It’s never a good idea to start with a food metaphor, but – if the first Dead Rising was an acquired taste, Dead Rising 4 is popcorn. That’s to say, it’s pretty low on flavour or nutritional content, but if you shovel gigantic handfuls into your mouth without cease you can just about maintain the illusion that you’re eating something substantial. By turns demented and uninspired, Capcom Vancouver’s latest shopping-turned-killing-spree feels like a series marking time till the executioner arrives, but there’s a lot to chew over here and it can be oddly, even annoyingly hard to stop.
Abundance has always been Dead Rising’s keyword, of course. The 2006 original cast players as Frank West, a tabloid photographer scoping out a zombie-infested mall in Willamette, Colorado – a mall that proved a testing ground for the weaponisable potential of common household commodities, as players sallied into battle armed not just with guns and blades but parosols, TV sets, bowling balls and fruit. There were a few notable checks and rough edges, however: a strict six-hour campaign running time, fussy controls and a cast of goofy locals on journeys of their own through the game, characters destined to meet a sticky end out of shot unless waylaid and escorted to the mall’s saferoom. The campaign and character death mechanics, in particular, split audiences down the middle – some hailing this approach as a source of suspense that adds to the impression of a living world, others decrying it as an arbitrary hindrance that forces you to play and replay if you want to chase up every lead.
Fast forward 10 years and Frank is back – hot on the trail of his wayward apprentice Vick in the midst of yet another, unexplained zombie outbreak. The mall is back, too, though it has evolved almost beyond recognition – new sights and sounds include a mini-car racetrack, a gingerbread Santa’s village and a Caribbean-themed section where thousands of corpses squelch in the shadow of a life-sized pirate galleon. There is still an absolute ton of gaudy crap with which to abuse the undead (the game takes place in the aftermath of a particularly bloodthirsty Black Friday sale), and the zombies themselves are, as ever, not so much a threat as an army of crash test dummies, begging to be crowned with a Christmas wreath, lit on fire and kicked off an escalator.
Selfies are a nice addition to the original Dead Rising’s infamously pervy photography mechanics. GTA 5 got there first, of course, but opening up elbow room is tougher in Dead Rising 4, which makes the thrill of a perfect snap all the sweeter.
If Dead Rising 4 is still a work of knowing excess – George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead through the lens of Grand Theft Auto – it has lost much of the original’s rigour. The timer, already dialled back significantly in previous games, is gone completely – for much of the campaign you’re free to procrastinate as you please, waving aside the pleas and demands of radio contacts as you stroll around shop floors looking for a new jacket or sneakers that compliment the armour you’ve just lifted from a medieval props store. It’s a change for the better if you like to clear out an open world in a single playthrough, but the trade-off is that actions feel less consequential. There’s no longer the slightest incentive to plan, to attend to and intercept the side stories tunnelling through the landscape. Mind you, there are no longer many side stories to discover.
In place of campaign co-op, Dead Rising 4 offers a separate four-player component with randomly selected missions that takes place exclusively in the Willamette mall, where you start over from level zero as one of the bit parts from the story – retreating to a saferoom to heal up and replenish supplies every few missions. There’s a lot of crossover in terms of level-up abilities and combo recipes, and the layout and assets are the same, but the shuffling of missions keeps things reasonably fresh. It can get quite hectic – many of the missions involve timers and reviving a friend in the midst of a baying mob is as difficult as it sounds. I’m disappointed not to be able to play through the campaign itself with a partner, but this is a serviceable substitute.
In place of the old, expansive but exacting Dead Rising template, the new game offers up a fat nosebag of unlockable side content in the Assassin’s Creed mold, with safehouses per region that must be purged of zombies to unlock recurring missions in the vicinity. Carry out enough side missions and you’ll level up the nearest safehouse, which basically boils down to there being more things to buy from shopkeepers. As in Dead Rising 3, the presence of people who sell you things in a game ostensibly devoted to the unholy joys of looting suggests that something is a little rotten at the core.
The game is awash with minor bugs and glitches – from zombies appearing inside objects to missing audio during a couple of cutscenes. It’s tolerable for the most part – this is an incredibly messy game even when it’s running smoothly, but prepare for a rough ride at launch.
It’s a placid, tiresome way of pegging down a world, though it might have scraped a pass if the missions in question were memorable. There are a paltry three types of sidequest – helping stranded refugees fend off the horde, rescuing people from Obscuris, the inevitable dastardly G-man group you’ll spend most of the story pursuing, and blowing up bits of Obscuris equipment. Either way, the idea is generally to clear a 20-metre-wide space of anything undead and/or unfriendly. Other secondary attractions include the Maniacs, watered-down versions of the optional Psycho bosses from previous games that are basically slightly tougher humans wearing sillier costumes. They’re introduced with minimal fanfare and are just as unceremoniously dispatched.
You can expect a few new varieties of zombies, at least – “freshies” who are still limber enough to jump around, and “evos” who are both tough, slippery foes and able to summon the horde. Any additional enjoyment you might glean from tussling with them has to be set against the experience of battling Obscuris soldiers – the human AI is a fabulous mixture of dumb as a post and aggravatingly accurate. And then there are the main bosses. Dead Rising has never put up much of a bossfight, but those you’ll meet in this game are a sorry bunch indeed, governed by crude pattern behaviours such as spawning minions when they take enough damage, or coughing up the odd, half-hearted unblockable attack that you’ll rarely trouble to dodge because healing items are so abundant. It’s a real waste given that Frank himself is a much more capable combatant this time, with separate, easily switched inventories for healing items, ranged weapons and melee weapons, mapped to the D-pad.
Which brings us to weapon (and vehicle) crafting – trimmed down still further from Dead Rising 3, with Frank now able to bolt together a new toy using whatever lies at his feet. There are some amusingly idiotic specimens to uncover – I particularly rate the Back Cracker, a musket-toting rucksack puppet that blasts away at zombies to the rear while you thwack those in front with a trashcan lid. It’s a fine way of navigating a packed alley, though you’re better off in an exosuit. Tucked away in crates throughout the world and available to you during certain story missions, these Iron Man knock-offs bestow ample hitting power, get their own category of weapons – including a set of gauntlets that generate a blizzard – and can be upgraded on the fly using certain items. Most of them have a very short operational life, however, which creates a gentle pressure to plan out a rampage before cracking the seal.
I finished the game in around 15 hours with a 20,000-odd bodycount. You’ll certainly never want for something to hit.
If casting Robot Ice Magic at the unruly dead is a tonic, many of the more fanciful weapons will be familiar to players of DR2 and DR3 – the ever-reliable baseball bats dipped in nails and sawblades, the novelty mascot heads equipped with a trunkful of napalm – and not all are as inventive as they appear. For every magic wand that transforms the target into a gingerbread man, or boxful of exploding clockwork cats, there’s a gun that is essentially a grenade launcher dipped in lumpy glitter.
Finding a blueprint may be as fun as making use of it. In fact, some of the greatest moments in Dead Rising 4 full stop come when scouring a neighbourhood for a recipe or some other trinket, thinning out the horde absent-mindedly as you plod through rec rooms and attics, car showrooms and J-pop outlets (Capcom in-jokes are, as you’d expect, thick on the ground). Many combo blueprints are housed in sealed panic rooms, uncovered using your camera’s spectrometer – in a smart touch, there’s the opportunity to visit the home security business in question at the mall before you enter the town itself, so you’ll already know which clues to watch out for – and delving around for those panic rooms means attending to some nicely evocative interiors. This is hardly one of those games where every domestic detail screams a tale of shattering poignancy, but each house does feel like the property of a distinct personality, now fled or eaten or left to rot in a bathtub.
The corpse of the original Dead Rising is definitely in here somewhere, kicking if not alive. Much as I’ve moaned about the generic open world elements, the shonky enemy line-up and the shortage of “wow” moments, few games have quite such panache when it comes to steaming through a crowd, acid-belching mace in hand. At its best, Dead Rising 4’s glitzy satirical trappings and capacity for bloody buffoonery come together to create a rare kind of festive treat. But it’s not long before a sense of exhausting over-familiarity kicks in. You can while away an evening chugging popcorn, but you couldn’t get through an apocalypse on the stuff.