For an industry that spends so much of its time focused on getting things done in time for the Christmas season, video games themselves do not seem to give much of a shit about Christmas as a setting. Dead Rising 4 is one of only a handful of games I can think of in recent years that have had anything to do with Yuletide cheer whatsoever. It begins the same way The Division did — a horrific plague unleashed during the Black Friday sales prior to the holiday. However, where The Division takes this scenario as seriously as a heart attack, Dead Rising 4 is determined to have a good time with it.
Dead Rising 4 is the third series outing for developer Capcom Vancouver, who took the reins from their Japanese counterparts following the release of the original game. It angles at being more accessible than previous entries, but also makes a number of major changes to the established formula that will absolutely drive a wedge of debate straight down the middle of the fan community. What is not up for debate is that Frank West, returning hero of the original game, is the perfect antidote to an industry more-and-more reliant on mega-budget open world action titles.
For a guy who works as a photo-journalist (a profession he insists on announcing to anyone who will listen) (he’s covered wars, you know), Frank is remarkably well equipped to handle a zombie outbreak despite, as far as I can tell, being a useless shithead in every other facet of his life. He’s got his trusty camera, now upgraded to see different spectrums because sure, why not, allowing it be used in a number of Batman: Arkham-esque investigation minigames. He’s also the world’s deadliest MacGyver fan, finding new and exciting ways to forge whatever’s lying around — from household cleaning agents to ride-on lawn mowers — into deadly weapons.
In addition to bringing Frank back, Dead Rising 4 is also set in Willamette, Colorado, the same town as the original game. It’s been 20 years since the outbreak, and the locals have put Willamette back together brick-by-brick only to have it fall to wreck and ruin once again. Despite his efforts to avoid ever going back, Frank finds himself stranded in that damned mall again, doing what it takes to survive, only this time he has to do it all while trudging through knee-deep snow and being bombarded with Christmas songs and decorations.
I keep bringing up the Christmas thing because, despite arduous the retail work that killed my holiday cheer years ago, I adore this setting for a zombie game. Zombie-centric video games are a dime a dozen these days (this is Dead Rising 4 after all). These kinds of games are mostly boring and don’t do enough differently from each other that they don’t all blend together into one indistinguishable, undead mass. By using Christmas as its setting, Dead Rising 4 stands entirely apart. It allows someone like me, who spent so long in the retail trenches during the holidays, the chance to become, in a shopping mall, the kind of giggling, homicidal nutjob that job turned me into in a way that doesn’t end in incarceration and sorrow. It’s a game for people who have to work in customer service during the holidays and I appreciate that.
The setting also allows Capcom Vancouver to go hog wild when creating obstacles and boss fights, like returning series regulars the Maniacs (previously Psychopaths) who are all now sporting hilarious Yuletide themes. There are, however, a lot less of the Maniacs this time around and it’s one of the bigger departures from what long-time fans have come to expect from a Dead Rising game. You still run into frequent boss fights but they’re considerably less interesting now. Rather than being against people driven mad by the horror that has befallen them, you’re mostly pitted against Call of Duty soldier bros. Further, you can just as easily avoid the Maniac side quests and battles if you’d prefer to let them skate on by altogether.
Changes like these crop up again and again in Dead Rising 4. Things that used to be core to the experience have been altered or removed entirely. And they’re not always to the game’s detriment! In previous games, saving humans unharmed by the zombie virus meant an escort quest back to a safe house where they could be safely tucked away. Now, once saved, they thank you for your trouble, drop a reward and piss off to fend for themselves. Capcom Vancouver seem to be on a mission to remove as many reasons for uneccessary player failure as possible.
There are other changes that will likely annoy long-time fans, however. One change involves a rejiggering of the inventory system which means you rarely have to worry about how you’re going to hold enough ammo, food and weapons to survive. Instead of juggling that inventory space, Frank can now be upgraded to provide extra inventory slots for whatever you need. The end result of this is that Frank becomes a one-man, self-made zombie slaying army. By the end of the campaign, I had seven or eight weapon slots and three or four for heals. I was unstoppable.
What this is means is that Dead Rising 4 is really, really easy. The previously mutinous save system has been updated with some exceedingly generous checkpoints and autosaves but I’d like to know if any of you ever needed them because I never did. Throughout my entire 20+ hour tilt at Dead Rising 4, I never actually died once. This means that, despite having the trappings of a Dead Rising game, it all feels a bit bereft of menace. If the things you liked about this series were its angular difficulty and thriftiness with its items, I think you might find yourself pretty aggravated with it all.
The result of all these changes is an open-world zomb-em-up that is 100% married to the notion of dicking around. It has rearranged its entire focus to be on the thing that most of us do with a Dead Rising game by default — generate absolute chaos. We see a mall full of zombies and we want nothing more than to fuck with their day. It’s just that now, that’s what the game wants too. There’s something rather zen about plowing through a horde of zombies while riding a flame-throwing thresher contraption made of a lawn mower, a child’s bike and a couple of tanks of propane.
Zen is not typically a word I thought I’d ever use in relation to a Dead Rising game but it’s certainly applicable here. Combine this with the likelihood that your Frank will be an unkillable god-king like mine and Dead Rising 4 begins to feel like something more about exploration and experimentation than survival. It doesn’t matter if the weapon you’re using is super deadly, only that it gets a laugh out of you. Even the in-game scoring system that covers everything from combos to simple stat tracking doesn’t really go anywhere but … damned if I didn’t want to tool around and rack up points anyway.
This new focus is both helped and hindered by the game’s plot which starts with a genuinely cool and interesting hook in which Frank and a student of his break into a government facility and uncover evidence of conspiracy and foul play. But right when Capcom Vancouver had me where they wanted me, they drop this plotline in order to chase down another that is infinitely less interesting.
For those who do still want some challenge out of Dead Rising 4, the multiplayer is really the only place they’ll find it. Co-operative play has been rather bafflingly dropped from the game entirely (and pretty obviously late in the dev cycle based on the amount of vehicles and assets clearly built for co-op), and in its place is a new scenario-based four-player mode that drops players into a series of escalating circumstances with something more akin to the traditional Dead Rising limited-inventory-and-squishy-character layout.
Dead Rising 4 is a bit of an odd one. It’s packed with zombies, all waiting to be slain in whatever creative manner pleases you most and boasts one of the strangest, strongest and most bewilderingly calming settings of the year. As the world hurtles towards the end of a year that has been, by turns, disheartening, frustrating and downright sad, it was nice to play something that allowed me to switch off and just hang out for a few hours. Dead Rising 4, much like your family at Christmas, is dumb as hell, never dull even for a moment, and makes a few questionable decisions, but it ultimately just wants you to be happy.
Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Plays fast and loose with the Dead Rising formula; Frank still a likeable dunce; Rewards creativity every time; Deeply relaxing??
Lowlights: No co-op is brutally lame; Story peters out very quickly; You will never, ever die
Developer: Capcom Vancouver
Publisher: Capcom, Microsoft Game Studios
Release date: Out now
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC
Reviewed on Xbox One with a code provided by the publisher.