With Dead Rising 4, Capcom’s curious zombie series has officially entered Saints Row territory.
Developer: Capcom Vancouver
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Format: PC, Xbox One (reviewed)
Released: December 6, 2016
Copy provided by publisher
Dead Rising has always been an unusual property. The original game was just plain weird whatever way you slice it. With its strict time limit, off-kilter characters, and devotion to utterly maddening escort missions, Dead Rising is the sort of game that takes effort to love, but even those who hate it would have to admit there’s nothing quite like it.
As the series has continued, it’s sanitized itself to a notable degree, incrementally removing all of its quirks and oddities to provide a more standard open world zombie game. At the same time, it’s upped the ante when it comes to ridiculous in-game content, attempting to provide sillier characters, ridiculous weapons, and more extreme levels of undead violence.
It’s an ironic twist that, as the series willingly pushes the envelope, it’s becoming more “normal” at the same time, and in a world where Saints Row already exists, it can be argued Dead Rising has stripped away its most notable and uniquely identifiable features without providing an adequately special edge in return.
Dead Rising 3 kicked off the shift toward a more universally appealing series with a time limit extended to the point of negligibility, the removal of distinct save points, and a lack of escort missions. In Dead Rising 4, there isn’t a time limit at all, with the returning Frank West having as much time as he likes to explore Willamette and tackle its missions.
In keeping with this continued shift, the game has given up any pretense of taking itself seriously and has become a pure comedy game.
Frank has gone from irreverent to goofy, with comically bumbling behavior and endless one-liners. The austentatious combo weapons, already pretty over-the-top by Dead Rising 3, are borderline abstract in some cases, so ridiculous they make the premise of a zombie invasion seem mundane in comparison.
As for the overall story, let’s just say even George Romero – latter day, post-Land of the Dead George Romero – might find it a little too wacky for his tastes.
What I am describing may sound like a nightmare to some veteran Dead Rising lovers. A mechanically stripped zombie game that makes a joke of the series’ world? Truly, this is a travesty and insult to the name Dead Rising.
I sympathize with that mindset, I truly do.
However, I must confess I’ve never particularly cared for the first two Dead Rising games, as much as I admire them from a distance and appreciate the ways in which they tried to be different. The less constrained, more comic approach introduced in Dead Rising 3 appealed to me far more, which is worth keeping in mind when I say how much I enjoyed this new one.
No, it’s not the Dead Rising experience many will want. It’s a damn fine, damn fun, damn funny game though.
The zombie virus that plagued America across three prior games is supposed to have been successfully stamped out thanks to vaccination, but a Black Friday catastrophe at an all-new shopping mall in Willamette has seen the return of not just the undead, but their more evolved, more aggressive offshoots.
Framed as a murderer by the government to protect its naughty zombie secrets, an aging and bitter Frank West is pulled out of hiding by the ZDC, who want him to go back to the town that started it all and expose what broke out at the Willamette mall all over again. At Christmas, no less!
I love that Dead Rising 4 is set during Christmas. You really don’t get to see many seasonally relevant games anymore, doubtless due to them wanting to appeal all year round. While this game isn’t so steeped in yuletide antics that it’s overbearing, it’s wonderful to see a snowy town environment with discarded decorations, trees, and appropriately sentimental music.
Though Capcom advertised this release by promising Frank was back, the replacement of Terence Rotolo as the legendary photojournalist makes this a very different West. His new vocal performer does a fantastic job – he’s got a witty delivery and a way of inflecting that makes even the stupidest lines amusing – but he’s somebody else entirely.
DR4 would have a different tone had Rotolo reprised the role, and it’s impossible to know if that tone would have been superior. All I know is that the new Frank West is great, though there’s a constant nagging feeling that he’s not Frank West at all. Performance matters, after all.
Along with the central mall, Dead Rising 4 expands Willamette to include the surrounding town, just as convoluted in its design as Los Perdidos from the previous installment – seriously, have better onscreen directions if you’re going to make streets so littered with blockades. Put a trail on the road or something, because vague onscreen markers don’t account for how specific some routes need to be.
As one might expect, it’s filled with zombies to an absolutely stunning degree, often filling the screen. Additionally, an increased number of human antagonists are now on offer.
Obscuris mercenaries and warped bandits are in conflict with both the undead and Frank himself, making for a more dangerous environment.
They’re joined by new strains of mutant. “Fresh” zombies have been newly turned and are faster, more aggressive alternatives to the classically sluggish ghoul. “Evolved” zombies, meanwhile, are even tougher to put down, and notably smarter than their kin.
West has access to the usual assortment of improvised weaponry lying around the world, and can combined various types to create exotic and exaggerated gear. Classic combo weapons, such as the electric axe and “blast from the past” explosive sledgehammer return, joined by an new combos that officially take the piss – in a good way.
Christmas ornaments and accoutrements heavily influence a lot of the new stuff. Electric wreaths that can collar zombies and zap their surrounding brethren, nutcracker soldiers that can be fitted with guns to protect Frank’s back from ambushes, Christmas bell gauntlets that ring in the holidays with every punch, the game’s many thematic combos are a real laugh to use.
Combo vehicles make their welcome comeback, allowing Frank to craft ludicrous death-dealing machines of various sizes. Size is important here, because the smaller the vehicle, the better it is to watch old beefy Frank squatting in it. The first combo vehicle on offer, for example, is a child’s go-kart that can deliver electrical shockwaves – because of course it is.
Some slight alterations have been made to improve combat. Finishing moves earned by chaining hits together are often designed to clear crowds this time, rather than simply take out a single zombie in some spectacular fashion. While the latter result is common for standard weaponry and special cases, most of the combos now feature large area-of-effect attacks that take out surrounding enemies with impressive bombast.
Firearms, often an afterthought in Dead Rising, are both effective and surprisingly fun to use this time around. Combo guns are some of the most devastating and satisfying items in West’s arsenal, with the Blam-bow – a crossbow that shoots fireworks – being my personal favorite (though the swordfish launcher is a very close second).
By far the biggest addition is the introduction of the Exo Suit. Deployed by the shady Obscuris force, these robotic suits grant temporary access to enhanced strength and durability, allowing Frank to become a zombie-punching machine until the armor powers down. In addition, he can use new heavy weapons, such as miniguns and blocks of concrete with parking meter “handles.”
Should Frank find very specific objects, he can absorb them to change the nature of the suit in a manner somewhat similar to Mega Man. Should he absorb a vacuum cleaner, for example, his exo will transform into a piped air-blaster that sends whirlwinds and tosses zombies about like paper.
It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and the final sign that Capcom’s just gone ahead and embraced how utterly stupid this series can be.
Shelters have been changed to allow for leveling up, and now feature merchants who’ll trade food, weapons, clothing, vehicles, and map information for scrap. Scrap is earned by searching containers and slaughtering zombies, and there’s plenty to go around, with golden coins flying all over the place (because scrap is, naturally, made from shiny golden coins).
Leveling a shelter requires rescuing survivors who, as in Dead Rising 3, simply need a helping hand after spawning at certain map locations. Once the zombies around them are cleared, they’ll make their own way to safety. The more survivors saved, the higher a shelter’s level, and the higher a shelter’s level, the more stuff available to spend scrap on.
Since Frank’s ostensibly back, so too is his camera as photography returning to the series. Capturing scenes of particular brutality are the best way to earn those ever-precious Prestige Points required for upgrading Frank’s abilities, with photos graded and sorted into genres according to what’s shot. As an added bonus, West can take selfies and even sneak on zombies to get a shot of himself posing with their rotting mugs.
For the most part, Dead Rising 4 plays like its predecessor, which I personally enjoy, but one major change is a notable disappointment. The “Psychopaths” of previous games – humans who went off the rails and provided challenging boss encounters – have been replaced by “Maniacs” that, while serving similar purposes, are dramatically reduced in terms of impact.
Rather than offering standalone battles, Maniacs come in groups overseen by a named leader. Their appearances are interspersed throughout the campaign, but they have no real relevance or are treated with importance of any kind. There are no introductory cutscenes for them, and fights against the leaders require no special tactics or interesting nuances.
A big part of the entertainment of Dead Rising has always been encounters against the cracked survivors who provided some twisted flavor to the world. As Maniacs, these survivors are little more than just another enemy type, which is a shame because the dialog and costumes they wear demonstrate some serious squandered potential.
Other tweaks are more welcome, such as melee weapons, firearms, thrown items, and food each getting their own separate inventories with associated D-pad assignments. Not only does it improve the fluidity of gameplay, it’s simply more convenient for the player to have specific slots for each type of item.
Controls are still a bit of a fight, however. Trying to get the item you want when it’s surrounded by dozens of others on the floor – all obtained with the same button press – is a hassle, while combat can still be frustratingly sluggish at times, leading to instances of zombies getting their cheap hits in.
Also, somebody really needs to find a better way of pulling off finisher moves than smooshing one’s thumb over two diagonally-opposed face buttons.
While there are some disappointments and archaic clunkiness, Dead Rising 4 is a great time that makes smart improvements over Dead Rising 3. The comedic beats are surprisingly well executed, especially early on in the campaign, and while the conclusion may be hugely disappointing to some, I can’t fault the series its boldness.
Those who remain saddened at the series’ removal of key features will likely not find themselves happy about DR4, and the return of Frank will be a poor exchange given the overhaul of not just his voice, but his character. Those looking for an enjoyable zombie-smashing romp, however, will find a choice example in this Christmassy take on the Dead Rising franchise.
It’s put me in the holiday spirit, at any rate.