Dead Rising (Xbox 360) review
"If the living dead ever manage unionise, Capcom are in for some trouble. The software giant has made more than a few pennies from violence and general discrimination against walking corpses and clearly has no plans to buck the trend; Dead Rising features zombie genocide on a grand scale. While the Resident Evil series has concentrated on shocks and scares, the focus of Dead Rising is the oft overlooked positive side of the zombie apocalypse; the chance to beat the absolute crap out of the undead..."
If the living dead ever manage unionise, Capcom are in for some trouble. The software giant has made more than a few pennies from violence and general discrimination against walking corpses and clearly has no plans to buck the trend; Dead Rising features zombie genocide on a grand scale. While the Resident Evil series has concentrated on shocks and scares, the focus of Dead Rising is the oft overlooked positive side of the zombie apocalypse; the chance to beat the absolute crap out of the undead with whatever you can lay your hands upon. Repetitive side missions, frustrating save system, and occasionally awkward control scheme aside, Dead Rising is as much fun as it's possible to have in a mall overrun by shambling, brain hungry, recently deceased types.
Dead Rising's main exponent of zombie oppression is Frank West. A photojournalist, Frank has made a career from tracking down the vilest and most brutal aspects of humanity and asking them to say 'cheese'. With the town of Willamette quarantined and reports of shady business leaking out, Frank hires a helicopter pilot to fly him into town. After snapping a few pictures of undead civil disobedience, West spots a helicopter pad on the roof of a huge mall complex and demands to be dropped off. Instructing the chopper pilot to return in three days, Frank heads into the mall, just in time to see a small group of survivors become zombie fodder. The plot then twists and turns as Frank struggles to uncover the cause of the infestation, rescue a few survivors, and escape the town with his story.
From the get go, Dead Rising wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve. If the 'survivors in a mall' scenario wasn't a big enough homage, the storyline and characters tick all the right scary film boxes. During your 72 hour stay in the besieged Willamette Parkview Mall, you will stumble across a scientist with a dark secret, meet two government agents with a dark secret, save an attractive young woman with a dark secret, defeat a psychotic clown (who may or may not have a dark secret), fend off a brainwashed cult, run into a big chap with a very big knife, unravel a huge government conspiracy...Dead Rising is a horror film archetype tour de force. Frank West himself is straight from Action/Horror Reluctant Hero Casting Office, the storyline verges quite firmly on the absurd but it's done so knowingly and with tongue so firmly in cheek that what could have come off as clichéd - or just plain stupid - actually works.
The storyline revolves around Frank finding the truth behind the not inconsiderable problems afflicting the town of Willamette. The story is furthered through case files, which are basically story missions. The files take place at specific times over the course of the three days, and the only way the story will advance is if Frank is in the right place at the right time. Taken in isolation, it's an interesting system and adds a certain tension; the game is going to keep moving forward whether you're keeping pace or not. That tension is ratcheted up a few notches by the game's brutal save system. Dead Rising gives the player one save file. Saving your progress, which is done in any of the toilets scattered around the mall, overwrites all previous save data. It's entirely possibly to back yourself into a corner by saving without having sufficient time to reach the next case file location. Miss one case file and the storyline drops dead. It is possible to restart the game retaining Frank's current skills and abilities and, given the content and real time structure, Dead Rising is a game that needs to be played through several times to see all the content, but the save system is still unnecessarily punishing.
Surprisingly, the awkward save system can work in the game's favour. Fighting through the zombie hordes to a bathroom save point can be a desperate task, and knowing that one slip up can lead to disaster brings and extra layer of tension, something that helps build the game's atmosphere. Dead Rising is a genuinely tense and genuinely creepy game. There are very few out and out scares but, due to the difficulty of the case files and the sheer number of zombies between Frank, his goals, and the save points, there is a constant feeling of dread that borders on the oppressive. The Willamette mall is a sprawling capitalist nightmare, a massive consumer hell. From the food court to the hardware store, from the bright pastels to the gratingly cheerful muzak, the mall is a perfect virtual rendition shopping complexes we know and love. And that's what makes it so deeply creepy. One of the most effective ways to create an unsettling atmosphere is to subvert the familiar and ordinary into something completely alien. Taking a friendly happy place like the mall and filling it full of shambling, recently deceased cannibals is a perfect example of taking twisting the banal and 'safe' into something really quite sinister.
The mall is a dangerous place, particularly for the zombies themselves. The number of different ways to wipe out the undead is breathtaking. The Wilamette mall is a brutal playground full of improvised weaponry. The mall's stores are a surreal armoury, with the best weapons being the most preposterous; beating down a zombie with a toy laser sword, complete with a tinny crackling noise when swung, is a lot more entertaining than it should be. Obviously you'll rely on the more conventional weaponry such as guns, knives, lead pipes and baseball bats to actually get through the game, but the real joy of Dead Rising is turning everyday objects such as CDs, bowling balls, or even shower heads into a lethal implements.
Given the sheer number of zombies and the ridiculous arsenal weaponry on offer, it's surprising how small a part the mass extermination of zombie kind plays in the storyline. The storyline missions tend to involve fighting off those who are still alive, collecting items from stores, even defusing bombs. If you're trying to complete as many missions as possible or save as many survivors as you can, then you don't have time to kill thousands of the undead. The case files are tightly timed, and there are plenty of side missions to pursue during the few lulls in the plot. The side missions take on the form of 'Scoops'. Much like the case files of the storyline, the scoop missions will lapse if you don't get to the area in time. The side missions tend to involve rescuing other survivors trapped in the mall and escorting them back to the safe room, and it's a gameplay mechanic that gets repetitive very, very quickly. Guiding those you've rescued through the mall isn't all that much fun; the survivors aren't all that bright and have a distressing tendency to run head first into large groups of zombies. While you can arm a few of the living, they, perhaps understandably, seem more interested in killing the undead than getting to safety. Throw in a few survivors who need carried back to safety, effectively disarming Frank completely, and you one of the most sigh inducing gameplay mechanics in recently memory.
Occasionally the game spices up the scoop missions by throwing a psychopath into the mix. Psychopaths are living non-zombie types who have been driven insane by the zombie infestation and function as optional boss fights. The psycho themselves provide a nice diversion from the zombie culling and form a few of the games most memorable moments. Adam, the chainsaw wielding clown and Cliff, the Rambo inspired war vet, are just two of the highlights. Unfortunately, the psychopaths feel obliged to share the craziness and take hostages. Hostages who then need escorted to safety, tempering the quality of the psycho fights with the frustration of getting the people you've rescued out of harm's way.
If, for some bizarre reason, you can't lay your hands on a park bench or guitar to crack some zombie skulls, Frank has an assortment of unarmed moves. Starting with a simple punch combo, the hand to hand moves become ever more preposterous; late in the game West will be decapitating zombies with a quick karate chop or throwing them overhead using a German Suplex. While most of the unarmed moves only take out single zombies and are therefore completely ineffective, they're all hilariously blood thirsty and entertaining to watch. Unfortunately, pulling off the hand to hand moves highlights the lack of subtly in the game's controls. While precision doesn't really matter when Frank is swinging a baseball bat wildly, it can be frustrating to watch him be chomped upon by the undead because he didn't quite respond to your commands. This is particularly noticeable with moves requiring the left analogue stick to be depressed. Never the most precise of input methods, one of Frank's most useful attacks, the Zangief inspired Spinning Lariat, ups the awkwardness by combining pushing the stick in with pressing another button. It's irritating to watch Frank valiantly back chop at the zombies engulfing him when all you really want him to do is spin around a bit with his arms out.
Frank gains hand to hand abilities by levelling up. When he first arrives in the mall, Frank is a complete weakling. But as you gain prestige points, he'll slowly start to become a one man wrecking machine. Frank's evolution tops off at level 50, with attribute increases and abilities gained at random whenever he levels up. Prestige points are acquired by rescuing survivors, completing scoop missions, putting large numbers of zombies out of their misery, and taking photographs. The photography system isn't particularly deep and rarely necessary, but is a nice diversion and a way to keep a record of the numerous ridiculous things you'll see in the game.
While the sheer number of zombies on screen is the most visually impressive part of Dead Rising, the game adopts and sticks to a visual ****that really works. The Wilamette mall is a nightmarishly cheerful and bright place, which is nicely at odds with the gore and death taking place within. The malls contents, from the store to the items held within fit the glitzy mood. The zombie models, while not highly detailed and prone to over repetition, shamble and move just as you'd expect them to. The main characters look a lot sharper and, Frank's weird run aside, are animated incredibly well, both in the cut scenes and out. Dead Rising's audio features the shame juxtaposition; the twinkly muzak and store announcements are in nice contrast to the creepy moans of the zombies or the unsettling laughter of the psychopaths. The voice acting is top notch, with the cast giving suitably straight faced and enthusiastic performances with some ridiculous lines. Throw in a few satisfying weapon cracks and thumps, and you have a game with excellent presentation
Despite the profanity inducing save system and survivor rescuing, Dead Rising proves to be a lot of fun. While the concept of killing hundreds and hundreds of zombies has the potential to get boring or repetitive very quickly, the story line and real time structure keep the game moving forward at a brisk pace. Dead Rising is far from perfect with a few very questionable design choices, but the sense of style, strong presentation and the sheer variety of potential fatal items scattered around the mall save the day. What other game lets you use a lawnmower, cream pie or parasol as a weapon? Not enough…
Community review by Spoonful (June 05, 2007)
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