Version tested: Xbox 360
After half an hour of knocking the undead around with a trashcan, I suddenly realised that "zombie" would be a pretty good word to play in Scrabble. It's not a game-changer necessarily, but lay that across a triple score tile, preferably landing the Z on some kind of letter multiplier, and you've got yourself a handy boost if you're getting behind. This is the sort of thing that tends to happen whenever you play Dead Rising. You get into the zone, you start busting heads, and pretty soon you find yourself thinking about stuff like Scrabble.
Dead Rising 2: Case Zero is a bizarre idea: a slick chunk of pre-release DLC, a playable prologue for a game that hardly seems likely to thrive on story. If you're in a grumpy mood, you could be forgiven for writing this off as an expensive demo. If you're feeling a little more charitable, however, you'll notice the finer points - the chummy cluster of Achievements, the fact that you can grind your character up to level five and then import that status into the full game when it arrives - and it becomes something a little more benign. Let's call it a cheap piece of fan-service that players are more than welcome to ignore.
Set two years before the events of Dead Rising 2, Case Zero gives you a little bit of insight into the early days of the series' new protagonist Chuck Greene, and tells you what he gets up to before he reaches Fortune City and starts shoeing zombies on a daily basis. Chuck - who looks like a direct-to-video Paul Newman - and his infected daughter Katey have wound up in Still Creek, a limp sprawl of motels and gas stations strung across a dusty patch of sun-scorched earth just outside of Las Vegas.
The astonishingly long and uninteresting opening cut-scene shows the big man getting his truck pinched, and sets up the basic predicament: the town's filled with shambling undeads, the military is set to arrive before the day is out, and unless Chuck can get his daughter some Zombrex - an anti-zombifying medicine which I believe contains Bifidus Acti-regularis - she's going to start drooling and biting off chicken heads. Also, if Chuck could gather together five parts of a motorbike (this kind of thing thrills old people like me, as it brings back memories of the original ToeJam & Earl), he might be able to get out of Still Creek before anything tragic happens.
What this breaks down into is an introduction to the central mechanics of the sequel. Most of them - scavenging for weapons, trying on ridiculous clothes, smacking people over the head - will be pretty familiar to veterans of Willamette Mall, as they're also the central mechanics of the original game. A handful of them are new, however.
Zombrex: that's new for starters, and in Case Zero it amounts to yet another clock to watch in a game that's already piling on the time pressure. Finding medicine for Katey, accidentally giving it away to a stranger during a side-mission, and then looking around for even more doesn't really make much sense in a micro-game that already has a fairly tight deadline in place. That said, it allows the developers to incorporate a series of different endings, and ensures that there's an extra sense of panic as the minutes tick down to the arrival of the military (who will take Katey away if they find her). It will be interesting to see how it plays out in the more expansive plotline of the main game.
Combo weapons are new, too, and they're something of a mixed blessing, really. Built by combining two ordinary items - nails and a baseball bat make a nasty spiked bashing stick, drills and a bucket become something pleasantly indescribable - they allow you to level your character up faster if you use them and are generally a little flashier to mess around with.
They're brilliant fun to put together - some of the recipes are ghoulishly inventive - but while they've been given fairly short life spans to ensure that you still have reasons to pick up ordinary weapons as you head around Still Creek, anybody hungry to gain real experience boosts is going to want to use them pretty much exclusively, and that means greedy players will find themselves braving the loading screens and nipping back to the safe house every five minutes to construct another one. That's kind of annoying.
Otherwise, the core of the game revolves around ferreting out bike parts while you rescue citizens and mash the undead. Still Creek's small but intricate, and there are plenty of secrets to uncover and locked rooms to open as you piece your ride back together. Being a Dead Rising title, Case Zero is more in need of an inventory than a review, really. If you want to hit people over the head with cacti, wrenches, serving trays, gumball machines, 2x4s or a good old bench, you're going to be pretty happy.
Movement is still fairly clumsy, attacks are sluggish, weak animation is hidden behind bright splashes of claret, and a particularly awful moment where I had to steer an epileptic trolley with a motorbike frame in it through oncoming masses was so deeply frustrating I actually bit off a sizable chunk of my own couch, but there's still some resilient nugget of mindless fun at the centre of Dead Rising that means that none of this matters quite as much as it should.
It's something to do with the glacial pace of your levelling, and the mindless toil that makes up your itinerary. Capcom's judicious use of brutal, spirit-shredding monotony is not something I'd want too many other developers to rely on, but in the demented shopping spree that brings life to Willamette Mall and Still Creek, it works better than it should.
Chalk this up as another paradoxically satisfying botch, then. Despite a dozen little annoyances, despite that sluggish pace and some dated visuals, Case Zero remains a lazy pleasure to plod through as you divide your time between story missions and a therapeutic culling of the masses. The question now, then, is whether Dead Rising's shonky white trash charms can stretch to encompass another full-length game.
7 / 10
Dead Rising 2: Case Zero is available to download now, exclusively on Xbox Live, and costs 400 Microsoft Points.