Xbox 360 Preview: Dead Rising
Developer Capcom • Platform Microsoft Xbox 360
Version Reviewed Xbox Live Demo • UK Release September 8th 2006
I think it would be fair to say that, when it comes to zombie movies, I can become a little obsessive; as many people have pointed out in the past, a good deal of the films in my DVD collection have the word 'dead' in the title. However, as much as I enjoy the sight of something that was formerly a human shambling around with their arm hanging off and grey matter protruding from their shattered skull, it isn't the primary reason that I enjoy these movies so much. I find the bleakness and horror of the situation itself far more disturbing; society simply shuts down. Power stations go unmanned, emergency broadcast notices play out to themselves, and places of cultural significance that were once filled with the living are now filled with the walking dead.
Although many existing games, particularly the Resident Evil series, have captured the visceral thrills of zombie slaying I've always found that their emphasis on creating a dark atmosphere, cheap scares and the one-on-one zombie encounters betray the genre somewhat; the zombies may as well be vampires, mummies or any other type of necrotic crypt dweller. Besides, anyone who's played Resident Evil 1, 2, or 3 knows that the real enemy isn't the zombies, but the frustrating controls. No, I've always imagined that the ideal zombie game would not only involve thousands of zombies, but also have an expansive, exploratory aspect capable of conveying the full extent of an apocalyptic situation. This is the reason why I'm particularly excited about Dead Rising, the new zombie game that Capcom has been developing exclusively for the Xbox 360. As far as I'm concerned, it's the first true zombie game, in the George A. Romero sense of the genre.
I've been following the development of this game for some time, but just to give some background to those of you that haven't heard of it, put simply, Dead Rising is a video game tribute to Dawn Of The Dead, mainly due to the fact that the game takes place in an enormous shopping mall. You play as photojournalist Frank West, who travels via helicopter to the small American town of Willamette to investigate reports of several, seemingly random murders. Upon his arrival, Frank witnesses what is actually occurring; hordes of the undead have risen, and have transformed the idyllic town into a living nightmare. Frank has his pilot drop him off on the roof of the town's enormous shopping mall, and has just 72 hours to discover the truth behind the zombie outbreak.
Having piqued many gamer's curiosity with the narrative setup, Capcom released a demo on Xbox Live Marketplace last Friday, just four days before the full game's U.S launch date. Given that we won't be seeing the game released until the 8th of September here in Britain, I felt even more compelled to try out the demo, and I've spent the last few days knee deep in the dead of the Willamette mall's Paradise Plaza.
The demo itself is fairly limited; there's a time limit of twenty minutes, the player is only granted access to a relatively small area of the mall, and there are none of the full game's missions or side-objectives to complete. However, if anything, this allows you to concentrate on what the game does best; provide opportunities to dismember, maim, and otherwise annihilate zombies in as many outlandish and hilarious ways as possible. Even after spending five minutes in the game, it becomes apparent that Capcom have put effort into making practically everything a weapon; venture into a sports shop and you can find baseball bats, gold clubs, and even skateboards. Enter a toy shop, and water pistols, plastic lightsabers and all manner of ineffectual playthings are at your disposal.
In the time I've spent in the demo, I've used baseball bats, sledgehammers, golf clubs, bowling balls, sickles, guitars (acoustic and electric), frying pans, CDs, soda cans, coat hangers, pearls, advertisement boards, potted plants, benches, carving knives, night sticks, brooms and stuffed toys as a means of fighting the undead.
Of course, there are guns too; I managed to find a shotgun, handgun, and semi-automatic in the demo. These are enormously satisfying, either for loosing into a crowd of undead, or for scoring headshots with the Resident Evil 4 style over-the-shoulder aiming. Still, why pass up the opportunity to throw a cash register into a zombie, and watch them explode in a haze of blood and dollar bills?
Most of the items that can be used as weapons have two different types of attack, one quick, and one heavy. For example, tapping attack with the sickle hooks the blade around a zombie's neck and decapitates it, whereas holding attack produces a low arcing sweep which removes their legs. The mechanic of using these weapons is greatly satisfying, and everything just feels right; swinging a bench into a pack of zombies causes the kind of bone-snapping carnage that you might expect, and even throwing plate-after-plate into an enemy's face is gratifying in a kind of "oh shit, that would kind of hurt!" way.
Secondary to the act of killing zombies in Dead Rising is taking photographs of them. Frank has his trusty camera with him at all times, which can be used to earn PP (Prestige Points), that are used to raise the player's level and gain new abilities. Basically, the player can take photographs of anything in the mall, from a particularly bloody decapitation to a pair of reuniting survivors. Each time a photograph is taken, its contents is graded, and the resulting PP that the photo is awarded it given to the player as experience. Each photograph is also assigned a genre, such as horror, outtake, erotica (don't ask), drama, or brutality. Although PP can't be used to expand skills in the demo, taking photographs is a fun activity by itself; it's awesome to unload a shotgun shell into a zombie's head at point blank range, but it's all the sweeter when the fountain of crimson spewing forth from the gaping hole in his neck is captured as a Kodak Moment. In the full game, it's even possible to save your favourite pictures to show to Grandma.
The behaviour of the zombies themselves goes deeper than them simply being shambling, cannibalistic death merchants; it comes across very early on in playing the game that each zombie seemingly has its own personality. Some are faster than others, and will aggressively pursue you, whereas others will lunge for you, miss, and then get bored and wander off elsewhere. Occasionally, I came across zombies that didn't seem interested in eating Frank at all, but more in the severed human hand held in their necrotic clutches. When the zombies aren't trying to attack you, they claw at windows, aimlessly push shopping trolleys around, and otherwise behave in a manner that makes you think "okay, yeah, this used to be a human". Sadistically (and maybe this is more a reflection of me rather than the game), these touches of personification makes their destruction all the more satisfying.
Although the "zombies can/can't run" argument has raged since the dawn (sorry) of time, Capcom has attempted to placate both camps by turning the slow, cumbersome zombies of the daytime, into faster, more lethal creatures when night falls. Again, this isn't something that occurs in the demo, but one of the cutscenes that ends the twenty minute play period shows this transformation when 7:00pm strikes.
A minor element of the demo is the ability to change Frank's appearance, using the contents of various clothes shops. This seems like a feature that will be far more expansive in the full game; I've seen several screenshots where Frank has been sporting different hairstyles, as well as all manner of bizarre outfit. There are a couple of different outfits and accessories to be found in the small area of Paradise Plaza, including (disturbingly) a kid's sized t-shirt and shorts combo. Still, you can't help but to chuckle at the dark spectacle of splitting a zombie in two with a katana whilst wearing pinstriped slacks, a basketball vest, and a horse-head mask.
Gameplay elements aside, Dead Rising's humour is a great asset to the atmosphere of the game. Just as Romero was aware of the absurdity of the situation he had placed the characters of in his films, and knowingly poked fun at the conventions of the genre, Capcom has taken the opportunity to do the same. An obvious example of this in the demo is the name of one of the mall's shops being called Jill's Sandwiches, a reference to the hilariously camp and unintentionally terrible voice acting from the original Resident Evil. From seeing some of the other cutscenes posted on the official Dead Rising site, it seems that this kind of approach is continued throughout the full game, and I think that this juxtaposes well with the overblown (and quite frankly, ridiculous) acts of violence that are possible.
Having spent many hours with the demo, I can honestly say that I am truly excited about this game, not only because the act of battling the undead is so damn fun, but it seems that we finally have a zombie game that shares similarities with the genre that it is paying tribute to. Where the four protagonists of Dawn Of The Dead used the potential of the shopping mall to survive, Capcom have created a game that rewards exploration and creativity.
Dead Rising is already available in America, and is released on the 8th of September in Britain. Suffice to say, I've already preordered my copy of the game, which ships with the collector's edition metal tin. You can expect to read a review of the full game here on Noise To Signal in about a month's time. In the meantime, I recommend that you take a look at Swarmwatch, a fake news site that Capcom has set up to promote the game.