Capcom's zombie-bothering sequel Dead Rising 2 arrived on plastic discs earlier this week, and on Steam today. I've been making a right old mess of its enormous, infested mall for the last week or so, which leaves me in a position to bother you with a whole bunch of thoughts about it.
I never expected a game about firing water-pistols at zombies whilst wearing a child's t-shirt and a Blanka hat to be so serious.
Dead Rising 2 is very much taking zombie gaming as far as it can go in pure, raw, dumb action terms: the option to unleash untold varieties of sickening, hilarious and sickeningly hilarious violence onto things that look like people but, crucially, don't behave like them. That's what the game's built on, and that's why people want to buy it.
It could have been a briefly thrilling but ultimately throwaway playground, akin to strange, hollow PS2 slaughtering title State of Emergency. The first game (which didn't see PC appearance), did risk that - partially by dint of its gimmick-centric nature, and partially due to shallow and/or frustrating longer-term tasks.
Dead Rising 2 is another zombie-outbreak game set in a sprawling mall, but while superficially an entirely similar prospect, it's tightened its systems in meaningful ways. It feels focused - there's a base-level concern for both your character, washed-up and widowed motocross star Chuck Greene, and for the survivors who litter the shopping centre. Not because they're especially likeable - a great many are thin, obnoxious , in fact- but simply because they're human, and they're in peril. Rescuing them is not an aggravating exercise in shepherding, but a co-operative battle to safety through the infinite horde.
They're not helpless. They fight surprising well, they follow well, and they'll take the weapons and food (health) you offer them. They'll also get caught in your crossfire and catch you in theirs, which can lead to bloody betrayal. They're present and solid yet also vulnerable enough to ensure the game feels like an exercise in genuine survival, not a series of chores.
Serious. It's in the deadlines, too - a constant backdrop of clearing Chuck's name of a horrific crime before the law arrives to clear out the infestation and him with it, and to ensure daily supplies of anti-zombification drug Zombrex for his daughter. Bitten by a deadhead before the game begins, she requires oh-so-rare Zombrex between 7 and 8 am every day or she'll turn, and Chuck's reason to fight is gone.
The dialogue and performance isn't quite enough to make any lower lips quiver, but it's certainly enough to put a true framework around the brutal dicking about. The allotted time to travel hither and thither, twatting growing hordes of zombies with whatever comes to hand, is always in short supply enough to add an atmosphere of desperate survival, but rarely so tight that you can't take a good few moments to soak up the cartoon savagery.
The root of this is, of course, in the weapons. We've posted a bunch of trailers over the months depicting the most ludicrous engines of DIY death, but in practice it's the slightly more subdued tools that make the fight. Discovering that something ostensibly innocuous - a toy helicopter, for instance - proves a more arresting and even effective tool than something clearly fatal, like a enormous mallet.
It's the surprise element: clearly a couple of chainsaws strapped to a stick are going to chop everything and anything into something too gruesome to even feed to the dog. It's sickly entertaining, but it's not surprising. That a brick to the face is so utterly fatal, or a big green dildo so effective at keeping the hordes at bay, is joyfully unexpected. (Hilarity tip: gather up as many survivors as possible and equip them all with dildos. I curse myself for not having Fraps running then.)
Even the quite obviously ineffectual stuff, like a foam finger or a can of spray paint, is almost more of a delight than a sledge hammer gaffer-taped to an axe. The thrill's in finding out what happens, what the reaction is and somehow surviving even though all you've done is create a slightly bruised zombie covered in green.
That said, the weapon-combination system is a great addition. Part of it's flagged up, with you gaining recipes for new combos as you level up or uncover secrets, and part of it's a result of your own what-if experimentation. I wish the latter was an awful lot looser, but instead it's a relatively small number of prescribed blueprints. Nonetheless, the joy of trying out x with x and suddenly being rewarded with Holy Crap: X! is immense. Sure, there's a logic breakdown to some of them, but this is scarcely the point.
Which brings me to the wonderful incongruity at Dead Rising 2's heart. It's a serious tale of death and familial tragedy, blackmail and betrayal, but it's starring a guy who you can dress up (depending on which store you've most recently raided) in a summer dress or an Elvis catsuit or a hideous p;aid suit or a distressingly tight child's t-shirt or bottomless chaps. He'll have oh-so-stern conversations with his various aides and enemies while dressed like someone you'd see slumped in a Camden gutter. No-one mentions it, even as they're often insulting almost everything else about him. That's exactly why it's funny. 'Did you not notice? Or is it just so strange and sinister that you've decided to pretend it's not there?'
The other truth behind it is that, well, almost everyone in Dead Rising 2 is near-psychotic. A dude in a flannel boob-tube is nothing compared to cannibal chefs, zombie rights maniacs and genocidal TV presenters. It's a horrible, crazy, deadly world. Why worry about clothes? If the guy feels better when he's wearing bottom leather chaps, let him wear bottomless leather chaps.
(This is quite obviously not the real reason. I just enjoy applying internal logic to something that's made the very careful decision not to have any internal logic.)
I've had a grand time with Dead Rising 2: it's not the kind of thing I'd expect to be on PC these days, and it's all the more agreeably slick/mad for it. Limited options, non-reconfigurable controls and, most of all, the blight of Games For Windows Live are very much not to its credit, but do not undo it. Bar slow loading times, it's a good-looking and smooth-running game.
What I will single out for a bit of whine are some the boss fights: the game tries hard to break up the everyday zombie abuse with setpiece fights against fast, powerful, much more aware characters. A few too many, especially in the optional missions, are blessed with dramatically overpowered attacks and a resistance to much of your carefully-collected arsenal, but perhaps they're a sap to what's otherwise a broadly smoother run than its predecessor.
Levelling Chuck up a bunch (achieved primarily be rescuing surivors and killing the horde with custom weapons) is key, and there are... longer-term ways to ensure his effectiveness is increased, but there are moments where I felt my maniac entertainment was impinged by a bloody-minded designer or a fear of alienating those who felt DR1's punishing setpiece battles were pitched just right.
And again, some of the dialogue and characterisation grates too, such as Chuck's fratboy flirtation/lecherousness towards the game's women and the baseless, sneery evil of many of the still-human villains. It's far from a classy game, but then it's a game about punching zombies with nail-covered boxing gloves. Expecting it to be classy would be folly.
What it has done, though, is save itself from what might have been a decline into total mindlessness: it's a serious game, structured and measured as well as freeform and crazed. It's almost smarter than it has any right to be. Well done, it.