If you haven’t already picked up a copy of Dead Rising 2 (PC/Xbox360/PS3), I’d highly recommend it. The reviews across the board are largely positive and I don’t disagree: it’s definitely one of the most entertaining and engrossing games I’ve played, bar none. This isn’t a review (read the above review first for a primer on what the game is, or you’ll be confused), but more of an analysis: I’m no expert, but I will attempt to break down out exactly what makes this game so simple and yet so enjoyable.
If you’ve played Dead Rising (the original), it was a great concept, unfortunately let down by somewhat rough and unstructured game experience. It’s reassuring to see that Blue Castle Games (a 170-strong Vancouver-based company) have improved on the Keiji Inafune’s formula (who was also involved in DR2’s development) and made it into something of a masterpiece.
* Core gameplay mechanics:
Without enjoyable core gameplay, any game becomes a chore, no matter how breathtaking the graphics are or how much extra fluff you dress it with. In this particular case, the game revolves around killing zombies, lots and lots of them. As you progress, the method, speed, type and quantity of killing zombies also varies, ensuring it never becomes a repetitive chore. It rarely becomes too easy, and the player often becomes overwhelmed, triggering a rapid button-press where they can escape. The staggering number of ways in which zombies can be dispatched adds a huge amount of depth to this relatively simple task.
As the game progresses, the player becomes increasingly adept at killing more zombies, requiring less time and effort. It’s also just plain satisfying to mash an enemy with a sledgehammer. It’s fun and engaging, regardless of whether it’s zombies, people or monsters. Progress comes from not only mastery of skills, but also plain outright body count (displayed prominently), providing an incentive and reward for wading through thick hordes of zombies.
* Subject matter:
There are a plethora of zombie-themed games out there, it’s something which appeals to nearly everybody since zombie movies were popularized. It triggers survival instincts and zombies are entirely predictable in their nature. The entire game takes place inside a huge shopping mall / casino, providing a deadly perspective on what is normally a perfectly safe and somewhat droll environment.
Every last detail, from the escalators to the shop windows to the pot plants and benches are recognizable to most players. This is a safe assumption and a sense of innate familiarity is present from the start. In addition, the objects and weapons interacted with are crafted around very common daily objects: baseball bats, lawnmowers, benches, nails, power tools, etc – no exotic alien weaponry here.
The vast majority of items already come with player knowledge of how it should be used, it’s sound, weight and durability, including items which are next to useless against zombies, but yet can be used as weapons (such as pellet guns and clothes hangars).
* Pacing / Structure:
The overall player objectives are clear from the start: escape the zombie-infested mall at a pre-set time. Add a reason to succeed and explore (the player has a young daughter who requires hard-to-find anti-zombie medicine at regular intervals) and random human survivors scattered throughout, and the game fits right into Maslow’s Pyramid of needs. There is a selection of side quests which are not compulsory (though providing large rewards), allowing for a broad range of player-elected pacing decisions, quite an enticing alternative to oft-hated difficulty sliders: thus the pacing is dictating nearly entirely by the player’s choices.
There is no constant tension or looming threat of death as in Left 4 Dead, instead allowing the player to pick and choose as they see fit. The time limits on tasks are displayed prominently on the screen and the player has a single utility – their watch – in which to monitor and switch between the tasks, an excellent diegetic mechanic. The rewards of exploring the visually appealing environs, defeating various psychopaths and constantly bringing back upgrades and rewards to a safe house (a constant bastion similar to the safe houses in L4D) are aplenty.
One of the main criticisms of the first game was the hard-set time limit. In DR2, the final time limit still exists (I would say this is a necessary design choice, or each play would be come too stale as it continued into infinity), however the player can restart the story, but keep their accumulated upgrade skills / stats and money – an acceptable compromise which encourages repeated playthroughs. No less than 5 or 6 different endings exist, depending on the actions of the player during the game: a Capcom design signature, as seen in their Resident Evil games.
The player can also save at pre-set points, spaced fairly far apart, although not unreasonably so. By removing a ‘save-anytime’ function, it thus forces the player to become more resourceful and increase their survival skill, rather than rely on a trial-and-error methodology or turtle. The save pacing also encourages casual play sessions, somewhere between 10 minutes to a few hours at a time.
* Creative sandbox:
Now that the player knows what they are supposed to do and is given a fairly lax time frame in which to do it in, they are then set loose on the mall to do as they wish. Missions are simple in their nature (mostly fetch or escort missions), however the ability for the player to completely customize not only their method of attack (they can craft new weapons from combining various objects), but their visual appearance as well (outfitting new clothing and accessories at the shops – which then carry into cutscenes / throughout the game) leads to often hilarious results.
It’s so much more rewarding when the player attributes this creativity to themselves and taking the risk to explore, rather than being spoon-fed by the designers. I particularly enjoyed picking up a bag of marbles and randomly throwing them on the floor only to discover the zombies flail around cartoon-style and slip, brilliant!
Side games such as indoor golf and Texas Hold’Em Poker also exists, as well as upgradeable vehicles: it would be rare for a player within this game to feel like they have explored everything the game has to offer, without putting a huge amount of play time into it. Combine this with an asynchronous co-op only multiplayer experience where other players can drop-in/out at any time and you have a formula for combined creative mayhem. The absolute randomness in combinations of vehicles/outfits and weapons is staggering.
Once again a large depth exists here. Beginner players can stick to the simplest of control schemes and basic attacks, using basic strategy (such as avoiding being surrounded or using hard to reach places to pick enemies off) which is sufficient to take them well into the game, but there is an immense breadth in the progression of the player in their tasks. For example, new moves unlock, which allow more efficient counters and attacks on zombies.
Skilled players will eventually find themselves using abstract memorisation to rapidly navigate to areas where they know specific items exist in order to equip themselves with the best weapons, as well as using learned skills to rapidly dispatch zombies more efficiently. The player soon learns that the zombies are mostly harmless if you run quickly through them, and that some weapons are far more effective than others.
The game employs somewhat of a variable reward ratio – The optional tasks (some of which randomly pop up and are spaced out to an increasingly frenetic schedule) and solutions are clear and the player begins to enjoy solving them to reap the rewards. Since tasks often overlap with each other, there is nary a dull moment, often requiring some decisive time management.
The control scheme is somewhat of a letdown, sometimes awkward and clumsy, but by and large functional. The sensitivity in 3rd person and over the shoulder modes varies from each other, resulting in occasionally unpredictable behaviour. I did feel the zombies lacked variety, with only two observable differences in zombie toughness, the second occurring quite late into the game.
* Artwork / Sound:
The amount of detail in the surrounds and objects is not wasted by the development team here. Every additional object implemented adds to immersion and has the player fascinated by its potential uses. The physics modelling is top notch if slightly simplified, with saturated and often comical surroundings contrasted with the sombre and bloodied zombies.
In-theme elevator music plays in the background, and very creative objects litter the scenery (giant furry dice, amplifiers, golf carts for example). It’s extremely freshening to see a game not take itself too seriously and just allow the player to let their imagination roam free. Items are clear and concise, the UI is very informative, marking items when they can be combined with others or used as weapons.
Unfortunately, artwork popping into view, rapidly disappearing bodies and lacklustre shadows exists, although these are limitations of the platform, rather than the design.
There you have it, my thoughts on this wonderful game. I hope you enjoyed reading this piece as much as I enjoyed writing it, be sure to leave a comment and check out this game when you get the chance!