Review by Steerpike
I was on the phone with my mother not long ago, and though we rarely talk about games, the conversation somehow turned to that zombies-in-a-mall extravaganza Dead Rising.
For some minutes, I waxed poetic about the subtleties of the softly spattering viscera, the rewards hidden in the sharp crack of a baseball bat against a head or the swish of the hunting knife carving reanimated flesh, the tacky syrup-colored spray of gore onto gleaming tile. I spoke of the blood-drenched corridors, the severed heads in the fountains, their cobwebbed eyes staring blindly up at the Muzak-blaring speakers, the gobbets of brain, left over from a mating of sledgehammer and skull. I made mention of the industrial lawn mower, the enthusiastic nyargl-nyargl-nyargl of bones splitting under its whirling blades; the custardy arc of mulched entrails—until, of course, the mower becomes too gummy with the undead and must needs be abandoned in favor of a mannequin leg or a chainsaw or a clothes hanger or golf balls or a mop or a lead pipe or a paint bucket or a cash register or a frying pan or a 2×4 or a giant stuffed bear or etc. etc. etc.
“How do you sleep?!” she shrieked, having listened patiently, motherlike, to my recitation for what she determined to be an acceptable minimum interval.
Mom grew up in a kinder time, when the possibility of an armed struggle against the undead seemed distant, quirky. These days we have to think about things like that. We have to be prepared. And regardless of the cause—be it escaped virus, Earth passing through the tail of a comet, unnatural radiations, eldritch powers, or (in this case) angry honeybees—man, when the dead start to walk, you’d better be ready.
This is the world of Dead Rising, and though it may be a shameless ripoff of Dawn of the Dead, it achieves something the films didn’t. By making zombie apocalypse interactive, and by putting you in there with advanced graphics and gore physics and helpless people and, most crucially, the very real sense of overwhelmingly bad odds, it realizes the genre in a way that no film has.
Dead Rising is surely one of the most cruelly ambrosial games I have ever played. Something about the sound effects, the rumble in the controller, the ludicrous camp humor, not to mention the freedom to kill zombies in a whole rainbow of gruesome ways with a panoply of improvised weapons, make this game emotionally nourishing. It is that which exonerates the serious faults and failings that would otherwise trammel it in mediocrity. Dead Rising makes several important missteps in design. It’s also meanspirited and sick ... in ways other than just gore. That isn’t serious if such things do not bother you, but the flaws are another matter.
The Day Colorado Stood Still
As sites for Armageddon go, sleepy Willamette, Colorado seems too blandly American, with its quiet streets, tidy play parks, and immense shopping mall. But the military has quarantined Willamette for reasons unknown, and photojournalist Frank West has chartered a helicopter to fly him there.
Seen from the chopper, it appears to be a riot, but one happening in slow motion. Only as you zoom closer do you see what’s really going on, the extent of the devastation. Through the viewfinder of Frank’s camera, you observe Willamette’s doom firsthand—and if you’re quick enough, you can snap some sexy shots sure to net you the front page of Time magazine. The use of photography to gain experience points for Frank carries throughout the game, and you must master it. In many cases, the really spectacular shots, the ones that net you tens of thousands of points, require nanosecond timing and a sense of confidence painstakingly learned through practice. The opening teaches you to be observant and even to predict what and where future photo ops might occur.
A military helicopter forces some evasive maneuvers, and Frank leaps out onto the roof of the Willamette Park View Mall. From that moment, he’s got 72 hours before his ride comes back, 72 hours to save as many lives as possible and figure out what the hell’s going on. But with thousands of zombies and more than 80 of the weirdest survivors imaginable hiding in the mall, Frank’s got his work cut out for him.
Top of the Mall, Ma! Top of the Mall!
Tasks are scattered throughout this consumerist nirvana, generally revolving around helping innocents to safety or dealing with some threat. The main storyline takes precedence over everything else, and the key to successfully playing Dead Rising is learning to juggle the overall case with the experience-giving tasks meted out by the mall janitor over Frank’s spectacularly annoying two-way radio. This game occurs in accelerated real time, and if you’re not in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment, you’ll break the main story. You can keep playing if this happens, but Frank will never discover the cause of the zombie plague.
The challenge is exacerbated by the hordes of undead. As you desperately calculate the time required to do this task or that one, you must account for how long it’ll take you to reach your destination through shopping plazas so teeming with reanimated corpses that at times you can literally walk on the heads of the zombies from one end of the mall to the other. Nearly every object in every shop is a potential weapon, helpful since they break all the time. Hand-to-hand combat is the way to go, as the abhorrent firearm aiming interface makes it nearly impossible to shoot straight no matter how much you practice. The whole everything’s-a-weapon, from potted plants to soda cans, is one of the most adorable aspects of this game.
You’ll soon learn three important things: first, you cannot complete every side task and still finish the main quest. You will sacrifice many lives through inaction to pursue the mystery. Second, zombies are an obstacle to be avoided, not a foe to be engaged. If you’re on a deadline (and you almost always are), the best way to miss it is to get bogged down in pointless, protracted combat with zombies. This game absolutely captures the clumsiness of the shuffling dead. Capable of short bursts of speed at best, bursts that usually end with them toppling into a fountain or down the stairs, they hardly seem dangerous, until dozens swarm you from all directions, biting, tearing, holding you down. Getting caught in a major zombie scrum can cost precious minutes ... or your life.
That highlights the game’s appalling save system, which is Dead Rising’s most serious problem. You can only save in the mall’s Security Office (getting there is a ten-minute job, or about 30 minutes of game time) or the bathrooms, which are ill-placed and often overrun. With only one save slot to work with, there’s also a chance you’ll save yourself into a position where it’s impossible to reach your next objective in time. That means starting the game over, which you’ll do accidentally at least once anyway, since if Frank dies you’re offered the choice of restoring your save or “save status and quit.” That last, innocuous though it may sound, forces you to restart from scratch.
The third thing you learn about Dead Rising’s play mechanics is that it’s not meant to be completed as a single linear experience. Every time you restart, your level and skills transfer with you. You should plan on playing through the first two hours of the game a few times, just to get Frank to a point where he’s strong enough to handle what lies ahead. That’s not as bad as it sounds—gameplay is so enjoyable that repetition is okay.
The long and short of it is that you’re hesitant to save. Sometimes you just forget to save, because you’re having so much fun ... then you die and you realize that the last three hours need to be replayed, which can be rather galling despite the fact that gameplay is a blast. A competent save system would have eliminated the issue altogether. This is especially significant given the extraordinary challenge of some bosses.
The astonishing variety of gameplay is one of the chief selling points. The mall is immense, detailed, and fun to explore, full of secrets and plenty of little unnecessary but welcome treats. You can, for example, change into any of several different outfits at assorted clothing shops (a fact that so delighted a friend of mine that he is forever banned from Dead Rising; upon discovering that he could outfit Frank with a giant yellow Lego person head from the toy store, he was unable to play without giggling). You can also download new duds from Xbox Live. Touches like the costumes and weaponry are where Dead Rising really shows its charm—like the campiest slasher films, there is a core of humor that truly makes the game sing.
Subtle, Like a Hand Grenade Is Subtle
Japanese games are usually for Japanese people first and foremost, and it shows. It is only after a bad localization job do we see them on this side of the pond, and American audiences are just used to the Nipponese influence in their games. This time, Capcom tried creating a game for Americans, and whether intentionally or not, the design does make one thing very clear:
They hate us.
Now, even more than other nations, Japan’s got a pretty good reason to feel that way. But I was still taken aback by the level of angry, sneering disdain you’ll find here. According to Dead Rising, Americans are ignorant, gluttonous, indolent, uncouth, bloodthirsty, dimwitted, sexually predatory, arrogant, brutal, chauvinistic, avaricious, prejudiced, consequence-blind thugs heedless of the rest of the world. The fact that this is actually true of a huge portion of the American populace doesn’t really help our case.
Dead Rising is intended to be campy and over the top—sometimes way over the top—so this ill-will is certainly dialed up ... but it’s there. Take the inbred family that stakes out the mall’s entrance plaza with hunting rifles and drawls the right to bear arms as justification for killing everything they see, zombie or otherwise. Or the grossly overweight female security guard who captures a bunch of teenage girls, ties them up, and violates them with her nightstick because they are pretty. Or the psychotically fundamentalist cult that says the zombies are punishment for our varied sins. Consider the escaped convicts who terrorize the Leisure Park, ignoring the zombies completely but murderously pursuing any humans who pass through. Or the mad (and, peculiarly, Asian) butcher who, lacking shipments of cow and pig, turns to grinding up human for his imaginary customers. Or even the zombie plague itself, which, without giving away too much, is basically caused by the size of the American dinner plate. Aside from meaning that this game really deserves its “M” rating, there’s something ... nasty, scornful about much of Dead Rising. It didn’t bother me too much, but it might make some players uncomfortable, so be warned.
Almost Like the Walking Dead
Dead Rising and Ninety-Nine Nights both chose to showcase the 360’s next-gen processing power by displaying thousands of complex moving objects onscreen at once. There is an indecent number of zombies in the mall, all controlled by their little zombie AI, and it looks great. The bright colors and handcrafted layout of each store is equally well-done. Even a year after release, Dead Rising is technologically impressive, though the multitude of load screens break up the action and the cinematics don’t compare to the gameplay.
Alas, that next-gen technology brings with it some new problems. The phrase “Uncanny Valley” doesn’t begin to describe the sepulchral hideousness of (living) character faces in Dead Rising’s cinematic sequences. This is the first time I found human representations genuinely creepy—disturbing, right on the brink of repellent. This is especially true for a female character who I think was supposed to be attractive. Instead the people are, as Masahiro Mori warned more than 30 years ago, so human-looking that they don’t look at all human: they look dead, or worse. Many games have already moved past the Uncanny Valley or have adopted a stylized look that allows them to skirt it, but Dead Rising is right down there in the chasm.
On the subject of AI, its dimness works for zombies because, well, they’re zombies. It’s a little less amusing when you’re trying to escort people back to the Security Room and they flat out refuse to come when you call them, or they charge into a pack of zombies despite life-threatening injuries. The escort missions can be exasperating for this reason, and some basic pathing and AI improvements would have fixed it.
When I try to think of words to describe Dead Rising, “satisfying” is the one that keeps coming to the top of the list. There is something satisfying about it. Dead Rising is part of this complete breakfast of video games. And while there’s no one thing that makes it stand out—and several things that stand out as serious defects—at the end of the day, it comes back to the satisfaction quotient. It is a yummy game. My brother Marcus, who can find something wrong with every video game ever made, bought a 360 in part because of Dead Rising. It’s just fun to play, regardless of flaws.
Capcom, that oh-so Japanese company that’s given us Street Fighter, Mega Man, Resident Evil, Phoenix Wright, and Devil May Cry, is capitalizing strongly on the next generation of consoles. Between Dead Rising and Lost Planet, they have sold several dozen truckloads of 360s—not least because both of those million-plus sellers were designed explicitly for Western audiences. The fact is, the Xbox 360 isn’t doing well in Japan, and there’s little point in developing games aimed at that market to the detriment of others. They’re going where the money is. Dead Rising, Lost Planet, Crackdown, and Gears of War are the only games I’d consider required reading for the 360. The 2007 holiday release cycle is about to increase that library dramatically, but for now those four are the clinchers.
Part platformer, part pure action, part open-world adventure, there are a number of ways to enjoy Dead Rising. Indeed, if you don’t care why there are zombies in Colorado, you can easily get your money’s worth just running around the mall, doing side tasks and creating undead frappe with lawn mowers and assorted blades. Or you can follow the crisp, well-written, well-translated storyline and solve the mystery. And, best of all, once you finish—or at any time before that—you can start over again, retaining all of your skills and advancements.
I cannot bring myself to give Dead Rising a Gold Star, because it does have very serious flaws that even a neophyte game designer should have recognized and eliminated. But that won’t stop me from recommending it to anyone ... provided you have the stomach, the good nature, and the speedy thumbs necessary to enjoy all the game has to offer.
Release Date: August 2006
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