Dead Rising 4 finally submitted to the will of the people. Capcom’s zombie panic simulator (handed over to Capcom Vancouver from Dead Rising 2 onward), was finally dropping its divisive game-spanning timer and allowing players to party inside of its zealous open world. For many, screwing around with madcap weapon combinations and probing the density of the environments seemed at odds with rescuing unwise survivors under the governance of harsh time limits. As if waving a white flag, Dead Rising 4 opted to scorch the earth and rest inside of the apocalypse. You’re now free to do whatever you want.
Dead Rising 4’s order of operations is streamlined to series norms. The open world of Willamette, Colorado positions the (rebuilt) mall at its center and surrounds it with facets of urban decay. Messy streets, abandoned houses, looted businesses, and artifacts of an evacuation populate the crowded landscape. Nestled inside are hordes of mindless zombies, more aggressive fresh zombies, survivors in need of help, survivors out to kill you, and PMC “Obscuris” guys with large guns.
Other stables of Dead Rising return in altered forms. Gone are named survivors appearing at specific times in appointed scenarios. In their place are procedurally generated missions where you kill Obscuris operatives and blow up their antenna array or eliminate a hoard of zombies threatening a random survivor. More specific sidequests are also intermittently available, and tend to have a greater appreciation for intention and design. Dead Rising 4, in the absence of a timer, defaults toward presumed spontaneity. The glut of Prestige Points (experience) acquired usually make these events worth your time.
Offensive firepower and item management have also seen refinement. The catch-all inventory that housed food, firearms, melee weapons, and whatever weird contraptions you built has been replaced by separate lists for each option. By default you’re limited to only a handful of melee weapons, projectiles, health items, and throw-able objects, but it can all be expanded. Item degradation still ensures limited use and encourages improvisational behavior and experimentation.
Psychopaths, now classified as maniacs, have taken a step backward. Dead Rising’s menagerie of legitimately insane denizens have stepped away from the labor intensive spotlight and resorted to specific encounters at predictable intervals. The pageantry has disappeared, but their obtuse psychodrama—a Santa Claus with waves of elves, a deranged Black Beard, a Servebot pumpkin head guy—return Dead Rising’s inherent silliness. As either a victim of a rough production schedule or deliberate shift in tone, their anterior presence is sorely missed.
A measurable addition to Dead Rising 4 lies with its Exo Suits. Scattered across the city are metal crates containing veritable power armor. While a charge only lasts a few minutes, it grants the player super strength and allows them to wield massive melee and firearm weapons, plus suit-specific upgrades. Exo Suits are a colossal power fantasy in line with familiar third-person action super moves, although it’s technically new to Dead Rising. These instances, while infrequent and all too brief, satisfy the turbulent bloodlust that builds up when you’re wading through a town with hundreds of thousands of wandering undead.
The remainder of Dead Rising 4’s gameplay defaults into familiar patterns. Brief moments of euphoria induced by wacky weapon combinations are sidelined by poor third-person shooting and a fondness for pushing the player through linear segments and confronting them with an endless supply of bad guys with guns. Changing objectives and building action are necessary requirements for properly pacing a game, but it’s unclear why Dead Rising 4 wastes so much time on stuff it’s no good at showcasing. Shooting people with regular gun is sloppy and unsatisfying, and it isn’t too much better with custom weapons.
It’s natural that Dead Rising’s escalating series of everyman-protagonists circles back to Frank West. A vigorous interpretation of Homer Simpson, Frank’s dedicated but sloven approach to challenging Big Zombie won the hearts of fans and critics in his debut. While he’s since dabbled in absurd cameos and fully-featured what ifs, the calamitous photojournalist always felt inseparable from the mall in Willamette. It’s fitting that Dead Rising 4, a decade after Dead Rising, returns Frank to his natural habitat.
Dead Rising 4 finds Frank seemingly at peace with his insufferable futility. Plot machinations—a rogue journalism student, government conspiracies, equally threatening new friends—drive Frank back through Willamette at a fast clip. About a third of the way through Dead Rising 4, a survivor pleads for Frank to rescue a loved one. Frank concedes that he’ll get it done, albeit probably not on purpose. This is the mellow gist of his character; a self-depreciating every man aspiring to mediocrity but winding up a paragon. Formally, Dead Rising 4’s plot is incoherent and stupid but it’s a suitable vehicle to shuffle Frank across the chaos of Willamette.
Frank’s profession also resurrects photography from Dead Rising 2: Off the Record. Snapping photos in special categories, typically by finding ways to capture emboldened zombie hoards en masse, grants complete trials, which grants Prestige Points. Tedium is introduced when Frank’s camera doubles as a tool to investigate crime scenes, which briefly transforms Dead Rising 4 into an unenthused adventure-style room hunt. Night vision and a special spectral analyzer also provide complimentary mechanics to Frank’s trusty camera.
Another underutilized addition to Dead Rising 4 is the concept of a safe house. Scattered across Willamette’s districts are designed areas that, once cleared, act as a, well, a safe house. It’s an area where survivors are dispatched and contains NPC’s that can sell the player collectible maps, weapons, and food items. The more survivors (the majority of which no longer require escorts) a safe house acquires, the better the quality of wares being sold by NPC vendors. There’s no drive or motive to do much else here, rendering safe houses an interesting concept but a valueless proposition.
Snapping photographs, dispatching maniacs, and rescuing survivors are all in service toward building experience and unlocking skills. Spread across brawling, fortitude, shooting, and survival, skills function as a traditional skill tree to boost Frank’s range of abilities. Expected perks like expanding Frank’s inventory and increasing the chance of critical hits are joined by improvements toward health, defense, and reflexes. There are few surprises here.
Absurd weapon combinations remain a giddying highlight. Electric wreaths, elemental swords, fish launchers, “jurassic barf,” and other eclectic monstrosities deck the halls of Dead Rising 4’s firepower. If not purchased from vendors, all require blueprints in order to be forged. This effectively transitions Dead Rising 4’s meta-game into a blueprint hunt, which is only slightly disappointing when one is locked behind a door and you have no idea where the hell to find the key. In general, however, the game is adept at providing the player with enough zany materials to survive its trenches.
It’s an unwritten rule that zombie fiction functions as a metaphor for the ails of society. Dead Rising’s already riffed on Dawn of the Dead’s take on consumerism and the United States’ outrageous pharmaceutical companies, but Dead Rising 4 hides a slightly more scathing observation inside of its pandemonium; right-wing apocalypse advertising. Along the lines of freedom seeds or pleading charlatans begging you to buy gold, a number of Willamette business and residents now feature panic rooms built into their house or shop. This is the exact kind of easy grift scared people would fall prey to on a massive scale, and it doubles as an appealing gameplay facet. Their secret is Frank’s prize.
Thematically, it’s also a nice surprise that Dead Rising 4 begins on Black Friday and spreads itself across the holiday season. The excess of American consumerism is familiar zombie territory and Dead Rising 4 doesn’t offer much new in the way of criticism or commentary. It’s more successful, however, at being a bona fide Christmas game. Most of the zombies are in thematically appropriate costumes, destroyed Christmas decorations are everywhere, and the pause screen is inundated with jolly Christmas tunes. There are precious few games (Christmas Nights, downloadable content for both Saints Row IV and Costume Quest) that celebrate the season, and Dead Rising 4’s admission to this weird club is welcomed with open arms.
Giving the people what they want absolves protest and removes risk. It’s the latter that can turn into a problem. The twin engines that drove Dead Rising were reduced to a single, albeit more powerful, motor. Further, Capcom Vancouver doubled down on existing strengths without adding much to Dead Rising’s structure. It was faster, it behaved better, and it was even crazier, but the feverish drive that prodded the game (and players) into a frenzy was gone. By appeasing the populace, Dead Rising 4 lost defining assets of its identity. It’s better, but it’s simultaneously not as good.
Frank’s Big Package, which serves as Dead Rising 4’s debut on PlayStation 4, isn’t so much a re-tune as it is a powerful amplifier. Included is all previously released downloadable content, including Frank Rising and Super Ultra Dead Rising 4 Mini Golf. Neither really push the limits of Dead Rising 4’s abilities, but they do feel earnest in their construction. Playing a game of minigolf aided by chaos and enhanced by inadvertent (or planned) zombie murder is in perfect harmony with Dead Rising’s spirit. Frank Rising is, well, a huge spoiler but it also aims to shift the focus away from Dead Rising 4‘s presumed center. As far as DLC goes, both pieces err toward inspired and engaging, rather than predicable and obligatory.
The greatest addition to Frank’s Big Package comes with Capcom Heroes Mode. This effectively reshuffles the entire game, restarting the player as classic Frank West and modifying Dead Rising 4’s mechanics and progression. Through the prologue it’s immediately clear that something is off. Frank doesn’t seem to be in control of his skills, and his melee actions cycle through different weapons with each hit. Then Frank turns into Ryu. From Street Fighter.
As the name implies, the entire campaign is remade to facilitate playable cameos from seventeen legends and obscurities plucked from Capcom’s rich history. Better, each comes equipped with their own contextually appropriate ranged and melee weapons. Dante, for example, brandishes Ebony and Ivory in combination with his sword, Rebellion. Playing as Dante (well, Frank dressed up as Dante) alone almost makes Dead Rising 4 feel like a crude Devil May Cry prototype. The same goes for X (of Mega Man X), who reminds us we haven’t seen a proper 3D Mega Man in a few decades.
Capcom Heroes Mode manages its vault of characters sparingly. They’re earned by completing cases, purchases from safe house vendors, and collecting star token, and they can be selected through arcade machines plentifully scattered around Willamette. Like the Exo Suit, they’re usage is gauged with a timer. Unlike the Exo Suit, the time limit is quite a bit more generous and another arcade machine is never too far away. As for the Capcom roster, it’s a mixture of predictable favorites and obscure references and, with any hope, may renew interest in Ghost Trick.
While the titular Capcom Heroes all break down into expected ranged and melee abilities, they don’t settle into carbon copies of each other. Dante plays differently from Cammy who plays differently from Morrigan. There are also two different layers of individual progression that can be unlocked via completing specific hero challenges. Ryu, for example, has to beat up a car under a time limit to finish off his second challenge. It’s obvious where Capcom’s beloved history harmonizes with Dead Rising’s goofy operation and finally expresses a conscious, controlled vision of performance.
Capcom Heroes Mode also automates the skill tree while removing blueprints and the availability of different weapons. Combining an intense level of customization with over a dozen individual characters was probably a design nightmare. This point is conceded with Capcom Heroes Mode also erasing ammunition limits and weapon durability. While it seems wacky and conceived on a lark, there’s a surprising amount of care and attention paid toward creating a hand crafted experience. Capcom Heroes is not traditional Dead Rising, and yet, unlike the proper Dead Rising 4, it seems to be comfortable with its limitations.
The end point of Frank’s Big Package (as well as the base level of Dead Rising 4), is a battle waged between the dilution of a thesis and the magnification of its singular weirdness. A milieu of appealing sideshows are not a substitution for the quality of the main attraction. Dead Rising 4 is the best Dead Rising has ever operated and the worst at maintaining an acceptable level of personal engagement. These scales do not perfectly balance—despite its losses I still think Dead Rising 4 comes out ahead as a serviceable game—but they do affect what the player receives and, ultimately, when and where they choose to walk away.
Dead Rising 4 calmed the series’ manic instability by dropping its exacting timer and relaxing into its madcap open world. A year later, its contentious effect on Dead Rising’s identity is pacified by the enormous size of Frank’s Big Package. It’s not an assembly of distractions, but rather an indulgence of Dead Rising’s (and Capcom’s) eccentric history — and its giddying intensity is an opportune support structure.