I used to love zombies. For a while, I contemplated writing a book about them, and I even started researching it before ultimately abandoning the project. I loved Romero zombies, Resident Evil zombies, 28 Days Later zombies, Haitian voodoo zombies, and World War Z zombies. I loved the intersection of history, different media, seriousness and camp, commentary and pulp.
Finally, though, The Walking Dead killed zombies for me. Once it spawned its own television show, The Walking Dead hit critical mass and began to dominate the zombie conversation. The Walking Dead no longer belonged to zombies, zombies belonged to The Walking Dead. I finally exhausted my love for a concept that I'd been a fan of for something like 15 years.
Dead Rising 4 might be the perfect antidote for that exhaustion, bringing together crucial elements of timing and tone to make a sequel that hones the core pillars that made the original Dead Rising fun and memorable while still making the game feel new and fresh.
Combine, Kill, Explore, Level Up
At the core of Dead Rising is a simple loop: combine, kill, explore, level up.
Since the release of the original, each game has stacked onto that core, and Dead Rising 4 is the best of that yet. It's still fun after 10 years, and it's been streamlined to make it easier to find the fun while downplaying the tedium.
The parts I remember most about the original Dead Rising are the good things. Running around a huge open world was still novel at that point, and the sheer level of environmental density in Dead Rising put it on another tier. The mall in Dead Rising looked and felt like a mega mall. Heck, even the crowds of zombies felt pretty accurate.
The parts that are easy to forget are the frustrating moments of trying to goof around while a timer ticked down, of constantly-dying survivors, of Otis hassling you over your walkie-talkie, and of how frustrating it was to be slowed down by even the smallest things. Each game has moved toward solving those elements, but Dead Rising 4 is the one that seems to have it all down. It feels confident.
Frank West returns this time around, after adventures with a couple other characters, having picked up the crafting abilities of Chuck Greene and Nick Ramos. Like Ramos, West doesn't need a workbench to craft items. In addition to that, though, he can craft items on the fly. If two items that could potentially be combined are close enough to you in the environment – and you have the necessary crafting recipe – holding down B will have West kneeling on the ground to assemble them without the need to pick them up first.
It's a small thing, but combined with the lack of workbench, it goes a long way toward making the whole activity feel more improvisational and fluid. The only times I found myself digging around for a specific item were the times I'd picked up a new crafting recipe and wanted to put it to use immediately. Other times, I was simply picking up stuff as I went along, remembering which items went into my favorite weapons and crafting them once I had both. Because there are so many recipes and items are so simple to create, exploration is more rewarding. Wherever I went, I was coming out with a silly outfit and a messy weapon. I had my favorites, sure, and I didn't find nearly all of them during my first playthrough of the game, but I never felt like I was lacking variety.
All of this happens in a world that combines the general layout of Dead Rising 3's map and the visual variety of Dead Rising 2 into the main conceit of Dead Rising. That sounds like a mouthful, but it's pretty graceful. As West, you're returning to Willamette, Colorado, the site of the original Dead Rising, some 16 years later. The town eventually recovered, and a new mega mall was built, only for those wacky government scientists to semi-accidentally unleash a new strain of the previously-cured zombie virus on the populace. West is pulled in thanks to his history with the city and the decision of a student of his to go into the city looking for a story. It gets the job done of putting you in this new place that still has a feeling of personal history to it.
While the elements of combined weapons and the city map feel like an accumulation of history for the series, it wisely drops a couple elements from the original.
As with any zombie apocalypse, survivors are a part of the experience, but they are massively simplified this time around. The survivors that require extensive escorting from Dead Rising are gone, but so are the more complex ones. Rescued survivors return to the nearest available zombie shelter and their presence levels up which items are available at that shelter. The survivors themselves can't be leveled up or moved around.
A perhaps more controversial change is that the urgency that marked the previous games is gone. In previous Dead Rising games, a timer ticked away in the top corner, meant to keep players moving and to sometimes present them with tough decisions. For some players, the lack of timer will be a blessing; a moral decision is interesting, but a decision about which thing to leave incomplete is agonizing. Others will see the lack of timer as a dumbing down of the series and the removal of a core element. I personally found it liberating. While I didn't end up playing the game as long as I might've if I'd picked it up on my own, I was able to take the time to search houses and find some of the environmental stories, such as a house that seems to have been a single military parent and their child rather than a more traditional family. I also had enough time to dig around for hidden blue-prints and saferooms without ever having to worry about whether I was missing out on opportunities in doing so.
One element that comes with Frank's return to the series that feels under-utilized, though, is photography. Photography was initially a big element in Dead Rising thanks to its protagonist's background as a photojournalist (who has covered wars, you know). Here, it seems more like an afterthought.
Photography comes into play in two ways. One is through a simple investigation mode that pops up each time you need to advance the story. You'll have to hunt-and-peck for a few items in the environment, capturing images of them before you can move forward. It's a good way to remind us that Frank is indeed a journalist, but it's not interesting. The best thing I can say is that it doesn't take up much time.
The other is using your camera to, in theory, document your time in Willamette. This gives you more freedom to photograph what you'd like, which is cool, but once again, it's not that interesting most of the time. The camera is very slow to come up when you click the right thumbstick in to bring it up compared to previous games in the series. A lot of the pictures feel very same-y and uninteresting, as well.
There is one fun addition, though. As confused as Frank seems about modern trends, his intense narcissism, which ebbs off him in nauseating waves, understands exactly what a selfie is and how it should work. They also led to a couple unintentional jump-scares. While in camera mode, I was wandering around in the dark with night vision on. I accidentally clicked right button and suddenly there was a face right up in my camera! Oh right, selfies – it's me. Dead Rising 4 is not a scary game, but I just about jumped out of my pants the first time that happened.
While most of what didn't work for Dead Rising is gone, the game's consistently imprecise controls remain. I don't know if this particular element is one the game truly solve. Part of what makes Dead Rising so fun is how dense the world is, and that's precisely why the controls kind of suck. In any given position, pressing B could pick up multiple healing items, weapon components or weapons, or even start a crafting sequence. The hairy moments that inevitably come from this are control, not player-driven, and it's frustrating. Even so, it's not a deal breaker – it's just an accepted part of Dead Rising at this point.
With that said, Dead Rising 4 is an easy game. The few times I did die, it was primarily out of negligence, not from difficulty. I don't think I died once on any of the bosses, and none of them were particularly challenging or tense. Even so, I didn't feel disappointed by that. Exploration and absurdity were what I was there for – running around with an ice sword, dressed as a turkey in a pirate hat. If you're looking for the scarcity and difficulty of the older games, Dead Rising 4 may be a bit disappointing in that respect, but for me it turned the act of zombie slaughter into a sort of soothing experience. It was kind of like popping bubble-wrap, but with all kinds of different weapons.
The humans are the real monsters
One of the biggest issues with Dead Rising throughout its life has been how it handles the other characters in the story. The story itself has always been forgettable and present primarily just to give our characters a reason to be stuck in the place they're in. Even if I walked you through the plot point-by-point, I wouldn't be spoiling a thing.
With its characters, the series has often relied on easy stereotypes and titillation – this even rolled over into the photography element, where pictures of attractive female characters (or sexy zombies, because that was a thing) would score you extra points.
In that way, the series has done much better with Dead Rising 4. In my playtime, I didn't run into any really problematic stereotypes, and sex didn't enter the picture in any inappropriate spots. Normally, this wouldn't be worth calling out, but it was a pain point in previous entries and something the current team seems to have taken into account. Instead of relying on stereotypes like "crazy trans person," we fight a "crazy drama teacher," and that teacher isn't given any unnecessary secondary traits.
Overall, the maniac survivors are downplayed a bit in the game and aren't turned into required bosses. The developer didn't have to spend time making cardboard cutout characters that were easy to understand in 30 seconds, and it doesn't feel like anything substantial is missing from the game for it.
A Christmas miracle
Aside from everything that makes Dead Rising 4 a Dead Rising game, Dead Rising 4's release this week is a matter of perfect timing. This is a Christmas game, through-and-through, the same way Home Alone isn't explicitly a Christmas movie but is still a movie we really only pull out around the holiday season. The game is decorated from corner to corner with singing Santas, Christmas lights, and candy canes, and the pause menu and in-car radios are playing Christmas playlists.
A delay for Dead Rising 4 could've been disastrous, and kudos goes to the team for daring to put together a holiday-infused zombie game and to get it out on shelves in time.
Subsequently, I think this game will be one that ends up feeling weird to play in the middle of July, but will end up selling a few extra copies during future holiday game sales. It could become a perennial Christmas game, one we pull out every year along with Home Alone, Die Hard, advent calendars, and gingerbread cookies. Thanks to the way consoles have previously lived and died, we don't have much in the way of long-lived holiday traditions in games the same way we do in music and movies, but the rolling upgrades of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 could be a starting point for that to change.
I'd be remiss, though, in not mentioning the bugs I ran into. During the final cutscenes of the game, dialogue started to cut out, and I missed some of the last lines of the game as the subtitles weren't kicking in either, despite being turned on already. A few times, I had to re-load a save because a character was stuck on some in-game geometry or something like that, as well. These weren't huge bugs that would make me suggest waiting, but they're still noteworthy.
After having been bored of zombies for so long, Dead Rising 4 was a nice change of pace, bringing back that campy silliness to make zombies fun like they hadn't been in a while. Weirdly, it also helped get me in the mood for Christmas. It's easy to forget the holiday is coming, but spending a weekend whacking zombies over the head with Christmas gear while Jingle Bells played in the background turned out to be a great reminder.
My recommendation is to pick up Dead Rising 4 right now – or wait until next year's round of game sales. Either way, it'll be a blast of holiday cheer and undead groans, and it's worth checking out.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Dead Rising 4 for the Xbox One from the publisher. We completed the single-player campaign over 20 hours of play before writing this review.