Dead Rising games are like a guilty pleasure to me. On paper, they read like a compiled list of gameplay mechanics I just don’t like. Cliché Zombie enemies? Punishing trial-and-error gameplay? Brutal objective timers? Overly sandboxed environments? Harsh save points and reload options?
…These are things in games that irk me. I loathe them. But for some reason when they are all combined in a blender, out pours the Dead Rising series and I fucking love it. So let’s talk about Dead Rising 4, and the complicated feelings I have for it.
Frank West: Making the age of 52 look good
So we’re back at the helm of the legendary Frank West Photojournalist, the beloved hero of the original Willamette outbreak. Or at least, that’s how we remember it. Instead what we find here is a Frank West who may or may not have embraced the fate of someone doomed to be washed up. The game is quick to establish that Frank might have had a quick squirt of resounding fame after his previous mall-bound efforts, but amongst digging for answers he eventually struck the earth a bit too much, and found himself in far too deep. A fairly predictable government-driven burial effort followed, and we find Frank is now a professor who teaches wedding photography. His coping mechanism to deal with the critical levels of personal bitterness is a razor sharp level of sarcastic wit that really sets the tone for the entire game, and delightfully stays present throughout. The game’s opening does nothing to revolutionise storytelling, with a standard ‘student wishes to follow the footsteps of the master’ trope that sends Frank back into dangerous territory, but it serves well enough as a catalyst to reignite some of the passion he once had.
What follows is a tried-and-true Dead Rising set up, a conspiracy that is just too tasty to refuse is offered to Frank – who begrudgingly returns to the Willamette Memorial Mall, which has hilariously fallen victim to ANOTHER outbreak almost immediately after opening. Sure enough, wading through a sea of the undead must feel like a familiar pair of shoes to him, because jokes are cracked as often as skulls amongst the undead hordes.
Make a fashion statement this holiday season – heads make the perfect stocking stuffers
It became apparent very quickly that the story was definitely aiming to explore a lot of the more hazy areas from the original story of Dead Rising 1, with characters such as Dr Barnaby being referenced heavily alongside the events from the original Dead Rising. These questions did feel organic enough to me – particularly in a world where some game series really do reach a little far to try and incorporate their game’s mythos mysteries across several incarnations (Resident Evil, anyone?). The investigation that Frank conducts throughout the game was actually a great deal of fun, pointing fingers at the military war machine and its zombie involvements before entirely hobbling his theory to realise it’s all being driven by something a great deal more mundane – money.
The larger revelations within the game were also handled very well, with appropriate set pieces and character-driven narrative really enjoying the absurd concept of it all. Dead Rising as a series has always enjoyed walking the line between deathly serious and overtly silly, which is a key factor in my long-term enjoyment of it. My only gripe may well be with the ending, which without giving too much away may have been entirely hobbled by the announcement of a particular section of the season pass (google at your own risk, reader) – but time will tell.
I can see Dead Rising 4 making a lot of people both very happy – and very angry. The Dead Rising series has always been a strong deliverer on one of my favourite concepts of game design – the ‘iterative improvements’ sequel process. This is a method whereby the next game in the series will always faithfully improve on the lesser concepts from the previous games. Each DR has done this to a tee, with clunkier functionalities being chopped, changed and improved. This is immediately noticeable in player control aspects throughout the series, as the players find themselves more responsive with each iteration. DR4 is no exception in this regard, with Frank moving at a brisker pace than ever before – not to mention an enormous stamina bar for the sake of sprinting with reckless abandon.
The game’s core gameplay however left me with mixed emotions. I was by no means disappointed, but I could tell that my beloved game series was changing in some fairly massive ways and that it would then never be the same. Where Dead Rising 3 felt like a proper HD entry for the series in the modern generation, Dead Rising 4 feels like a major branching point that threatens to both divide the player base AND grow it. Backlash will flow freely in the wake of massive staples of the series vanishing. Gone are the days of repressive timers, providing players with both a sense of incredible satisfaction and frustration, Psychos have been demoted to far less interesting ‘Maniacs’, and involved side quests have been eschewed in favour of more straight forward ‘events’ that a player can distract themselves with for a brief break from the main story. All of these factors contribute to that odd gut feeling you get when something is set to change, and you really can’t do anything about it. Like your favourite cafe getting a menu overhaul, or a beloved pub getting renovated to never be the same again – but is it a bad thing?
I can see Dead Rising 4 making a lot of people both very happy – and very angry.
I feel I need to address the loss of the game’s ‘countdown’ mechanic, and it may be worth my time to simply state: I don’t miss it. Sure, there are enough arguments for why it felt like a defining feature of the series, as it really did shape a person’s gameplay experience in drastic ways, but at the end of the day I always felt it erred too much unto the realm of executioner, killing off a player’s enjoyment based primarily on such a frustrating concept as time management. That may be a personal failing of my own, but given the freedom to explore and prioritise my activities in the Willamette area however I chose was truly liberating. I faffed about and dug up a ton of gameplay-related crap I would have easily missed if I was rushing. I searched rooms top to bottom looking for ridiculous clothes and weapons. Even visiting the odd zombie saferoom for a survivor rescue felt great. It even meant that those moments when your eyes glaze over as you enter a zombie killing trance with some absurd vehicle or weapon don’t get rudely interrupted by a radio call telling you that the minor plot character you care little about was only six hours away from getting dismembered, and that maybe now would be a good time to shelve the bloodshed for another time. Maybe you’ll have some free time in the post-game? Wouldn’t that be just lovely, get around to it when everything else is taken care of Frank? Yeah? Yeah.
The loss of a time mechanic directly fuels my sadness with the implementation of Maniacs in the game world. Some of my favourite encounters in previous DR games were entirely the ridiculous cast of characters that had taken the opportunity to completely flip their lid in the wake of a zombie outbreak. Morbidly obese women gone murderous at the buffet, supermarket managers trying to murder you with a weaponised shopping cart. Even the gross sight of a fat manchild humping his giant compensator chainsaw are things I remember fondly, and upon the dawning realisation that I would no longer need to pick and choose who I released from their mortal coil I was beyond excited with what I might find in the world of Dead Rising 4. Fast forward to my first Maniac encounter, which saw me enter a Christmas Tree sale lot, with the objective to slay ‘Sadistic Claus’. I am not lying when I say I sat back in my chair, ready for the trademark Psycho intro that has been present in every other Dead Rising game, a quick animated cutscene that gives you a very quick meet and greet with the unhinged prior to the mini-boss fight that follows. Instead what I got was a disembodied voice broadcast in the game world telling Mr Frank West that he was on the naughty list and was therefore due to be punished, before killing four regular blokes dressed as elves and another bloke in a Santa costume in short order. Imagine my surprise when I realised that ‘random dude in Santa outfit’ was in fact, the Maniac formerly known as Sadistic Claus; the entire thing was open and shut in less than a minute. The only really differentiating factor for the Maniac compared to any other aggressive NPC encounter in the game was the fact that he had a health bar and a unique weapon prior to his quick dispatching. The Psychos of the past have been thoroughly toned down to simple flavour events for the sake of killing someone a bit different – and can hardly be classed as boss fights.
Very, VERY frightening!
Frank West is back, and in my opinion, better than ever. I was a little apprehensive at the idea of a new voice actor for the one who has covered wars (as someone who is fiendishly obsessive with particular people embodying a character to the point that changing them would be sacrilege), but the new guy, Victor Nosslo, grew on me like a rash. The characterisation of Frank was every bit as engaging and entertaining as I wanted it to be, but it really did add to the entire ‘this is a very different Dead Rising’ vibe that stayed with me throughout my gameplay experience. It’s also refreshing to see dialogue that felt as fresh and believable as it did, with Frank genuinely coming across as a bit of an arsehole (arguably, rightfully so), but still having a bit of warmth in his heart given the circumstances.
The rest of the cast really felt more like necessary staples than future fan favourites. Vicky Chu from the start of the game was fleshed out enough to really punch in some happiness when you meet up with her again, but during the rest of the game the people you encounter register as ‘just interesting enough to facilitate caring a smidge about their survival’ and little more. More involved characters, such as Calder, ride the narrative in such a defined way that their eventual reveal does actually elicit some excitement and perhaps a little bit of wonder at how you may come to interact with them – something that has always been done to great effect in Dead Rising games.
I will say that it was a shame to discover that a large amount of the survivors you may encounter will end up being nameless NPC-style characters, particularly coming from a game series known for its ridiculous generosity with giving every non-zombie character an identity. Encountering ‘Clothes Vendor’ is a great deal less exciting than a nervous overweight nerd, or a fussy and mostly blind elderly woman.
It’s messy work, but it’s a living
Combo crafting is a concept that hardly needs any level of improving, and it doesn’t differ much in this entry. If anything, it may have been further streamlined for the sake of making the great engines of death you need to combat the many levels of bullshit the game throws at you. And luckily, these weapons of mass decimation are just as bullshit as you require, ramping up with new incredible blueprints at a similar rate that the game employs the mobs you encounter. One thing I was particularly pleased to see was that the blueprints did appear to be quite generous, even at the beginning of the game, meaning that less of the game was spent flailing around ineffective noodle poles and more bladed/freezing/burning bringers of wrath. This is doubly so with the vehicle crafting (which was perhaps my favourite addition from Dead Rising 3), as one of the earliest vehicles you are provided with is so incredibly fun and effective I did have to actually convince myself to give other recipes a go for the sake of being adventurous – and each time I was not disappoint. A pedal-powered lawnmower that spews hot fiery death? A tesla-spitting mobility scooter? I thought things might peak when I encountered an industrial wheelchair with twin mortar cannons, but then I put on my first Exo Suit…
A pick-me-up like no other
Part Iron Man, mostly Power-Lifter from Aliens, the Exo Suit is a zombie killer’s wet dream. Allowing Frank to pick up and wield things within the environment that a normal man never could, you can quickly (and stylishly) cut a swathe of bloodshed in a very efficient manner. Beyond these incredible weapons (ranging from giant miniguns, flamethrowers and even a railgun) you can even integrate with odd and ends within the game world to augment your exo suit to even crazier depths. A snow cone maker turns you into a blizzard throwing freezelord, an arcade cabinet quickly turns you into lightning-spewing electrical outlet, and a military payload effectively turns you into War Machine from the Marvel films, entirely decked with guns and shoulder-mounted missile launcher. The game is quick to make sure this amount of enjoyment is rationed accordingly, with each Exo Suit utilising a power meter to govern how long you can enjoy your cyborg fantasy before being thrust back into the real world, where everything feels just a little less cool compared to what you were doing 30 seconds ago.
The game was not without oddities and issues. A game of this scope is sure to have some failings, and I must stress the majority of the game was entirely without issue, but I did find myself at the mercy of the odd bug or two. Crafting a vehicle in an odd place put me at risk of the vehicle being welded to the ground and needing a particularly robust shove to get it free, either via bringing in an entirely different vehicle at ram speed, or utilising a large blunt weapon. On more than one occasion I did encounter a hard lock of the game, which did highlight just how generous the game’s checkpoint system is.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing I did encounter however was the weird bug where I rescued a survivor via an event, and upon completion it felt the need to keep the SURVIVOR RESCUED text on the screen long after it was done. I thought it may have been a fairly inoffensive display bug, but it turns out it had made me unable to complete any further survivor rescues. I could still encounter them, and start the event, but I would be stuck with a survivor that was entirely too fussy, or too stupid to take the hint. I could clear every zombie in a hundred mile radius, only to return for the survivor to say “Thank you so much”, before returning to loudly sobbing and saying “PLEASE I NEED SOME HELP HERE”. Thankfully a fairly inoffensive chapter reload was sufficient to fix it, and in all I probably only lost 15 minutes or so of my time.
Perhaps the most frustrating issue I kept falling victim to was the ‘fizzling’ of rockets, where I would shoot a nice explodey bastard right into a throng of undead flesh, only to be greeted with a light show and some unfazed dead heads. After a point I actually felt myself believing that maybe every other rocket was just a dud.
Time will tell if a patch sorts these problems out, I am optimistic.
Dropping the Bass, in style
It’s an odd feeling I have as I look back over my time with Dead Rising 4. Without a shadow of a doubt, I enjoyed it. I feel like the entirety of my time spent with it was worthwhile, and I even find myself wanting to play more of it to really sink my teeth into some of the collectibles side of things – somewhat of a rarity for me with sandbox games. But I really can’t shake that odd feeling that it really isn’t the Dead Rising I have known for so many years. If the game was titled ‘New Dead Rising’ as opposed to ‘Dead Rising 4’ I think I’d find this a particularly inoffensive pill to swallow, as it feels like a huge leap away from what many have come to define as Dead Rising. It’s even more puzzling to find myself excited at the thought of a sequel to this particular game, rather than an eponymous ‘Dead Rising 5’, more the thought of a ‘Dead Rising 4-2’. The entire situation feels a little bit like the New Coke fiasco – only with the added benefit that you actually don’t mind the taste of New Coke.
In short, I feel the game will divide a great many people who prior to Dead Rising 4 were simply called Dead Rising fans, and from this point on they will likely find themselves on either side of a great divide, with those who liked it the old way staring down those who are happy with change.
I am sure I’ll be somewhere in the middle, much like I am now; reminiscent of the past, but still quite optimistic of this series’ future.
Reviewed on Xbox One