Zombies! Tens of thousands of ’em! They’re all over the mall, shuffling about and eating people. And there you are, photojournalist Frank West or one of the less good protagonists, treating them like a minor inconvenience while you chase down the story.
I’ve got a lot of time for the Dead Rising series, all the way back to the 2006 original. Initially intrigued by the technology that could put hundreds of zombies on-screen simultaneously with – for the day – respectable 3D graphics and performance, I found myself won over by game design. Frank, you see, couldn’t be everywhere at once, and the Willamette mall was full of survivors who needed saving, psychopaths (…mmm) who needed stopping, and leads that needed following. The game forced decisions and sacrifice on you, and made it quite clear you couldn’t do everything.
Not the most popular design choice, if you listen to people who shouldn’t be allowed to have opinions. Waaah. I can’t do everything. Whatever. Dead Rising was an intense and memorable experience, one that actively rewarded repeat playthroughs, exploring different paths and routes and choices. It actively reinforced this approach through its meta-progression, with character levels and abilities carried over after death, if you opted to start the story again rather than load your last save. It’s a game about experimentation to learn your environment: where certain items can be found, good routes from A to B, what can be accomplished against the relentlessly ticking clock. Or, if you prefer, a game about ignoring that clock and just dicking around, smacking zombies with parasols and trying on stupid costumes.
The zombies were usually the most minor obstacle, particularly as your skillset expanded to include tricks like hopping on zombies’ heads to easily traverse a horde. They were much harder work when attempting to save or escort survivors, where you often needed to directly fight through a horde – or simply, as Rab Florence memorably put it in an old videoGaiden review, when you’re off doing your thing and you forgot about the zombies.
The series has watered down these elements over time. The focus has shifted further toward zombie-infested locations as toybox, supported with (fun!) additions such as the combination of scavenged objects to make outlandish weaponry. As the focus shifted it the importance of making meaningful decisions declined; there was less need to accept compromises or miss out, or to deeply learn and memorise environments or carefully plan routes. None of this is inherently bad. These are just different design choices. What is a shame is that they are all choices that move away from what makes Dead Rising still a largely unique videogame, and toward the convergence point of so-called “triple-A”* sandbox games.
Dead Rising 4, then. It’s full of collectibles: not just blueprints for combo weapons but also newspapers, podcasts, cloud uploads, cellphones, keys and so on. There’s a few hundred of the sodding things. It’s just shy of full Ubigame, mainly differing in that in order to identify everything on your map, you need to secure a safehouse, then grind out a bunch of randomly occurring survivor-rescue events. This sort of works, because within each of the game’s environments there’s some pleasure in learning them, but the game world is also made up of four not well-connected locations with a main story that awkwardly shuffles you between them. Alongside collectibles, then, there’s another sin of contemporary sandbox games: it is simply too big, meaning too much boring traversal, too much repeated busywork between locations, and insufficient opportunity or encouragement to learn the environments in an interesting way.
DR4 also dispenses with all the character progression elements of the first two games. If you die, you load from a checkpoint. That’s it. Enticement to replay the game only comes in the form of scooping up those collectibles. Yay. Great for the one-run-only crew, I guess. There’s a traditional character build tree rather than the old approach of receiving a random upgrade every level. It’s fine to take that route, but I felt a lot of the options weren’t very interesting, and there was never a sense that my decisions mattered much except where I chose an option that would speed up future progression.
There’s also now a health bar rather than health pips, which basically means you constantly lose health when in proximity to zombies, compared to the calculable neatness of the older system. Again, this is just different. I pay less attention to health as a result. It’s also easier to manage health now. Dead Rising 4, in general, is easier and more fluid to play than its predecessors. In usability terms it’s hugely improved. Health, throwable, melee and ranged weapons are mapped to the d-pad, and choosing the right tool for a situation is much easier than the panicked left-right taps through Dead Rising’s common inventory ever was.
There’s a compromise there, too. It’s an improvement in usability that I imagine also makes the game more accessible, which is a very important consideration. But there is also a loss inherent in it, because poor usability can, intentionally or not, contribute toward a game’s theme. The shift from clumsy tank controls in Resident Evil to the fluid over-the-shoulder action of Resident Evil 4 is perhaps the most famous example, showing how control and interaction can be an integral part in transitioning a sedately-paced and nail-biting horror series into a fluid, intense action series. Not ‘bad’. Not better, or worse. Just different.
But back to Dead Rising 4. Yeah, I enjoyed it, and played its lacklustre story through to the end. In some ways it’s more fun to play than what came before. But in so many others it’s content to imitate competitors in preference to building upon its forebears. And in so doing, it can’t help but lose parts of the identity that once made a Dead Rising game stand out.
A coda, of sorts: I think a lot of people were made very angry by Dead Rising 4 launching alongside a paid DLC that promises to finish the story. Yeah, the main game that you buy for £60 or whatever doesn’t do that. Except that it does, in the sense that you see protagonist Frank West falling into a horde of zombies with no chance of escape. Of course he could escape, but at this point I’m content just to look away and accept Frank is, finally, dead.
* If you don’t follow the games press, and I can hardly blame you as it’s often dreadful and at best myopic, this terminology is basically adopted from corporate publishers and means “we spent a lot of money on it”. Some chumps are now using the term “quadruple-A”, which basically means “we spent even more money on it”.