As well as being bold, unique and interestingly divisive, Dead Rising was one of the most baffling games of its generation. It constantly teetered on the edge of parody. Was it intentionally making fun of America and its zombie films, with its obese lesbian police officers and chainsaw-juggling clowns? Or was it an honest but strange homage, a Western horror staple viewed through a Japanese cultural filter?
Assuming the latter to be true, Dead Rising 2 (developed by Canadian studio Blue Castle Games) is a Western interpretation of a Japanese interpretation of Western zombie horror – which gives it the potential to be even stranger. Alternatively, a Western worldview might temper the bizarreness that made Dead Rising so interesting in the first place. Hmm. Conundrum.
The opening scene certainly marks a change of pace. Instead of running amok in a mall full of the undead you're a contestant on a zombie gameshow called Terror Is Reality, carving through zombie hordes in an arena on a motorcycle with chainsaws attached. We got a good look at these black-humour minigames at Dead Rising 2's unveiling back at TGS last year, but it left us with a lot of questions about the single-player – such as, how on earth do you fit a zombie gameshow into the story?
As it turns out, you only get one round into Terror is Reality before everything goes wrong. The stock of zombies are set free to infect and ingest the living population of Fortune City, the game's fictional Vegas. From then on, it's all comfortingly familiar – whilst other survivors hole up a safehouse waiting for rescue, you venture out into a mall full of shambling ex-humans and hundreds of makeshift weapons to abuse them with.
Instead of Frank West we have Chuck Greene, an ex-motocross champion whose comically fixed, stony expression greatly adds to the amusement value of dressing him up in a halter top. His wife was killed in an attack during the Willamette outbreak, but hatred of the undead isn't his only motivation – he has to venture out of the safehouse to find an anti-zombification drug called Zombex for his infected daughter. She needs a dose every 24 hours at a specific time, otherwise she'll start developing severe skin problems and a taste for brains.
A familiar 72-hour countdown dictates your every action. Spend too much time throwing vinyl records at zombies or setting them on fire for fun and you won't make it through the story. Survivors are dotted around the place and can be persuaded to accompany you back to safety. The more zombies you murder, the more people you rescue, the more PP you earn, and the less meagre your chances of survival.
Dead Rising 2 certainly hasn't made things any easier. There's still no autosave and deep down, the game still hates you and wants you to fail. But that tension was a vital part of Dead Rising, and though changing it would have silenced plenty of frustrated voices, it would also have fundamentally altered what the game was about. There are now, however, three save slots instead of one – a small concession, but a significant one when it's possible to make irreversible mistakes.
One immediately noticeable difference between Dead Rising 2 and its predecessor is that there are more zombies. A lot more zombies. Given that there were already quite a lot of zombies, this is a mixed blessing – you can barely make a dent in their numbers even with the most creative weaponry.
As well as practically every single item from the first game – bats, an Uzi, trolleys, parasols, handbags, suitcases, plates, bikes, bowling balls, coathangers – there are loads more. You can freeze them with a fire extinguisher and smash 'em with a crowbar, Bioshock style. Set off firecrackers and they'll be attracted to the pretty lights, so you can hurl a teddy bear at them and run away.
The real attraction is combo weapons, though, which you can fashion out of practically anything you find around the mall. You earn combo cards that tell you how to make them – combine nails with a bat for an entertainingly barbaric nail bat, a drill with a bucket to make a fetching death-hat for zombies, or nails and a propane tank for an improvised explosive device.
You just have to grab the two required items and head to one of the maintenance room workbenches that are always within easy reach in the mall, and Chuck will manfully saw and hammer them into a superweapon. (Incidentally, this is the only point in the entire game where something approaching a smile tickles Chuck's humourless face.)
Aside from the combo weapons, though, Dead Rising remains structurally unchanged, sometimes down to the finest details. Skateboards still take three hits before they break. The shops in the mall have the same names (admittedly, this being America, they're probably enormous national chains).
It's a little worrying that this game even copies the irritating things about the original – the unskippable and entirely unnecessary animation sequences for putting on and admiring new clothes, for instance, and the need to constantly shout after your fellow survivors in order to get them to follow you.
It's clear from the first few hours that in terms of actual zombie-killing, Dead Rising 2 could well have the edge over its predecessor. There are brilliant combo weapons and a truckload of new items that just beg to be played with. Dead Rising 2's killer feature, though, could well be the drop-in online co-op, something that we couldn't try out in our preview build.
Our initial question remains unanswered, too – are Dead Rising 2's story and psychopathic characters as wholly, gruesomely bizarre as the original game's, or has the new developer toned the weird factor down a little whilst throwing in a ton of new and better ways to mess with the undead? It's hard to tell from the first few hours. But we look forward to finding out.
Dead Rising 2 is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on September 24th, 2010, with the PC version following shortly after on September 28th. Prequel title Case Zero is available to download exclusively on Xbox 360 from September 3rd, priced at 400 Microsoft Points.