Open world titles are complex beasts and it’s always been interesting to look at the Dead Rising series within that context. These are hack and slash crowd brawlers that simplify their mechanics to facilitate a timed exploration of the map. How many survivors can you find? How much of the game can you complete and discover before the bomb drops or evacuation is required? What blueprints will you craft and which weapons will you discover to fend off hordes of zombies? There was a sense of purpose to it all, even if Dead Rising 3 tried to expand ever further into the open world space with greater elation.
Dead Rising 4 changes that by completely removing the timer in the single player campaign, thus allowing you to explore the town of Willamette without any restrictions. The tension of survival is still ever present thanks to a much more heavy handed narrative than the previous game and it actually feels more in line with the first Dead Rising. Unfortunately in terms of narrative and gameplay mechanics, Dead Rising 4 does very little to innovate on a franchise that – when it was first introduced – was quite unlike anything we’d seen at the time.
"Am I meant to laugh or be depressed? It’s all probably meant to make you feel heavily drugged and/or hallucinogenic like a zombie-fueled fever dream."
In Dead Rising 4, Frank West is on his way back to Willamette with Vick Chu, his student. West is now a professor but still infiltrates a “Reservationist Training Facility” at the behest of Chu. Spooky experiments are afoot involving zombies but why? When West tries to stick to his reporting guns and Chu abandons him, it’s fast-forward to four months later when the entire town has become overrun by zombies. West is now being recruited to crack the story wide open and hopefully before Vick, already on the scene and several steps ahead of him, can be even further out of her depth.
I’m not going to lie – it was really weird to see such a vivid nightmare of Frank’s demons to start the game off with only to see budget Bruce Campbell gleefully chopping up zombies and being “professional” a few minutes later. Leaps in logic aren’t anything new for this franchise but Frank seems to lack a lot of the endearably jerkish traits that, well, endearing jerks are supposed to have, at least in the beginning. This improves a bit later on but there are plenty of occasions where Frank’s wise-cracking feels odd (TJ Rotolo’s replacement does an alright job though). Vick is a more complex character, coming off as indignant and annoying at first but generally righteous overall. Other characters like stern government agent who clicks hot selfies of himself and stern military woman who has something to do with the outbreak pop up and they’re decent side-attractions when they’re around.
The entire motif of the game can be very strange. One minute I’m knee-deep in a nightmarish scenario, being questioned about Frank’s morals as a journalist, human being and overall jerk. The next minute, a helpful little pop-up with joyous Holiday music informs me of Panic Rooms and Safehouses. Heading to the menus will have this upbeat soundtrack blaring as well. While the general game is meant to be taken seriously, you have moments like racing in a go-kart around a track full of zombies or taking on various Maniacs with different gimmicks like demented Santa and his elves or Lady Sandra and her knights. Yes, they have cool weapons but it’s just…weird at times. Am I meant to laugh or be depressed? It’s all probably meant to make you feel heavily drugged and/or hallucinogenic like a zombie-fueled fever dream. It’s not full-on campy nor is it Dawn of the Dead reborn. It’s mostly weird.
"The game does a good job of throwing challenges at you. At times, you’ll have to deal with hostile survivors mixed in with the horde."
In between these bizarre occurrences and activities is the usual open world romp. You know the drill here – head to this way-point, kill some zombies along the way, meet up with an NPC, do some investigating, rinse, repeat. Random events and encounters pop up along the way, distracting you for the intention of earning dank loot, scrap, money and experience. Maybe there’s a blueprint for a new weapon or vehicle by the wayside that you want to pick up and honestly, who doesn’t want a neat little frost sword to harass hordes with? The pacing of the overall campaign is actually pretty decent but there’s very little innovation about the majority of quests and activities. And no, you can’t skip some of the more banal interactions you have with NPCs.
“Which is fine,” you say. “I just want to kill zombies.” Dead Rising 4 has you covered there. There’s an extensively ridiculous list of weaponry to murder enemies with from an electric ax that channels the power of Thor to a flaming sword that would make the Lords of Cinder smile. There’s the sledgehammer-grenade combo that can blow enemies apart with his each swing. There’s a fully automatic assault shotgun and fireworks launching crossbow that doubles up as an explosive projectile launcher. Vehicles can be driven through the hordes, racking up kills along the way and it’s possible to create some truly sick combinations like the Warmonger to strafe and shoot zombies as you waltz by (admittedly, the controls for shooting and driving simultaneously could be more intuitive). Finally, there are exo-suits to discover and various weapons that can only be used with said exo-suits. These are your “go out and have fun” items – the exo-suit has a timer to it, makes you generally invincible and also facilitates the use of flamethrowers and mini-guns.
The game does a good job of throwing challenges at you. At times, you’ll have to deal with hostile survivors mixed in with the horde. Militia soldiers could then suddenly roll up, encouraging you to switch to long-range weaponry and the transition – though clunky at first – is pretty good when you get the hang of it. Then there’s the new zombie breed which acts more aggressively and needs heavy firepower to bring down. Various special attacks, accentuating dramatic slow-mo homicides, never cease to impress. Dodging is a thing but movement as a whole feels clumsy despite its responsiveness.
"You’re better off just charging and weaving through the horde, stopping to kill a few while your stamina regenerates and then running again. Hail to the West we suppose."
Various challenges and trials will reward you for killing zombies with different types of weaponry. Put down a specific number of zombies and be randomly rewarded, that too with level-ups and skill points. It would be nice if the skill point notification didn’t occupy the exact centre of my screen during a skirmish. The upgrades themselves are also fairly typical, allowing you to score critical hits, increase health, make vehicles more durable and so on. Let it not be said that Dead Rising 4 doesn’t reward you frequently and make you stronger as you discover more and more crazy equipment.
However, for the most part, the horde is mindless and just there to slow you down. Which is funny because there isn’t a timer anymore so what exactly are they stopping you from doing? After seeing the gameplay demo for Days Gone and how much more relentless that zombie horde is, it’s kind of disappointing to see Dead Rising 4’s crowds of zombies stay so…stagnant. Yes, it makes for some awesome crowd-clearing moments with heavy weaponry rinsing and road-sign posts pancaking dozens of bodies at once. But most times when you want to progress, you’re better off just charging and weaving through the horde, stopping to kill a few while your stamina regenerates and then running again. Hail to the West we suppose.
Dead Rising 4 does try to mix things up by introducing some new mechanics. Frank’s camera can be used to take pictures, which award experience and such depending on the subject matter, but it also has different modes. Night vision mode helps you find files and other clues while Spectrum Analyzer acts like a UV light of sorts, highlighting hidden text and fingerprints and absurdly leading to codes for locked doors. These form the basis for the new investigations which could have been handled well (like, say, the Detective Mode scenes in Batman: Arkham Knight) but instead see you scanning the room for just the right little detail to ping your camera. It’s not frustrating but there could have been so much more done with it.
"Maybe I expected too much from Dead Rising 4 and wanted it to do something more especially in this day and age."
“Could have been so much more” is a criticism that could be leveled against the visuals as well but I’ll give Dead Rising 4 a pass for this. It definitely looks better than the third game with decent draw distances and character detail, though nothing absurdly impressive. The sheer ease with which the engine renders crowds of zombies is still cool and the engine handles all the intense action on-screen with nary a frame rate skip (which is equally weird considering some slight frame rate drops seen in an initial cut scene). Despite how odd the entire atmosphere can get at times, the music and soundtrack are generally well done though the only really memorable voice performance comes from West.
Maybe I expected too much from Dead Rising 4 and wanted it to do something more especially in this day and age. It’s not all that progressive from the previous game which released three years ago but that was a title still very much grounded in previous gen mechanics. Three years later and here we are again, completing the same side missions, hacking the same crowds of zombies, navigating through vast streets caked with the undead and trying to complete the story without Frank driving us insane. It’s not like Dead Rising 4 is a horrible game. There are certainly moments of amusement to be had but it could have offered so much more beyond filling its expanses with more corpses, walking or otherwise.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Wide variety destructive tools and it's still be fun to hack crowds of zombies. Plenty of challenges and trials to complete with enough rewards peppered throughout the experience. Decent pacing and stronger narrative with plenty to do. Visuals work very well for handling so many enemies on-screen and the overall presentation is pretty good.
Does nothing to progress either the Dead Rising or open world games formula. Movement feels awkward at times and combat movement feels rote. Frank's "obnoxious wiseguy" attitude can be annoying at times. Generally average but forgettable characters overall. Aside from large numbers of zombies, the visuals rank above average. Investigations feel more like stop-gaps rather than intrinsic narrative tools.
Dead Rising 4 is the best at what it does and what it does is zombie killing. The presentation is strong and there are plenty of ways to kill zombies. Unfortunately, the game as a whole feels as worn-down and routine as West himself, from its side-quests to its way-point hunting and overall combat. Worth a look only if you're not fussy about exploring this mostly typical sandbox.
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