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Dead Rising

Dawn of the Dead Rising obsession.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

The question a lot of boring Internet men will very soon be asking is this: is Dead Rising - Capcom's first Xbox 360 exclusive and the most highly anticipated game due out between now and Gears of War - a system seller?


Anyway, the question a lot of brilliant Internet people (that's you) will very much at the moment be asking is, why is Eurogamer wasting time doing first impressions of a game that's already out in the United Americas of Superpower - a process that almost certainly holds up attempts to get a review out of us within the next couple of days?

Well first of all, I must complain about your appalling syntax.

Second, I have a need to discuss it. House-sitting at my Spartan mother's with a 360, an LCD and a borrowed stereo daisy-chained together to form some semblance of lounge, I have a buzz that I've not had about a game in a while and nobody to tell.

I've not been without fun lately, true - The Ship was good, Armadillo Run continues to dominate my lunch-hours, and the OutRun 2006 disc still sits there grinning at me from the top of my old Xbox (although right now it's back home in the dark. I hope it's okay). But the Dead Rising buzz is different. It's a sort of drunkenness; I know that I should hold back, but I can't help myself. I just want to hug Capcom.

A lot of zombs have weapons in their hands, which you can dislodge by whacking them. But don't use an uzi - guns really are boring.

You'll know the basics, of course. Frank West, photojournalist, trapped in the Romero-inspired Willamette Mall for three long days while zombies rip the place and its occupants to shreds, tasked with beating his way to the truth in that time period and hopefully saving a few people in the process - ready for the helicopter to lift everyone to safety when the time runs out. But more than that, you'll know that the hook is none of these things; the reason you want in is the 53,594 residents of Willamette, and the brilliantly violent means with which you can shuffle them loose the semi-mortal coil.

Listing some of the implements is a good start. Sickles, sledgehammers, parasols, sticks, lead pipes, guns (boring), steel shelving units, wooden benches, chairs, fruit, boxes of cans, mannequins, pies, glasses, jewels, hockey sticks and golf clubs. I haven't found a kipper yet, but I bet one's in there. You can also bundle people over with a range of special attacks, most of which are unlocked over time. But listing the means to dispatch zombies alone is scarcely sufficient to capture the comedy and intensity of the operation, which sees you wading through literally hundreds of the beasts as they swarm the lobbies and plazas of Willamette, lurching more and more in your direction as their numbers swell and you attempt to break past.

Cleaving limbs from buttery men with knives and chainsaws; mowing down the masses not with a lawnmower (although there is one and it's very messy) but by holding a giant parasol in front of you like a plough and charging headlong into a crowd; climbing onto shoulders and bounding from head to head; smashing a mannequin against a throng of undead, picking up the knee joint and beating the nearest grandmother over the head with it. The sense of the unknown, of experimentation, is the same as once we had dusting the back-alleys of Liberty City in search of skulls-and-crossbones and discarded weaponry.

Cos you see (to continue the caption-narrative), guns are mainly used in boss fights. And boss fights are a bit like GTA missions: doable, but draining.

Except here the pickings are much richer, the potential much more obvious and elusive at the same time; it was several hours before I found a good sickle, and even longer before my first motorbike. Yet all the time the zombie-counter in the bottom-right racks up kills, and that "Zombie Genocider" achievement lingers in your thoughts. Thoughts that occasionally evaporated completely as I toyed with costumes found in any number of shops dotted around the mall - GTA San Andreas tried to make your appearance important, but Dead Rising recognises that it's far better to simply be ridiculous. Let the player have fun. If the player wants to have a significant conversation at a pivotal point in the game dressed in hotpants and a Freddy Krueger mask, let him.

Dead Rising is no Grand Theft Auto, of course. Capcom's creation is gloriously gory, rag-dolled up to the hollow-point nines and wrapt in missions the way Rockstar's opus is, but its macabre invention is quite different. And so far, that's the key to its success. Dead Rising is flawed in lots of ways. Speaking objectively, it's guilty of a lot of things that I'd usually slate. But there's a magical, explosive freshness to it too - like looking at an old friend through new eyes or looking at a crackwhore through Jeremy Kyle.

Structurally it's bold: a classic "start again from the beginning" set-up brought back from Keith Richards' ledge beyond death and wandering around impossibly. You start the main "72 Hour Mode" with a sweep over the city of Willamette in a chopper; a photojournalist working off a tip, you're given the chance to snap a few shots. Usually you hold the left trigger to bring up the camera but here it's up by default; you use B and A to zoom in and out and X to capture the image. And then the game scores you based on something you'll soon get used to, "Prestige Points". These form the backbone of the levelling structure, which upgrades health stats, attack attributes and so on as you improve. And you get them depending on picture composition. A shot of a zombie is worth a handful, but a shot of zombies ripping a man from the roof of his car, a petrol station exploding or, later, an undead gran with a disembodied forearm jammed in her mouth, nets a few more.

Although still oddly satisfying. More fun, anyway, to simply rack up a mountain of dismembered dead. And then photograph them.

Combat earns you some prestige, depending on what you do, but it's the photos that sweep up the most. When you first unite a man and woman, separated from one another, on the roof above the security-room hub where you save and deposit rescued civilians, and they hug, you have an unheralded split-second to whip up your camera with LT, sweep it round to capture them and shutter the moment for a PP bonus. There are many more examples, and your first reaction to a boss encounter is more often than not to dart around exploring the potential for a good shot; you figure out attack patterns almost as a byproduct of trying to secure a scoop (kind of like writing first impressions as one long train of thought).

But you know, should you die, and you will, you face a quandary. Dead Rising is no quick-saver; it's no passworder or checkpointer. You save at bathrooms and the security room by lying down on a couch, and there is one save slot, quite deliberately. No more. When you die, you can either reload from the save, or save off your current stat-levels (skills, kills and costumes included), and start from the beginning again. It's punishing if you don't figure it out for a while. It's also constantly moving. Otis, an old bloke back at the hub, is constantly feeding you news of survivors he's spotted on the CCTV and their locations by mobile-phone, but there's no way you can get to all of them. Actually getting to them is easy enough; by pressing left on the d-pad you bring up a watch and a list of potential "scoops" (missions), and by selecting one and pressing A you're given a middle-of-the-screen pointer that arrows in on your objective, continually switching direction like a route-finder (it's better than GTA's actually; it tells you which corners to turn). But as you'll know if you check your watch, there's not enough time, and you're constantly distracted. I'd like to save those Japanese tourists, but look at all the zombs lining up for my lawnmower! You've scarcely enough time to reach one or two side-missions of the many available and get back in place for the time-sensitive story missions. The stats page that tracks how many of the survivors live or die will leave you thoroughly indebted.

Especially as you'll need to hit those story-missions, because if you don't, or if critical characters die, it's story-over. It's not game-over, because you can simply continue. But you can't save the day and uncover the mystery, and you can't simply return to a yellow pillar of mission-trigger and kick off again; you have to reload. Dead Rising's about budgeting time and trying to have fun when you're not on the clock. It's a neat thing to bind you to as well, because there's forever more that you want to do than you can complete. It's not just George A. Sandbox Romero; it's George A. Sandbox RoKIDS! PLAY-TIME'S OVER! Curses.

And yes, you do get PP bonuses for shots like this.

And yes, as I say, it's flawed. There are too many boss-fights, for a start (although the notion of a bunch of people becoming psychopathically nutty as a side-effect of a zombie infestation and running around in clownsuits with chainsaws, or tanking their shopping trolleys up with knives and spatulas and running at customers, is enjoyably consistent with the tone they're gunning for). There's a lot of ground to cover to get anywhere. The save system, though you can see what they wanted to achieve, still precludes you from certain things unfairly. Why not at least let us run several games in parallel? But then I can go over all this and whether it means anything in the review, and anyway, a lot of it's off-set (for example, the frustration you fear at having to support an old man's tottering from one end of the mall to the other on a strict time-limit is then surprisingly usurped by the pleasure of discovering that, jogging together shoulder to shoulder, you can basically clothesline anyone who gets in your way - at speed). Anyway, right now I just want to remark upon the fact that I played Dead Rising for about seven hours straight yesterday, and even the occasional story-mission bottleneck, unfair death or other quirk couldn't dampen my enthusiasm to continue. I mean, look at this paragraph; I started it off with a cautious "beware" sort of angle, and then there was this ridiculous parenthetical hijacking that confused it completely and now it's a mess.

Mind you, that's consistent with the general gameplay. Up to this point, Dead Rising is like wandering through a theme park and not being able to decide what to do first. The agony is having to turn things down, or settle on only one way of doing them. In a misty sort of way, it's a kind of Zombie Deus Ex, except, you know, with playfulness in place of gravitas. And as long as it keeps this up (this pattern of inciting ridiculous comparisons, anyway), and continues to deliver entertaining props at suitable intervals, no amount of minor flaws will really bother the score. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to curtail this rambling nonsense and slip into some hotpants. Mustn't keep the undead waiting.

Dead Rising is due out in Europe on September 8th. Look out for our full review in the next few days. Hopefully he'll bother to plan that one before typing.

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