being made by Canadians Americans at Slant Six, a studio that previously worked on the tactical military SOCOM games (They weren't the creators; that's another studio, Zipper). ORC, not surprisingly, feels like a tactical military shooter, and while that might not seem very Resident Evily, so what?

We've been blessed with many flavors of Resident Evil game and those who don't want the team-military-shooter kind can just skip this one. Those who do, however, would find some elements of this game about which to be enthusiastic.

The biggest triumph I've found so far is the variety of tactics offered a player who wants to kill in varied ways. You're playing as part of a squad of killers, but you're choosing which member of that squad you'll be and you're arming yourself with special abilities native to the character you choose. You're acquiring experience points as you play and using those points to purchase upgrades to that distinct character's distinct skills.

I first played two missions as the non-glasses-wearing scientist-lady-commando Four Eyes. She had three special abilities available; the one I chose to arm her with allowed her to shoot a special gun that had a 30% chance of turning soldiers into friendly zombies once I killed them and had a 90% chance of doing the same to enemy zombies. Later, I played as a lady named Lupo, some sort of weapons specialist, who I chose to arm with the ability to turn her bullets incendiary or a limited period of time. This is one way ORC succeeds. The game gives you many ways to customize your method of fighting the living and the undead.

Raccoon City's tactical variety could compensate for the stupidity of the game's artificial intelligence and we could call things even. But who wants to call things even? The other promise of this game is that we get to play as the bad guys. We get to play as Umbrella.

If only it felt evil to play this game.

In the first mission, we are but a pseudo-military squad fighting against enemy soldiers and, eventually, against an absurdly mutated man who has a giant eyeball where his shoulder should be.

That doesn't feel evil.

In the second mission, we have to hoof it to city hall to eliminate all traces of Umbrella's agency in releasing the mutating T-Virus into Raccoon City. We are required to shoot some soldiers and burn some plans.

That doesn't feel very evil, either.

In the third mission, we're already in the process of being double-crossed when we're set upon by infected undead, finally getting the whole firefight-among-lions experience. The mission briefing had promised something more cruel. We'd been told we would have to eliminate civilian witnesses to Umbrella's terrible influence on the events of Raccoon City. But this game's notion of eliminating civilians bares a striking resemblance to all other Resident Evil's notion of fighting zombies and the undead. You shoot the stuff that groans and/or is shooting at you. You feel not the eviler for it.

Perhaps if I finally encountered Resident Evil hero Leon Kennedy and got a chance to shoot him—as has been promised in the game's trailer—I'd have felt the evil I sought from this game. Instead I've felt only the bland duty of being a video game paramilitary force. There is no more sense that I'm on the wrong side of morality than the headshot-heavy encounters of previous Resident Evil games have given me the sense that I'm on the right.

Warning: Playing The Next Resident Evil Alone Might Bum You Out

Near what I hope is the blessedly final section of the game's third mission, you encounter a boss more annoying than the one-hit-melee-kill eviler-doer in the game's first sequence. Here you are fighting a man who nefariously snipes from one of four second-story windows while you and your allies shimmy away from his bullets in a courtyard. For inexplicable reasons, we cannot breach the building and kill this man. Instead, we must identify which of four open windows he is in and shoot at him. If only I had three people of even high-school-age intellect with me to each aim at an open window and give this man no place to hide. No, I had to suffer the helpful sharpshooting of my artificially unintelligent allies. And if only this seemingly mortal foe reacted to my sniper bullets to his chest as if they were more harmful than flicked toothpicks. By the fourth tedious failure to whittle him to death by bullet shot, I surrendered my controller to the floor. This game must be better with human allies, I figured.

At least I set my enemy on fire a few times.

Operation Raccoon City has essentially issued its warning: do not play this game alone. Not because its too scary for such an endeavor but because, in the version of the game printed on a preview disc in late January for a game that ships on March 20, playing this game alone is simply, disappointingly unpleasant.

But this is a multiplayer-centric game, let us remember.

I will not judge it yet for how it walks.

In March, let's see how it swims.