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Dead Rising (Video Game)

Dead Rising Xbox 360 (click for larger image)Available on Xbox 360

Voice work provided by T. J. Rotolo and Alex Fernandez

Developed and distributed by Capcom


Dawn [dawn]
-noun
1. the first appearance of daylight in the morning.
2. the beginning or rise of anything; advent.

Dead Rising pretty much means the same thing as Dawn of the Dead. Which in many ways tells you all you need to know about the game. It is to video games what Dawn of the Dead was to movies, so much so that the game has a disclaimer on the box and during initial loading stating that the game has no connections to anyone who made the film. It doesn’t claim not to be based on the film; if it did, everyone in the world would know that Capcom were dirty liars. That disclaimer gives me mixed feelings since when I told George A. Romero about the game last October, he’d never heard of it before.

Dead Rising has, since the very first moment it was unveiled, looked like a video game version of Dawn of the Dead … but beyond that it looked like a simulation of Dawn of the Dead.

The difference is subtle but specific. A video game adaptation of a film usually lets you take on the role of that film’s hero and play through the events that transpired onscreen. Dead Rising is not like this. What Dead Rising offers is much more enticing. It asks a question.

If you were stuck in a mall full of zombies, what would you do?

It’s a dream concept for a horror fan. Who of us hasn’t thought about that situation in detail … and now here comes Capcom with a game promising to let us explore those fantasies. Keiji Inafune, the director of the game, doesn’t ever need to try and convince anyone that he’s a horror fan because his game is all the proof needed.

Dead Rising‘s faults are strengths to other people. Take for example the limited save system that allows only one save and only allows you to save in specific locations. Either it’s annoying and frustrating, or it makes dying and decision-making more important.

The game throws a lot at you at once right across the board. You’ll be overwhelmed with weapons, stores to explore, zombies, survivors to rescue, photo opportunities, missions to embark on, psychopaths to kill, and secrets to uncover all at the same time. Deciding what to focus on that first time through the game isn’t the sort of thing that comes naturally. Games almost universally let us see everything in one play through. Even a game with hundreds of things to do like Grand Theft Auto 3 allows us to explore them all at our own pace; whereas Dead Rising has you eternally glancing at the ticking hands of your watch.

Dead Rising Xbox 360 (click for larger image) Dead Rising Xbox 360 (click for larger image)

Because Frank starts off weak and progressively levels up as you gain prestige points (through completing missions, saving people, performing certain tasks in game) at the beginning of the game, it’s just not possible to do everything. Without knowing where any of the good weapons are, where food is in good supply, where the most useful books to improve your abilities are, focusing on any one thing will be at the expense of something else.

Your initial urge will be to follow the case files as in many ways these follow the sort of linear level progression that you’re used to. They’re also quite evidently the storyline of the game, and it’s difficult to overcome that initial urge.

Why should you overcome that urge? Simply because it makes the game more fun in the long run. The case files all begin and end at set times (like all of the missions), but unlike the side missions, if you fail a case file, all the other case files close and you’re faced with reloading and trying again or saving your stats and starting over. While it’s certainly possible to beat the case files the first time around, it’s an exercise in frustration.

The bosses will be frustratingly hard. Many of the time limits will be frustratingly tight … and heaven forbid you save the game not realizing that you don’t have enough time to complete the case file you’re in the middle of. Then the only option is to start over or give up on solving the mystery of the mall as you can only keep that one save at a time. Beyond solving the mystery of the mall, there are other reasons to follow the case files as they make the mall a bit easier to navigate, opening up certain gates to areas that in most cases you couldn’t get to otherwise, albeit by a longer route.

Ignoring the case files lets you take everything in at your own pace. It gives you plenty of time to explore the mall to your heart’s content and still provides you with enough side missions should you want to try and up Frank’s level (as doing so makes him stronger and faster, gives him more item slots, and puts more melee moves at his disposal). Most of the side missions involve rescuing someone (which occasionally takes a little friendly or unfriendly persuasion), killing a psychopath, or both. Killing a psycho is pretty straightforward (though depending on your weapon and level, widely varying in difficulty); however, escorting people back to the safety of the security office can be frustrating.

There are three kinds of survivors. Those that can carry weapons, slightly injured people that you’ll need to lead by hand, and very injured people that you’ll either have to support or carry. For the first type you’ll find that they’re pretty good at following you, even through areas that are pretty densely filled with zombies. Not every survivor is as adept as every other survivor, and again it depends on what weapons you give them, but so long as you keep an eye on their health, they’ll be fine.

For the other two types, if you don’t take direct care of them, they’re liable to end up dead as they’ll often stop and rest at the worst possible times. Also, you can’t carry a weapon and guide them at the same time. The kind you take on your shoulders or support are actually the easiest to deal with as while doing this, a zombie can’t grab you, and you actually move slightly faster.

Dead Rising Xbox 360 (click for larger image) Dead Rising Xbox 360 (click for larger image)

If anything is absolutely broken in the game, it’s the hand holding mechanic. When it works, it’s okay, but it’s far too easy to break the hold, and when the hold is broken, it doesn’t automatically reequip the weapon you were just holding. While this may all sound annoying, and indeed it can be, it would be unfair to really hold this against the game because there are so few escort missions that you are required to do, and in those cases you’re either carrying someone or tagging along with someone who is already armed. In fact, if a person gets too annoying, you can just decide to lead them to their death, or if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, bludgeon them yourself. It might fail the case files, but damn if it doesn’t feel good sometimes.

Naturally if you’re the sort of person who feels that they have to do every last mission to fully enjoy a game, they’re going to be a factor, but once you unlock a few short cuts and work out the best way to work around the AI’s quirks, even these missions can be fun. When a person on your team is killed, either you’ll be treated to either a cut scene of them very gorily being torn to shreds and eaten or you’ll see them turn into a zombie. Heck, I had one guy commit suicide on me last time I was playing it.

Either way, a common complaint has been the way the radio works. Most missions come via your two-way radio, which will beep fairly regularly. If you don’t answer it, you can still do the mission, but you won’t know where it is or how long you have to do it. If you do answer it, you’ll be defenseless for a few seconds since you can’t use the radio and attack (or jump) at the same time. If you get hit midway through the briefing, you’ll have to wait for your radio to beep again, and then you get told off for hanging up.

But enough talk of the missions and case files. The rest of the time you’re going to be exploring the detailed environments, finding vehicles and weapons … oh, and killing zombies.

Dead Rising really only needed to get one thing right, and that is the combat with zombies. With hundreds of zombies onscreen at a time and over a hundred weapons to use, if Dead Rising had fumbled this, the game would be worthless.

Fortunately it’s where the game really shines.

While not everything you see can be used as a weapon and while some weapons don’t work quite like you’d expect (such as the hockey stick, which you can’t hit zombies with, only shoot pucks at them), the number of weapons in the game and the variety of effects they have on the zombies are still things that impress me. Almost every weapon does something different, and every impact looks and sounds just as it should. Through a combination of physics and animation, Dead Rising captures the feeling of driving a sledgehammer into a skull better than any other game I could think of.

Plowing through hundreds of zombies with a lawnmower, sending limbs and blood flying, doesn’t even get the game to blink. It’s an impressive feat for a game that looks pretty good even before you start taking into account how much is going on at any one time. As the day cycles through to night, the atmosphere of the mall changes, not just because the zombies get angrier in the dark. The lighting effects are subtle and effective, and the ambient music just feels right for a game based on Dawn of the Dead. Like in the movie, everything switches off at a certain time, and when the background music and escalators come back on in the morning, you’ll usually breathe a sigh of relief.

Dead Rising Xbox 360 (click for larger image) Dead Rising Xbox 360 (click for larger image)

Once you’re done with your first play-through, you’ll probably have a good handle on where stuff is and have leveled Frank up to the point where the case files won’t be overly difficult, and following the case files is the only way to finish the game properly by unlocking overtime mode and then beating that.

You’ll find that as you replay knowing when stuff happens and where it happens, you’ll actually be able to see and do everything in one play-through (which takes about six and a half hours).

Even when you’ve beaten the game a few times and gotten the full ending, the achievements may well encourage you to play through again, and some of the best achievements will generally encourage you to play the game in a different style. There are even unlockable costumes and weapons for gaining the achievements, though you generally have to ensure you make it through to get picked up by the helicopter for them to unlock.

Dead Rising is overwhelming if you let it be. I can’t overstate how much fun it is just to ignore all the missions and explore the mall killing zombies at your own leisure. The game starts off pretty scary in fact, until you have a nice and tough Frank to deal out the punishment, and then you can really start working on retribution.

With slow zombies that are only really a threat if you get surrounded, it really does feel like the first game to get zombies right; and despite only taking 6 hours to “survive,” it’s going to take you so much longer to get all the achievements and to solve the mystery of the mall. Dead Rising makes some difficult decisions and sticks to its guns. So long as you go in knowing how it’s set up, I really don’t see how a horror fan could come away disappointed.

With all its oddities and handful of flaws, you may raise your eyebrow at the score I’m about to give it, but heed these words: Nothing comes close to getting in the way of the sheer unadulterated fun of throwing on some snappy threads, grabbing an assortment of improvised weapons, diving into the middle of a pack of zombies, and letting the body parts fly. A perfect score may seem excessive given the game’s faults, but none of them stop the game being incredibly fun and satisfying. The setting and storyline add to the enjoyment for any horror fan that loves Dawn of the Dead.

I suppose I could say, “If you don’t like Dawn of the Dead, you can subtract a knife from the review,” but in all honesty, if you don’t like Dawn of the Dead … what’s wrong with you?

5 out of 5

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Jon Condit