Why ‘Dead Rising’ Worked (And Why I’m Not Excited For ‘4’)
In-fiction, the first Dead Rising kicks off on my birthday, September 19th. In recognition of this serendipity and the game’s tenth anniversary, a few months ago I downloaded the PS4 version and stepped back into Frank West’s shoes. Then, later, I swapped those shoes for a pair of orange Converse. Then I put a horse head on.
Ten years ago, the surface appeal of Dead Rising was (and still is, in its sequels) the ridiculous amount of zombies on screen, all there for the player to kick, slice, and blast their way through with reckless abandon. The zombie saturation is technically neat, but what makes the first Dead Rising special to me isn’t the apocalyptic spectacle; what I appreciate most of all is how the game exercises restraint.
Most of Dead Rising takes place within the Willamette Parkview Mall, in homage to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The mall is pretty huge: five plazas, a food court, movie theatre, home and garden outlet, and grocery store make up the interior, all surrounding a giant outdoor park and sitting atop a network of wide maintenance tunnels. Oh, and one of those plazas has a small roller coaster.
In terms of size, Willamette Parkview actually pales in comparison to some of the real world’s largest, like Canada’s West Edmonton Mall (home to multiple amusement parks). As over-the-top as Dead Rising’s setting is, it could be so much more-so and still not push up against the limits of believability.
From memory, I could sketch you a fairly useful map of the mall’s grounds. A huge component of Dead Rising’s gameplay is simply navigation — for quests, there’s an arrow that’ll point you in the right direction, but you’ll be much better off once you know the fastest route to your destination just by receiving a call from Otis on the walkie-talkie.
Playing Dead Rising well, either to complete the story or save the greatest number of survivors, necessitates becoming intimately familiar with the space and the ways in which you move through it. Without a good grasp, you’ll inevitably fail one of the game’s critical missions due to the time constraints.
The timed nature of Dead Rising’s missions proved to be the most controversial design decision of the game. In terms of difficulty, the time management pressure suddenly spikes on the game’s second day when it throws you from one mission’s end immediately to another — where in roughly 20 realtime minutes you have to cross to the other side of the mall, defeat one of the game’s ‘psychopath’ bosses, collect an item and then return to the safe house. From that point onward, completing the main story path while rescuing a handful of survivors along the way becomes an exercise in punishing time management.
As early as the first sequel it was rumored that the time constraints would be dropped from gameplay, and with the release of Dead Rising 4, the series has completed its gradual transition to a more typical open-world model. Though 4 returns to Willamette, Colorado, you aren’t confined to the mall. Any sense of time pressure takes a backseat to zombie-slaughter aided by fantastical DIY weapons (introduced in 2), a combo system (3), and a new over-powered exo-skeleton.
It disappoints me that the arc of Dead Rising’s life as a series has been to embrace and heighten some of the least interesting aspects of the first game. Sure, there were a few blatantly ridiculous weapons and attacks in the first game — the auger drill, the disemboweling punch — as well as the humorously ineffective weapons like Servbot heads, water guns, pies to the face. Most of the time, though, it made sense to use regular-old swords, shotguns, or even a skinny lead pipe. The sequel implemented combo weapons, putting lightsabers (locked behind a difficult achievement in the first game) into the hands of any player able to grab the super-common flashlight and gemstone items.
This crafting system replaced the photography mechanic, which wasn’t very gameplay-essential in the first place, but allowed players to gain experience points in a non-violent manner and actually role play a bit as Frank West, a photojournalist with something to prove. Photography made a comeback in later sequels, but the abundance of over-the-top weapons remained the focus.
Even after Dead Rising 3 appeared to take a turn towards a more serious tone in early trailers, the game still included ‘psychopath’ bosses — human aggressors who’re often guarding kidnapped survivors the player can rescue. The portrayal of the ‘psychopaths’ in Dead Rising has been the series’ most consistently over-the-top aspect, and one of its weakest elements.
The first game’s better bosses are still very thin, conceptually — a murderous clown, a family of 2nd amendment-loving-snipers, an overprotective grocery store employee. Several of the series’ ‘psychopaths’ trade on lazy, offensive tropes. Take Jo, an overweight female police officer who captures and sexually tortures several young women. In the cutscene following Jo’s defeat, her last line (“Can’t believe a worthless prick like you did me in”) is followed by a convulsive death rattle that grotesquely mimics an orgasm. Dead Rising 2 pits the player against an animal trainer with a mental disability; 3 features Jherii, a bodybuilder who the game’s protagonist mistakes for male, pushing Jherii into a murderous rage. The achievement name for defeating Jherii is “Prideful.” Apparently, Dead Rising 4 drops written ‘psychopaths’ completely, instead including generic ‘maniacs’ as bosses instead. Using ‘psychopath’ as the identifier always chafed even under a generous reading, where you assume the player character’s aggression towards the human characters is also a little unhinged.
Dead Rising 4 appears to embrace that reading, albeit in a way that further loses sight of what made the first game great. Yes, Frank West is back, but he’s a changed man — he spouts catchphrases, gurns for selfies, and slaughters zombies with pumped-up glee. He’s even got a different voice actor now. Capcom has always emphasized the ‘funny’ side of these games, but to me it looks like they don’t get the joke. Frank West isn’t a particularly jokey character in Dead Rising, but the self-serious B-movie cutscenes become charmingly funny when Frank’s standing there with a Servbot head and ill-fitting clothes from the “Boys” department on. In the new game Frank’s an eccentric loud mouth, and suddenly any dissonance between his costume and attitude is dissolved. Capcom’s opted to move away from low-key, irreverent comedy — instead, New Frank West is almost like if Duke Nukem liked to cosplay.
Actually, scratch that. New Frank West reminds me of Kent Swanson. Kent’s a ‘psychopath’ boss from the original game: an erratic, competitive photographer who delights in taking creepshots and snuff photos. He’s cocky with a bloodlust… which is how I’d describe Frank in Dead Rising 4’s launch trailer.
At the end of the day, I don’t like the original Dead Rising because it’s a game where I can go on an endless funny-ha-ha zombie killing spree while stopping to murder other (often marginalized) humans — but this is the image the sequels have chosen to embrace.
The first game just gets something so right by keeping everything inside the mall and setting those time constraints (and constraints on absurdity). With mastery, the zombie and boss combat becomes largely perfunctory — a max-level Frank armed with the juggling clown’s chainsaws can tear through most anything. This isn’t a complaint. Once I developed an understanding for the weapons and AI, the appeal of the game changed. Masses of zombies were no longer enemies to be feared, but obstacles to be navigated with finesse. Preparing for a boss battle starts to be more like solving a puzzle; ahead of time you suss out the right items to bring and how to minimize damage taken. With time, you learn that the army Jeep-mounted convicts who continually respawn in the courtyard are an easily dispatched nuisance, not a terrifying threat. With more time, you even start to like their boss song.
Even once you get a grasp on the surface gameplay you’re still racing against the clock. The chances that a zombie or boss pose a significant threat to you drops to near zero, but time always marches onwards. Your knowledge of the mall is your real leg up. Stop focusing on the individual enemies and the dynamics of the space come alive. In my first playthroughs of Dead Rising I was dependent on skateboards and speed-boosting smoothies to get from A-to-B quickly; ten years later, I know that it’s better to grab the maintenance tunnel key and unlock the shortcut between plazas. I still remember where the easy-to-reach top-tier weapons reside. The survivor AI is notoriously janky, but there are effective and rewarding ways to wrangle it. Even certain zombie spawn patterns came back to me when I started up again on PS4. In my first play through of the rerelease, I made it to the canon ending having started with a level one character, something I could never have done if the ins-and-outs of Willamette Parkview Mall weren’t etched deep in my memory.
The original game, warts and all, still remains a favorite of mine. On my latest playthrough there were still moments where I’d finish a quest by the skin of my teeth, or get a survivor back to the safe room with the smallest sliver of health. And as for the few breathing room moments the game grants you? That’s when you can go have your fun — when you dress Frank up in a snakeskin suit and arm him to the teeth, or put on a teddy bear head and do wheelies on a motorcycle.
The difference between that idea of fun and Dead Rising 4’s idea — snickering selfies with DIY candy cane death machines? You had to earn your fun in Dead Rising. The clock’s ticking.