As a lifelong Capcom fan, I’ve been a bit worried about the vibrancy of my favourite Japanese third-party of late. This generation’s first Devil May Cry outing was fairly fun, but saw the series starting to look more than a bit creaky by the time it arrived. Lost Planet 2 had its moments, but was ultimately a bit of a mess. And although great, Resident Evil 5 certainly lacked the spark of its groundbreaking predecessor.
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I fired up Dead Rising 2, the sequel to Capcom’s promising-but-flawed early Xbox 360 game. Would it fix the problems of the 2006 original? Would Canadian sports game dev Blue Castle be a good fit for a bonkers zombie massacre? Would the four year-old concept still be fun at this stage? Yes, yes, and yes, are the answers, with a few noteworthy caveats. Read on for the full, gore-filled picture.
Cleaving Las Vegas
It’s an undisclosed period of time after the Willamette zombie outbreak of the first game. You play Chuck Greene, a father who’s visiting Fortune City – a thinly-disguised parody of Las Vegas – in order to compete on Terror is Reality, a zombie-slaying game show that has emerged as a reaction to the spreading infection. He’s here to win money in order to pay for his young daughter Katey’s Zombrex treatment, Zombrex being the new drug released to suppress the effects of zombie bites in newly infected victims. Yes, she might be an angelic – and surprisingly well-acted – pre-teen, but unless treated every day, Katey’s tantrums will have your face off.
In a turn of events as surprising as the way last night turned out to be a bit dark, the show’s stock-pile of conveniently dismemberable reanimated props breaks loose. Publicly framed for releasing the feral gut-munchers, Chuck takes Katey and seeks refuge in the large communal safehouse attached to Fortune City’s main entertainment complex. But with no military help coming for three days, and that help liable to arrest whatever’s left of Chuck after it’s shot the living crap out of him, he will have to venture out, combating and evading zombies at every turn, as he attempts to clear his name and forage a daily Zombrex supply for the little one.
In essence then, a lot like that day I got banned from Bristol zoo, except that zombies are less cute than spider monkeys, but possibly slightly funnier. And I was guilty as charged, but in my defence, pretty drunk.
This being a Dead Rising game rather than a Resident Evil entry, the emphasis is on laughs and excess rather than the po-faced drama of man against corpse, conspiracy and over-sized boulder. Think Return of the Living Dead rather than Romero. Actually, think Shaun of the Dead, because DR2’s creative splatter comedy is tempered by a strange mix of genuine emotional hooks (via Chuck’s relationship with his ailing daughter) and schlocky exploitation (via some grim events and forthright breasts). It’s a tonal mix that shouldn’t hold together, but perhaps because of the already-heightened reality of the Vegas-style setting, it actually manages to work.
More of the same, but better?
On first glance, Dead Rising 2 doesn’t differ a great deal from the formula of the original game. Or on the second. Or for that matter, on glance number three. You find yourself in a mini open-world made up of contrasting but connected areas, all of which are packed out with shambling, stinky offal-scoffers. The game’s story plays out over a three-day period in accelerated game time.
Over the course of those three days you’ll be given a series of compulsory story missions and a boatload of optional ones. All missions need to be completed within a certain time after their announcement or they’re gone forever, and failure to complete a story mission results in a stout booting back to your last save point.
But while all of that remains the same, one simple but fundamental change makes a big positive difference. The original game’s notoriously brutal manual game-save system has been softened to allow three save slots. The game still forces a studious survival instinct, demanding diligent play by offering nothing in the way of auto-save functionality, but this time around a gross mistake in timing – say, hitting a hard compulsory boss fight with crap weaponry and no time to get better kit - doesn’t force a total restart.
As such, you can enjoy Dead Rising 2’s hilarious gratuity without the constant fear that a sudden difficulty spike could send you right back to the beginning. Masochists may be disappointed, but everyone else can rejoice. Most of the time.
But that’s not the only welcome improvement.
Level (and zombie) grinding
Dead Rising 2 reprises the first game’s use of RPG elements. Chuck earns PP (just like XP, but found earlier in the phone book) for everything he does. The primary big-earners are completing story missions and escorting Fortune City’s various stranded survivors back to the safehouse. But you can also earn fat PP for simply interacting with the city’s various tourist attractions, like so:
All of which adds a brilliantly fleshed-out feel to DR2’s rather jubilant cartoon world. And if you were to be George Romero, it would also add a nice satirical edge to proceedings as you partake in a host of inane entertainment activities in front of a crowd of transixed slack-jawed shamblers. Zombies. Instant metaphor for everything.
PP causes Chuck to level up, and he does this at a nicely balanced rate. Rewards come often enough to keep you constantly engaged, but just infrequently enough to feel significant every time. Level-up bonuses include new combat and evasion moves (the head-bursting DDT is a current favourite), passive abilities like health boosts and speed upgrades (which can also be gained by finding and equipping stat-buffing magazines or mixing the right combinations of drinks in the various blenders dotted around bars and restaurants) and combo cards which you can use to create new weapons. And that last one right there is where Dead Rising 2 takes a big jump onto the fun train and speeds off to Addiction County.
Adding weapon crafting to DR2’s World of Gorecraft line-up of RPG tropes is the masterstroke foundation on which all of its most rewarding and obsessive play rests. Combo cards are essentially recipes for new weapons which list the item combinations needed to build astoundingly creative zombie-abuse tools in Fortune City’s generously placed maintenance rooms.
Want a klaxon horn that explodes zombie heads? Just find a can of spray paint and a traffic cone. Shrapnel bomb more to your liking? Tape a box of nails to a propane tank, stab it onto one of the rotting rotters, and detonate it with a well-placed bullet. Fancy a battle tank? Well surely a wheelchair with mounted machine guns is the next best thing?
And best of all, the crafting system is meticulously blended with Dead Rising 2’s levelling. Every kill with a combo weapon earns you extra PP, and with extra PP earning you more combo cards, you’ll soon find yourself in a gleefully infectious cycle of hilarious kill, hilarious new weapon, and brand new hilarious kill.
Coupled wiith the need to seek out the right weapon parts over every nook and cranny of the city’s entertainment district, this means that Chuck’s downtime between story missions quickly becomes an utterly compulsive cyclical reward for ploughing through the compulsory objectives. Not to mention a source of massive bonuses to your future progression. Should you ever find yourself short of cash or in need of a helpful level-up, fear not. While ‘proper’ RPG level-grinding can be a drag, in Dead Rising 2 it’s pleasingly a far more literal experience:
In fact all things considered, the creativity of DR2’s zombie mulching and the subtly clever layout of its environments - areas are often designed in ways which provide the more thoughtful zombie evader with hidden-in-plain-sight paths from safe-ish spot to safe-ish spot, though they require skilful navigation to use - make it an excellent training simulation/aptitude test for the real-life zombie outbreak of your dreams. If you’re still getting wiped after a weekend with Dead Rising 2, just shoot yourself when the real Z-Day inevitably comes around. You’ll be no use to the rest of us and clearly aren’t meant to make it through.
Old problems reanimated
But while this is definitely a friendlier and more addictive blend of the Dead Rising formula, a few of the ingredients are starting to smell way out of date. The boss fights – which occur when Chuck stumbles upon a particularly odorous human psychopath during the course of a mission – are a truly unpleasant and completely inexcusable experience. As appropriate to modern video games as children are to modern coal mining practices, they would have been archaic mid-last-generation.
You enter the boss room. A nonsensically damaging character who can barely be scratched rushes right up into your face. You get hit three times in two seconds and die. Hello, last save point.
You repeat, saving a bit closer to the fight this time in order to avoid a minute of potential back-tracking. The same thing happens again.
You repeat. You die a bit faster this time, but manage to get in a good five or six hits first, using what is ordinarily a stupidly powerful weapon. The boss’s health bar barely drops a pixel. By the time your save file re-loads you have developed a very serious case of clinical depression, but that’s okay. You’re now too emotionally numb to feel the sting of defeat the next seven or eight times you try.
Above: Expect to see a lot of this whenever the bosses arrive
We’re not talking about boss fights as we know them now, full of spectacle, drama and skill. These are the attritional trudges of a by-gone age, exercises in smashing your face into a brick wall until the wall falls over, while hoping you’ve brought along enough health packs to last just slightly longer than the brickwork.
And worst of all, most beautifully, incandescently, immaculately obnoxious of all, they’re never flagged up as boss fights until you locate and commit to them. So any seemingly innocent mission (main or optional) can turn out to be a game-ender without warning. Top-level weapons help, but if you don’t know you’re entering a boss fight you probably won’t have any. And depending on the time limit and location, you might not be able to acquire any either.
And don’t think you’re safe once you’ve trained yourself into the mind-set of constant saving. Because at least one of these miserable fixtures is located inside a save point. And kicks in before you can use it. Try to imagine my face when I tried to utilise that save point towards the end of a particularly lengthy escort mission. Actually don’t. If you get even halfway close you’ll be waking up screaming for a month, and frankly I don’t need that shit on my conscience.
Mercifully it’s just niggles aside from that, but niggles which further the impression of DR2 being an aged game given a shiny HD make-over. One or two story missions containing hard or lengthy set-pieces have no internal save opportunities, and the creaky dearth of spoken dialogue in favour of plentiful written text is both dated and a logistical bugger to work with. Try reading six paragraphs of dialogue to find out what a survivor wants while fighting off the approaching zombie hoard in real-time. It’s fun. And that was sarcasm.
I totally understand Capcom’s rationale for the way Dead Rising 2 operates. And when it works – which is most of the time – the sense of surviving by your own wits, self-discipline and ingenuity is deeply satisfying. And given that you can restart the whole game at any stage with your current levelling intact, this is clearly a game intended to be completed via multiple play-throughs. And I’m into that. But come on guys, there’s a time to rein it in. And that time is at exactly the point it stops being fun. There’s crazy, imaginative fun in abundance, and those stops are infrequent, but when they happen, they’re miserable.
Is it better than… ?
Dead Rising? Yes. While DR2 isn't a vast evolution given the four year gap between games, it is a noticeably more satisfying package. The addictive hilarity of finding and creating the combo weapons is a massive bonus, as is the way the softened save system (largely) lets you enjoy the game free of restart-terror.
Resident Evil 5 ? No. Both games are ambitious Capcom gorefests marred by difficulty spikes and crap boss fights, and neither is a huge advancement over its predecessor, but RE5 is just a slicker and more polished game. Though it doesn't have half of Dead Rising 2's personality.
Left 4 Dead 2 ? No. They're both very different takes on a zombie apocalypse, naturally, and both fill holes the other one can't, but Valve's tight, tactical, team-based dismemberment has more exhilarating and tightly-balanced meat on its bones. Of course, if you prefer a free-form playground take on the undead plague, Dead Rising 2 is the way to go.
Just for you, Metacritic!
While not a huge departure from the original Dead Rising template, Dead Rising 2’s concession to friendlier game-saves and excellent addition of a creative and funny weapon-crafting system make it a rewarding and gleefully entertaining experience. But alas, the corpse-killing hijinks are noticeably marred by some inexcusable hark-backs to archaic game design. A lot of fun then, but with some definite frustrations.