Version tested: Xbox 360
A message on the front of the box, repeated on the way into the game, warns anybody in any doubt that Dead Rising is neither the work of nor sanctioned by the great George A. Romero, and has nothing to do with his seminal Dawn of the Dead.
Except, of course, it has everything to do with it. But it's not just the malls, the sniping, the pillaging of supplies and shuttering of doors, the painful "turning" of familiars or the insurgence of pesky lunatics at various intervals. If there's one parallel Capcom must be particularly proud of, it's the consistency of humour and that all important survivalist instinct. Where, perversely, Dawn of the Dead was a horror film people actually wanted to be in, Dead Rising is a horror game that renders the same compulsion for the same reasons.
Not only that, but you can face the apocalypse dressed as a horse.
This is another of Dead Rising's great strengths. Zombies have been gaming fare for years, but for the most part, if they've been comical at all, it's been incidental. Their heads have been blown off, or they've accidentally thrown lumps of flesh at each other instead of you, but for the most part they're serious business. Dispensing them in Resident Evil was - to use a pun they wouldn't allow - a grave matter. Not so in Dead Rising. Here they roam around in their thousands. Literally thousands. As much as the mall, which lets you play dress-up, where food and drink constitute health-packs and "everything is a weapon" (thanks Mr Box), the zombies are your environment. Where once we had fun leaping from pillar to post or gawping at waterfalls, here we get to admire a sea of bloody heads, and then wade through it swinging lead pipes and golf clubs, straddling a shopping trolley or tossing a bowling ball.
One of the game's central mechanics, and something that directly contributes to your levelling up and adds to any given gameplay situation, is taking photographs - the ones that score biggest are the most brutal and amusing, but the ones you'll keep are the snaps of a shower-head jammed in a zombie skull spraying gore. For many things, you earn Prestige Points, which are Dead Rising's XP, and you can inflate the figures by completing missions, composing elaborate photographs or capturing pivotal or dangerous figures on film, and by bringing your camera instinctively to bear on scenes or romance and high drama - for example, at the seconds-only prompt of a "PP" icon above a pair of reunited lovers. It's certainly a good snapper-sim. Also: you earn extra points for cleavage.
In fact, in terms of its sense of humour, and its determinedly frivolous approach to serious events, perhaps the box should also caution that Dead Rising was not licensed, created or authorised by the people who made Grand Theft Auto.
It's not an unfair comparison in many respects. Theirs are similar avatars, in terms of running, jumping, killing (although DR's manual-target for projectile weapons might be considered a step down were it not for the decent analogue aiming), and the free-roaming ideal, and execution of story and missions bear comparison. As you receive messages on your transceiver from the survivors holed up in the security room watching CCTV, you're able to choose from available missions to tackle and directed to them with an arrow. Some take the form of escort or rescue missions, involving clearing a path for hapless NPCs or, infinitely easier, giving them a piggyback, lending them a shoulder (clothesline!) or, a bit awkwardly, holding their hand. Quite a lot, preceded by GTA-style in-game cut-scenes (nice mask! etc.), are boss fights. Psychopaths dotted around the mall need dealing with, often at the barrel of a gun or the blade of a knife or the handle of a bucket - there's a crazed Vietnam vet, a mad supermarket owner with a trolley full of knives, a lunatic clown with a penchant for chainsaws and prancing, and plenty of others besides - and for the most part these battles are about keeping an eye on your enemy's patterns and seizing any opportunities to take advantage.
Other missions are story-critical, and contribute to the search for The Facts. Laid out as "cases", these missions unfold at certain times on the three-day clock, and if you fail them you have to reload your save or you are barred from uncovering the truth. Usually boss-style, these missions are book-ended by longer sections of exposition, and sometimes precipitate changes to the environment - a new plaza opening up, a doorway unlocking, access to maintenance tunnels, and so on.
Like GTA, you also need to stock up on things before you tackle missions. A lot of bosses require guns, or decent blades, not to mention an inventorised stock of high-energy health-packs (so, orange juice - fruit is disproportionately healthy, you know). But unlike GTA, you can't simply do things again and again if you come unstuck. If you die, you're usually given the option to load your save or save your status and quit to the titles. The latter is a good idea: die and quit, or finish the three days, and you can restart the game with your stats intact. Any abilities, health upgrades and costumes you've uncovered remain with you. The former option, however, points us toward one of the game's biggest flaws.
Well, one of the things most people are complaining about. You can only save the game in one slot. You either overwrite that whenever you enter a bathroom or security area hub for a saving nap, or you don't save. Simple as that. And obviously this causes problems. You can't, for example, go back and try other things. The game's on-the-clock set-up means that if you miss out on a mission because you were waylaid by another, or by slicing up the undead, then you've completely missed it. Do a few on the trot and die, or miss a story-starter, and you have to reload. As brilliantly communal an activity as Dead Rising feels, anybody hoping to show it off to some friends and let them have a go is either going to have to issue a strict no-saves mandate to avoid missing out, or simply accept the choices and mistakes they make.
I'm not going to bang on about the save though, for two reasons. First, I'm recommending the game anyway and am quite comfortable letting you make your own mind up about this; it won't stop you playing Dead Rising either way. Second, I rather like what it represents. It's about consistency. You have to survive three days. If you don't survive, you can pick it up from an earlier point and try something else, or quit and start again, but what you can't do is take one path and then shortcut your way back to another path. You can't play it like a tree, sprouting off in different directions through multiple arcs. You have to play it like a river. You are a hawk, soaring over the game, compelled to its end; your wings the paddles of, well yes I'd better stop that. You are not a hawk. You are, however, forced to survive on instinct, and then if you want to survive again on pre-eminence that's your choice. I'm allowed to like that, I reckon.
In any case there's still much else to like. Physical combat, while it's not as precise and engaging as something out of a square-peg-square-hole-foot-in-ass beat-'em-up, blossoms as you level up. You gain moves like the brilliant double-lariat - a windmill attack of swinging arms that smashes faces with great success - and some excellent throws. The only question mark over these is the controls - couldn't they do better than pressing X and clicking the left analogue stick at the same time? Still, it's a last resort anyway (although jump-kicking people in the head is always fun), and like the limited-use weapons, there's a sensible system of pauses and balances to make sure you can't take ludicrous advantage. If the zombies grab you, you can fight free - but you don't want to be grabbed, so you need to evade their grasp, and to do this you can't just swing rampantly immune to capture. Although you can climb onto their heads and waddle across their shoulders, brilliantly.
In rushing to splurge something about the game after an initial burst of excitement earlier this week, that "although" was probably the key. The hook was not the company of psychos and homeland security agents and mad immigrants, but the upholstery of luxurious zomb. The novelty, which scarcely wears off before the end of the game, is the epic scale of things beyond your reach; there simply isn't enough time to do everything, to help everyone, but everything is good enough that you do want to do everything, and this along with the continued growth of your character (I was only level 25 when I finished it first time) precipitates replay. Beyond the three days, there's clearly more: even over the course of a single runthrough, you will scarcely exhaust your desire to mine the secrets of the Willamette Mall, which run deeper than you'll discover in two or three plays. Not only that, but you will find there's more to it than 72 hours. "Overtime mode" is not just a free-play; it's a post-infection model. What if things go wrong? As it turns out, what would happen is the story would continue, only you'd have special forces to worry about. There's another unlockable mode after that, too.
So, Dead Rising is the epitome of survival horror. It has RPG elements and fantastic replay value - more so than virtually any game on the 360 besides Oblivion. It has teddybear masks. It makes brilliant use of the achievement system: there are 50, all worth 20 points, and while things like "Zombie Genocider" capture the eye (kill 53,594 zombies - the entire population of Willamette), you'll find the ones that pervert the gameplay to be most enjoyable. Like Geometry Wars' Pacifism, these invent activities, like placing novelty hats on zombie heads (helpfully for this comparison, this also pacifies them), and trying to knock down ten in a row with a bowling ball. So what, to reach my point, is actually wrong with it? Explain that mark.
Well, first of all I'm extremely unimpressed by the absence of child-zombies.
Second, it can't help inheriting some of the things that Capcom and a multitude of other devs have always been doing wrong but never seem to sort out. Things that always prompt those "how could this have gotten through QA?" questions, to which the answer usually is "while causing the QA staff continually highlighting it in their reports an extraordinary amount of personal agony". Things like the way the transceiver is continually ringing. If I don't answer, it's not because I'm rude; it's because I'm fighting off hundreds of undead! And having it break down when you go through doors or get struck is daft. They could at least let you change the ring-tone.
That's hardly the worst though. Moving up the scale, there's the font size. Not a problem for those of us with HDTVs or those running it through PC monitors, it's a huge problem for anybody with a standard definition set. You simply won't be able to read the subtitles or transceiver mission descriptions. You can hear the voices, but the transceiver messages - the source of everything non-story - aren't narrated. Oops. A special kick in the particulars, also, for the NPC intelligence. I realise it's difficult to do. I'm even tempted to pass it off as some sort of ingenious commentary on the futility of helping others in times of zombie crisis, but when I'm trying to escort a pair of Japanese idiots across a hallway and they keep running into the horde, I'm less tempted. And when I hit the "hold hands" button next to a girl I'm meant to escort, and the camera frames us from in front, not behind, and I go to turn and she slips from my grip for no discernible reason, I shout. Breaking up is not hard enough to do.
Upon which note, it's also worth pointing out that the zombie-spawn code is a bit ragged on occasion. Particularly noticeable if you decide to mount a rescue during the opening lobby scene, where having zombs miraculously spawn behind you in an area you've cleared out is heart-breakingly savage, fortunately it's not much of a problem elsewhere. But it is one of those "the game's fault I failed" things, and hence worth a mention.
But probably my least favourite things are the nature of the boss combat and one particular instance late on. Boss-combat is not intelligent enough. For the number of them there are, Capcom ought to have done a bit more than the old lurk-and-pounce (and-usually-get-shot-or-stabbed-trying). For all the fun you have just playing with Dead Rising, the least interesting aspect is tackling boss enemies. And that particular one I mentioned, effectively the penultimate mission, sees you bring down a corpulent crackpot only to be left with virtually no time to reach the next briefing. Fail, for whatever reason (and a bit of post-boss dilly-dallying is a natural impulse), and you not only have to redo the flight, but the whole boss fight as well. There's not enough time to reach a save-point as well. Truly stupid - particularly as there's no earthly reason for the timing to be so tight.
Even so, Dead Rising's eight survives. I ended my being-chased-by-a-man-with-a-butterfly-net impressions with the standard enthusiastic cliché about needing to discuss it having spent seven hours on it the previous day. A week later, I still know it'll be what I play later, whether it's because I want to try new missions, work on those amusing achievements, get my zombie kill-count up, hit level 50 or seek out the alternative endings. Or ride the motorbike, or other conveyances (you'll see). With Dead Rising, you survive, but it stays with you, and you go back. It may not be licensed by George A. Romero, but it was certainly inspired by him, and it replicates a lot of the feelings he inspired in the viewer. And as I plunge yet another sickle into someone's neck and jerk their head off with my foot, showering myself in blood, I can't help but think that he'd rather approve of it.
8 / 10