"Yeah, I know I'm ugly... I said to a bartender, 'Make me a zombie.' He said 'God beat me to it.'" - Rodney Dangerfield
I have always been notoriously picky when it comes to how I spend my pleasure time. Books, food, boyfriends – I know what I like, and the hell with the rest of the pack. Games are no exception. I cherry pick from the crowd, and while attrition is high, those games that do hold my attention are played within to an inch of their pixilated lives, often repetitively and at great length.
I have spent the last seven days playing Dead Rising.
It's a good game. It's a really good game. It comes so close to being a great game that its flaws are doubly frustrating. On any other game, some of these pitfalls would make me abandon the controller and never look back. But – but – zombies, man. I can brain them with a sledgehammer. And then take a picture of the beaten corpse. How can I walk away from that?
You play as Frank West, freelance photojournalist. (This lovely piece of alliteration almost tempted me to write this review in the epic poetry style found in Beowulf.
Frank, freelance photojournalist/ comes he to Willamette
By helicopter into hell/ bringing camera and courage
But I'm feeling much better now.) He gets a hot tip that something big is going down in the town of Willamette, Colorado – the National Guard has cordoned off the area, and nothing is coming out or going in. Except Frank. He charters a helicopter and flies in, camera in hand. The game begins as he and his pilot enter Willamette airspace.
There is a minigame at the very beginning --you view the town from above through the lens of Frank's camera. Four scenes play out as you fly over the town -- catch the big moments on film, and you garner your first "Prestige Points," which go toward leveling Frank up, making him faster, meaner, and more skilled, acquiring bigger and more badass ways to put down those shambling corpses. There are photo ops throughout the game -- a PP tag pops up to let you know when to point and shoot. These mostly happen in the middle of the action, so you have to be quick on the draw. I was really impressed by the way Capcom structured this part of the gameplay. It made Frank believable as a gutsy photojournalist, the kind of guy who would boldly go where the Army feared to tread just to get a good shot. Throughout the game, he hangs onto the camera like a kid would a security blanket. There are episodes where it is possible for him to be knocked out, stripped, and confined -- but he never loses the camera, even when he's down to his skivvies. Now that's dedication.
You land on the roof, make your way inside, and, after a brief cutscene showing how the defenses at the main mall doors are broken, it's time for the undead to strut their stuff. As a first encounter with zombies, this one is a doozie. Literally hundreds of them pour inside, and by the time the cutscene ends, they are everywhere, blocking your path to safety. There are a few weapons to hand -- two by fours and baseball bats -- so getting to the stairs is harrowing but not that difficult. This little bit of face-to-rotting-face action illustrates another of Dead Rising's undeniable strengths. Capcom got the zombies exactly right. The balance between clumsy/stupid and hideous strength/power of numbers is exquisitely done. If you are smart, and fast, and never get careless, you can dodge through the thinner clusters. When the way before you is packed with a gasping, moaning horde, well, you better hope you have some sturdy weapons to hand.
Zombies basically have two attacks; they grapple and gnaw, or they swipe. Both will stop you in your tracks, allowing other zombies to close in from every direction. The game walks you through zombie combat pretty effectively, and even when grappled by several of the undead, there are ways for Frank to win free. Combat is varied and often hilarious. I don't even know how many ways there are to kill zombies in this game, but it's got to be pushing one hundred. In addition to plain ol' fisticuffs, there are bladed weapons, blunt weapons, guns of all kinds, and most of the scenery can be picked up and swung or jabbed, sometimes with humorous results. As an example, attacking with an orange hazard cone will cause Frank to pop it onto the nearest zombie's head. The hapless corpse then wanders around harmlessly, waving its arms. I once did this to as many as I could find cones for, killed everything else in the area, and then laughed myself silly as they bumped and shuffled and staggered, unable to do anything but groan at me.
Zombie killing, while fun, worthwhile, and wholly encouraged by the game design, is not the main thrust of the plot. Someone or something made the zombies, and it's up to Frank to find out who or what. The mall's Security Room will be your base of operations for most of the rest of the game. There is a place to save (a hideous green couch), sometimes food to regain health, rooms to stash the other survivors that you bring to safety, and the lovely Otis, mall janitor, to come home to. You barely get time to glance around, however, before Brad, another survivor, takes off through the vents on some mission. When you follow, a cutscene has Frank mistake Jessie, Brad's partner, for a zombie and attack her. She conveniently sprains her ankle, forcing her to hand off her gun (and any lingering shred of feminine agency this plot had) and send you to help Brad in her place.
This is the first of the "Cases", the main plot points of the story that you must accomplish in order to continue to the true ending. This part of the game I didn't find so well done. The Cases themselves reveal the plot in an intriguing manner, each a hard won puzzle piece for Frank to fit together. They fall into two broad categories; either you have to fight someone, or you have to be somewhere by a certain time. The fights are alright, hard but not insanely so. Often, however, I found myself just standing around, killing time til the next Case started because there wasn't time to accomplish anything in the interval. This is not fun gaming. Boredom, however mild, should never be a game element. Often you have to wait in the Security Room, where there is literally nothing to do except take pictures of Jessie's cleavage and receive the adulation of those survivors you manage to drag to safety. If you miss a Case, it doesn't end the game, but you can't achieve the true ending, and unless you start over from your last save, you will have to play the whole thing again.
In addition to Cases, there are "Scoop" missions, which you get via transceiver from Otis. Otis monitors the camera feeds in the Security Room and informs you of survivors holed up in various stores (escort missions) and psychopaths terrorizing various areas of the mall (boss fight missions). These are optional, although if you dodge the psychopaths, you will have to deal with them chasing you every time you cross that section of the mall. And if you leave people to die, well, you're not a very nice person, I suppose. Accomplishing these missions are worth major Prestige Points, and sometimes open up secrets or other helpful tidbits. Some survivors give you side missions, as well. There are rewards for saving all the survivors, for beating all the psychopaths, for getting pictures of everyone. In fact, there are rewards for pretty much anything you can do in the game, making exploration and experimentation not only fun, but very worthwhile.
The Scoop missions are fun, although getting a group of terrified, useless shoppers across the zombie-infested stretches of the mall is challenging. If you have a large group, expect to lose a few unless you work really hard. Every time someone dies, the game throws their name up on the screen in huge, accusing red letters, "So-and-so is dead," just to rub it in a little more. The psychopaths are typical boss fights – each has a trick to it, and once you divine that trick, the fight is not that hard. It's not the Scoops themselves that are frustrating, but rather that it's nearly impossible to do them all.
The game is structured around timers – Frank has three days until his ride returns, and each Case happens at a set time. If you don't complete the Case by that time, you lose out on the story. Some Cases are so close together that I was pressed to just get them done, never mind the Scoops that Otis kept bothering me about. I can only imagine that Capcom constructed the game this way to increase replayability -- if you get the Cases all done and follow through to the true ending, then you can start over and focus on getting all the Prestige Point photographs, or rescuing all the survivors, or bagging all the psychopaths, or any of the other accomplishments that bear rewards. The game encourages this by allowing the player to retain all of Frank's levels and skills when starting a new game. Their execution of this option, though, could have used a little refinement.
Saves are few and far between. You can save in the Security Room, or at a bathroom, or after a Case is completed. Often the game has you running so hard that snatching a moment to head into the john is difficult to manage. This is not the worst of it, however. When Frank dies, you get two options. One says "load game," the other, "save progress and quit." Boys and girls, they do not mean game progress, they mean character progress, as in, you can save Frank's current level and skill set. If you choose this option, however, it overwrites your save game and you must begin the game all over again. In addition, there is only one save slot. If you save when you are too far away from a Case checkpoint and cannot get there in time, too bad. You will have to restart the game. (Yes, both these things happened to me. Yes, I screamed a little bit. But I'm feeling much better now.)
I am, as I have pointed out, picky. In gaming, this often translates to replaying bits until I get them "right" -- as close to perfect as possible. In Dead Rising, this is so difficult as to be nearly impossible. With so few save points, I had to replay large swaths of the game to attempt this refinement of my progress. Eventually, I had to give up, let survivors die, miss out on Scoops, and sometimes not even answer Otis's calls at all. I don't know how he knows when Frank is eyeball deep in zombies, toting a lamed survivor, or exchanging fire with some deranged lunatic, but it seems like he never calls your transceiver when you have the luxury of actually answering the damn thing. My inability to do it all really, really frustrated me.
On the whole, I'm enjoying the hell out of this game, especially now that I've mastered the art of scrambling up a zombie's shoulders and walking over the ravaged, bloody heads of the undead crowd. Sure, there are moments of frustration when I have to put down the controller and walk away, moments when it feels like the game is getting in its own way, when I want to drop kick whoever designed it. But I always come back. I mean, zombies, man. I can run them over with a lawnmower, bits of gore flying out like cut grass. How can I walk away from that?