Resident Evil 4 was a real turning point for Capcom’s survival horror series. Prior to its launch, the franchise was in serious danger of losing its relevance, but the changes introduced in the fourth instalment did much to reassert its dominance of the genre. It's also notable as the birthplace of the popular Mercenaries mode, a sub-game that tasks players with score-chasing as well as raw survival. It proved so well-liked that it made a re-appearance in the sequel, and now it's getting its very own outing in Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D.
Cynical observers have been quick to label this a quick-and-easy cash-in on Capcom’s part, and they have a point – there’s little here that is wholly new. Locations, characters and enemies are all taken from previous instalments, and most of the developer’s effort seems to have been spent trying to cram the powerful MT Framework graphics engine into the 3DS’s somewhat humble hardware. The fact that it's also used as a vehicle to push Revelations (a short and rather unsatisfying demo is included on the cart) lends credence to this assumption.
However, such negativity misses one crucial point – for the most part, this expanded mini-game offers challenging and addictive gameplay with engaging multiplayer modes and a raft of items, characters, medals and costumes to unlock. In a way it’s one of the most pure Resident Evil experiences yet seen; it cuts away all the peripheral material and distils the action, tension and atmosphere of the beloved franchise.
The game offers tiered progression, with five skills levels each sub-divided into missions. The objectives are simple – some require you to dispatch all of the enemies within a set time limit, while others throw an inexhaustible supply of foes at you to see how many you can slay before the counter ticks down to zero. You’re then graded on your performance, offering the tantalising prospect of bettering your own personal best, perhaps improving your tally by keeping a kill-streak going to boost your all-important combo score.
As you move through the tiers you'll gain access to new skills, characters, and more. Skills allow you to bolster your power, adding vitality, strength and resilience. However, the most appealing element is exploring how the various protagonists perform in the arena of battle. Each one has a different load-up of weapons, some boasting powerful melee attacks and others favouring a selection of projectile-based arms that can keep hostiles at a safe distance.
The game adopts the same perspective and basic controls as Resident Evil 4 and 5; the standard third-person over-the-shoulder view returns, although pressing the R trigger drops you into a first-person view, making aiming much easier as half your screen isn't obscured by your character’s head. Holding the L and R triggers together allows you to move your character around whilst drawing your weapon, deftly side-stepping incoming threats while returning fire on your assailant.
Most actions are mapped to the Y button, which not only controls picking up items and interacting with your environment but handles the discharge of your weapon when in aiming mode too. You’ll also use Y to stomp on the heads of fallen enemies (which grants a handy time bonus) and engage in contextual close-quarters combat. Other buttons come into play when you’re attempting to shake off the unwanted grip of nearby enemies or dodge incoming attacks. Some of these require you to press two buttons simultaneously, and the combinations are randomised so you’re always on your toes.
But this configuration is just one of several; if it’s not to your personal taste then you can tinker with various options until you find one that suits. It’s even possible to revert back to the old-fashioned third-person aiming method, should you find the first-person system just isn’t ‘Resi’ enough for you.
The touch screen is also put to good use and serves as both a mini-map and weapon/item selection tool. You can quickly switch between armaments by tapping the relevant icon, and pressing anywhere on the map will spin the camera around so you can see in that general direction. It works well, but whoever thought it would be a good idea to have your weapons on the left-hand side of the display needs their head examined. Because you’re constantly moving with the Circle Pad, you have to use your right-hand thumb to switch weapons, and this requires you to reach quite a distance over the touch screen. It goes without saying that during an intense fire-fight this is quite awkward.
Despite these minor niggles, the controls hold up very well. The need to constantly feather the L and R triggers can result in some occasional cramp, but nothing too serious. We had to switch off the 3D effect pretty early on, however – when you’re in a particularly hectic situation and you’re stabbing at the shoulder triggers incessantly, it’s far too easy to inadvertently shift the position of the console and lose the 3D sweet spot. This issue is by no means exclusive to this game, and the auto-stereoscopic effect is quite subtle here anyway – once it’s off, you’re unlikely to miss it.
Low-key 3D aside, the visuals are reasonably impressive. The characters and locations from Resident Evil 5 have naturally taken quite a hit in terms of complexity, but they remain a close match despite jagged models and low-resolution textures. One disappointing element of the presentation is the way enemies in the distance are saddled with reduced levels of animation to keep the game running smoothly. It's especially noticeable when using the sniper rifle; opponents jerk and stumble skittishly, completely ruining the sense of immersion and tension. The framerate is also less than perfect when there’s a lot of on-screen activity.
Out of the 30-odd missions, a large percentage are playable with another person. You can do this via a local connection or the Internet, and the latter offers a surprisingly solid experience. Tackling tougher levels with another player is a rewarding task, and the ability to play co-op extends the game’s longevity considerably. Some may also find that it’s the best way to overcome some difficult boss encounters.
It would be remiss of us to conclude this critique without mentioning the topic of save games. Capcom has decided that Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D’s save data should be permanent. Once you’ve started playing and saved, your progress cannot be scrubbed from the cartridge. That means all levels, characters, costumes and medals will be available forever once they are unlocked. Because the game is based largely around achieving high scores it’s not an entirely fatal problem, but it removes the appeal of unlocking content if you acquire a previously-played copy.
Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D entertains with its brand of fast-flowing action, constant stream of unlockables and captivating co-op gameplay. It’s far from a perfect package though, with occasionally rough visuals and a save system that is destined to ensure that second-hand copies are, to some, practically worthless. It’s also worth noting that unless you’re keen on repeatedly playing levels to boost your overall rating, you may tire of the game quite swiftly.