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Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D review: Slow and unsteady

Capcom managed quite the paradoxical feat when designing the past two main entries in the Resident Evil franchise: It built the games' combat on fundamentally flawed ideas without making them fundamentally flawed. While other third-person shooters prioritized smooth, streamlined action, Resident Evil 4 and 5 deliberately hobbled the player's adroitness, and made holding off the oncoming zombie (or Ganados, or Majini) hordes a cumbersome chore. And it worked.

By severely limiting the player's locomotion, those core Resident Evil titles maintained the delicate balance between power and vulnerability -- a necessity for a great horror title. There was method in your sluggishness, as the player was forced to consider both short-term and long-term survival with every enemy encounter. Each indolent battle had context in a much, much larger campaign, and for that very reason, Capcom made a bad thing good.

Unfortunately, every last shred of that context has been stripped away from Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D.

Gallery: Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D (5/10/11) | 10 Photos

As the title suggests, the franchise's first outing on the 3DS offers a more fully developed version of the Mercenaries mode included in Resident Evil 4 and 5. There's no cohesive campaign to be found, here -- players simply shoot their way through 29 missions spread across six tiers which steadily ramp up in difficulty.

Save for a few early training missions, each level tasks you with killing as many enemies as you can -- preferably in large sums quickly to maintain a combo multiplier -- in the time allotted. There are time extensions sprinkled across each map, but as the clock runs up, the number and strength of the enemies which spawn dramatically increases. It's a treacherous balancing act; if you die, you don't get any points at all.

Completing a level earns you a letter grade rank, as well as the potential to unlock new characters, costumes, ability-boosting perks and Medals, which show off your greatest achievements. Each character has a specific two or three-weapon set, composed of armaments like handguns, revolvers, grenade launchers, machine guns, sniper rifles and hunting bows. These sets cannot be customized, but can be unlocked for use by other characters once their owner completes every mission with the highest possible rank. (They can also be unlocked by spending 10 Play Coins, which is likely to be a much, much easier option.)

This system of progression is somewhat compelling, though Capcom's inscrutable decision to prevent the player from ever starting a new game ensures that it will be compelling exactly once. Unfortunately, that's all a fairly moot complaint to leverage against the game; regardless of how intricately you can customize your unlockable Mercenaries, the missions they'll engage in simply aren't very enjoyable.

It's not just that the formula of high score-chasing and surviving get awfully repetitive in the final few tiers. The real problem is that the series' slow, methodical combat isn't cut out to serve as the backbone for a full arcade-style shooter. When the player filled the role of the practical survivor in the core series, their character's slowness helped build tension; now that they're playing the role of the aggressive hunter, it only serves to build frustration.

A perfect example of this unfortunate exchange is Mercenaries 3D's miniboss enemies, such as the brutal chainsaw-swinging Ganados from Resident Evil 4. These damage-sponging, one-hit-killing bastards acted as terrifying roadblocks in the core series. In Mercenaries, they represent an almost certain interruption of your combo multiplier, or a calculated drain on your precious time and ammunition. That's not terror -- that's accounting.

Fortunately, that tediousness is alleviated somewhat by the presence of a Player Two -- and, even more fortunately, Mercenaries 3D's local and online co-op features work swimmingly. Getting a friend or online stranger into your mission is a quick and painless process, though the lack of a persistent lobby means you have to reform your unit between each mission. It's worth it, though -- with two skilled players working in tandem to maintain a combo while watching each others' backs, the punitive math of each enemy encounter becomes far less severe.

Teamwork doesn't solve all of the game's problems, though. Some of the design choices in Mercenaries 3D are just inexplicable: For instance, to perform a knife attack on an enemy, you have to first equip the knife using the bottom touchscreen. However, some characters don't have knives, meaning if they run out of ammo, they can only stare longingly at the breakable, ammo-filled crates scattered throughout each level. Also, though enemies look tremendous close-up, their animation falls to a handful of frames per second once they reach the outskirts of your draw distance.

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D contains a (very brief) demo for the franchise's next full-length entry, Resident Evil: Revelations. Ultimately, though, that's an unnecessary addendum: The game itself is a demonstration. It could have been an addictive mission-based multiplayer title perfect for a portable platform, but with its limited content and quickly tiresome combat, Mercenaries 3D is little more than a fully-priced proof of concept.

This review is based on a retail copy of Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D for Nintendo 3DS provided by Capcom.

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