Continuing on our rampage of belated Halloween horror, I finally (finally!) managed to finish Xbox 360 survival horror (?) game Dead Rising. I have to say, I wasn’t sure about the game when I first heard of it. It seemed like a sort of cheap, derivative idea. Chase zombies around a shopping mall? Gee. Where have I heard that before? But when I finally got my Xbox 360, I had a distinct lack of games to play for it, besides Hexic and a bunch of demos like Tomb Raider (ehhh) and Kameo (blehhh). I decided to root around the Xbox Marketplace for more fresh meat when I came across the Dead Rising demo. Sure, why not? I asked myself. I left it to download and went to go see some fireworks. When I got back, it was done and I booted it up. Whoa. This was actually cool! I could just run around and fuck up zombies with a bunch of wacky stuff! It ended up on the short list of birthday presents I requested. And I got it! Did the full game live up to the demo experience?
Dead Rising puts you in the shoes of investigative photojournalist Frank West, a burly lug who got a tip that something heavy is going down at a small town’s mall. The roads end up being blocked, so he gets a buddy to helicopter him to the the location, where it seems the entire town has come to a standstill… until he takes a closer look and discovers that the citizens have begun to turn into zombie-like creatures and cause havoc.
He meets up with his tipster, a shady Hispanic dude, on the roof of the mall, where it seems the zombies are congregating. He goes down to the entrance to see a handful of survivors hoping to keep out the tidal wave of zombies scrambling to get in. One annoying old lady and her stupid dog later, the zombies manage to break into the atrium and people start being eaten one by one. Frank follows a man who sounds like he knows what he’s doing, Brad, to the mall’s security room, where they proceed to weld the door shut. Now with a presumably zombie-proof hideout, Frank, the mysterious Brad, his beautiful blond partner Jessie, and the mall’s janitor Otis try to figure out how to survive from there. Frank tells them his helicopter will come back to pick him up in 3 days, so all they have to do is sit tight and wait for help… that is, if it weren’t for the fact that shady characters continue to be spotted lurking around the mall and survivors didn’t keep turning up, begging for help.
The rest of the game focuses on whatever the player wishes to do as Frank. Do you try to figure out who or what is behind the zombie outbreak and get your scoop? Do you try to get as many people as possible back to safety? Do you just sit around and nap for 72 hours? The game gives you great freedom as to what you can do. Although it gives you a heads up every time a new chance to get to the bottom of the outbreak pops up, they’re completely optional, although skipping one invalidates the chance at learning the game’s story. You can follow Otis’ orders and search for survivors and wrangle them unscathed back to the security room, or you can ignore them completely, or do the incredibly cruel and get them to join up with you only to feed them to the zombies. Every time a character dies, you get a big fat message in red text stating “CHARACTER X HAS DIED/TURNED INTO A ZOMBIE.” Yes, your charges can even be turned. There doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to whether they die or become zombies, that I could find out, at least.
Managing these tasks ends up being relatively simple. You get a list of available objectives to the side of the screen, with colored bars. The longer a bar is, the longer you have until that event expires, and it color codes the amount of time you have left. Blue and you have quite a while. Red, and you better haul ass. To help you to find what you should be looking for, you can pull up Frank’s wristwatch which somehow has the ability to give you a big floaty arrow at the top of the screen to guide you to your objective. It’s a fairly good guide, although sometimes it tries to point through walls or sets you on the least efficient path.
And you’ll need that guide, too, since the mall feels fairly huge. I have no idea how such a podunk town scored such a sweet mall, but the thing is massive! Now, massive sort of has a different meaning now that I’ve played Oblivion, but the mall has a lot to see and do. Hell, I didn’t even find the hunting shack shop that has guns, hidden behind a few hallways, until after I’d beaten the game. I didn’t find the entrance to the maintenance tunnels until Day 2! Really, some of it is that the game’s story keeps you on such a short leash of time throughout the game that exploration is often a distant third when it comes to clearing scoops and bringing back survivors. Plus, wading through hordes of zombies isn’t the safest idea in the world unless you have a lot of healing items and some sort of plan.
The character development in the game is pretty decent. The game rewards you with PP points when you do something it likes, such as saving a survivor, defeating a psychopath or taking a really sweet photo. Yes, since Frank is a photojournalist (he’s covered WARS, you know!) he keeps his trusty camera with him at all times. You can use it to take pictures of anything in the game, netting you some serious points if you find something good. The photo is then put in one of several categories based on content, such as horror for loads of zombies or erotica, if you choose to, ahem, take indecent pictures of the women you save. Or zombie cleavage. Ewww.
Anyways, there’s a bar underneath your health that fills up the more PP you get. When it gets totally full, Frank goes up a level and gets a boost in some area. It could be attack power, speed, health or he might even learn a new special move, like throwing zombies or doing a roundhouse kick. It’s a fair way to improve your character, even if the bonuses are random.
The kicker, though, is that the game is very strict about its save system. If you save, that’s the save you’re going to have to load from until you create a new save. No continuing from where you were if you die in a psychopath fight. No chance at all to make up those ten hours that flew by while you forgot to save. It DOES let you load up a new game that lets you keep all your stats, and for people that have trouble progressing through the game that might be just the thing to help them beat it, it did get annoying to keep starting the first hour of the game over and over and over again until I got to level 15. That damn Carlito.
Part of the charm of the game, of course, is the fact that the array of weaponry and other miscellaneous items at your disposal is immense. See that frying pan? You can pick it up and smack zombies with it. Hell, you can even set it on the stove for a few minutes and get it nice and hot in order to better sear the faces off of the undead. And that’s just ONE weapon. You can pick up everything from teddy bears to chainsaws. Not everything in the environment is capable of being interacted with, but enough is given to you that you never really feel cheated. And the array of items is incredible. There are traditional weapons like guns, some melee weapons like katanas and sledgehammers, some more untraditional ones like trash cans and soccer balls, healing items like pies and raw meat, even vehicles like a red convertible! One of the more strategic things placed in the game are books you can pick up and while added to your inventory, give you special bonuses. One book might let you keep certain types of weapons for longer before they get used up. Another might increase the health you get back from food. One even makes it so survivors stop acting like retards and actually become competent and even aggressive. Wish I could’ve found THAT one. Hell, you can even mix drinks with the food court’s blender to make items with effects such as invincibility or increased speed. Really, all this variety is one of Dead Rising’s shining features. There are so many ways to play the game that it’s a different experience watching each person play. There’s an almost insane amount of content and value packed into this game.
See, all this and I haven’t even brought up the story, which was surprisingly one of the sturdier parts of the game. In order to advance the story, you’re required to follow up on scoops that occur at given times throughout the three days, just like any other objective. If you manage to complete the scoop, the next one will become available and so on and so forth. The challenge is finding the time to multitask these with everything else you want to do. It’s not uncommon for a story scoop to occur at the same time as rescuing a survivor. You won’t be able to fully complete the story or rescue everyone in one game, so it’s up to you to decide what to focus on. If you miss one scoop, every scoop after that becomes invalid and you won’t be able to finish the story without restarting. It’s extremely humiliating and frustrating to have that happen just as you’re about to get to the right location to trigger it. :(
But doing it all is worth it since the story keeps the right amount of momentum and excitement to keep you involved. It’s like the folks at Capcom decided to sit down and study what made zombie movies good and to amp it up as much as they could. At first, you’re merely going after suspicious people that may be connected to the infection, such as a roaming professor that Brad and Jessie seem keen on recovering. But eventually you’ll be hunting down time bombs and even fighting against a tank! I wouldn’t mind one bit if Dead Rising were faithfully adapted into a horror movie. It’d fit right in among zombie movies’ most entertaining entries.
It even manages to fit in some social critique, accusing Americans of being too obsessed with consumption. You see figures all the time of how much, say, beef, America consumes on average every day. It’s some huge number, but it always just seems like a number. Have you ever thought about what it must take in order to get that much meat into our hands? It’s a message that ties very well into the classic “zombies in a mall” scenario. Even after we die, we still want to consume. We’re trained to be consumers, after all. It’s a bit smarter and more cunning than Resident Evil 4’s clunky “world police” reference. The whole game has a vaguely satirical outlook on American society, especially when you take in the fact that it was developed in Japan. In Japan, guns are illegal, but there’s a gun shop just sitting there in Dead Rising’s mall, manned by a violent gun freak. You’re jumped by a crazed Vietnam veteran in the hardware store. Hell, the final boss of the story mode is an insane butcher, looking to carve you up as a side of meat. At the same time, however, the jibes can seem simplistic and stereotypical. Frank West is an amalgamation of what Easterners stereotypically think an American looks like: tall, big nose, heavy brow, New York accent… I’m surprised he’s not blond and wearing a cowboy hat.
Now, I do like Dead Rising, but it’s not perfect. The biggest frustration to me was how much of the game seemed to depend on luck or chance. Will the cardboard box that usually houses life-giving coffee creamer only give you a shovel this time? Will the respawning prison inmates who drive around on a gun-turret truck be stationed outside your exit while you’re trying to escort survivors? Will your survivor actually use the weapon he/she is given, or will they flail around and cry for help and die? Will Isabela fucking hold my fucking hand and not let go every two seconds while we’re in a zombie-infested cavern?! It seems that way too much in the game is unreliable (or if you wanted to be all positive about it, unpredictable). I could try to beat a psychopath one time and barely scrape by, but if I try again, it’s a breeze. The hell?! It sucks when I talk to other players about how much trouble I’m having with a psychopath or some other part of the game and they say, “Well, just do this and you’ll be okay.” Uhhh… it’s not behaving the same way for me that it did for you. Thanks for all the help.
The second thing I hate about this game is how unforgiving the enemy AI is. During the part of the game where soldiers roam the mall, I couldn’t avoid their attacks no matter what I did. I tried running in circles around them, I tried zig-zagging… their bullets still hit me and killed me. And every time I went to shoot them, no matter how fast I was, they’d get in a few bursts before I could. I honestly have no idea how I survived the Overtime mode with none of my items carried over. It must’ve been luck. Again. Oh, and on somewhat the same page, the survivor AI is awful and frustrating. Was it supposed to be that rage-inducing?
The save system is also something that screwed me over on many occasions. I’d go do a tough fight, try to get to a save point and get mauled on the way. Do I get to respawn in the area I was and try again? NO! DO THE WHOLE FIGHT OVER AGAIN OR DO THE REST OF THE GAME ALL OVER AGAIN. It’s like choosing between farts and poop for dinner.
Also, the game’s engine was not always that good. I’d try to climb on top of things only to fall off and into a mob of zombies. For next to no reason. Especially on the last boss, where you have very little space. He would end up taking off three or four health blocks in a row simply because Frank’s hurt animation left him open for more attacks and the AI didn’t seem to think this was unfair. UGH.
Graphically, at first it doesn’t seem like such a great game. It looks clean enough, and it definitely is a notch above last generation, but there’s not a lot that immediately sets it apart… until you really get going into the game. HUNDREDS of zombies can crowd the screen at once, and the environments are expansive with no visible draw-in. Yeah, it’s no
Gays Gears of War, but during the hectic moments it can impress. Very seldom did I notice any slowdown, and I couldn’t tell what was causing it to hiccup like that.
The characters’ models are pretty good. When they aren’t flapping their gums, they look pretty good. When they start talking, however, the mouths can look really odd, operating independent of the teeth and moving a bit unnaturally. People can also sometimes look like they move via marionette strings, but Frank in general is done very well, with expressive, well-timed gestures and very effective and natural voice acting. Everyone in the game, pretty much, has very decent to good voice acting. Plaudits, guys.
The music is also very well done, with appropriate mood-enhancing themes used when necessary and some interesting vocal songs playing during the psychopath fights. The only one I got really tired of was the gangsta rap song playing in the park in the middle of the mall while the convicts were carousing. I had to cut across that park so much it began to get quite grating. The ending theme, “Justified,” definitely has some inspirations from Silent Hill.
Overall, I have to say this is one of the strongest reasons to own a Xbox 360 at this point. Yeah, it can be frustrating if you’re a perfectionist, but it’s one of the best survival horror entries as of late. Of course, the pickings right now are sort of slim, what with the PSP Silent Hill prequel limping to stores after a troubled development history and the next RE game being a friggin’ on-rails shooter. Don’t even get me started on Rule of Rose. So angry at that for letting me down. If you’ve got a Xbox 360 and you’re aching for something to play after Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition, Dead Rising is the most value you could possibly get for $30.