Dead Rising 3 takes place in the city of Los Perdidos, a very loose rendering of Los Angeles in California, and Capcom Vancouver may live to regret that choice. Not because Los Perdidos is poorly put together - split into four districts linked by freeways, it's host to plenty of interesting locations - but because it's impossible not to compare it to the other game we played this year that took on the City of Angels. Grand Theft Auto 5, with its astonishing attention to detail and beautiful art direction, makes Dead Rising 3 look like it's struggling with the limitations of ageing hardware.
It's not though; it's an Xbox One launch title, although it may be a while before you believe that. The first minutes of the game are some of its worst, as pixels crawl along the jagged edges of road signs while canned shots of the surroundings strain to set the scene against the weight of slowdown. Slipping into the mechanic's overalls of Nick Ramos, players are dumped in a dingy tunnel full of boxy cars, rigid cloth tents and dodgy textures. The controller lag is jarring as you wrestle Nick around, fumbling to pick up desired objects in a swarm of competing contextual prompts, bashing zombies with whatever you can.
You never escape Dead Rising 3's technical shortcomings, particularly the slowdown, but once you make it out of this freeway tunnel and into Los Perdidos proper, at least you do stop worrying about them. Nick would be an awkward star of a third-person shooter, but his lumbering movement and strange jumping behaviour are more acceptable when you're carving a path through masses of zombies in an open-world brawler, where the game's performance and detail levels also matter less. 'Masses' is right, too, because there are often hundreds of zombies on-screen, and with vehicles dotted around to speed your progress through the large city, you cut through thousands a day.
That's what you spend most of the game doing, in fact, and it's dumb fun. Dead Rising 2 introduced the ability to craft combination weapons in safe houses and now you can do it in the field. Not only weapons, but vehicles as well. You start off wading into a sea of zombies with katanas and scythes, but before long you find blueprints that allow you to combine them into something more heinous. Then you find another blueprint that lets you combine that with something else. Before long, you're pirouetting through the undead in a three-phase swirl of fire and steel.
The first time you get your hands on a particular combo weapon can be brilliant, like the super combo weapon that gives you a fire-breathing dragon's head, metal wings and jet propulsion, allowing you to bull your way through crowds like a misdirected firework, headbutting enemies to keep your multiplier going and earning big experience point bonuses. Some of the vehicles are even better, like the roller hog, a motorcycle with a steamroller for a front wheel. Whether you're brawling or driving, control is loose but satisfactory, although you do have to wrestle with the camera from time to time, while health items are reasonably plentiful to help make up for any mishaps.
In keeping with its predecessors, Dead Rising 3 is about escaping from your plight in a set time. In this case, the government plans to firebomb Los Perdidos in one week, so you quickly hatch a plan with your fellow survivors to mend an old plane and make your getaway. Things get more complicated when it turns out that government forces may be less interested in saving civilians than they're letting on, but whoever the aggressor, your role remains to rescue people and collect things to help the escape effort.
The story in previous Dead Rising games was always slightly too serious to mesh comfortably with what you were doing out in the world, so the fun thing to do was subvert all those serious and emotional exchanges between B-movie characters by turning up for a cut-scene in a summer dress and a Servbot mask. The good news is that you can still do that in Dead Rising 3, and beneath the silly and the serious, the story is still a nice, warm tale of bringing people together and leaving no one behind. It's never brilliant - the script is constantly ambushing you with missing plane parts or special forces interventions to manufacture drama - but it does enough to make you want to fill every seat on the plane.
The bad news is that, for the first time, your antics in cut-scenes feel out of touch with your behaviour in the rest of the game. You'll still want to stand there in skin-tight yoga pants and a Blanka mask while the local resistance leader grills you about your credibility and your love interest Annie stares on with concern, but when the scene ends you become a bit more boring. Now combo weapons are king, you're more interested in finding blueprints and gathering sharp things to bond together. Some of these are fun, like exploding teddy bears, but mostly you're just looking for tools to use when you go to work.
This is in stark contrast to Dead Rising 1 and 2, which had you rooting through malls for things to use as weapons - providing hours of fun inspired by that one sequence in Dawn of the Dead where Roger and Peter dance around the zombies in a department store. Dead Rising 3 has plenty of places that would have been full of novelty items in those games - LA fitness clubs, Hollywood mansions and TV studios - but in Dead Rising 3 you look through them for blades, explosives, health items and blueprints, and then move on. Safe houses, unlocked around the city, allow you to access previously discovered items or combo weapons (a limited number per visit, with a cooldown), so you barely have inventory space either, because you always want to have the optimum kit for the next big fight.
The series' humour has survived in some places, but it feels like we've lost the good stuff and kept the bad. I don't mind the frathouse silliness you get in the "Psycho" encounters, where a cartoon weirdo fires a penis-shaped flamethrower at you fed by testicle-shaped fuel tanks. Haha willies! But do we really need things like the boss fight with the female cop? This starts off in the parking garage where she's massaging her breasts through her shirt while she asks a soldier for a USB drive. After the battle that follows, where she taunts you with phrases like "size does matter" while firing rocket-propelled grenades, you fall out of a window on top of her, landing on the tarmac with your head in her cleavage, where you rip out the USB drive with your teeth before she utters her last words: "I finished first!"
Dead Rising 3 isn't as funny, then, and it also feels like there's less to discover. Dead Rising used to be interesting because it felt like the world didn't revolve around you - you didn't have long enough to save everyone, things only happened at certain times, and you often just ran into interesting trouble when you went out to explore. In Dead Rising 3's Story mode, you have way more time and you can save anywhere. Even in Nightmare mode, which retains tougher elements like the manual save-game system, the systems feel too transparent - survivors send you on rote fetch quests, there are little high-score rampages to go on, and you feel directed by duty rather than curiosity.
The spine of the game is still mashing your way through zombie hordes with elaborate weaponry, and fortunately this remains enjoyable from beginning to end, but having stripped back some of the humour and made the game less colourful and more gritty, it's a shame that the developers weren't able to infuse it with something else to top up its character. It's not as though Capcom Vancouver didn't understand people's love of the originals: when you're not smashing through zombies, you collect golden statues of Frank West, while the local museum has exhibitions dedicated to West and Chuck Greene, his successor in Dead Rising 2.
Dead Rising 3 is the weakest in the series, then. It's no kind of technical showcase for Xbox One, although that didn't really bother me once I got into it, and if all you want for a launch title is something passably entertaining to plug away at for a few long evenings, it will suit you fine. Just beware, once you get over the pleasure of the first few combo weapons, Dead Rising 3 is just a solid zombie brawler set in an open world, not the strange game of tender heart that used to be so funny and surprising.