Review: Dead Rising
June 1, 2009, Author: Andy Corrigan
Yeah, we do retrospective reviews, but we generally don’t do them for games this old. However, this review is almost a personal journey, a tale of redemption, putting right what once went wrong. Many know of my love for the undead, the blessed and humble zombie. Movies, TV shows, books, games, comics… you name it, if it features zombies; I’m there baby. So coming up to September 2006, you can imagine how much I was anticipating the release of Capcom’s other zombie game, Dead Rising. A demo was released shortly before the game hit shelves, and it was glorious. It offered a scenario I’ve dreamed about ever since seeing George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead when I was a kid; an open world mall, hundreds of zombies, and countless ways to kill them.
It’s fair to say I was rather hyped for the full release, but when it came I met it with nothing but absolute disappointment. It was so different, with the most grating feature being that there were loading screens every thirty seconds. ‘Just let me get out there and kill the zombies damn it’ was the only thought running around my head. It raised such a feeling of ‘Meh’, that in the end it only stayed in my collection for a matter of days before I traded it in, bitter and let down.
Following a recent spike in my zombie interest, thanks partly to discovering the writings of Max Brooks, I was looking for a game to compliment them. Having played Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil 5 to death, I decided to give Dead Rising another go, spurred on partially by the upcoming release of the sequel. This time it seemed a completely different experience, and I’m so glad I went back to it nearly four years later.
Not inspired by Dawn of the Dead… Honest…
Dead Rising is in no way related to or a direct copy of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (or its surprisingly good remake by Zack Snyder), feebly declares a fairly-sized note on the front of the box. Only, it is really, isn’t it? A group of survivors, holding out in a zombie infest mall? It’s one of the most widely recognised scenarios in the genre.
Holding up in this mall, however, is a photographer, a certain Frank West. Frank has been tipped off about a National Guard incident that has lead to the Colorado town of Willamette being closed off to the outside world. Believing there to be some sort of rioting problem, our persistent protagonist has other plans and pays a private pilot to fly him in. After having a chance to snap a few of the ‘random acts of violence’, which gets you used to the photography element of the game, the helicopter is chased down by an army chopper and Frank pleads to be dropped off on the roof of a nearby mall. He also manages to convince his pilot to give him three days to grab the photos what will make him a legend. He is dropped off and left to either follow the story missions, save civilians, or just spend the in-game three days dicking about.
Even though you are free to do whatever the hell you like, the story in Dead Rising is very enjoyable and I highly recommend you check it out first and foremost. The main plot is told in the form of ‘Case Files’ that are triggered at certain points over the timed three day time limit (takes roughly about seven hours real-time to get to the end). Don’t worry though, you’ll have plenty of time to explore and complete side-quests in-between these missions. In the case files, Frank slowly pieces together the story and aims to discover the secret behind the zombie virus. The set-up is very much geared towards the sort of old fashioned fun of b-movie horrors. Where Resident Evil took the serious route (often only being unintentionally funny), Dead Rising is all about tongue in cheek fun from the offset, never once daring to take itself seriously, although never straying too far away from the realms of plausibility, or at least never doing anything that could be deemed out of context.
It’s the colourful cast of characters really help to bring the experience together and the main cast compliment West greatly. Frank himself is a bit of a loveable jerk; he’s not brave or heroic, and certainly not intelligent. A bit of a Neanderthal in fact, but he does show a little bit of charisma and determination over the course of the game. He’s a flawed everyman put in an unbelievable situation, and he deals with that situation how any of us would… he dons a posh frock, sports socks, a Mega Man helmet and hits zombies with an umbrella. Erm… yeah, about that…
Zombies, meet lawnmower…
Okay, the first thing to say is, forget the demo. The game full game starts you off pretty weak and powerless, without many of the cool abilities you had in the taster. While many might balk at the idea of slow moving zombies in this day and age, the genius of that classic ideology comes to fruition in this game; zombies may be slow and docile, but they’re strong and especially deadly in large numbers. In fact, during the night time periods, the zombies become more aggressive and stronger, and while they’re not wholly that much more difficult to kill and navigate through, they are noticeably tetchier. A lot of the game does require you to bash your way through hordes of the undead with whatever is at hand, but in the early portions you’re better heading through areas with lighter numbers and concentrating on boosting your level.
To boost your level is pretty simple; you need to gain Prestige Points (PP), and you do this by taking exciting photographs (you are a photographer after all), killing zombies and by completing the various missions. Each level will gain you either a new move or weapon/health slots, and it’s not really until you start getting to around levels 5-6 that the game starts to resemble the fun title you had in the demo. Photos are graded by a number of factors, the most common is in the sheer numbers of the zombies, but you’ll get extra boosts for taking pictures of great violence or drama, such as couples being reunited. Hell, you can even get points on erotica. Meaning that getting a pic of a ‘sexy’ zombie cleavage can help level you up that bit quicker. There are also PP stickers hidden all over the mall, get one of them in your shot and you’ll get additional PP bonuses.
As I mentioned above, you can literally use whatever comes to hand as a weapon, and anything useable is highlighted with a red logo when you look at it. What’s more impressive are that each type of weapon has its own animation and strengths and weaknesses. So for example, using a golf club will result in Frank using a gold swing to dispatch enemies, while a swinging a bowling ball around will have different effects. The bowling ball, for example, has its own throwing motion too. Every weapon has a limited usage too; the more you use something, the quicker it will break, meaning you will have to keep switching and stay stocked up or you’re likely to end up as zombie fodder. Don’t worry if you do get caught or hurt, though, you can heal by eating the food that you’ll find around the mall. There are a vast number of weapon types to experiment with, and that alone counts for many of the hours of fun you’ll find within Dead Rising. That’s the point; killing zombies in Dead Rising is fun. That fun factor carries throughout the experience, with you being able to dress Frank as you’d like, by raiding the various clothes shops.
There aren’t just melee weapons, with several guns to be found in the mall, albeit with very limited ammo. It’s in the shooting mechanics where the game will let you down at first glance. Like with Resident Evil 4, you cannot run and shoot at the same time, but to shoot you need to pull the right trigger to enter the aim mode, and use the left stick to aim your shot. This is extremely counter intuitive to the vast majority of Western gamers (I’ve seen this in a couple of Japanese titles over the years), and you are unable to change this in the options. The more you stick with it, the more natural it becomes, but it never feels like a fluid system, and shooting is the only way you’re going to kill some of the bosses.
Alongside the normal bosses you’ll encounter by doing the case files, there are others who are out to cause you bodily harm. These characters are referred to in-game as ‘Psychos’, and that they are. They are uninfected, eccentric nut-jobs, driven mad by the very madness and hopelessness happening around them. Tackling these guys can be very challenging, especially with the cack-handed aiming system. I severely advise you to pick your fights with these guys carefully early on. One wrong move can see you cursing an awful save system that allows only one save and has a habit of biting you squarely on the posterior if you’re not careful. Beat them, and in some cases you’ll unlock their special weapon, which will respawn every time its lifetime ends in combat, and these can be really useful for some of the other psychos in the game.
My least favourite part of the game came in the form of the optional task of rescuing survivors, and a large part of this is due to their poor intelligence. Once you find one, you can get them to follow you around, give them weapons, and then you have to try and get them back to the safe room. Rather than following you back, though, they tend to just get overwhelmed almost immediately, flailing their weapons around pointlessly and generally don’t keep up, making each rescue a total chore. Thankfully, you can ignore these, as I did for most part (in fact, I shot most of them myself, they were slowing me down), but ignoring them does come at the expense of a good amount of PP and a chance for some more emotional camera shots…
This brings me nicely onto my last gripe of the game. Otis. Oh how I want to shove Frank’s Walkie Talkie right down the old fart’s throat. You see, Otis is the mall’s janitor, a caring old fella, who thinks that he has the right to tell you what to do. He advises you of many of the side quests around the mall, and where exactly you can find them and does this via the aforementioned talkie. Where this gets annoying is the fact that when you answer him, Frank is unable to jump or attack, leaving you exposed for lengthy times. Should you get attacked, Frank the call will end, however you’ll be called right back being told off for being ignorant, and then you have to start the entire text conversation again, breaking up the play once more.
How many effin’ zombies?
Dead Rising isn’t as visually impressive as some of Capcom’s other titles on the market; however there is good reason; there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of enemies on screen at any one time, up to around 800 at any one time in fact. Okay, they aren’t exactly the most intelligent of enemies and thus not very taxing on the systems processing power, but this is made even more impressive when you consider that there are a wide variety of character models, with repetition not screaming out of you as much as you might think it would under the circumstances.
That’s not even to say that the game suffers all that greatly visually, though the technical limit that the sheer amount of enemies provides is well counterbalanced by a very slightly exaggerated look, while (thankfully) still not looking overly cartoony. The environments definitely look far more realistic than those that inhabit them, and there is a kind of light saturation that puts the presentation in the same light as a classic zombie movie.
There are some issues that don’t remove any of the game’s fun, but by today’s standards they will probably come across a little sloppy. For example there is some chronic screen-tear at times, something that was slightly more forgivable closer to the game’s release, given that it was early in the 360’s lifespan and developers were still coming to grips with it, however going back to it now I have to say that it slaps you in the face pretty hard. Still, it seems less prevalent the further you delve and by the end you’ll probably not notice it at all. There were also occasional moments of slowdown later on in the game; however these oddly came when there was really nothing to warrant it, with very few zombies on screen and I was just in a narrow corridor.
B-movie sound effects
For such a varied game, Dead Rising performs quite well aurally. Every weapon you pick up has a unique and suitable awesome sound effect when you use it. Pick up a guitar? You can expect a nicely reverberated hollow thud when making it connect with a zombie’s head. Pick up a knife and you get that lovely little swiping noise when cutting through a group of zombies. The point is that everything just sounds right down to the finest detail, topped off with a fantastic sounding zombie moan that’ll haunt you throughout the entire game. In terms of your interaction with the undead, there are some lovely splatter and crunching sound effects, especially when you manage to maim an entire horde of the rotting buggers at once.
The voice acting in the game is generally pretty decent, though still maintaining the b-movie vibe that the Capcom usually get spot on. At times like this it’s hard to tell whether that feel is by design or simply down to poor Japanese to English translations, but the main cast do a great job at setting the scene, especially the initially cold relationship between Frank and Brad. The non-essential characters can be rather annoying; especially one in particular who you’ll rescue very early on who will make you wish you left her and poor husband to perish thanks to the irritating whine she puts on the moment you enter the survivor’s safe house.
Soundtrack wise, the game keeps in line with the representation of zombies in other media, with chilling electronic backing pads, however it does feature a decent original soundtrack that features not only some decently atmospheric scores, but also proper songs that will kick in at certain points throughout.
If this is what a zombie apocalypse is like, I want in!
Looking back, I think a lot of the issues I took from my first attempt at playing Dead Rising were down to the fact it was a bit of a slow starter. While the demo offered you a heftily levelled up Frank to sandbox with, the full title left you with a painfully slow and powerless Frank that struggles to move around the masses. Once you start getting into the realm of levels 5-6 however (which is something I didn’t really give it chance to do the first time around), the game becomes an absolute joy to play. By the end of this second attempt (and three full playthroughs!), I found myself cursing my lack of patience back in 2007 on a game that I should really have given the time to wow me as it eventually has. If you’re a fan of Zombies, fan of sandbox games, or hell, a fan of fun gaming, you should really check this game out if you haven’t already. Just be prepared to put the time in early on.