The first Dead Rising is celebrated and despised in equal measure for its campaign timer, whereby certain events play out independently of the player over the course of the story. It's a system that obliges you to be in exactly the right place at the right time if you want to meet (or save) certain characters, learn the origins of the zombie plague, or simply uncover every amusing quirk the world has to offer.
While rather gruelling next to a wholly player-driven open world like that of GTA, the timer limitation lent itself to multiple playthroughs and created an unusual degree of tension, as budding scourges of the undead juggled the demands of the schedule against the temptation to goof around. Many players, however, found it to be an unnecessary pressure that stopped them enjoying everything the game's department store sandbox had to offer.
It's cause for both joy and consternation, then, that the timer is absent from Dead Rising 4's campaign, which sees original protagonist Frank West returning to the Colorado town of Willamette 16 years later to investigate yet another viral outbreak. It does feature in the new game's multiplayer, a four-player co-op escapade with semi-randomly generated missions, but as far as single-player goes, you can goof around as much as you like. The decision has provoked plenty of debate on forums, with some fans arguing that without the timer, Dead Rising lacks a signature touch. At a preview event in London this week, I asked the game's executive producer Bryce Cochrane and Capcom Vancouver studio director Joe Nickolls for a fuller explanation.
"I think it's really to do with the expanse of our world," said Cochrane. "We wanted a huge world you could really explore and find things in. With Dead Rising 3 and the rigid timer, it meant people missed so much of what was in that game. So we decided to go in a different direction, remove that, keep it in multiplayer, but really allow somebody to have a new experience in single-player, dive into the world and explore to their heart's content - do what they want, have time to experiment, time to figure things out. It is a change of direction, but we really felt it was the right way to go."
While it occupies roughly the same amount of space as Dead Rising 3, Dead Rising 4's overhauled township offers three times as many explorable areas, stretching from the central Parkview mall with its Caribbean and medieval-themed sections, to roadside Santa's grottos, sewer tunnels and a decrepit Old Town district. It's built once again around unlockable safehouses where you'll send the characters you save from the plague. Some of these characters exist for story purposes, others are vendors or inconsequential bystanders who'll gift you item-crafting recipes, and a notable few will take up arms against you.
"We didn't want to limit people from finding the hidden stuff, the bonus content," said Nickolls. "Not everybody's a completionist, but most people do want to feel like they've seen most of the stuff, and that's one of the reasons we made the decision we did with the timing. It's always been super-polarising."
Another benefit of nuking the timer, according to Cochrane, is that Capcom Vancouver is free to arrange and detail Dead Rising 4's township more realistically. "When you had the timer you had to throw everything into the player's path. Here it's trying to make the player explore the world and find out things about it." This commitment to naturalism extends to the game's "boss" characters, "Maniacs", who are comparable to the Psychos from previous games but now "belong in the world", rather than being wacky concepts dropped in for the sake of it. "They feel like they lived in that area before they went weird. We didn't go with the 'Seven Deadly Sins' idea just to put something in there," said Nickolls. "We wanted all the people who attack you to have a reason to be in Willamette."
The talk of a more believable world sits a little oddly alongside the franchise's on-going love affair with utterly bonkers player-crafted weapons. Amongst other unlikely feats of DIY, you can combine off-the-shelf items to create a rifle that shoots in three directions at once or a grenade-tipped sledgehammer. Vehicles are fair game, too - add a snowmobile to a pick-up truck and hey presto, you've got a cryogenic tank straight out of Batman & Robin that batters zombies with snowballs, freezing them instantly.
The crafting process has been streamlined still further from Dead Rising 3 - there's an upgrade that lets you craft using whatever's lying at your feet, throwing together a new toy in the middle of a raging brawl. This accompanies a more accessible three-way inventory - you can switch between healing items, ranged and melee weapons with a button press, and each of those item categories has its own inventory wheel, tied to a D-pad input.
If this makes it easier to put down the hordes, the zeds perhaps pose more of a challenge this time - and not just because they're more numerous, with "thousands" supposedly present in some areas. The majority are standard-issue, Romero-brand shufflers - not so much a threat as a source of friction, tying you up on the way to an objective. But there are also "freshies", recently risen zombies in the 28 Days Later mold that are faster and more aware. Top of the food chain are the enhanced "evos", which Cochrane compares to raptors in the Jurassic Park films - they're extremely tough, they can jump and climb, and they can summon zombie reinforcements to boot.
As for returning star Frank West, he's still as much a paparazzo as a hero, equipped with a camera you can use to take selfies or "stealthies", in which Frank sneaks up behind an enemy, wraps them in a chokehold and takes a picture (before, in the case of a zombie, ripping the victim's head clean off). The camera now has a night vision mode and a spectrometer lens - you'll use it to find clues, hack technology and follow blood trails, in addition to earning XP for character upgrades.
This is something of a closing act for Frank, but it may not be the last game he appears in. "Frank West is the most popular hero in our entire series, and we wanted to wrap up his story in Willamette - not his entire story in the franchise, but what happened in Willamette and what's happened between the time of the first outbreak and this outbreak," said Cochrane.
Frank also heads up the first DLC campaign, Frank Rising, which - in possible acknowledgement or anticipation of fan upset - adds the timer back in. The premise is that Frank must cure himself of the zombie virus before it takes hold, though who knows, there might be scope for a few rounds of zombie mini-golf along the way.
Dead Rising 4 launches on 6th December, and is exclusive to Xbox One for a year. For more on Capcom Vancouver's alterations, check out Tom's preview from August.