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Wot I Think: Dead Rising

Frank, meet Jank

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I’ve always had a soft spot for the first two Dead Rising [official site] games. Soft spots are the second cousins of nostalgia, and similarly mean that I’ll happily make concessions for a series’ flaws. The Dead Rising games have rudimentary combat, horrible time limits, and dodgy AI, but I forgive them because the brutal absurdism of the series has always tickled me (except for the grimy, obnoxious third game). I’ll happily jump in just to save a couple of survivors, and while I’d get angry whenever I lost 20 minutes of progress because I died and forgot to save, I’d be all smiles again as soon as I encountered the next eccentric boss.

It’s been a long time now since the original first came out, and I wonder whether the passage of time has atrophied a game whose systems and mechanics already felt unwieldy ten years ago. And with the super-similar but generally superior sequel already out on PC for a quid less, is there even a need to go back to the original?

Dead Rising may not be the most famous Capcom game, but it’s certainly the most archetypal. Remember all those mistranslated one-liners from Resident Evil, the uncanny tone of Dragon’s Dogma, and the rock-&-roll coolness of Devil May Cry? Dead Rising is like a grindhouse mash-up of all those idiosyncrasies, set in a shopping mall overrun by zombies, with a few survivors to save and psychopaths to slay scattered among them. It’s a freakshow, and in the middle of it you play as surly photojournalist Frank West, who’s looking to get the big scoop.

I like Frank (particularly after I kit him out in a vile 70s plaid suit with oversized shoulders). He’ll use underhand methods to get his big story, gets bonus points for taking grisly photos of people if they’re in the process of being disembowelled by zombies, and pervs on women when they’re not looking, but he does have a propensity for saving people written into his character, acting as a quick-thinking therapist to shellshocked survivors and persuading them to come back with him to safety. He’s an asshole with heart of gold – anatomically impossible though that may seem…

Your time in the Willamette Parkview Mall will be divvied up between saving people, killing ‘Psychopath’ bosses, and undertaking story missions. It’s a decent setup in principle, and doesn’t feel too repetitive thanks to the colourful characters. Every bit of dialogue is disproportionately amusing because of the out-of-sync lip movements and strange facial designs, with their rictus grins and eyes that seem to be a bit too tall and a bit too narrow. From the lady shrieking about finding her “precious sweet little doggie”, to the cocky photographer getting you to take pictures of him while he rips up zombies, Dead Rising is a rare breed of game where I actually look forward to the cut-scenes.

The Psychopaths are particularly fun, steering clear of the unimaginative low-hanging stereotyping of gays, transvestites and morbidly obese people in Dead Rising 3, and going for characters who are deliciously menacing and absurd. Among them is a police officer, clearly getting a sexual kick from the fact that she’s got got three young ladies tied up and at her mercy. This supermarket manager with a combover and a lethal battering ram of a shopping trolley…

… this double-chainsaw-wielding killer clown who’s upset that you stopped his ride,

… and this Crocodile Dundee lookalike who’s convinced you’re VC (even though he’s the one using trapdoors and tunnels to sneak up on you).

I like Dead Rising’s idea that if society completely fell apart then the more villainous among us would turn our job or pastime into a murderous obsession; in that spirit, I’d probably push myself round in a wheelie chair with a circle saw round its stem, reeling people in with my mouse cable before clobbering them with my mechanical keyboard and squirting nasal spray in their eyes. For ranged attacks, I’d sharpen my surplus of archaic blank DVD-RWs and chuck them at people, which is genuinely the best idea I’ve had for them in about 4 years (the last idea being a highly speculative mosaic made from DVD shards).

So Dead Rising has character, hordes of it, which was enough to keep me happy through the early hours of the game despite the simplistic, sclerotic combat. It’s a tough old game too, as you can only save at a few designated checkpoints and resources are hard to come by; ammo and food are scarce, bullets are a luxury, and your health doesn’t regenerate even when you save. Just getting across the mall to different missions is a potentially fatal trek through hundreds of easily underestimated zombies, though this eventually gets easier as you open shutters and use tunnels to link up the disparate parts of the mall.

Rare saves? Scant resources? Shortcuts? At this point you could be thinking that Dead Rising is some kind of miraculous proto-survival, proto-Souls hybrid, so I should probably step in now to say that Dead Rising is janky. Not Dark Souls janky – really, really janky. Now I love jankiness. I’d call myself a janker if that word didn’t leave me open to Abuse by Rhyme (jankist might be a better alternative). I laughed along to the bugs and oddness of Deadly Premonition, think that Alpha Protocol has plenty of redeeming qualities, and have recently bought and enjoyed 7th Guest and Harvester for an entire 15 minutes each. So I’m down with jank, but the problems plaguing Dead Rising are of the kind that keep tripping you up just as you start to build momentum.

Saving people, for example, can be a wonderful experience in Dead Rising. At one point, you have the moral conundrum of handing a gun to an injured man, which dictates whether he and his girlfriend live or die. Another time, I valiantly managed to bat my way through the mall back to the safehouse with a jock kid called Burt, but had to leave his friend behind. A nice bit of emergent drama, I thought at the time.

But then it becomes apparent that Burt’s mate’s death wasn’t a tragedy – it was broken-AI and janky stupidity that plagues everyone in Dead Rising. The AI survivors are a nightmare, running straight through a crowd of zombies instead of around it, getting stuck to zombies until you free them, and often failing to follow you when you go through into new areas. It turns dramatic rescue attempts into cumbersome slogs, as you try to pull your hapless rescuee from the zombies while mashing the analog stick in all directions to push zombies off your own back. Bosses too suffer from weird AI, getting stuck in scenery or endlessly running against walls – beating them is often a case of breaking them, which is probably pushing it a bit as ‘janky charm’ goes.

Another overhanging issue is time. There is a time limit to the entire game, a time limit to almost every mission you undertake, and a very strict time limit imposed by myself as to how much of this time limit shit I can take to take before I go on a chair-spinning, DVD-chucking rampage.

The purpose of the time mechanic is presumably to encourage replayability, offering a unique experience each time you play because you’ll save different people, fight different bosses, and get different endings. But ‘going through it all again’ isn’t really on my mind when I’m staring at a bloody in-game watch for five minutes, waiting for a story mission to unlock at 6am and knowing that the time limit on the mission once it unlocks is too short for me to do anything else in the meantime.

Sometimes, the dreaded countdown seems to arbitrarily stop, such as when I had to grab some medicine for a story character; the time bar reached zero, and I expected that now-familiar Game Over screen to ask me if I wanted to continue (I probably wouldn’t have), but nothing happened. I completed the mission in my own time, but then it turned out that as a result I’d missed the deadline for the subsequent event in the story that I had absolutely no notification of. With all of my saves being set after the deadline for that story mission that I knew nothing about, I’d buggered myself out of completing the game.

Oddly, the game let me continue after I’d failed, which was actually quite cathartic. I could keep doing side-missions and levelling up without the spectre of completion hanging over me, then when I was ready, I could carry my levelled-up, plaided-up Frank into a new game. It’s a strange but interesting system, and while I would’ve appreciated a separate endless mode, it was a weight off my suit-padded shoulders that I could still make progress, experience the side-missions, and build up Frank for my next shot at the main story.

It’s probably for the best that Capcom didn’t tout Dead Rising as a remaster, as there have been no noteworthy graphical embellishments except for the standard unlocked frame-rates, support for up to 4K resolutions and anti-aliasing. Not that Dead Rising really needs to look better. Its goofy visuals have, if anything, become sillier and more endearing with age.

It’s a strange game to bring out on PC before the 4th entry comes out, yet several years after its sequel. For Dead Rising enthusiasts who haven’t played the original, this is a good opportunity to spend some more time with Frank West, as well as take on probably the best bosses in the series. But the design flaws that were small niggles ten years ago will be much more glaring – maybe even unbearably so – for newcomers coming to the series in 2016. For those people, Dead Rising 2: Off the Record is the best entry-point, retaining that trademark jankiness while getting rid of the grievances like the awful AI and lack of an Endless Mode. It also adds in a decent crafting system, and lets you play co-op with a pal – all for a lower price.

There’s joy to be found in this zany horrorshow, but it’ll take a seasoned janker to grit their teeth through its issues and fully appreciate it.

Dead Rising is available now, for Windows, through Steam.

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Robert Zak

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