Version tested: PlayStation 3
No publisher is better at recycling its own work than Capcom, but even by the publisher's thrifty standards, four releases containing the words "Dead Rising 2" in 14 months is - to put it politely - alarmingly prolific. Granted, two of those were downloadable add-ons, and standalone instalments Case West and Case Zero both introduced enough to make their very reasonable prices worth paying. The problem with Off The Record is that it arguably adds less than either of these Xbox 360-exclusive episodes, yet costs more.
We're back in Fortune City once again, only this time the lantern-jawed Chuck Greene has been benched in favour of the first Dead Rising's rotund photojournalist Frank West, a move that will be welcomed in some quarters, but not here. I found something endearing in Chuck's frowny, family-man heroics; by comparison, Frank's a self-absorbed prick using an incident where thousands have been killed as a way to get his stumbling career back on track. Besides, 20 hours or so controlling a chubby loser with a receding hairline and a whiny voice hardly represents escapism for some of us.
But Frank is far from Off The Record's biggest problem. Both downloadable episodes gave us new locations to slap zombies around in; here we get one comparatively small new area (a theme park called the Uranus Zone, and you can guess the level of humour that brings to the table) in a sandbox we've already played in. It also fails to resolve familiar niggles, with inventory management and item retrieval still fiddly and awkward, and while there might be more zombies on screen, the engine sometimes chugs as a result.
There are a few minor adjustments for the better: no longer will you wonder whether a survivor has followed you into a new area or whether they're potential zombie chow, as big red letters now inform you if they're too far away to dart through while you hold the door open for them. Even if that feature hadn't been added, the significantly curtailed loading times would have made this less frustrating than in the original.
Other changes are less welcome. Venture into a new part of Fortune City and a small piece of text in the top left of the screen will inform you that a checkpoint has been reached, allowing you to carry on from there should Frank's last block of health be chipped away by bite, blade or bullet.
This represents the final nail in the coffin of the original's almost 'roguelike' design, a concession to accessibility that's all the more disappointing given that yellow-and-blue logo on the box. It might have been a boon for the awkward boss battles - another structural weakness that seemingly hasn't been considered worthy of realignment - but then Capcom had already stuck save points in before most of those anyway.
What this change doesn't do is alleviate any of the existing difficulty spikes, or those moments when you think you've reached a mission-critical point in time only to find you're supposed to go somewhere else afterwards. Annoying sticking points remain, like the tiresome bank robbery sequence in chapter 4 where bullet-sponge mercenaries gradually peck away at your energy from afar with their machine guns. Then you go through that same bizarre routine of having to retreat behind a wall to glug some orange juice or coffee creamer - as ever, the most nutritious of all beverages - then running out of ammo and accidentally lobbing a cake in their direction because you've failed to properly rearrange your inventory.
These heists aren't the only story element lifted wholesale from the original. In fact, a more accurate question for this "what if?" scenario would be: "What if Frank replaced Chuck but almost everything else was exactly the same?" This is not a wildly different plot. There are a few tweaks, and in the later game the differences are more noticeable, but mostly Capcom is happy to retread old ground. It's a great pity, particularly after one inspired cut-scene early in the game which re-imagines a familiar character to darkly hilarious effect. That moment heightens anticipation for the changes to come, but they never really arrive.
The photography element of the first game is back, but the extra Prestige Points (XP in all but name) are hardly worth the risk. Occasionally the game will have you snapping certain objects for more substantial bonuses, but with time between story missions still very limited, it's advisable to focus on escorting survivors for a much more significant PP boost.
Those in need of rescue thankfully follow Case West's code of AI conduct, which means they'll rarely lag too far behind and won't often need saving from the clutches of a lurching flesh-muncher. I found that repeatedly jabbing the command button to encourage them to hurry up was often enough to extricate them from a mauling.
Many of the other changes are little more than cosmetic. Frank has a Bluetooth headset in place of Chuck's transceiver, and he can take Zombrex jabs on the move rather than returning to base. A handful of fresh psychopaths and survivors are scattered around Fortune City, but it's only the new combo weapons that really make an impact.
Best of this bunch are the Cryo Pod - a spaceship powered by fire extinguishers that freezes any zombies caught underneath its flight path - and an alien mask that fires laser beams. The result of combining a vibrator with a leaf blower also has to be seen to be believed.
Still, all this is little more than window-dressing, which means the most significant addition to Off The Record is its Sandbox mode. It's not a series first - Dead Rising's Infinite Mode is the obvious inspiration - although this time, Frank's health doesn't deplete over time. Instead, 30 challenge missions are spread across Fortune City, unlocked as you pass kill targets, with each carrying three medal targets and associated monetary rewards.
The objectives are generally fairly straightforward, from killing a certain number of zombies in a strict time limit to earning a certain amount of PP with Frank's camera. In one sense, it's the ultimate no-pressure way to play Dead Rising, but the ability to earn PP to carry over into the main game feels a little cheap - it's easy to grind a few simple missions to level up quickly, rewarding persistence over skilful play.
Despite all the grumbles, it's a heck of a lot of fun, and those without access to an Xbox 360 perhaps won't experience quite the same level of déjà vu. But in trying to be all things to all people, Off The Record represents something of an identity crisis for Dead Rising.
Its rough edges may have been sanded down, but in the process some of its unique personality has been lost. At a time where games like Dark Souls aren't afraid to put players through the wringer, it's disappointing that a title from Capcom of all publishers should feel, much like its doughy protagonist, a little soft around the middle.
6 / 10