The real world can be a frustrating place. Stuck in traffic, trapped in line at the supermarket… it always feels like there's someone in the way. Certain games — the Grand Theft Autos, the Dead Risings — show us a world where it's ok to act on our worst, most violent impulses. Our forest of problems becomes a lawn we can mow, preferably with a flame-thrower attached to the mower.
And so comes Dead Rising 3, a video game for people who really like killing zombies in video games. It's a game about commuting to work and obliterating every moving thing in your path. It's invigorating and muddled, innovative and yet hopelessly mired in the past. It's well-designed, except when it's horribly designed, satisfying when it's not frustrating as hell. It's a very fun, very large game that you can only play on the Xbox One, but it doesn't take all that much advantage of the console's unique features.
It's remarkable that the Zombie Genre A) is a prolific enough categorization to become a genre in the first place and B) is such a varied genre. Left 4 Dead is all about zombies and cooperation; The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are about zombies and feelings; Zombie Run is about zombies and physical fitness; Plants vs. Zombies is about zombies and, well, you know. And then we've got Dead Rising, which is about zombies on zombies on zombies, stacks of zombies all the way down.
Dead Rising 3 is a third-person action game in which you shoot, slice and sprint your way through a large open world, bypassing and vivisecting members of an ever-present zombie horde. The game is a race against time, with the story set on a clock that ticks forward slowly or terrifyingly quickly, depending on which game-mode you choose. It's covered in sidequests and collectables, and if you do more side activities and complete more of the game, you'll get a better ending. If you fail to complete enough missions and the clock runs out… not such a good ending.
The first Dead Rising was released exclusively for the Xbox 360, shortly after the console's launch. The characters all looked like wax mannequins and the controls were stiff as year-old jerky, but the game still managed to set itself apart in one crucial way: There were so, so many zombies on screen at once. It was a sandbox game set in the world's deadliest shopping mall, and it was one of the first Xbox 360 games that felt like something that wouldn't have been possible on the previous generation of consoles. Everywhere you looked there were hundreds of the things, a sea of zombies, groaning and shuffling and generally occupying the space between you and your goal.
Seven years and one sequel later we have Dead Rising 3, a launch title exclusive to Microsoft's new Xbox One console. Once again, the game is bound and determined to wow us with numbers. Good lord, we exclaim upon viewing the first ocean of the undead, the virtual sun's glare cascading off hundreds of bloody, staring faces. That's a lot of zombies.
The numbers remain impressive throughout. As for the rest of the game, well, it's a great deal of fun when it isn't getting dragged down by its own worst impulses.
Dead Rising 3 tells the tale of Nick Ramos, a nice-guy mechanic who winds up trapped in a quarantined Los Angeles stand-in called "Los Perdidos" following a zombie outbreak. Thanks to the events of the first two games in the series, humans have learned to live with the zombie virus. Infected people need regular doses of a drug called Zombrex to keep from going full-on shambler, and the government controls the Zombrex supply. It's all a bit like a less clever (but still cute) riff on the likes of Fido or Warm Bodies. Zombies, amirite?
Most of the big picture stuff is seen and learned through TV news reports, since the game takes place entirely within the quarantine area. Post-outbreak Los Perdidos is a flaming wreck, but it's a marvellous one. The map is made up of four quadrants separated by lengths of subway and highway, all crawling with legions of the undead.
Fitting for a game set in a fictionalized Los Angeles, Dead Rising 3 is primarily about commuting. With every mission, Nick is given an objective — get this thing, find that thing, blow up that thing — and that objective is assigned a waypoint. Your task, every time, is to make it from point A to point B across the game's sizable open map. Fortunately, it never really gets old, because Dead Rising 3 is at its considerable best when forcing players to creatively jockey through swarmed streets and tunnels.
As things heated up toward the end of the game, I began to feel like a particularly well-armoured football running back, shucking and jiving through an endless throng of slow-moving defenders. Quick, jump up on that truck! Leap off, push a crowd of zombies back, sprint to the left… no, no, double back through the store, break the window, jump out, find a hole in the crowd, punch through, jog for a bit, keep moving, keep moving.
As in past Dead Rising games, you'll spend a lot of time in Dead Rising 3 rummaging around for the best weapons and supplies. Every weapon in the game has a set number of uses, after which it will break. Fortunately, if you can pick something up, you can use it as a weapon. You may pillage the sword shop and come out with a katana and a battle axe, or simply grab a parking cone or a hubcap on the street. Guns, knives, surgical tools, household electronics… there's nothing that won't do in a pinch.
The series' crafting system has seen a significant upgrade and overhaul. At the drop of a hat, Nick can MacGyver together two items into a new, more powerful weapon, provided he's located the blueprint to do so. It seems like every item in the game can somehow be combined with something else, and the sheer number of crafting possibilities feels endless. Nick can also combine many of the game's vehicles into super-vehicles like a Mad Max-style armoured truck and that flame-thrower-enhanced motorcycle/steamroller thing you've probably seen in the game's commercials. (That vehicle, called the "RollerHawg," is my favourite. It will probably be yours, too.) Crafting is a lot of fun, and even if the given weapon you make isn't as effective as you'd like, it'll probably give you a few laughs before it breaks.
At most times in the game, players can stop off at any of Nick's safehouses or garages and grab new copies of any of the weapons or vehicles he's used or made, which made me feel a lot more free to use (and use up) my best weapons as I played. In the first Dead Rising, I found myself hoarding my best kit in case I needed to take on a boss. Because weapons are so much easier to come by in Dead Rising 3, I found I used them a lot more. A substantial change for the better, as far as I'm concerned.
For all its swaying fields of zombies and shimmering fire effects, Dead Rising 3 too often plays like a 2004 Xbox game. Something about the feel is off — characters are too light, and Nick seems to float a centimeter off the ground. Sidekicks and vehicles lack substance, and the whole thing is missing a needed sense of heft. The controls are a significant improvement over past games in the series, but fall down when it comes time to fight one of the game's many bosses, which range from insubstantial to maddening to oh-my-god-I-hate-video-games-and-want-to-die.
All the "bad boss battle" tropes are here: Enemies that incapacitate you with impossible-to-dodge ranged attacks, bosses with three-phase health bars, enemies on vehicles that you have to roll-dodge and then attack when they sit still, bosses that endlessly repeat the same annoying dialogue... the works. For a game that does one thing — open-world zombie fighting — so well, Dead Rising 3 takes its eye off the ball with a dispiriting frequency.
The story's tone is similarly all over the place. Past games in the series have been mostly high camp, but Dead Rising 3 feels like an attempt to make the series more grounded and broadly appealing while simultaneously appeasing series fans who want their allotment of zaniness.
Nick is a genuinely good dude, if a little bland (though he occasionally sounds eerily similar to Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters) and, side note, it's nice to see a non-stereotyped hispanic protagonist in a mainstream video game. But his "aw shucks" puppy-dog schtick doesn't square with his amazing battlefield prowess, nor does his cohort's down-to-earth demeanor fit with the disgusting, cartoonish villains he takes on from time to time.
One minute, Nick will be dramatically telling a character he cares for her and thinks of her as his family, the next, well, something like this will happen:
Which isn't to say that a game can't be both serious and zany, but Capcom Vancouver's writing staff doesn't appear to have a solid grasp on what "zany" is. Rather than come up with the sorts of offhand, unexpected weirdness that generally constitutes the best gallows humour, they lean on the worst, laziest tropes: Boring racial stereotypes, disgusting fat people who won't stop eating, sex-crazed men in gimp suits, nymphomaniac killer cop ladies, and on. All too often, Dead Rising 3's good ideas are drowned out by its tone-deaf writing.
For example: Midway through the game, you'll get a notification for a "psycho" battle, which are Dead Rising's trademark sidequest boss fights. This one tells you to go investigate the yoga studio. Enter and you'll see this sequence:
Where to even begin with this? While Jherii's gender identy is never stated outright, the whole thing sure feels mean-spirited, underlined by the "Prideful" achievement awarded after killing her. Furthermore, the battle itself is a mess, with my two supporting characters running around getting in the way, UI text and other junk littering the screen, weird Kinect prompts in the upper right, and awful quicktime events throwing things into disarray every few seconds.
When I think of the next generation of gaming, I think of clean, elegant design. I certainly don't think of this cluttered nonsense:
The entire sequence, like many of the game's boss battles, is anything but prideful.
That the bosses and other one-off challenges can miss the mark is a bit mystifying, given that so much of the game is so well done. The gameplay video below gives a good sense of the kinds of ridiculous crap you can get up to:
Dead Rising 3 makes it very easy to do awesome things — dress up like James Bond and ramp a motorcycle into a crowd of zombies, or loot the local police station for gear and ammo before unleashing hell on a gang of bikers. It made me grin so often that the crass and unfun bits stick out all the more. The game is so good at letting me make my own fun that I'm surprised it can be so lousy at making its own.
That said, there are scripted sequences that really work, in particular a bit toward the end that finds Nick trapped in a train station and stripped of his usual array of weaponry, racing to get the doors open as the place fills up with extra-deadly zombies. I found myself scrapping to survive, grabbing whatever I could to fight off the horde and hoping to hell it wouldn't break before I reached whatever fusebox or power switch I needed to reach. It was bracing, it was stressful, it was great.
The optional Nightmare Mode ratchets up the tension, limiting saves and putting players on a merciless gameplay clock that will have even high-level players scrambling to get where they need to be in time. Fail to hit every objective and sorry, game over — you're out of time, and Los Perdidos is bombed to oblivion. From my limited time with Nightmare Mode, I can already tell there's far less space to grind for experience or explore. You must move, and those zombies are seriously in the way. Like its predecessors, Dead Rising 3 makes for a tense if occasionally maddening game once the difficulty is dialed up.
Given that Dead Rising 3 is an Xbox One launch exclusive, it's worth taking a moment to talk about what the game does to showcase the Xbox One's unique attributes. Visually, it looks better over time than it does after its first impression — it runs at 720p, which looks rough-edged when compared with other higher-res Xbox One launch games like Forza Motorsport 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome. It also struggles at times to maintain a consistent framerate, which is surprising, given the supposed processing heft of the Xbox One.
Facial animations in cutscenes are often quite convincing, and the main cast's virtual performances have been captured and animated with skill and flair. Many of the outdoor sequences in the game feel larger and more detailed than anything I've seen on Xbox 360, and the physics engine can be a marvel in action, particularly as huge numbers of zombies explode, catch fire and evaporate into goo. That said, there were frequently what appeared to be problems streaming content off of the hard drive, as textures would take a while to load and hordes of zombies would occasionally stand, frozen, waiting for me to draw closer.
Dead Rising 3 features Xbox Smartglass functionality, which lets you turn your smartphone into an in-game phone that sends you voice messages and lets you track your progress and unleash special attacks. Unfortunately, the app wasn't ready for iOS devices as I played through for review. If it's particularly noteworthy or cool, I'll be sure to write something about it and update this review with a link.
As for the Xbox One's Kinect camera… you can shake your controller to fight off zombies that get too close, and can occasionally shout to get Nick to do things — drop weapons, attract zombies, and the like. Outside of the tutorial I never once had an occasion to shout. (Well, I suppose I shouted at the infuriating final boss, but I don't think my Kinect understands what "Oh my god, motherfucker, fuck this bullshit" means.)
More than any technical hiccup or graphical shortfall, it's Dead Rising 3's gameplay that feels most retrograde. Inventory management is a nuisance in the heat of the moment, it's maddeningly difficult to pick up the item you want and not the useless thing next to it, and, sorry for harping on them, but almost all of the boss fights would feel at home on a 2004 gaming console.
Dead Rising 3 has been designed with replayability in mind — whether you're playing in regular story mode, Nightmare Mode or online co-op, every experience point and upgrade you earn will carry over to all of your games. Want to start over from the start, but with a much stronger character and better stored weapons? Go for it. In fact, I plan to do just that, porting my high-level character over for a Nightmare Mode run.
Everything you do (and every zombie you kill) yields experience points, which can be spent to improve Nick's abilities and crafting skills, as well as increase his life bar, his inventory size and the potency of power-ups he uses. It's very easy to get distracted from your current goal — Los Perdidos is strewn with collectibles and randomly generated side challenges, each of which call out to you as you pass by. Frequently, I'd be on my way to an objective when I'd see a survivor standing on a van, asking for help. Why not? I'm in the area, and I could use the XP. Oh, and while I'm here, check out the blueprint up on that rooftop! Hmm, how can I get up there… oh hey, and what's down this alley…
On my first playthrough, Nick became significantly overpowered after a handful of hours. I had a couple of favourite weapons, both of which were incredibly fun to use, but probably too powerful. One was a master-scythe called the "Grim Reaper" that could clear out a crowd of walkers in seconds, while the other was a shotgun/assault combo rifle that could take down just about anything at range. As long as I had a couple of each of those, I was nearly unbeatable.
Dead Rising 3 will likely be catnip for completionists, particularly those who pick up an Xbox One this Friday and want a game to keep them occupied for the coming weeks. I hit level 36 and achieved the "S" ending in sixteen hours and 30 minutes, but that was by pushing past a large chunk of optional sidequests in the back half of the game. With 50 possible levels, hundreds of hidden collectables and many more alternate endings, playing Dead Rising 3 to 100% completion would likely take me a dozen or two more hours.
Multiplayer will likely give players another few hours of fun screwing around. It's designed as a seamless experience, with other players randomly dropping into your game and taking over a supporting character named Dick. In the single-player story, Dick is this random guy who hangs around the safehouse and never seems to do anything. That's because he's been left open for any other character to hop into and control. (A neat idea, that.)
Stephen Totilo and I messed around with some of the co-op, which lets you play through story missions, sidequests, or just mess around in the open world. All of the experience points and story progress Stephen earned in my game carried over to his game at home, and the entire in-game experience was seamless. (We'll have more thoughts about Xbox One party- and chat-functionality in our console review.)
Dead Rising 3 is at its best when at its bloodiest, gleefully powering a steamroller through a thousands-deep crowd of the undead as the experience-points rain down. But its numerous good qualities are significantly marred by annoying design and tone-deaf writing, both of which leave the game feeling muddled and out of touch. It is at once an invocation of the best of what might be and a perplexing embrace of the worst of what has been.
As a game, Dead Rising 3 is significantly flawed but plenty fun. As a step toward our brave new next-gen future, it's a half-measure, testing fresh ground while leaving its rear foot planted squarely in the past.