Genre: Action Horror
Zombie games are everywhere. Like the creeping undead they promote, they seem to have vastly grown in number and even when you don’t think they have made their way in, games suddenly have a new mode that has you facing off against the hellish creatures. As someone who swears by Zombie Ate My Neighbors being one of my favorite games of all time, even I have to admit that there’s a lot to look through and not much to be done to make the zombie pseudo-genre feel fresh.
Looking back a bit, though, it didn’t feel like the wave of zombie-centric gaming started to swell until popular games like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Rising hit the scene, bringing a more action-oriented approach to slaying the already slain than many of their predecessors of the era. Plenty of ground had been struck within the Resident Evil series and other one-off titles here and there to give credit where it’s due. At the time of its release, though, Dead Rising felt like a revival of a sort. It was shiny and new while calling back to similar works from film and gaming.
There’s also been about thirteen years of efforts to replicate those shiny and new feelings in a number of ways since. Some have been successful while others have paled in comparison. It only feels right to look back into Capcom’s Dead Rising series, one of the original members of the new wave, and see how it stands up now that so many other games have come around. Plenty of games make a splash and get lost in an ocean of titles and efforts to be the best.
After all of this time, does Dead Rising still hold its own in the arena?
Something strange is happening in the town of Willamette, Colorado. Roads are being blocked both entering and exiting the area and there doesn’t appear to be any reports that are conclusive as to exactly what’s happening within the city limits. For all intents and purposes, Willamette has become a dead zone- and that’s putting it lightly.
While plenty of people on the outside are trying to figure out just what’s happening behind the blockades and police tape, a lone helicopter passes over the obstacles meant to keep the general public out. Within the helicopter with a camera in hand sits Frank West, journalist and opportunist who wants to grab the story of Willamette before anyone else can. If he can manage to reveal what’s going on in Willamette before his competitors, he’ll definitely be at the top of the game for the rest of his career. What he sees when he gets into the city, though, is worse than he could have imagined.
Forced to land on the prominent Willamette Parkview Mall rooftop to avoid detainment, Frank finds himself among a host of survivors trying to keep what appears to be a swarm of recently reanimated corpses at bay at the mall’s entrance. One wrong move, though, finds them cascading into the lobby, overtaking the group and slowly, the entire mall. Now, Frank must cooperate with a crew of federal agents and others who are involved with the incident somehow to uncover the reasons as to how this outbreak started. Who’s responsible for this unstoppable disaster? If it can’t be stopped, what’s to be done about it?
Frank West is on the case.
At the beginning of Dead Rising, you’re a bit limited in what you can do. You will travel to different locations in the Willamette Parkview, picking up items to thwart your assailants with, running, jumping, and climbing to get the best vantage points you can. By attacking with the designated button, you will commonly perform a melee attack. By holding down a shoulder button, you will be shifted to an over-the-shoulder POV where Frank can either aim with a firearm or throw whatever he has in his hand, potentially harming an enemy or freeing up an inventory slot. This can also be useful, by pressing a different button to set a waypoint wherever Frank is aiming, a vital mechanic when traveling with survivors you don’t want right in your line of fire.
Frank can level up as he performs certain actions, such as rescuing said survivors when he receives word that they are in danger. Each of them has their own requirements, though, so sometimes just letting them know you’re there to help is enough. Frank being a photojournalist also means that he always has a camera at his side. The better the pictures you take (by pressing the alternate shoulder button down and proceeding to point and click), the more PP Frank will get to go toward his next level. Of course, following the plot of the game will also award some character growth so no matter what, it always feels like you are working toward your next level. By leveling up, Frank will randomly learn new moves for combat, gain slots in his inventory, and be able to run faster, just to name a few perks.
Not every survivor wants to be saved, though. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the game’s bosses are labeled “Psychopaths”- humans who were pushed over the edge in one way or another by the sudden anarchy caused by the outbreak. Defeating them usually offers up a number of rewards including unique weapons, survivors they were threatening, and special photo opportunities. The danger is real, though, as they can be really powerful so it’s always important to show up well-armed and with healing items like food and wine to help give Frank an advantage.
All of this is ensconced by a time limit. In game time, Frank has 72 hours to uncover the secrets behind what is happening in Willamette. Many of the events he has to partake in have to be done by certain times or involve him being in a certain location for a certain time. Given that located survivors only have a limited amount of time to be rescued, as well, this offers players quite a few choices. Should the survivors be missed, they are dead and cannot be rescued and Psychopaths can’t be battled beyond their time limit either. Should Frank miss a plot deadline, though, the case is lost and the game is over. There is constant time management and thankfully, Dead Rising gives a few ways to tell whether or not Frank’s going to be able to save everyone or have to cut his losses to learn the truth.
The Good, The Bad, And…
At its heart, Dead Rising plays like an open world adaptation of one of Romero’s Living Dead sequels with a bit of a lean on a pulp setting. While a lot of folks might bill it as “survival horror”, it feels more like “action with horror sprinkled on top” which works really well with Capcom’s bailiwick. When they say everything can be used as a weapon, they are more spot-on than it seems. Truly, the game delightfully bathes in its just-over-the-top tone and while it plays by the numbers for most of the plot, it’s tough for me not to consider Dead Rising as one of the most fun games to run around in I’ve played.
As a completionist, Dead Rising made this a bit tough for me, so this may fall outside of the good/bad spectrum. Having a time limit is great because it puts stress on the player to make decisions and take risks. I found the game to be best played by working through as far as I could to the point where I couldn’t reach all of my goals and then losing and starting over from the beginning. Dead Rising seems to play into this method of progress as when you restart, you can retain Frank’s level but pick up at the game’s beginning. If you’re someone who just wants to follow the plot, you may not fortify Frank as much, but reaching your next point for the plot isn’t terribly hard. Once you factor in all of the side missions, morally and otherwise, it’s very tough to play through the game without restarting once or twice.
One of the absolute worst parts of the game is the AI of the survivors. If your goal is to have Frank survive on his own with minimal companions, there really isn’t much of an issue. If you decide to be a hero and try to rescue everyone you can, you may find yourself with anywhere up to eight survivors in tow- and they are not fantastic navigators. They’ll get stuck on railings and doors, run into groups of zombies, and do plenty of other things that will cause you to backtrack to rescue them, as they have the fighting skills of a five-year-old. There are very few exceptions to this and until you’ve gotten the hang of the controls and mechanics yourself and have reached a high level with Frank, it can be nigh impossible to get everyone safely to the security room.
While the music of the game doesn’t stand out as it feels more ambient and cinematic than prominent, it all adds to the action appropriately whether playing during a battle with a psychopath or revealing secrets around the plot. The voice acting is spot on for all of the featured players, though one thing gets really annoying thanks to the aforementioned AI. You’ll be hearing Frank’s name screamed a lot throughout your time with the game, and there’s a lot of whimpering and crying. It makes sense for a bunch of helpless survivors but it can get grating eventually.
For a game that’s almost fifteen years old, Dead Rising looks like it could have come out in 2019. While some of the character movements are a bit awkward, the models look fantastic and the environments and objects are sharp. Even the gruesome death scenes, despite the overt amounts of blood, are still a bit tough to watch just due to the cutaways and depictions. If there was a qualm to be had, the subtitles are a bit too small. Unless you have a large screen to play the game on, it may be a bit tough to read some of the messages that aren’t voice acted.
Dead Rising is a lot of fun if you know what you’re getting into. The gameplay and tone are just on the right side of goofy but even when Frank is dressed up in a spandex workout getup and a Servbot mask in cutscenes, it plays the plot straight enough to be engaging. Taken on its own, it has a few severe missteps, mainly to completionists and anyone interested in helping survivors get to safety.
As a result, it’s worth asking whether the game holds up today. To be honest, not as well as one would hope. Even the improvements in following entries really shaped up the flaws shown in Dead Rising’s implementations. Is it unplayable or not worth going back to as a result? Not at all. I’ve played through the game a number of times and was excited to give it another go, flaws and all. What Dead Rising did was set up the video game world for a specific type of game with a specific tone. The foundation it created, regardless of the games that have built off of it, is still solid and worth taking a swing at. The game has been ported to Playstation 4 and XBox One and if you’re not a console player, it’s up on Steam, as well. If the game interests you, there is no lack of options as to how you can experience your own wacky and wild zombie rampage.