Everybody loves a zombie. This is broadly because nobody has ever been mauled by a real-life zombie, on account of them not existing. Yet, should the undead ever walk the earth, and assuming they’re as uniquely focused on munching human grey matter as films and games suggest they will be, then we’re going to grow tired of this genre of game pretty quickly.
As it is though, zombies playing a major part in gaming stories is pretty much inevitable – and the zombie’s role in the world of videogames is even more predictable: shot, carved and blown to pieces. They’ve even started showing up on otherwise zombie-free franchises such as Red Dead Redemption and Call of Duty, thanks to the wonders of downloadable content.
Still, before the market was quite so saturated with shambling, brain hungry monsters (insert some developer joke here, if you’re so inclined), we were gifted Dead Rising, a game which made an art form out of varied zombie slaying.
It also polarised opinion between gamers. One group felt that a sandbox game shouldn’t be so pushy with its deadlines (if you weren’t in the right place at the right time for a mission, that was it – the main story was over) and brutal levelling up structure (simply put, you would need to play it a few times before you character was strong enough to stand a chance), whereas the other group found it a unique experience, with plenty to see, do and do differently over multiple play throughs. Another section, not big enough to fit in either category was broadly indifferent, but liked the idea of being able to slaughter zombies with bowling balls, lawn mowers and giant parasols, all the while cross-dressing in a charming pinafore. That’s right, Dead Rising didn’t take itself seriously, and neither does its sequel.
The first thing to say about this sequel is that new developer Blue Castle Games just gets the Dead Rising concept. This means that there have been few concessions to the gamers who disliked the first (although the constant phone calls that bugged players are now more manageable, and the game has opened up three save game slots instead of the previous one), but players of the original are going to feel right at home. It still has the psychopaths, the punishing time-schedule and thousands of zombies. In fact, it feels like the number of zombies on screen at any given time has at least doubled – and it’s not like the original was short of the undead in the first place.
The setting and main character have changed though. Frank West, the chisel-jawed tough guy photo journalist of the first game has been replaced by Chuck Green – a chisel-jawed tough guy stunt driver and star of the zombie-slaughter TV game show Terror is Reality. It transpires that he competes in the game in order to earn the money to pay for his daughter’s Zombrex, which despite sounding like a breakfast cereal is actually a syringe based drug to keep humans bitten by zombies from going all brain-hungry on you for 24 hours.
Of course, something goes wrong and the zombies are released from their reality-TV cameo lifestyle and descend upon Fortune City – the Last Vegas style gambling Mecca and shopping paradise, killing everyone they see. It’s up to Chuck to simultaneously get to the bottom of what’s happened, keep his daughter doped up on Zombrex and rescue survivors in the 72 hours before the military arrives for the cleanup and getaway.
24 hours game time is roughly 2 hours real-time, so you’re looking at a 6-8 hour game experience depending on the choices you make. And then of course, you’re probably looking at playing it again to get a less soul-crushing ending.
The game is hard as ever, and punishing on your first play through with an inexperienced Chuck. As you kill the undead all over again, Chuck will gain RPG style experience points improving his attacking skills, his speed, the amount of health he has and other areas. This makes things significantly easier and carries over between games, even if you die. That said, the truly determined can complete the game with the best ending in a single sitting, and those that excelled at Dead Rising 1 will probably have the skills to manage this.
The big addition the developers have introduced is the ability to combine weapons into something physically impossible, but undeniably cool in a psychopathic kind of way. These designs range from simply adding nails to a baseball bat for the tried and tested nail-bat, all the way up to a couple of chainsaws crudely attached to both ends of a kayak paddle. The novelty of these does wear off after a while, especially as finding the parts you need is often time consuming on a game not particularly generous with time, but they are incentivised by giving each kill significantly more experience points to help you level up faster. Rather than making you guess all the possible combos, the game provides a new recipe every time you level up, as well as providing certain places to find inspiration in-game (a movie poster with a teddy bear Rambo, for example, gives Chuck the not-at-all dangerous idea of mixing teddy bears with artillery). All in all, the combo weapons are a genuinely neat touch, but can be completely ignored quite easily.
The basic formula of chopping down thousands of zombies in unique and innovative ways is all present and accounted for, as are the psychopaths – humans who have developed blood lust for one reason or another. Some of these are truly difficult to take down, and the game has a habit of making you run into them unexpectedly (you’re not told whether the survivor you’re heading towards is a friendly survivor or a deadly one), which makes the mantra ‘save often’ one to live by. Like the original game though, for reasons best known only to Capcom staff, this can only be done in the game’s many toilets. I personally don’t mind this, as it adds some welcome tension, but I won’t pretend it hasn’t meant that I had to replay a fair few segments when the game dropped one of its crueller psychopath battles on me without warning.
Fortunately, the NPC survivors are considerably better equipped for battle this time around, which means you won’t have half as much trouble escorting them back to the safe house. Arming them also means you can have a small army covering your back as you head round the play-area, which is a nice touch.
Speaking of the play-area, it feels a lot bigger than the shopping centre of the first game, but this hasn’t come without its price: every time you enter a new section, you’re forced to sit through a long loading screen – and these are frequent. Installing the game to the hard disk barely makes a dent in the waiting time either, and if you have a cutscene to watch, you’ll have loading screens either side. On the plus side, the cut-scenes are done in the game’s own engine, which means whatever ridiculous costume you’re wearing at the time (my favourites include a Borat-style Mankini and a children’s super-hero outfit) will be carried over into the animation, which almost makes you forgive the wait.
Then there’s the co-op multiplayer. Another Chuck Green (resplendent in whatever outfit they’re wearing at the time) can join the game at any time to help with the slaughter, as well as reviving you when you’re down. You can kick them from the game at any time as well if they’re refusing to play ball. One annoying quirk is that you can’t leave an area until both players are ready to go, which means that often a player joining is more of a pain than it should be, but it remains a nice feature for friends who truly want to cooperate their way through a small-scale zombie genocide.
There’s also a competitive multiplayer for four players which bases itself on the Terror is Reality zombie gameshow I mentioned earlier. It’s a series of mini-games, where players competitively slaughter the undead in a variety of styles against the clock. These vary from players wearing moose-heads firing the undead onto a massive set of scales, with the heaviest dead pile winning, to speed bikes with blades attached culling as many as possible. To be honest, it feels completely superfluous to the game in itself, and you’ll likely lose interest after a few bouts – assuming there are many players left playing it out there after a few weeks. It does provide you with cash you can take back to the main game to buy weapons and Zombrex, but if anything that just unbalances the single player.
I remember one memorable single player moment where, with only a couple of hours left to find some Zombrex, I was playing video blackjack to win the $25,000 I needed to buy some. I was beating off the unwelcome advances of the undead, while literally gambling on my daughter’s life. These kind of tense and hilarious moments are lost when you realise you can go online and completely devalue the world’s currency – even coming in last place gets you a huge wad of in-game money that it would take a while to accumulate in game.
Presentation-wise, the game isn’t the prettiest to look at. It’s not bad looking, but there’s definitely a case to be made for them pulling the presentation in, in order to display more zombies on screen. This is a sacrifice definitely worth making, and anybody who finds themself complaining about the graphics is probably not the sort of person who likes Dead Rising – it’s always been a bit rough around the edges, which is part of its charm. The sounds in the game are the same as the first, with incongruous shopping centre musak set against the slapstick splats, groans and splashes of 1,000 zombies losing their heads.
And that kind of sums up the appeal of Dead Rising 2. The game isn’t a po-faced horror game – it’s a title that allows you to wander around a shopping centre playground, cross-dressing with an Incredible Hulk mask on, beating hundreds of zombies up with over-the-top DIY weaponry. Some gamers will be put off by that, others by the tight time-limits and the way it’s impossible to see everything in a singleplay through. Let them dismiss it as broken – for those who loved the first and those who think the game sounds hilarious brainless fun, then don’t hesitate, and enjoy the playground of Fortune City as the developers intended… with blood down your mankini, and a makeshift teddy bear machine gun in hand.
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