I never bought into Dead Rising’s backlash. Almost like videogame revisionist history, one of the first Xbox 360 games genuinely celebrated as a prime example of the potential for the new console generation was later stripped of its success by forum enthusiasts and podcast pundits. Somehow, alleged artifacts of previous generations, most notably the single save slot and strict time limit, replaced Dead Rising’s novel approach to game design and signature wackiness.
Critics thought that the inevitable sequel would address those complaints. Blue Castle Games, taking development reins from Capcom Japan, had other ideas. Or, more aptly, they had the same idea. Dead Rising 2’s design playbook, plus and minus a few details, is a virtual copy of the original. The pressure of time, the most divisive aspect of the original, is still the game’s greatest antagonist. Blue Castle may have further alienated those who found fault with it, but in doing so they’ve simultaneously drawn a line in the sand. They made the game they wanted to make, and without compromise. Noble indeed, but did it translate to a worthwhile experience in 2010’s gaming landscape?
Out with Frank West, in with Chuck Greene. As those who played Case Zero already know, Dead Rising 2 features a brand new protagonist. Chuck’s a contestant on a post-zombie apocalypse game show, Terror is Reality. Taking place in Fortune City, built after Las Vegas was wiped off the map, something goes terribly wrong and zombies wind up invading the city. Chuck’s motivation for survival is protecting his infected daughter Katey by making sure she gets a shot of Zombrex, a drug that neutralizes the disease for 24 hours. This becomes somewhat difficult for Chuck; the game takes place over a 72 hour period, meaning Chuck needs to scour a zombie-infested Fortune City for at least three doses of Zombrex, and solve the conspiracy behind the accident along the way.
Fortune City gives off the a bit of the vibe of Las Vegas, but in terms of design it’s much closer to the mall from Dead Rising. Imagine a giant segmented oval containing three casinos, two malls, an area under construction, and a giant courtyard in the middle. Store fronts house a litany of items and idiots, basically rendering it a much larger version of the original mall. Lingerie shops, toy stores, clothing stores, and sporting goods outlets are augmented by all the wacky, superfluous spectacles one can expect to stumble upon in a Vegas casino. The pastel pallet of the courtyard and the various themes in the casinos (Atlantis, The Wild West) make for a beautiful game, and filling it to the brim with zombies renders it technically impressive as well. The frame rate drops when stuff gets really crazy and the textures aren’t the most detailed around, but there’s usually too much variety and potential interaction to stop and notice.
Prestige Points return as Chuck’s means of leveling up and gaining new abilities. These can either be nickel and dimed via zombie eradication, or collected en masse by rescuing more than fifty survivors over 72 hours. Survivors can be acquired as missions texted to your cell phone, or even found out in the open by simply being in the right place at the right time. In general the survivor’s AI felt much better this time around. No one ever got hung up on a wall or railing in the environment, and they all did well to smartly avoid or fight their way through the zombie hoards. In fact, with the exception of one survivor with a limp who refused to be carried, I didn’t have to go out of my way to babysit anyone as I was leading them back to the safe house.
Most missions can be boiled down to a simple escort, but as time goes on the stakes are appropriately raised. Some of the survivors want cash or an item before they’ll join while others request that you find a loved one first. A good deal of them are pretty off the wall; you’ll run into a metal band that needs to play a head-exploding concert or a woman with no clothes who demands you strip down as well, all of which make for good bit of variation in regard to their increasingly absurd requirements. A few of the survivors even have distinct personalities, and will turn on you (or other survivors) if the situation merits such.
Also making their return are the psychos. Essentially boss characters, they’re all stricken with some over the top affliction that has rendered them violently insane. Their motivations sidestep reality in favor of Romero-esque social commentary on American culture (or plain old over the top delusions), but in general they always makes for an interesting fight. While you can power through them with high levels and decent weapons, each encounter also carries a good degree of improvisation. One particularly amusing encounter was with Slappy, a guy dressed in giant Big Boy-esque costume who blamed Chuck for the death of his girlfriend. Conflict translated to Slappy moving around on roller skates while shooting me with flamethrowers. Melee attacks didn’t seem to work, so I got the crazy idea to drink a bunch of beer, which makes Chuck barf on the floor. And it worked, Slappy slipped in the vomit, which then rendered him defenseless for a few moments. Awesome.
It’s in that sort of approach where Dead Rising 2’s open world design really glows. It’s not entirely overt and honestly it carries significant amount of jank to wield your desires, but the freedom is there if you choose to engage it. Arming survivors with weapons or concocting any number of “I wonder if this will work” ideas usually pays off, and when it works it’s usually enough to override the considerably stiff penalties.
Dead Rising 2, much like its predecessor, does not feature an auto save. While you’re given three save slots this time around, they must be hard saves at a restroom. Lose, and you’re forced to load your last save, or start the game completely over with your levels intact. Unexpected death can be incredibly disheartening, especially on the occasion when you accidently lead a band of survivors into a psycho battle only to get completely demolished, but in the end I think this system works for the better. It’s easy to qualify this measure as unfairly punitive and archaic, but the leap in difficulty calls back to a time when all games were this hard. With a range of difficulties and auto saves in modern games, we’ve become conditioned to accept player mediocrity and failure as minor setbacks, and Dead Rising 2 literally doesn’t have time for any of that crap. It’s going to be divisive and it’s fine not to like it, but I found a certain pleasure in always playing for keeps.
The other side of the difficulty lies with the strict time limit. Exactly like the first, Dead Rising 2 plays out under a constant progression of time. This creates a relentless panic which is further exacerbated by watching the clock tick down the time remaining before a survivor perishes. It’s practically impossible not to get behind the count in your first playthrough. Either you’re forced to obey an obsessive compulsive (and conditioned) dedication to perfection, or accept that you simply can’t save everyone. Consequence is an aspect of gaming we’re seeing less and less of these days, and I was overjoyed to see tactile fallout as a major part of the game’s design.
While it’s not quite a minute for every second (I played the game for at least 12 hours over the 72 hour period), the clock doesn’t wait around. If you’re proficient you can sneak a few blocks of time in between missions, but generally Dead Rising 2 operates in a manner that almost discourages exploration. It’s an odd choice, especially since the allure of Fortune City practically demands exploration, but it actually works well in the context of the game’s fiction. The sense of urgency it creates is unmatched and requires a slightly different manner of thinking in order to actually enjoy it; you’re not going to “do everything” your first time around, and the game sort of rewards this by carrying over your level and earned combo cards into future playthroughs.
Weapon creation is Dead Rising 2’s signature feature. Essentially the only legitimately new mechanic, its purpose was to replace Dead Rising’s photography mechanic as an alternative way of acquiring PP. Fortune City has hundreds of items scattered about, and a good number of them can be combined with other items at the maintenance rooms scattered over Fortune City. Curiosity (“ok, what the hell can I combine with this wheelchair…?”) drives experimentation, but you can also discover items through combo cards. Either found scattered about in Fortune City or acquired via leveling up, netting a combo card also grants specific bonus ability for each created item.
The end result of item creation is almost always impressive. A sledgehammer and a fire axe are duct taped together to become a Defiler. Boxing gloves and a bowie knife create veritable wolverine claws. Jewels and a flash light turn into a light saber Laser Sword. Through this system Dead Rising 2 makes zero effort to obey reality and emerges much better for it. It’s the sort of over-the-top nonsense that only makes sense in the context of zombie fiction. It can also have some pretty humorous side effects, like when I was having dialogues with survivors while wearing a Servebot mask with an active, noisy, spinning lawnmower blade bolted to the top of it.
Not every weapon is efficient, but those that aren’t usually carry a greater PP reward. The Drill Bucket, which you slam on a zombies head to make it explode, is extremely time consuming, but drops significant PP every time. Not everything is for combat either, as some, like the Fountain Lizard, operate as a means of distraction. In the end my only complaint lied with my own unwillingness to carry much else other than a Nail Bat and Knife Gloves. All weapons eventually break, and the objects required to make my most efficient two were practically right next to where I had to drag survivors. It didn’t give me much else of a reason to seek out extraneous materials. With a painfully small inventory and a world that resets back to default with every loading screen, I wished for some form of an item box back at the safe house, or practically anything to force me out of my comfort zone.
Dead Rising 2 isn’t a game you play once. While its length is perfectly fine in terms of what its peers offer, its rewards stretch out through other playthroughs. The constant quest to survivor perfection is obviously the biggest draw, but different means to an end or usage of particular weapons in a given situation or scenario carries a similar attraction. It’s also an absolute joy to indulge in the absolutely senseless nature of your activities, the game is crazy, and an observing it’s serious take on the grand conspiracy alongside its ridiculous premise is half the fun. Blasting through the campaign guilt-free by helping a friend in co-op is a pleasure, and the multiplayer, however shallow, is a great way to scratch some extra crash