Thursday, 30 September 2010

Dead Rising 2

A machete and a broom. A tin bucket and a power drill. A wheelchair and a mounted machine gun. The ability to combine weapons with your average everyday housing implements is one key way in which Dead Rising 2 attempts to differentiate itself from its predecessor, the original zombie massacre simulation of 2006. In many ways this much-touted new feature is symptomatic of Dead Rising 2 as a whole – on one hand it’s a playground purpose-built for inconsequential carnage, in the manner of the very best sandboxes, whilst on the other hand it’s a game without any freedom in the traditional sense, a game in which, for all its generosity with regards to player choice, ultimately leaves you in doubt as to who the real drivers of this experience are.

Arguably this is Dead Rising 2’s biggest success. As much as Dead Rising’s unceasing countdown and single-save option drew detractors, it also helped the game firmly imprint an atmosphere of impending catastrophe upon the player, lending the events on-screen a distinct urgency. By not listening to these criticisms to any great degree, Canadian-based developers Blue Castle Games have ensured that the sequel maintains this tradition, ensuring cohesion between the motivations of protagonist Chuck Greene and your actual style of play throughout. There are few games in which the juggling of objectives feels as important as it does here, where even the central story missions can be discarded or accidentally missed without halting the game entirely. Do you risk fighting a path to the lone survivor on a golf course and all the rewards that entails, even though your daughter Katey needs another dose of Zombrex in the next two hours to suppress her infection? Even Grand Theft Auto IV wasn’t as bold as to countenance leaving central narrative threads hanging, or have entire boss fights and missions disappear completely. Played in a certain way Dead Rising 2 is a compelling, nicely ridiculous, tale of paternal anxiety and media-based conspiracy. Played in the opposite way it’s audaciously freeform given the work invested in characters and situations elsewhere; the only true framework is the in-game 72 hours time limit before the military arrive, a deadline that puts a leash on the sprawling feel of other similar open-world titles, whilst still retaining that tangible momentum the main story provides.

This story centres on former motorcross champion Chuck Greene, who arrives in the airless Dubai-like Fortune City, “America’s newest gambling paradise”, to compete in a gameshow entitled Terror Is Reality. From the same satiric mould as Smash T.V and MadWorld before it, TIR dares the contestants to prevail in various zombie-related score challenges to win big money. It’s after one TIR show that another of those pesky zombie outbreaks begins, starting the familiar 72 hour countdown.

TIR not only serves the in-game fiction – Chuck needs the money to buy the vital Zombrex drug for his daughter – but it also acts as a hub for online multiplayer that feeds directly back into the main game. The mini-games that make up online Terror Is Reality, a gladiatorial tussle between four people, may lack refinement and feel a little rushed, but this matters little given their off-centre position in the context of the entire game. Each tournament lasts barely ten minutes, the loose mechanics keep things fairly even, it’s a laugh, and the end reward for coming first can be close to $100,000, which is very generous given the scant investment of time and the fact that – this is the best bit – all winnings can be carried over to the single-player campaign mode.

The success of this campaign, Chuck’s survival for 72 hours in Fortune City, rests on such emotions as panic, confusion and pressure. As such the compromises Blue Castle Games have made on visual fidelity are the only viable route they could have taken, and it emphatically works. Dead Rising 2 would have failed were the engine not able to depict mass hordes of the undead; although there are inevitable rough edges and odd groups of identically-dressed zombies, these issues are quickly forgotten as the ticker in the bottom right of the screen constantly updates your total kills, taking over your focus and always pushing you to tackle just one last shuffling zombie. And then another. And another…

By the time you finish playing a kill total in the tens of thousands isn’t just expected, it’s practically mandatory. As well as this impressive stat, there are several other sets of numbers in the game that keep the experience addictive. The currency of Dead Rising 2’s levelling system is PP points, which are awarded for such notable uses of the sandbox as killing zombies with one of the combo weapons, saving survivors and defeating a psychopath. Eventually the PP bar will be full, and Chuck’s level will rise, with attributes such as health and speed being enhanced on a seemingly random basis. The genius twist, and one that could potentially lead to many gamers being lost within Dead Rising 2 on a perpetual Groundhog Day-style loop, is that at any point you can decide to re-start the story, and take all your experience points and increased powers with you. If any bosses or missions are proving tricky on your first playthrough, they certainly won’t be when you have extra inventory slots and a wheelchair mounted with a machine gun (did we mention this exists?) ready to call upon. Although this approach may go somewhat against the ethos of Chuck’s story galloping towards its conclusion regardless of your choices, it does help balance the rather more unforgiving aspects of Dead Rising 2’s design.

Many of the grievances with Dead Rising 2 will likely arise from gamers not convinced with its design, or perhaps unwilling to engage with the game in the manner that its meant to be played. There are issues outside of this sphere – one risible driving section, controls that are sometimes awkward and inelegant, a co-op mode that adds little whilst spoiling the air of isolation – but they fail to blunt the overwhelming positive impression. By not changing too much from the original template Blue Castle Games have ensured that Dead Rising 2 will likely elicit as divisive a response as its predecessor. Which is fine because Dead Rising 2, a bundle of contradictions with a neat line in bespoke weaponry, isn’t an easy game to love at all. Take the plunge though, and you’ll find one of 2010’s most singular, bloody-minded, and fascinating videogames.

This review was written for D+PAD Magazine.

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