If Dead Rising 2 is a sandbox game, and a good one, it’s a sandbox speckled with broken glass and jags of ripped Ramune can, fetching up under the player’s toes just regularly enough to unsettle what might have been a top tier release. Though quite contemporary and, dare we say it, “Western” in its open-worldliness, it has a sad weakness for gristly old devices like unskippable dressing animations, cheap and/or cheaply defeated bosses and boss minions, and horribly impractical click-to-advance textbox natter.
Producer Keiji Inafune was in the papers recently, calling for flagging Japanese developers to learn from their counterparts across the Pacific, and this Canadian-tooled follow-up to a Capcom reinvention of a ripe old Hollywood myth shows what happens when the two cultures collide, intermix but don’t quite resolve their differences. “Global appeal” is an especially ghostly Holy Grail, glimmering atop a heap of lop-sided experiments and “acquired tastes”, works of mongrel art like prior Inafune projects Lost Planet and now-defunct GRIN’s Bionic Commando remake – original to a fault, entertaining “in their way” but lacking the assurance of a game crafted within firmer cultural parameters.
Dead Rising 1 was cut from that uncertain mould, and Dead Rising 2′s inspirations are similarly jumbled. The same slightly awkward interfacial and mechanical threads hold together an undead-ridden consumer fantasyland of superior extent and luxuriance, no comfy Midwestern mall but the nadir of Las Vegan excess, one part casino to one part theme park to one part pinball machine to one part outright Pandemonium. The graphics have been cranked up to reflect the change in setting, with hundreds more zombies on-screen at once, though the price is frequent slowdown and tearing (the PS3 version has particular trouble in this department).
If the world’s larger and glossier, the urge to explore is a little less urgent as Blue Castle has swapped out edgy photojournalist hero Frank West for brooding father and sports champ Chuck Greene, who arrives at the Fortune City resort to compete in gladiatorial TV show Terror Is Reality, only to wind up trapped there for 72 in-game hours once the brain-eating begins. (A cleverly integrated competitive component sees players jostling for dosh in the show itself, complete with bombastic blinged-up host and randomised events.)
The twist in the tale is that Chuck’s offensively sweet-natured daughter Katey is a braineater-in-waiting, and needs a daily dose of the palliative medication Zombrex. This drug being scarce in the bunker that serves as the hub area, our grim do-gooder must venture out among the groaners and shufflers in search of refills.
It’s enough in the way of a premise to get the wheels turning, and the game soon provides further reasons to carve up the map-screen – people to rescue, Pokemon ‘gotta-catch-em-all’ style, violent oddballs to trash and dastardly plot machinations to uncover – but a certain amoral frission has been lost. In Dead Rising 1 you were a callous novelty-monger, a professional voyeur with a quota of prurience and sensation to meet, and Willamette’s slew of tools and toys both animate and inanimate made it the perfect playground. You’d help fellow survivors out in a scrape, but (up to a point) only in hopes of documenting, monetising their pain and fear. In Dead Rising 2, by contrast, you’re here to play the responsible citizen and parent till the cavalry arrives. Yawn.
West’s absence also means the absence of photography, and thus of the opportunity to swipe gazillions of cheap ‘Prestige Points’ through skilled snapwork, but Blue Castle has dreamed up other, more ‘hands-on’ ways to hot-wire the experience wagon. Many of the objects you find on your travels can be blended at maintenance rooms to create outlandish tools of zombie dispatch, most with hilarious secondary attacks and all productive of many times more PP per putrefying scalp than their individual components. Strap a car battery to a garden rake, for example, and you’ll have a very serviceable cattle prod, while a leafblower and a fistful of jewels make for the world’s most expensive shotgun.
Faced with such a grand and grandiosely styled environment, so laden with things to molest and weaponise, those unfamiliar with the franchise will probably wonder why Blue Castle and Capcom have set so much store by the clock, with each story chapter or ‘case’ and all its successors lost forever should you miss the completion deadline. If I’m honest, the Dead Rising blend of tangential fun and strict punctuality still strikes me as a bit perverse, but powerful arguments can be made in its defence.
For starters, we might dust off the old line about a few constraints hurting nobody, and there being too much of that checkpoint nonsense around these days, you scamps don’t know you’re born etc etc etc. A less curmudgeonly way of looking at it is that the frustrations of falling short in Dead Rising 2 simply indicate how dug-in certain models of progression are in Western imaginations, and thus why the call for Japan’s brightest and best to turn their attention overseas is so timely.
This is a game that slows and unpacks the staccato beat of success and failure preferred by Modern Warfare and its cohorts into something reminiscent of the roguelike – itself a bit of a migrant, a subgenre spawned in a Californian university dorm room that first found major commercial success 13 years later on the other side of the globe. Whenever a case timer elapses, the player is invited to restart from hour one with all PP, levels, unlocked abilities, stat buffs and item recipes or ‘combo cards’ intact. Thus, all you’ll really lose if you’re lured off the temporal straight-and-narrow is the time it took you to watch (or skip through) the preceding cut-scenes (and, to be fair, a large number of loading screens).
The key to getting over the shock of a restart-oriented campaign is realising that the constant ticking of the clock is just a goad. Missions are shonkily good fun in themselves, and the plot they constitute is entertainingly rubbish, but both serve primarily to keep Chuck hunting for new methods of abusing the deadheads. Tackling the game in co-op mode brings this home, as even if one player manages to keep his eyes on the prize, there’s no guarantee the other won’t (e.g.) decide to throw freeze bombs and modified RC helicopters around for an hour instead.
While I’ll take Frank over Chuck any day of the week (thankfully, the former is set to return in an XBLA-exclusive DLC pack), and it’s a shame that some of 2007′s interfacial hitches haven’t been untangled, Dead Rising 2 is a capable follow-up, and another unique addition to the ranks of zombie bashers. Its uniqueness is of the rough-and-ready variety, however, sparked by colliding clichés, and for all Fortune City’s lashings of sugar, glitter and grey matter, many will find that unevenness hard to bear. Recommended, but watch your step.