It's not often that you arrive at a preview event with no idea what to expect [it is if I commission you - Ed]. Publishers tend to save their surprises for new announcements - once a game's out there in the public consciousness, there's a steady enough drip-feed of information to ensure that nothing comes as an enormous revelation. When Capcom's Keiji Inafune confirmed multiplayer for Dead Rising 2, I assumed we'd have co-op or ordinary zombie-killing competitions. I certainly didn't expect to be rolling a motocross racer in a bright yellow suit around a zombie-filled arena in a giant hamster ball whilst an enthusiastic commentator made comments about oral copulation with my mother, before donning a pair of moose antlers and tossing obese zombies onto a giant set of scales.
Terror is Reality, as Dead Rising 2's multiplayer component calls itself, is a four-player gameshow composed of four increasingly ridiculous mini-game rounds with increasingly ridiculous names. It's a gleeful lampoonery of everything zombie-related, an orgy of competitive comic violence - brightly coloured, bombastic and utterly barbaric. It smacks of the TV show Gladiators, both in the enjoyably ludicrous presentation (each player has their own primary-coloured motocross-suit onesie) and the content of the games themselves. It features an incredibly loudmouthed presenter with an obsession with sexual innuendo and a propensity for wearing sunglasses indoors, who provides the introduction and the between-round banter. (Hopefully he'll be skippable - most of his jokes wouldn't be funny more than once.)
The first round, Ramsterball, puts each contestant into a Gladiators-style metal cage ball. Everyone rolls around squishing zombies and smashing into each other whilst blood splashes around the screen and everyone competes for the right to activate zombie crushers for extra points. You ping pinball-like between each other and the crushers dotted around the arena, trying to smash into as many of them as possible before someone rams you and steals the power to activate them. The controls are slightly skittish, which admittedly feels appropriate when you're rolling a giant metal hamster ball over a messy pool of dead flesh, and the game's more a matter of sheer enthusiasm than skill, but it's nonetheless fun.
The next round, Headache, is rather less hectic. Picking up attractively colour-coded blender hats from a platform in the middle of the stage, you then jam them onto the heads of as many zombies as possible before legging it over to a big red button that makes all of them explode. It seems like you get more points the more heads you manage to explode at once, but with other players and a timer putting pressure on you and a horde of zombies trying to stop you from hitting the big red button, you have to balance score potential with practicality.
Practicality goes completely out of the window for the third round, Pounds of Flesh, which gives you a massive pair of moose antlers and gets you to toss as many zombies as possible onto a massive set of scales in the middle of the arena, pressing another great big red button to reload your zombie pool. You get more points for tossing fatter zombies. It's possibly the stupidest thing I've ever seen in a videogame. I spent so much time laughing at it that I lost the considerable lead I'd built up over the two Japanese journalists and token American I was playing against in the previous two rounds.
The last round, Slicecycles, gets the most positive reception from the crowds assembled at Capcom's unveiling party. Each contestant rides a chainsaw-mounted motorcycle around another zombie-packed arena until you can't see through the bloody mist. Depending on your position at the beginning of the round, you get a few extra seconds' advantage over your opponents, and it's this final round that actually determines who wins. It's all bonkers, obviously, and incredibly flippant, but Dead Rising is a bonkers and flippant videogame. It would have been good to see co-operative multiplayer or something else more, well, substantial as Dead Rising 2's multiplayer component, but it would also have been boring; this nonsense technicolour gameshow fits the spirit of the game rather well.
Keiji Inafune feels that Dead Rising 2's capacity for creative violence ought still to surprise us - generating new and better ideas was one of the key motivations for opening the franchise up for collaboration with a Western developer. "What you're going to see in Dead Rising 2 is definitely more than you can even imagine when it comes to how creative the violence can get," he says, during the brief few minutes we manage to snatch with him at Terror is Reality's grand unveiling. "One of the key ways we've been able to do that is through working with Blue Castle. The original game was designed and created by in-house Japanese designers, and you're limited by your own culture in terms of the ideas you can come up with." (Who but the Canadians could have come up with the idea of sticking moose antlers on motocross cyclists in a zombie gameshow, after all?)
"By working with a Canadian developer we have truly been able to find the best of both worlds, and their ideas for what makes really good horror or violence or a nice blood-splatter effect are slightly different from what we'd be able to come up with on our own in Japan. By having that perfect mix we are able to accomplish something that is very new, and violent in a very creative fashion - even more so than in the original game."
Terror is Reality does rather throw the context of the single-player game into confusion; how does the gameshow concept tie in with the casino-town that new protagonist Chuck will be romping around, and why is he taking part in a zombie gameshow in the first place? It's not remotely clear how it all fits together. Whatever we expected from Dead Rising 2's multiplayer, it was absolutely nothing like this - and though it's definitely a Good Thing when games still have the capacity to surprise you, it might feel a little lightweight in the context of the final release. Capcom promises more than four different rounds for the final game, but for a lot of players, ten mini-games won't make up for a lack of co-operative multiplayer. Not even when they're as delightfully cracked as these.
Dead Rising 2 is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010.