Dead Rising 2: Off the Record is in a pretty weird position. It benefits from being another romp through an alternate reality take on Dead Rising 2, but suffers for, well, being another romp through a very similar Dead Rising 2. It was a great game the first time around (I awarded it a 9 last year) but on round two I felt a certain malaise surrounding the overwhelming déjà vu of a second helping. I mean, technically Off the Record is the same great game with added material, but it also reeks of a debatably necessary cash-in opportunity, not unlike Capcom’s fighting game lineage. Whether this could have been premium downloadable content, a stand-alone $20 download, or was justified as a $40 retail product was tough to resolve, but I think I’ve settled on an answer; maybe.
Frank West is back. I never had a problem with Chuck Greene; the innocent plight of Chuck’s infected daughter juxtaposed between hilarious horror show in Fortune City was enough, but the fans have allegedly spoken and said souls have demanded the return Dead Rising’s original protagonist. Frank remains an interesting character because he bucks nearly every trend associated with a leading man. He’s balding, fat, a jerk, generally ugly, and has somehow managed to go broke since the Willamette incident; the man is a failure and his life is in shambles. While competing on T.K.’s Terror is Reality show, Frank finally bottoms out and opts to get back to hardcore news coverage by exposing the dastardly underground of T.K.’s world.
Off the Record’s opening moments suggest a wildly different game might be in store. A zombie outbreak occurs after Frank ends his Terror is Reality wrestling match. Armed with his trusty camera, Frank is funneled through a haunted house of survivors being murdered left and right. That happened in Chuck’s game as well, but Frank’s trademark camera spins the sequence on its heels. The escape turns from bloodlust to Pokémon Snap, with death occurring all around and broadcasting Pulitzer-worthy money shots that are only available for a precious few moments. Whipping the camera out and trying to capture the best possible shot was pretty fun, and called to mind the only asset Dead Rising 2-proper lacked; Frank’s camera. Its ability to capture pictures featuring drama/horror/erotica/brutality was a really fun mechanic and a great way to earn experience points (PP).
I thought maybe all of Off the Record would be similarly remixed. And I was wrong. Almost instantly Frank lands right in Chuck’s shoes and we’re expected to think they fit perfectly. The Fortune City geography is almost unchanged. Frank needs Zombrex every twenty four hours. The route to the safe house still has that agonizing hallway and, yes, every time I went back there I defaulted to my trusty nail bat + knife gloves + orange juice refresh. Very, very little has technically changed in Off the Record. The addition of a camera brings a couple missions where Frank has to photograph someone doing something incriminating, but is otherwise dropped in without much thought. Sure, there’s a ton of potential for playing in Fortune City’s sandbox by photographing a myriad of bonkers situations, but it hasn’t conformed to any new mold and feels like it could have easily been a part of Dead Rising 2 proper. In fact, it feels like Dead Rising 2 was already equipped for it.
The largest addition to Fortune City is…a large addition to Fortune City. An entirely new area sandwiched between the Fortune City Hotel and the Atlantica Casino is the Uranus Zone, and it’s actually pretty good. Within its outer-space theme are all sorts of carnival rides ripe for zombie murder humiliation. There are also a set of booth games (like hitting a baseball against a target or throwing a severed zombie hand in a hungry mouth) that Frank can play for $500 a pop. There are also lockers for all the new missing keys found throughout Fortune City. Other additions to Off the Record include a bunch of new items and a host of new combo cards. Yep, Frank has Chuck’s knack for absurd item combinations. My favorite of the new crop involved a mask and some gems that resulted in Frank being able to shoot lasers out of his eyes, but it’s hard to go wrong with any of them.
In a non scientific estimation, I’d venture to guess 90% of Off the Record is identical to Dead Rising 2. A handful of survivors have relocated; Royce and Walter, for example, moved from the Silver Strip to the new Uranus Zone but have the same joke/trophy shtick going for them. Europa still required her savior to be wearing underwear, but rather than change at my base of operations I had to find underwear on a mannequin and put that on. Stat buffing magazine’s seem to have changed places, two new psychos are present (and detailing them would rob much of the surprise Off the Record actually has), the end-game has been reworked, loading times are claimed to be faster, a few new survivors are in play, and some missions pop up in a different order, but the vast majority of Off the Record felt like I was replaying the game from a year ago.
Unfortunately Capcom Vancouver (formerly Blue Castle Games) also decided to play with Dead Rising’s most divisive asset; the save system. Dead Rising has always functioned on a moving 72 hour timeline where side missions have a finite window before they expire and main missions can end a game if they’re not resolved in time. It brought tremendous pressure on the player, but added a sense of consequence to your actions – one that is undoubtedly absent from a majority of games today. The original Dead Rising had a single save slot, but the sequel was a bit more forgiving in offering a handful. Off the Record boasts those, along with checkpoints.
I adored how Dead Rising 2 played for keeps and actually managed some measure of difficulty without coddling a larger market with an easier game, but Capcom Vancouver apparently bent a knee in search of greater appeal by checkpointing Frank every time he exists a building or fights a boss. It can also spell disaster, as I learned when I fought Seymour with low health and no healing items and he kept wasting the survivors I had in tow, sending my checkpoint’d game into an infinite repeating hell from which reloading a save was the only means escape. I suppose you don’t have to use checkpoints and can rely on saves anyway, but something about it felt disingenuous to Dead Rising’s mission. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, I guess, but I favored the former.
A sandbox mode has replaced the Terror is Reality multiplayer modes from Dead Rising 2. Sandbox is actually really cool. It drops Frank into Fortune City with no plot attached and basically lets him go nuts over the town. All of the items are in place and survivors and psychopaths stalk the streets ready for battle – all without the restriction of a clock. Better yet, Fortune City has been littered with solo and co-op challenges like killing zombies with a certain method/time limit or hunting for as many dildos as Frank can find in ninety seconds. Bronze, silver, or gold medals can be earned and translated into PP. I think the challenges would have been better served if they were all open from the start rather than behind a “kill __ zombies to unlock” barrier, but going up and down the silver strip creating carnage in a slice-cycle isn’t a bad way to kill time.
The best part of sandbox is all money, keys, and experience unlocked in sandbox stays with Frank in the main game – and you’re free to switch between the two on the same save file. If nothing else, sandbox mode finally provides an incentive to actually make all the cool weapon combinations. In the main game I always preferred efficiency over experimenting with outlandish collection of potential weapons, but in sandbox, with all the time in the world, I was free to make whatever I wanted without penalty.