I’m quite proud of myself. Though I’ve failed this year to distance myself from the numerous simulators that populate the gaming landscape, I’ve done pretty well in avoiding that other overused trope – zombies. Ah, zombies. There was a time when you weren’t crammed into every orifice of media, but in some sort of meta-commentary on infection, you just kept spreading once you got started. I actually had to think back to when I first wrote about a game with zombies in it, and, wouldn’t you know, it was the second game review that I ever did. In the interest of doing something different, I thought it would be fun to go back and ask me from ten years ago what he thought of today’s game.
This was published back in August of 2006. Damien was 21 years old and had no idea what the world had in store for him the following decade. That poor bastard.
(Current day me will chime in like so.)
Most go to their local shopping mall with intentions of sorting through high end merchandise, finding comfort expensive in shades from the Sunglass Hut and 50 cent nachos from the food court. In an institution where the greatest source of terror tends to be the lack of parking, having your internal organs ripped out and eaten in alphabetical order usually isn’t on the itinerary. Thankfully, Capcom understands the demand for zombie death via potted plant, finally filling the void left in the hearts of many a gamer with Dead Rising.
(Okay, first of all, I had to fix like, four typos in that opening paragraph. I self-edit to varying degrees of success nowadays, but this was published on a real website that paid me to do it. I wish I could say editorial processes for medium-sized gaming sites have improved over the years, but they really haven’t.)
Let’s get it out of the way right off the bat, Dead Rising shares more than a few similarities with a certain George Romero classic, so much so that a disclaimer was actually placed on the package claiming that there is no connection between the two. Despite this, the game has enough to it, both good and bad, to distinguish it’s own identity, resulting in what some are calling the 360’s first non-Oblivion killer app.
(I really underestimated the greatness of Amped 3 with that last line. Let me also say that I’m glad we’ve mostly done away with “killer app” as a saying.)
You play as Frank West, a man who looks to be a mix between Tommy Vercetti and George Clooney after being smashed in the face with a ball peen hammer. While he likely won’t be receiving any bookings at the local Chippendales, Frank is a damn good journalist, and he’s on the verge of a huge scoop. Violent “riots” have ravaged the town, and as Frank snaps pictures from a helicopter above, he quickly notices that something is terribly wrong (you know, besides the whole mass murder thing). Our ugly protagonist then lands on the roof of the local mall, instructing the pilot to return in three days. His mission: get the proverbial “scoop”, stay alive, and get back to the roof in 72 hours.
(I was a snarky fucker. I still am. But I was back then too.)
(This is how you can tell it’s a game review from ten years ago. There’s a section called “graphics”. I always hated writing reviews in this format and I’m glad most places have done away with it. It’s antiquated as hell now.)
The very first thing one is likely to notice is the detail of the character models, most specifically in the faces: mouths actually contain tongues and teeth, pores can be seen in the skin, and hair moves realistically. While the visuals aren’t going to blow you away, they serve their purpose, choosing to give a more realistic, almost earthy tone to most of the characters, while contrasting that with the bright décor of the mall environment. Unfortunately, many of the survivors that Frank eventually runs into lack the detail of their more central counterparts, giving off a blocky, last-generation feel, but considering the sheer amount of zombies onscreen at any one time, this minor flaw can be easily forgiven.
(“Mouths actually contain tongues and teeth” is a phrase that I once typed unironically, folks.)
Speaking of which, those pesky undead make a habit of appearing in rather large numbers, with sometimes upwards of a hundred at a time, showing little to no lag in the process as they… very… slowly… make their way to their next meal, transversing scenery that very much matches the blueprint for Anymall, USA. From the Western-themed food court to the 50’s style movie theater, the environments are very well done, bringing you as close as you can get to the mass shopping experience without being taunted by a snobby music store clerk.
(This totally reads like something out of a Gamepro write-up. I really wore my inspirations on my sleeve.)
The core of Dead Rising is a mishmash of features that will fill most gamers with a strange concoction of glee and frustration. While the sheer variety of situations and options make for what is a fairly enjoyable experience, a steep difficulty curve and unorthodox save system will supply a few headaches for all but the hardest of hardcore.
While the basic controls follow the normal conventions for an action title (Frank can run, jump, pick up weapons, attack, etc.) the system itself is more like that of an RPG. Over the course of the game, Frank earns Prestige Points (PP) by killing zombies, taking interesting photos, escorting survivors to safety, and dealing with Psychopaths (hostile humans that act as bosses.) In turn, PP lets our hero gain levels, allowing him to run faster, hit harder, carry more items, and take more damage. One of the highlights to leveling up is that Frank can learn new hand-to-hand attacks, ranging from comical wrestling moves to the VERY useful disembowel and jump kick maneuvers.
(This is why I don’t write a lot of 2200 word pieces anymore. I skip the part where I read the game manual to you.)
Those not wanting to fight mano-a-zombie can also make use of the mall’s many stores, procuring a weapon from most anything that isn’t nailed down. Through Capcom’s claim that “everything” can be used as a weapon isn’t entirely true, the sheer fact that one can slice off a zombie’s arm, then proceed to use said limb to continue attacking should be more than acceptable for most. A sad truth arises when it’s discovered that only about a dozen of the weapons are actually of any use in combat, although a few of the weaker weapons have some helpful properties (a toy laser sword, while useless in a fight, illuminates dark areas, for instance).
Ironically, with so many ways to dispatch the undead, killing them is never actually required of you to advance. The main thrust of the game is centered around escorting survivors, neutralizing Psychopaths, and piecing together the story as it unfolds, with the zombies only serving as an obstacle course of sorts, and since PP can be earned in so many different ways, leveling up is still very possible without taking a pair of hedge clippers to the neck of a flesh-eater.
(I later learned that you can min-max the bejesus out of the photography system and become super overpowered very quickly. Today’s session mostly consisted of letting people die while I made a beeline to all of the PP-rich photo-ops.)
While the inherent freedom is nice, it’s the way that the game is structured that brings down the overall package. First and foremost, while the 72 hour deadline obviously isn’t in real time, it doesn’t advance with the sort of consistency one would expect, requiring you to constantly check your in-game watch, leaving yourself open to potential attack. Just as well, Otis the Janitor will call you frequently with new info, and while you can ignore him for a short period of time, in most cases you’ll need to answer his call, which leaves you completely defenseless until he’s done blabbering. Escorting a very slow woman through a horde of zombies? Otis will call you. In the midst of a heated boss fight? Otis will call you. Otis standing two feet directly in front of you? You guessed it. Added voice work might have helped with this issue, but as it stands, you’re stuck reading very small boxes of text (unless you have an HD TV, which the game was obviously made for) while keeping track of available scoops in the right hand corner, your inventory of items, the guide arrow leading you to the current point of interest, the time on your watch, protecting survivors and fighting off enemies, all at the same time. While Capcom should be applauded for the amount of ambition shown within, more often than not, it’s too complex for it’s own good, with such distractions often meaning the difference between life and death.
(Yeah, the Otis thing is really bad design. Since there was only voice acting in cut-scenes, you spend a lot of the game reading text with a radio to your ear. I still don’t like it and he calls you way too often.
The time limit thing I go back and forth on. As Dead Rising 4 has shown, the game is way too easy without it. I think there could have been a more eloquent way to handle it, but it was something new at the time.
The HD issue is something I remember vividly. Dead Rising was one of the first games to really screw over any poor sap left playing it on an SD TV, which most people still had back in 2006. )
Dying in the game (oh, and you will die, a lot) gives way to what is undoubtedly Dead Rising’s biggest flaw: the save system. When Frank bites the big one, you’re given two options, reload your last save, or start the entire game over from the very beginning, retaining the same level and abilities that you died with. It’s an idea that’s been used in a few times in other titles (mostly RPGs), and on paper, it’s a cool concept, but the execution, sadly, is sorely lacking. Loading your last save is obviously the best option most of the time, but infrequent save points mean that you may end up repeating large chunks of the game until you get it right, or even worse, since you can only have one save per device (hard drive, memory unit), it’s quite possible to save at a point where it’s literally impossible to advance, leaving you with no choice but to restart from the beginning, and though blazing through the opening chapters with a powered up character may sound like fun, the novelty wears off quickly, leaving you to replay parts of the game that simply aren’t any fun on the second, third, or tenth play through. Compounding all of this is the fact that unless you’ve already beaten the game or are using a walkthrough, you will most likely HAVE to restart the game at some point, either because your Frank is too under-powered, you’ve saved yourself into a corner, or you’ve come to a boss fight unprepared.
(Yup. There were a lot of rough spots. Old me was pretty perceptive. Granted, this was like, four concussions ago.)
As it stands, a more focused, linear structure most likely would have solved some of these issues (or at the very least a save anywhere/multiple saves feature), as the game’s hardcore appeal will no doubt isolate less patient gamers, and may very well cause them to quit playing altogether.
(Years later, this hypocrite would go on to say that Dark Souls was one of his favorite games ever. Typical games journalist.)
(SOUND. YES, I HAD TO HAVE THREE PARAGRAPHS ABOUT THE GODDAMN SOUND.)
Helping with the atmosphere is the same non-threatening elevator music that we’ve come to know and love in the real world, complete with friendly announcements that point shoppers in the direction of hot sales. The soothing melodies provide an interesting contrast to all of the undead carnage that ensues, and while it would have been nice to fight for your life to the tune of Hall and Oates’ “Man Eater”, the absence of any licensed music isn’t too big of a deal.
(This paragraph is what we in the business call “padding”.)
In the same vein, none of the voice actors are particularly famous, yet they still deliver their lines with a flux of sincerity and enthusiasm that’s uncharacteristic of the genre. Even the cheesier lines serve their purpose well enough, breaking up the tension between increasingly difficult missions.
If there’s anything to criticize about the voice work, it’s that there isn’t nearly enough of it, as the survivors you run into speak almost entirely through text, killing a bit of your “next-gen” buzz rather early on. Otis the Janitor, who gives you new missions and general hints throughout the game, also communicates through text, when audio would have not only helped with the atmosphere, but solved the aforementioned issue with the gameplay.
(It should be a testament to how far we’ve come that I actually hate the voice acting now, especially the repetitive moans and cries of the survivors that seem loop every four seconds.)
Those that choose to stick with Dead Rising till the end will be rewarded in kind. There are at least half a dozen known endings, and a mall-load of achievements (the 360’s equivalent of online heroin these days) that could very well keep the hardcore set playing for months, or even years.
(I hate everything about this paragraph. Let’s move on.)
Earning the best ending unlocks an extra mode called “Overtime”, which acts as a prologue to the main game, culminating in the “real” ending. Beating Overtime Mode unlocks Infinity Mode, which is a sort of survival mode, in which you try to stay alive for as long as possible.
Replaying the main game after already beating it is perhaps the most fun to be had with Dead Rising, giving you the sandbox gameplay that you crave, with a mall full of zombies and no real concern for the time restrictions, with nothing holding you back from the undead genocide that you so richly crave… or you could just take Frank to the ladies’ clothing store and stick him in a dress, you know, whatever floats your proverbial boat.
(I hate everything about all three of these paragraphs, actually.)
German Suplexing a zombie is a once in a lifetime gaming experience that will undoubtedly put a smile on upon your face, but frequent escort missions and a structure that only works half of the time will test the patience of many.
(I’ve German Suplexed zombies a good dozen or so times since then, you liar.)
It’s a thickly veiled RPG marketed as an action title, and ultimately, the fun you’ll have with the game is directly correlated to how much effort you put into it.
(Every game is an RPG now, but we didn’t know that was going to happen back then.)
Dead Rising is like that ex-girlfriend that keeps calling you back. You’ll find yourself screaming “I love you” just as much as “I hate you”, culminating in a conflict that either ends up with the two of you kissing and making up, or you dropping her cheating ass to the curb, never to see her again.
(I… wow. Don’t hire this kid to write reviews for you. He’s too quippy and awkwardly projects his relationship issues into his closing paragraphs.)