Capcom is prepared to acknowledge that Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City will have a polarising effect on fans of the series. It's about to cast off the shackles of the genre it helped to popularise and instead fully embrace the third-person shooting it has trended towards in recent years.

Far from an irrevocable change of course however, Capcom suggests that SOCOM developer Slant 6’s output should be considered in isolation. Resident Evil: Revelations for 3DS is available now, and Capcom has just announced Resident Evil 6. Due in November, it’s to be a traditional instalment that the publisher is reported to be investing in more heavily than any other product on its busy slate.

The Resident Evil series is also in some ways a victim of its own success. As demand for games in the series has remained steady, the requirement to expand the literature and find new stories has resulted in a convoluted fiction. A fast paced cooperative shooter, Operation Raccoon City takes players back to the heady heydays of Resident Evils 2 and 3, and offers a new perspective on those events by recounting the actions of a villainous Umbrella Security Services squad tasked with covering up the corporation’s involvement in the outbreak of the T-Virus.

While the squad will perform canonical (if hitherto unknown) acts such as preparing Resident Evil 3’s antagonist, Nemesis, players will on occasion be able to choose to break with the game’s fiction, for example by killing Leon Kennedy.

There are six USS soldiers to choose from, each correlating to an archetype such as heavy assault, medic, melee, scientist and reconnaissance. They’re bad guys, bad asses, assures Capcom.

Far from the stationary and tank-like Resident Evil protagonists of yesteryear, these USS soldiers are able to sprint and dive in order to change their profile as quickly as possible. They can melee attack 360 degrees, and there’s also a 360 degree shooting mechanic to break the close quarters strafe dancing that has hindered third-person shooters in the past. A context-sensitive cover system also allows the USS operative to take shelter quickly, and blind fire.

Each of these soldiers has player-determined passive and active skill load-outs that allow for intriguing combinations when used cooperatively. Active skills, such as the scientist’s ability to temporarily control special enemy types, or Bio-Organic Weapons as Umbrella calls them, will need to be levelled up.

Experience is universal, meaning both group and individual experience is gained for each character whether playing alone, cooperatively or versus other players online.

While the controls are more fluid and there’s a greater emphasis on combat in Operation Raccoon City, players will discover plenty of fan service, and that other tenets of gameplay remain intact. Herbs and key cards abound, and resource and inventory management remains extremely important. The USS may have more bullets, but they also have to use them more carefully.

Bleeding also returns. When one of the USS operatives is injured, his or her wounds will attract nearby zombies. Should a USS teammate become infected with the T-Virus, they’ll become nearly invulnerable but control of the character will deteriorate until such time as they turn. It’s possible to shoot infected players who still have some control over their operative, but used strategically, infection can be advantageous. Once the character has died, however, the player will not be able to respawn until his or her teammates have re-killed the corpse.

The elephant in the room is Valve’s Left 4 Dead series, games that Capcom freely admits it has been inspired by: Raccoon City’s Crimson Head zombies ensure that the game is in touch with the latest trend in zombies – namely extreme athleticism – but also in the random spawning of adversaries. The aforementioned Bio-Organic Weapons also take strong queues from Left 4 Dead’s special infected. The Hunter, for example, is somewhat analogous to Valve’s Tanks, with the added variable that these alpha male units will attack the strongest player first.

These elements appear to come together strongest in versus multiplayer, wherein a squad of US Special Forces square off against the USS. Versus includes four modes and takes place on maps borrowed from both elsewhere in this game and from other Resident Evil titles. Most interestingly, the zombies and Bio-Organic Weapons still populate each map, making for dynamic gameplay modifiers. Causing the opposition to bleed, for example, could wipe out a nest of enemy players under the weight of the map’s zombies.

The modes themselves also show some promise. Team Attack may be a standard team deathmatch affair, and Heroes, wherein players assume the roles of famous characters from the franchise, may need some more explaining, but Biohazard and Survivor appear interesting. Biohazard is capture-the-flag with a twist: in this case the “flag” is a G-Virus sample, and the player carrying it will attract all zombies and monsters to him or herself. Survivor is a cooperative horde mode wherein a team is awaiting extraction by chopper – only there’s not enough room. The players will soon need to turn on one another to ensure they escape.

The Special Forces characters, also seen throughout the offline and cooperative multiplayer, are carbon copies of their Umbrella counterparts in versus multiplayer. Capcom closed with the strong hint that who these characters are and what they’re doing in Raccoon City may be explained post-release.

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City may be partly derivative of more spritely horror games that have run circles around the shambling franchise in recent years and it’s clearly a step in a different direction, but perhaps it’s also something of a breath of fresh air. The game will almost certainly appeal to a niche of existing fans, and no doubt Capcom hopes it can woo a swathe of new gamers to the series ahead of Resident Evil 6’s release.

Whether it’ll succeed in those goals, or whether adapting the series from one crowded genre to another will see it stumble, will be revealed when the game is released on Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3 on the 23rd of March.