Version tested: Xbox 360
In 'Wily Travels' it's the PCs and LCD monitors used to book countless budget summer vacations. In 'Marriage Makers' it's the necklaces and bracelets, sparkling pellets on display under the glass counter. In 'Atlantica Casino', it's the tall chairs upon which patrons once sat and played the slots, or the discarded handbags around them, heavy with coins and make-up. In 'Bennie Jack's Barbecue Shack' it's the plastic serving trays, in 'Venus Touch', the bottles of shampoo and hair dye, in 'Knokonutz Sports Town' the dumbbells and basketballs. In 'Toy Manor', it's the RC stunt copter with its sharp, rhythmic blades that can slice the head clean off a man.
Dead Rising 2 changes the way that you shop. In this night-terror rendering of Supermarket Sweep, the question against which any potential purchase is judged is not "Do I need this?" or "Does this product offer value for money?" Rather, it is: "How quickly would I be able to bludgeon the nose from a zombie with this?" In the case of the shampoo bottle the answer is: a really long time.
For George Romero, the shopping centre was the perfect locale for the zombie apocalypse because the routine, civilised familiarity, when used as a backdrop for an uprising of corpses, couched an abstract horror in the mundane and everyday. But in Dead Rising 2, the shopping mall has not been chosen as a commentary on dead-eyed American consumerism, nor even as a clichéd nod to cinematic zombie tradition. Rather, it's been chosen for the smorgasbord of weaponry it offers.
Where else can you find an electric guitar, a rack of ribs and a chainsaw in such close proximity to one another? In a medium that uses guns as its primary means of player interaction, the chance to stave in a zombie's head with a six-foot novelty liquor bottle is something to be celebrated. The mall has been chosen for the benefit it offers the game's systems, not its story. Variety, it turns out, is the spice of death.
So this is a game about hitting, slicing, sawing or shooting groaning mounds of flesh with vicious, ridiculous, amusing or ironic everyday objects. And those interactive verbs - dumb, blunt and silly though they are - provide the short-term gratification in Dead Rising 2. You race to see what treasures of impromptu weaponry are literally in store around each corner before giggling at the silliness of using them against the horde while dressed in a one-piece baby grow or whatever other novelty outfit you've pilfered from the mall. The introduction of maintenance rooms, where you can combine two prescribed items to create a bastard weapon, only adds to the urge to experiment with the tools of undead murder.
But there's a slower rhythm of play, too, an altogether more honourable heartbeat pushing you through Dead Rising 2's veins. There's no denying this is a game soaked in the juvenile: the gauche one-liners, the lingering shots of female characters' legs, the zombie pratfalls and the gleefully immature spectacle of cause and effect, a cycle played out every time you find a new object for your arsenal before trying it out on the nearest zombie's head. But beyond all that, Dead Rising 2 is a game for players with a saviour complex.
At the most basic narrative and systemic level, you must save Chuck Greene. The ex-motocross champion whom you control for the game's 72-hour play-cycle must survive the lunges of a limitless throng of zombies, else there is no game to play. More metaphorically, there is his reputation to save too, as, at the start of the game, he is framed for the zombie outbreak; faked CCTV footage is leaked to a local news channel painting him as the origin of the epidemic. The core seven phases of the game have you chasing the truth behind the outbreak while attempting to clear Greene's name before the military arrives.
Next in need of salvation is Greene's daughter, who spends the majority of the game tucked away in a safe house in the extremities of the mall. While she's completely safe from the zombies themselves, an old wound means that she requires a dose of Zombrex every 24 hours in order to stay a little girl. Fail to find or purchase a new dose of Zombrex each day and she'll turn into a little zombie, and in Greene's subsequent debilitating grief, the story behind the outbreak will remain untold.
These relatively long-term pressures are then buffered by a near-constant stream of third-party cries for help. Arriving on your to-do list by way of Greene's pager, these draw attention to Fortune City's trapped, lost, or confused patrons, each one in need of rescuing and returning to the mall's safe house. It might be an old lady stuck in the rear of a toyshop, still fretting over what present to buy her grandson and unaware of the zombie apocalypse outside the sliding doors, who must be carried in Greene's arms through the sea of undead. Or it might be a young redneck couple trapped inside a burning office. The game's lasting appeal comes not from comedy bloodsport, but from carving a path through the peril in order to save these survivors, and return them to the safe house unscathed.
The incentive to do this is built into the game's economy, which rewards you with huge amounts of Prestige Points for every uninfected person returned to safety, levelling Greene and thereby increasing his health and abilities. But the drive to save others is more than a detached, mathematical one written in the game's systems.
Somehow, set against the relentless assault of violence against these undead entities, the value of life is heightened. The thrill of pulling others from the sea of danger is a familiar one in videogames, but it's usually a mission spread over the course of an entire game: save Peach from Bowser, rescue Zelda from Ganondorf. Here the sheer number of cries for help, and the overwhelming odds, ensure that the sense of camaraderie and companionship forged in those ten minutes between first contact and safety is irresistible. You gotta save 'em all.
This is made easier by the fact that you can tool your comrade up with any spare weaponry you have to hand - and the AI is competent at looking after itself and covering your back. It soon becomes apparent that a well-armed entourage is invaluable. Each team member has his or her own health bar, shown on screen at all times, while pressing food or drink into their hands will replenish life.
It can sometimes be frustrating hammering out constant calls for those you're rescuing to keep up, and if you rush too far ahead, they'll often be left awkwardly behind in a previous area. But the thrill of delivering a line of previously lost souls to safety never loses its edge, just as the disappointment of someone dying before you could get to them never fails to sting.
Painful, too, is losing half an hour's play in the cold embrace of a zombie because you failed to save in one of the game's toilets regularly enough. While there are now three save slots on offer (the first game only offered one), the system used to record progress can appear archaic and unforgiving. But viewed in the right way, the risk required to save your game, often by taking dangerous excursions through zombie-infested areas, is part of the game's appeal.
For all its comedy outfits and outlandish weaponry, Dead Rising 2's environment is relentlessly hostile, and failure to treat it with necessary caution is punished in the most extreme terms. The save mechanic highlights this truth, which is only gently softened by the option to restart the game while keeping your current character level.
Nevertheless, there are idiosyncrasies which cannot be viewed so generously. Talking to survivors in the midst of a zombie attack in order to persuade them to join you is a fussy frustration, just as picking out the exact item you want from a crowded shelf is an inexact chore. The lengthy load times between each area, while no doubt necessary to allow for the vast numbers of zombies on screen, interrupt the rhythm of play too often and for too long. Boss battles, either those that form part of the story missions or the optional encounters with 'psychopaths' - survivors driven mad by the outbreak who turn on you – lack finesse, as does the direction of the cut-scenes that introduce them.
Guns, when you do find them, lack kickback and seem to run contrary to the spirit of the make-do approach to weaponry elsewhere in the game. The lack of a minimap means that, until you have the mall mapped in your mind, you'll often find yourself lost. All these flaws, just as visible here as they were in the game's predecessor, grate, ensuring that Dead Rising 2 is best played in hour-long doses so they don't have chance to overwhelm its wider, greater strengths.
But despite the low-level irritations, Dead Rising 2's focus and determination win you over. Its assured grasp of what the game is and what it isn't is worth celebrating. The harder edges of the first game have been softened a little, no doubt thanks to the involvement of a Western studio. The result is a balanced game, at once idiosyncratic, infuriating, funny and ultimately compelling. In both its story and its systems, it holds life and undeath in delicate tension; and as a result, all the loud-mouth college humour and violence fail to mask its tender heart.
8 / 10
Dead Rising 2 is now available for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.