Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dead Rising - A True Classic

In preparation for the release of the PC/Steam port of Dead Rising 3, and to get in the mood of playing it, I’ve decided to go back and play the previous entries in the Dead Rising series, starting with the original Dead Rising, the subject of this review. I have a light history with this game, having watched one of my friends enthusiastically play it on his Xbox 360. However, I began playing the series from Dead Rising 2 (on PS3) and eventually decided that I would need a copy of the original, so I ended up buying one with the thought that one day I would play it. When I finally got around to it, I finally discovered some time in what the “Perfect Circle Scratch” was on 360 discs and what that means (additionally, I don’t remember if my used copy already came with this scratch), so I ended up having to buy another copy to finish the game; because of this I now have both the original and Platinum Hits versions. Since finally going through Dead Rising on my own, eight years after the original 2006 launch, I ended up liking it more than I thought I would, though there are some issues with it that I ended up agreeing with.

Frank West, a photojournalist who has covered wars, is flying by helicopter towards a big scoop, which involves learning what’s been going on in the town of Willamette, Colorado. Since the town has been sealed off from the outside world by the National Guard, the helicopter serves as a means of getting inside unnoticed. As he is flown over he decides to take some photos, but something doesn’t seem quite right, as it appears that the townspeople are attacking each other, something they wouldn’t normally do. Frank decides to head to the center of town and is dropped off on the helipad of the Willamette Parkview Mall and informs the pilot to pick him up in 72 hours, since he hopes to have his scoop by that time. When he descends the stairs to the entrance plaza, he sees zombies outside the mall, as well as a mysterious old man behind a locked security gate asking cryptic questions. Eventually the zombies manage to break through the barricade and, in the rush to ascend the stairs to the mall security room, only four people survive the attack: Frank, Brad Garrison, Jessie McCarney and Otis Washington, a janitor who welds the door to the room shut. Brad decides to leave via the air duct to continue an investigation, but when Frank asks about it he is told that it doesn’t concern a photojournalist like him. Frank convinces himself that whatever Brad is investigating must relate to what’s going on in Willamette and follows Brad into the mall, where he gradually uncovers a vast conspiracy that he has no choice but to continue uncovering even when his life is continually threatened.

Frank West, photojournalist.

During the course of 72 Hour Mode, where the bulk of the story takes place, the overarching mystery set up at the beginning is written very well. A sufficient amount of questions are introduced within roughly the first few minutes in a way that makes the player just as curious as Frank is about what exactly is going on in Willamette. As the player completes the Cases which make up the main story, more answers are revealed to both Frank and the player, which lead to scenes with a genuine emotional impact through all of the highs and lows, in turn creating more of a connection between Frank and the player, as though the player is also a reporter trying to get the facts straight. That isn’t to say Frank doesn’t have a personality; in fact, it’s very interesting to play as someone who’s willing to help others out, not out of genuine kindness, but out of his opportunistic way of getting more information about his big scoop. In other words, he cares more about his own survival and journalistic opportunity than actually saving people.

The supporting characters, for the most part, are also written nicely. It’s obvious that they have more of a stake in the events than Frank does, but we learn enough about them to get a sense of their personalities and histories with each other, something which also extends to the main antagonists. Additionally, the Psychopaths that Frank can fight are interesting in that they can have unique backgrounds and the way they act gives the player a good idea of the kind of people they are and why they went insane, plus they can elicit a genuine emotion from the player; this is mostly tension or fear, but they are also capable of being sympathetic in their histories. In other words, they feel like people and not just a random person you can fight.

72 Hour mode is divided in Cases that the player can complete to gradually unravel the secrets behind the zombie outbreak. Depending on how well the player succeeds in clearing the cases, or if they just outright ignored it, they will get one of six different endings labeled A through F. If the player gets Ending A, the canonical outcome of 72 Hour Mode, they will unlock Overtime Mode, which adds another 24 hours to the story and wraps up the plot. Overtime Mode is worth going through, since Frank, while still very opportunistic, experiences a truly life-threatening circumstance and places more urgency in his survival. The ending, however, is slightly unsatisfactory since one question was never answered, but otherwise all of the remaining pieces of the game’s backstory fall into place very nicely.

When I played Overtime Mode, this walkthrough was a real lifesaver.

As a sandbox game, Dead Rising has some very interesting elements, the most well-known feature being the ability to pick up absolutely anything in the mall and use it as a weapon against the zombie hordes, ranging from beach umbrellas and soccer balls to lawnmowers and chainsaws. It’s satisfying to experiment with the items to see which ones are the most effective and which are simply meant as a joke; if you have no weapons you can go hand-to-hand or use your own spit. Various food and drink items can also be picked up to replenish Frank’s health, represented by yellow squares, and skill books can be picked up to add skill buffs, such as increasing the durability of specific weapon types or the amount of health you regain from food and drink consumption. Learning how all of these items work in tandem and exploiting that is the best way to survive, although there is a particular combination (Small Chainsaw + Criminal Biography (Book) + Engineering (Book) + Entertainment (Book)) that makes the game way easier than intended by making most boss fights a breeze and allowing you to effortlessly carve your way through all but the largest zombie crowds. At that point, the tension comes from having a low level, being under-equipped or ending up between a rock and a hard place.

Protip: Kill this man at all costs.

Even then, there are a couple of annoyances with the weapons you can use. Firearms are a real hassle, since they require you to stand perfectly in place while you aim, so you can’t exactly take cover or maneuver out of the way of oncoming enemies if you choose to do so. There are a couple points when having a firearm does become essential to victory (one of which involves funneling your enemies into a tight space), but apart from that I almost never used them and kept one around as a last resort tactic. Weapons can also break pretty easily without any skill books, so you have to keep a healthy supply of weapons and appropriate books on hand at all times if you want to make it through each day. I’d also count vehicles as weapons, since you can drive them through zombie crowds, so I’ll mention that they have issues as well. It’s very satisfying to drive through thick groups of zombies and gain an absurd amount of PP (more on that later), but the vehicles in general are a little floaty in the steering and it’s often difficult to slow to a stop and get out/dismount in the exact spot you want, which can force you to wade through more zombies to get to your intended destination. Still, the sheer speed of getting to where you need to go is well worth their use.

Dead Rising also has a very slight RPG touch to it by having Frank capable of leveling up via gaining more Prestige Points (PP). PP can usually be earned by defeating zombies and psychopaths, rescuing survivors or taking photographs. Photographs are pretty easy to take, since it’s pretty much point-and-shoot while also allowing you to zoom in and out (plus you can actually walk at a respectable pace while aiming!). Whenever a shot is taken, PP is awarded based on what’s in the photo, which also determines the shot’s overall genre. This is a rather fun and relatively quick way to gain PP, although you have to worry about replacing the batteries every so often, which takes some of the fun out of it. As Frank levels up in general, either one of his stats increases or he gains a special move that can be activated by certain button combinations. There are ways to exploit the game to gain PP much faster (such as Vehicles + Maintenance Tunnels), but the road to Level 50 is actually not a bad one and there’s an interesting thrill in discovering what’s happened to Frank next thanks to the random nature of the rewards.

You'd better love it down here if you want the Zombie Genocider achievement.

As for the other methods, Psychopaths are essentially boss fights that happen in pre-determined locations at specific times. You can easily walk right into one without knowing that they’re there, but you’re often told about them ahead of time by Otis. Psychopath fights can also be incredibly difficult, though the Convicts in Leisure Park really take the cake for being in a moving vehicle with a mounted machine gun; I ended up just hugging the wall to avoid them whenever I had to go through that area after they spawned onto the map. But the difficulty in Psychopath fights can be worth it in the end thanks to the fruitful rewards you can claim, such as Adam (the clown psychopath) yielding some of the game’s most essential aids; defeating him gives you the Small Chainsaw and a survivor named Greg Simpson who gives you access to the Wonderland Plaza shortcut. This shortcut makes it much easier to rescue survivors, although the survivors themselves are dumber than a sack of rocks. Their pathfinding is abysmal and can be a real hindrance, especially when you give them a melee weapon, since then they’ll just happily run into zombie crowds without a second thought, but giving them a firearm suddenly makes them killing machines, which finally gives those weapons a use as well as making the escort experience bearable.

In general, Dead Rising has a mild arcade feel that actually makes for a very enjoyable experience, though I still have a couple major hang-ups about it. The first is Otis, the janitor, who manages to call you on the transceiver at the worst possible times. The transceiver rings incessantly, so you answer to shut it up, but when you do, you can’t move, attack or interact with items or inventory in any way. If you get hit during this time, the call automatically ends and he’ll call you again a few seconds later; answering this call will result in Otis chewing you out for hanging up on him and restarting his rather long-winded explanation. On top of that, he hardly ever has anything useful to say, sometimes just telling you where you are in the mall. While Otis is annoying though, that’s nowhere near on the level of the game’s 72 hour time limit, or roughly six hours in real time (game time is real time x 12, so one real second is twelve game seconds and five real minutes is one game hour). The idea behind the 72 hours isn’t bad, since it creates the time frame of the story, but the way this is handled results in more of a frantic race from Point A to Point B, rather than a game where you can sort of take your time, and often there is very low margin of error during a Case and deviating from the set path can have disastrous consequences (unless you’re doing this intentionally).

Time is known to pass quickly in this realm.

One final sticking point is the save system. You only have one slot per account, so if you decide to do another game mode while in the middle of another, you’ve lost all progress in the original mode. If you die while playing the game, you only have two options, those being to load your last save (which may have been hours ago) or restart the game from scratch with a new save. Additionally, you can only save at specific points on the map, mainly in bathrooms, which are more often than not spaced what feels like galaxies apart from each other, creating true panic if you’re desperately looking for one. The saving grace of this system though is that when you start up a new game, your stats transfer between attempts, so if you end up getting to Level 50 (which is actually the level cap), then you’ll be Level 50 with maxed out stats and moves in every mode you decide to play.

Dead Rising also has a lot of replay value, since there are achievements or items that can only be obtained by deviating from the main story or performing certain actions. Spending playthroughs doing so to boost your chances of survival can be well worth the effort, since anything you unlocked will be readily accessible and obscenely overpowered. Also, completing Overtime Mode will unlock Infinity Mode, where the goal is simply to survive as long as possible. However, the zombie density is thicker and Frank must worry about his health, which deteriorates at a rate of one block every 100 seconds, as well as random psychopath and survivor encounters. Careful rationing of food and supplies, along with a solid game plan, and possibly being at Level 50, can really go a long way to surviving beyond the first day (I survived for a little less than four game hours).

Good Luck

As far as graphics are concerned, I would say that the game has aged amazingly well. I remember it looking pretty good back in 2006, but even eight years later the game has retained a lot of its luster. The characters look realistic enough that they aren’t off-putting and the amount of detail is incredible on every living or inanimate object. Sure there’s some clipping here and there and close-ups aren’t as good on some characters, but the draw distance is also very good and the zombies are very distinctive even with the somewhat limited selection of character models. In fact, one of the greatest feats of this game is being able to have so many zombies onscreen at once, with one report saying that up to 800 could be rendered at once. This is really incredible and adds to the feeling of being truly surrounded by the undead at every turn.

There's plenty more where they came from.

While I would consider the voice acting to be another plus, even though some lines are so narmy that they’ve become running jokes in the Dead Rising community, I’d also like to give props to the music. The running themes, such as the one at the beginning, are composed well and the mall music is actually done well to the point that I’d like to own the soundtrack just to hear it some more (killing zombies in a mall for so long will do that to you). Some of the licensed tracks are also very memorable, such as Fly Routine by Hostile Groove or Slave by The Evolutionaries.

Overall, Dead Rising is a great game. The main mystery in the story is executed very well and Frank West is a very interesting character to play as, especially during the moments of genuine emotional connection that the player may encounter. Some aspects bog down the experience a bit, including the incredibly strict timing of the story and abysmally idiotic survivors, but there’s plenty on offer to balance it out, such as a solid amount of replay value and valuable rewards to anyone willing to seek them. My experience with the Xbox 360 library is limited, but I would already consider Dead Rising to be one of the best games I’ve ever played on it and I’d gladly return to it again in the future. If you’re looking for a great zombie game, seek out this wonderful gem.

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