When it comes to zombies, few publishers have more experience with them than Capcom. The company has made a mint in recent years off various iterations of the Resident Evil series, and that franchise shows no signs of slowing any time soon. So, it is with some curiosity that we now find ourselves with Dead Rising, an Xbox 360 zombie game produced by Capcom that has exactly zero to do with anything Resident Evil. Where Resident Evil was a series all about horror, tension, and frequent jump scares, Dead Rising goes in the other direction, creating a pure action experience with zombies that are much easier to kill but travel in higher numbers–much higher numbers, actually, with groupings numbering in the hundreds. As a departure from the zombie games of old, Dead Rising is a great success, wonderfully blending campy undertones and visceral, zombie-killing action into something highly playable. It suffers from structural faults, and the game does find itself leaning heavier on repetition than you’d probably like, but Dead Rising overcomes these shortcomings by being a lot of fun to play.
The main protagonist of this zombie nightmare is Frank West, a freelance photojournalist that has made his career covering wars and atrocities. In the sleepy little town of Willamette, Colorado, things seem to have gone terribly wrong. Military convoys block off all roads leading into the town, and all communication devices have been jammed. After being tipped off about the events unfolding, Frank charters a helicopter and flies into town to get what potentially could be the story of his career. What he finds is a whole mess of zombies laying waste to the town and its citizens. After snapping away a number of pictures of the carnage, Frank instructs the pilot to drop him off on the roof of the local shopping mall–a huge, decadent shopping emporium that almost seems bigger than the town itself. Frank tells the pilot to return in three days to pick him up, and from there, Frank is seemingly on his own.
Frank’s journey through the Willamette Park View Mall is a fairly complicated one. The basic premise of the game is that Frank has 72 game hours to get his story and get the heck out, and how you go about doing so is laid out in a rigid, linear fashion, though also, at least somewhat, left up to you to decide for yourself. Essentially, from the moment Frank first hooks up with some of the key survivor characters in the game, he finds himself on a path to the truth. This path is laid out in a series of case files, which are the game’s equivalent of story missions. Each case file takes place at a certain time on a specific day, and it’s up to you to get to where those missions take place in at the specific time designated. However, there are also a number of side missions that pop up during the course of the game. These missions are entirely optional but doing them nets you more information about what’s going on, as well as some point bonuses for Frank.
The real-time structuring of Dead Rising has its unique qualities, but it doesn’t always work particularly well. Specifically, the mission structure and the game’s rather punishing save system simply don’t get along with one another. Save points are scattered in a few specific spots throughout the mall, and you only get one save per storage device on the Xbox 360. Considering most people probably only have one storage device, that means one save for the whole game. The inherent problem with this is that because the game revolves so heavily on a rigid schedule for the case files, if you save yourself into a corner where you can’t feasibly get to that next case file in time, you’re screwed. All the case files are connected, and if you fail to get to one on time, the trail goes cold and you’re unable to pick up any of the other story missions.
Interestingly enough, if this nightmare scenario happens, you can opt to save the game with Frank’s current level and abilities intact and start the whole story over (which you’ll basically have to do if you find yourself in this position anyway). Doing this does make it easier to bust through the parts you’ve already played, but it’s still an obnoxious thing to have to deal with. By nature, having to be places on time is not an inherently fun thing. It’s especially frustrating when the penalty for not being somewhere on time is the whole story mode ending and you having to start over from hopefully a close enough spot to eventually make it. Thankfully, Dead Rising turns out to be a game you’ll want to play through multiple times. But potentially forcing players to replay sections because of an overly punishing save system is the polar opposite of fun.
As frustrating as the save system can be, it shouldn’t dissuade you from playing what’s otherwise a uniquely entertaining game. You can avoid running into snafus with the save system if you play carefully enough and don’t go running off doing every single side mission available before ambling toward a case file. The fact is, there’s simply no way to see every mission and pull off all the game’s various (and largely difficult) achievements in one shot through the story mode. And one shot will likely take you anywhere from 15 to 20 hours the first time around, so that’s quite a bit of content to mess with. There are also some unlockable modes, an online leaderboard, and multiple endings to take into account, as well. Of course, games based within free-roaming environments always work this way, providing so many little Easter eggs and side ventures that you simply can’t get it all in one shot. However, Dead Rising’s main appeal is less in the sheer volume of content; rather, it’s in the ridiculous variety of it all.
The Willamette Park View Mall is a veritable playground for the average, workaday consumer, spanning a huge amount of real estate and including every type of good and service one could possibly hope for. However, given the current situation, the mall has gone from playground to war zone, and the various consumer products contained within have gone from useless bric-a-brac to weapons of zombie destruction. Frank can use just about every conceivable object he comes into contact with as some kind of weapon. We say “just about” because there are a number of areas that look like they have weapons you can use, but in actuality don’t. But what is there is awesome. There’s plenty of obvious stuff, like guns and blades of various strengths, as well as typical blunt objects like lead pipes and baseball bats. But it doesn’t stop there. Mannequins, potted plants, frying pans, CDs, soda cans, lawn mowers, chainsaws, free weights, park benches, tasers…these are just a sampling of the day-to-day objects you can use to put a stop to the hordes of zombies that have infested the mall.
What’s more, there are tons of bizarre and hilarious ways to use these objects. Say, for instance, you find a novelty mask inside a toy store. Rather than simply bludgeon a zombie to death with it, you can put it over its head and watch it stumble around blindly, completely unable to detect you. Find a jar of cooking oil inside a mall diner, and explode it onto the floor. Then toss a nearby severed arm into the thick of it, and watch the zombies slip and slide all over the place as they struggle for their meal. Frank’s also got a number of truly insane hand-to-hand combat moves he can gain throughout the course of the game. From punching a zombie in the gut and disemboweling it with a single thrust to wacky wrestling moves like German suplexes and giant swings, odds are you’ve never combated the undead quite like this. It’s very entertaining, and the combat controls make it a breeze to pull most all these moves off. The moves themselves are simplistic, and there are no combos or other complications to worry about. It’s just about getting a weapon into your hand and pressing the right attack buttons to bludgeon, stab, or shoot away.
Another unique quality of the gameplay is the item system–specifically, health items and skill items. Health items come in the form of food and drink, which are scattered about the mall’s various diners and food courts. By themselves, these foods can be potent–however, the game gives you the option of upgrading these items in some cool ways. Cold foods that are meant to be eaten hot can be cooked in an oven or microwave and made significantly more effective that way. You can also blend multiple things together to create new concoctions that give you any number of health boosts, as well as special abilities. Some give you invincibility; others turn you into walking zombie bait (or “zombait”), making it easier to keep other survivors alive while the zombies focus on you.
There are also skill items–namely, books littered about the place that teach you new skills in things varying from combat to vehicle use. Yes, Dead Rising lets you do everything from killing zombies to riding a skateboard, or a bike, or even drive a car in a few instances. And you can get better at these things by acquiring these books, which do things like increase the amount of time you can use a bladed weapon before it breaks or let you pull tricks while riding a skateboard. Some are even mission specific, such as when you have to learn Japanese to coax a couple of Japanese tourists to join up with you. The book system and mixed-food items are something you could very well get through most of Dead Rising barely using, but you get a lot more bang for your buck when you do.
Frank starts out as a slow, generally weak guy. He doesn’t have much combat experience, so that’s not altogether surprising. However, the game affords you plenty of opportunities to earn prestige points, which work toward increasing Frank’s abilities. Points come from a variety of things, including completing missions, getting survivors to join up with you, killing lots and lots of zombies, and even taking pictures. As Frank is a photojournalist, you can simply pick up your camera and take pictures of any number of things, from dramatic scenes to scenes of horror to periodically “erotic” moments. It’s a weird mechanic, in that it’s not something you really need to mess with unless you want to. Much like the food-mixing and book systems, you could probably go the entire course of the game just taking a handful of pictures and get by just fine. But as a side venture, it’s a worthwhile one for the point bonuses you accrue, and the inherent weirdness of many of the photos you can take.
All this is indicative of Dead Rising’s overall tone, which shirks the typical dread-based style of your average survival horror game and goes for something decidedly more like American horror cinema. The game is campy without ever venturing into parody territory. Characters don’t constantly crack jokes, and the missions aren’t made up of a series of sight gags. Rather, the characters take the admittedly crazy plotline completely seriously, and the missions do imbue you with a legitimate sense of danger and peril. But that danger and peril isn’t based on jump scares or things that go bump in the night. It’s based on the sheer difficulty of some of the missions, as well as the absurd number of zombies that the game tosses at you. There are also some subtle in-jokes toward other zombie games and movies, as well as a few pointed and amusing commentaries on American culture at large. Heck, the whole setting of the game is like a big tribute to George Romero’s classic zombie thriller Dawn of the Dead, in which its characters also find themselves trapped in a mall filled with zombies. Dead Rising is decidedly lighter on the subtext than its inspirations, but there is some to be found.
What is perhaps even more interesting about Dead Rising is that its zombie killing is almost incidental in the grand scheme of the storyline. There really aren’t any missions where you find yourself having to kill a certain number of zombies in a certain amount of time or anything like that. Rather, the focus of the game’s missions is on the people still alive within the mall. Side missions frequently involve rescuing survivors from various areas of the mall and taking them to the safe house in the mall’s security room. You’ll also frequently bump up against opponent survivors, or “psychopaths,” as the game calls them. These boss characters are residents of the town and employees of the mall who have been driven insane by the zombie epidemic and now are dangerous foes in their own right. As for the main case files, these follow a similar pattern, with rescue missions, combat sequences against enemy survivors, and a few fetch quests stitched together to keep the plot moving.
All the while, you’ll be trying to circumvent the zombie hordes as you perform these various tasks. The zombies in this game aren’t overly aggressive. They’re mostly slow and will mainly just lunge at you if you get too close. There are a few distinctly different artificial intelligence routines for the zombies (some are faster and more aggressive than others), and at night, zombies become noticeably more aggressive as a whole, but more than anything else, the zombies in Dead Rising are there to provide a roadblock. They’re there to prevent you from getting from point A to point B. Their sheer numbers will impede your progress in such a way that the mall essentially becomes a zombie obstacle course. This means you will have to kill thousands of zombies as the game progresses but without the caveat of being forced to kill them for tacked-on reasons.
By this design, Dead Rising keeps things moving quite nicely and manages also to keep the zombie combat from degenerating into a repetitive rut. Between the ticking clock and the amount of mission work you’ll be doing, there isn’t a ton of downtime (save for a few specific periods) for you to wander around, killing zombies for no reason. You can certainly do this in short bursts between most any mission, but you can’t really pull a Grand Theft Auto and mill about the mall aimlessly for endless periods of time, killing indiscriminately for as long as you please–unless, of course, you simply don’t care if the case-file timer runs out and are willing to reload your last save after getting your necrocide on. Then you’ve got all the time in the world.
That’s not to say that Dead Rising completely avoids the sensation of repetitiveness. The zombie combat remains engaging throughout the entirety of the experience, but some of the missions do start to drag after a while. Specifically, the copious number of escort missions the game tosses at you gets old. The game does try to change things up a bit by setting up specific and unique scenarios for these missions. Some survivors can handle weapons and will fight alongside you, while others are too frightened and literally must have their hand held to get anywhere. Some even have to be carried due to injury (these are, by far, the most frustrating missions in the game). But it all boils down to you getting one person from harm to safety, over and over again. Fortunately, there are enough psychopath missions and other tasks to break up some of the monotony, and the majority of these missions are optional, so you could conceivably skip a lot of them. It’d be nice if there was more variety in the act of rescuing these survivors in itself, though.
One of the best things about Dead Rising is its style. This game goes for the polar opposite of what zombie games like the Resident Evil series go for, trading dark, dank, moody landscapes for bright, colorful, almost painfully pleasant-looking environments. This is a shopping mall, after all, and you’ll find things like an in-mall amusement center for kids; a huge, picturesque outdoor park area; and a cheesy, Western-themed food court; as well as plenty of ridiculously themed shops all over the place. It’s a delightfully contrasting world to the death and destruction that’s so prevalent throughout the game. It all looks great, too. The environments are particularly sharp, as are the scads and scads of items contained within them. The character models are less impressive. Main characters like Frank and a few others in the central storyline are nicely detailed and look excellent during cutscenes, but the zombies and ancillary characters are blander and lower in overall quality. Still, the sheer number of characters onscreen at once in Dead Rising is an achievement by itself, and the game runs exceptionally smooth despite the numbers. The frame rate only really seems to hitch up when you’re using particularly massive weapons against particularly big groupings of zombies, but otherwise, you’ll never encounter a problem.
The audio in Dead Rising is even more impressive, thanks largely to the fantastic sound effects. The weapons in particular are top notch. Guns are appropriately booming and blades slice and dice through zombie flesh with a sickeningly awesome gushing sound. However, it’s really the blunt objects that are the star of the show. Every weapon makes a totally different sound, and each one sounds exactly right. The hollow thunk made by smacking a zombie with a mannequin torso sounds just as excellent as the silly chord-strum-combined-with-loud-smacking sound of an electric guitar connecting with a zombie’s skull. It’s simply some of the best Foley work we’ve ever heard. The voice acting is also of high-quality. No actors of note play the characters, but they’re each played with the right level of camp. The psychopaths are particularly amazing in their over-the-top performances. The one weak area of the audio presentation is the soundtrack, which never stands out at any point during the game. There are some appropriately tension-building bits and pieces here and there, but most of it is generic and quickly fades into the background. The sole exception to this is the random moments of goofy mall Muzak that play in certain areas, which are picture perfect for the mall atmosphere. It’s just too bad there isn’t more of it.
While not everything Dead Rising takes a stab at works to its benefit, it’s still one of the more unique and enjoyable games on the Xbox 360. There aren’t many games that give you the level of pure, bizarre variety that this game does, and its splendidly brutal yet entirely silly brand of action is too much fun to ignore. Some people are undoubtedly going to be severely put off by the constant battle between the game structure and save system, but no amount of structural missteps manage to derail this ride. It’s zombie action for people who want zombie action, and it’s simply a great piece of entertainment.