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Wot I Think: Dead Rising 4

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Dead Rising - that being the third-person action game where you murder a million zombies in a shopping mall - has always had an identity crisis. It's like a guy who writes Christmas cracker jokes for a living then runs dog fights in the evenings. A game about dressing up in stupid clothes and bopping infinite monsters with cartoon weapons, but also a game that must be completed within a fixed time limit, with massively challenging boss fights and absolutely zero compunction about killing off NPCs if you don't happen to walk in the right direction at the right time.

With Dead Rising 4 [official site], that identity crisis is at an end - for better or worse.

It seems absurd to be claiming that only now has a series in which you can strap chainsaws to broom handles, bash heads in with zimmer frames or run around in toddler's clothing gone Full Saint's Row. Thing is, Dead Rising has never been the straight-up party it looks like from afar - yes, you get to bosh a gazillion zombos in a wide-open space in which almost anything can be used a a weapon, but if you stop to enjoy it for too long you will fail sub-goals and quite possibly even the main storyline itself.

It's this combination of sandbox and extreme pressure that motivates Dead Rising's fandom - but, according to the developers in pre-release hype mode, that's not what attracts the largest consumer horde. And so Dead Rising 4 disposes of a great many of its predecessors restrictions - no time limit, no need to find a cure to save yourself or others from infection, no even-worse zombs at night, no real-time find 'em or let 'em die survivor sub-missions.

It's tilted far closer to sandbox, albeit with a campaign that guides you into new areas, leaving players free to experiment with using its many weapons on its, inevitably, bigger than ever hordes.

The result is a game that somehow feels both more like Dead Rising than Dead Rising ever has, and less like Dead Rising than Dead Rising has ever been. A dial that has been set to 11 since 2006 gets wrenched even further to the right. Whereas before a four digit kill combo counter was a big achievement, now it's a regular occurrence, with the really big numbers now far more about patience than endurance, let alone strategy.

A new weapon blueprint (i.e. the proper crazy ones, like acid-spraying Santa gnomes, ice swords or a Halo rifle made out of an old PC) is now barely even an event, but just one more piece of candy sprayed from the bottomless pinata. Dead Rising 4 is a game that spoils you rotten. Even the boss fights are in the main now more about how excessively you can kill 'em, not whether you can even survive them.

I'm on the fence here. I've broadly always enjoyed Dead Rising, although will admit to feeling that the dawn of the dead++++++++++ joke is thinner than it was, but I've tended to be in the 'good times, but the boss fights are a pain in the gluteus maximus' camp. There's a certain amount of release to a Dead Rising sequel that just lets me get on with it, finding the weapons (and weaponised vehicles) I most enjoy and the outfits which seem most ridiculous rather than having to grind against arbitrary time limits and sudden difficulty spikes. You don't know what you've got till it's gone.

To play Dead Rising 4 is to be a wrecking ball. A dozen hours in and I'd only died twice - in both cases simply because I'd taken my eye off the health meter ball as, by and large, it hadn't otherwise been a problem. Weapons, vehicles, outfits and rescued survivors had been, more or less, simply a matter of choice rather than challenge. The infinite pinata.

I don't begrudge Dead Rising this, and I even welcome it to some extent - without the old barriers I could rack up incredible kill counts with ridiculous devices, and so end up in a place where a tired joke became funny again. These last two days of play have been something of a lost weekend - it boils down to me sat inside some Mad Maxmobile ploughing through endless hordes. This seemed transgressive once upon a time, but now it just seems like Videogames.

Returning protagonist Frank West, photojournalist/surrogate Ash-from-Evil Dead, is more or less in on the joke - he never asks that the player takes this nonsense seriously. He's venal and quipping, with the joke that he is obnoxious sometimes simply becoming a tedious fact, but by and large he's not bad company.

Though it's belching gags a hundred per second, the game's nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is, often resorting to shouting and swearing (or both at once) in the absence of actual jokes, but at least this suits the general tone of sadistic excess.

Still, I've been watching Ash vs Evil Dead, a gloriously horrible and hilarious show, and so much of it is carried by Bruce Campbell successfully being a total dick, genuinely funny and a real human being at the same time. West can't hold a candle - and the game can't hold a candle to the show's gore overload.

Yes, game vs TV is not a fair comparison, but I was haunted by a certain sense that Dead Rising 4 has turned up to the horror-farce party too late and with only the most obvious gags.

I've enjoyed dicking around in it, though. It's big and stupid and just pretty enough. I particularly dig the fidelity and scale of its environments, expanded far beyond the initial shopping centre and into a impressively large section of infested city. I particularly appreciate that this is that rarest of things, a full Christmas game. It's set just after Black Friday, see, as part of a toothless and characteristically obnoxious satire of consumerism. (Given that our times have made Romero's worst nightmares real, there's much it could have done here, but it's too busy being that pinata).

This means that the halls are very much decked, and we get Christmas tree lots and snowy mountain backdrops to boot. The menus play cheesy Xmas choons. There are elf outfits and exploding fairy lights. Honestly, I love it. It comes across as both a sincere love of December chintz and a wry understanding that it is entirely suited to being offset by extreme gore.

We get so many glossy games this time of year, with so many of them destined for a 190mm by 135mm parcel underneath a dying fir tree, but so few of them offer season's greetings. They all aim to be seasonless, all the better for a long sales tail. Dead Rising 4 embraces its release date wholesale. It shouldn't be so unusual to be running around murdering endless zombos in a winter wonderland, but it really is, especially at this kind of budget. And, this being Dead Rising, it gets to write it off as simple wackiness - like its random medieval cosplay zone - at any other time of year.

A decent enough lost weekend. But I don't think I'll be coming back afterwards. I don't have purpose - or, rather, my purpose has repeatedly been 'kill everything with everything' and there's only so many times that can retain its pull. Even finding new weapon crafting blueprints largely seems pointless after you've got a handful in the bank, as you've seen the outside margins of lethal potential so very early on and understand that new kill-tools won't really achieve anything new.

DR4 goes peak power fantasy right out of the gates, and though it tries to break through (with more angry human factions and some mega-monsters) it's up against its own ceiling.

It's gone too far in the other direction, basically. I definitely welcome non-nightmarish boss fights and a little more freedom to explore, but I wish there was more escalation, and a little more challenge - that it wasn't just a matter of going wherever I please and killing a thousand of whatever I please. Hoovering up every blueprint or upgrade has become completism for the sake of completism, and reaching a new area feels inconsequential because I was already a god of death in the existing one. Unless you somehow invest in the thin story, there's no real purpose here, only sandbox.

You'll have a good time with Dead Rising 4. But you won't feel as though you earned it.

Technical addendum: Dead Rising 4 has a few issues, the most frustrating one being that several of its cutscenes cause it to crash to desktop. The only way to avoid this was to skip the cutscenes, which I was able to do with zero regret. It also has a number of bugs, such as clipping errors, disappearing items and friendly NPCs which spawned half a dozen duplicates of themselves who then spoke in a terrifying chorus. Bar the crashing, none of these things meaningfully interrupted the experience, but it could definitely use a patch or two.

Dead Rising 4 is out now. At present, it is only available from the Windows 10 store.

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