Operation Raccoon City And The Reviewer Problem

By Jeremy M. Zoss in Features
Tuesday, April 3, 2012 at 10:00 am
This isn't a review of Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City.

It can't be, because I haven't played ORC the way a critic plays a game. I played it like a gamer plays a game. You may not be aware of this, but there's a big difference. Before I get to that, though, I should explain a few things about the mechanics of reviewing games.

Like most video game publications, Joystick Division receives a lot of games from publishers. Most of them are specifically requested for review. Some are not, but show up anyway. ORC falls into the latter category. If we request a game, it will get reviewed, no question. We try to review all those games that show up unsolicited as well, but as we have a small staff and limited resources, we can't always get to them all. But when a game from a major franchise like Resident Evil shows up, we try our best to cover them.

Which can lead to problems like the one with Operation Raccoon City. 
Operation Raccoon City, as you may have heard, is not a very good game. In fact, you could go as far as to say that it's a pretty bad game. And here's where the differences between playing a game as a gamer and a critic become truly apparent. To accurately review most games, you'll want to play through the entire campaign mode, invest several hours into each multiplayer mode, replay the campaign on any available new mode, and investigate any extras or unlockables. Most reviewers take notes as they play, recording their thoughts on gameplay, visuals, audio, or anything else that strikes them during their gameplay experience. And ideally, all of this is done as quickly as possible. From personal experience, I can say that I've played games for eight hours a day for several days in a row. I've played entire campaigns from start to finish in single sittings. I've sat in rooms designed specifically to highlight the multiplayer modes of games - rows of monitors and consoles with no distractions, populated by other critics all wearing headphones so we can't hear one another.

Gamers, for the most part, do not play like this. Most gamers do not take notes, do not speed through games as quickly as possible (although some certainly do), and most definitely do not attend multiplayer sessions hosted by the publisher. We as critics do play games as "civilian" gamers in our spare time, but even then it's hard to shut off the tendency to pick games apart like we've been trained to do.

Operation Raccoon City is a game that, for me, truly highlights the disconnect between playing as a gamer and a critic. As a critic, to fairly review the game I would have had to do all the things I mentioned: play through the campaign at least once, dump a bunch of time into the multiplayer, and make sure I explored all the options the game has to offer.

But I haven't done that. Because, as a gamer, it was quickly clear that I hated Operation Raccoon City. 

Right of the bat, ORC greets you with a clunky interface, a bland story that makes little sense as either a standalone game or a spin-off of the Resident Evil games and truly lousy graphics. Things didn't get any better once I actually got into the game, which plays like early gameplay demo for Gears of War - it's a cover shooter that removes every element that makes the Gears formula so silky smooth, such as fluid cover transitions, the elegant automatic cover feature and, you know, running. It feels remarkably primitive, which is strange considering how well-established the cover shooter genre has become. 

While ORC nakedly apes Gears of War in one sense, its four-player setup was equally lifted from Left 4 Dead. Once again, even the first game in that series does everything ORC does, and does it better. Your AI teammates are remarkably stupid - it's not at all uncommon to see them stuck in a corner, trying to walk through a wall in a desperate attempt to go completely the wrong way.

My list of complaints goes on: The guns feel underpowered, the enemies are endlessly repeated and take obscene amounts of damage, the weapon selection is unimaginative and the environments are bland. 

These are my impressions after playing only a couple hours of the game. As a gamer, there was no question after my first session with the game that I was done with it forever. But as a critic, to fairly review it, it was my duty to keep playing.

But I'm not going to. I think video game critics have an important role to play in facilitating the discussion of video games. There is plenty of brilliant writing out there about the value of certain games, the weaknesses of others and the innovations of those you might have missed. That's what I think video game criticism does very well - keeping the audience informed of titles that are worth your time that you may not have naturally gravitated towards.

But sometimes there's simply no reason to contribute another review of a well-covered game. Sometimes even critics need to simply listen to our first impressions and know when to put down the controller. 
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