Any fears that Dead Rising had sobered up for the new generation can be put out of mind. Within the first few hours, we’ve killed off an S&M cowboy on a sci-fi porn set and commandeered his phallic flamethrower to complete a cute cocktail-dress-and-Blanka-mask ensemble. It’s clear from the off that Capcom Vancouver has done a fine job of retaining the series’ personality while revelling in giving players more freedom – and more zombies – than ever before, but it has also transplanted much of Dead Rising’s rotten flesh.
Not its penchant for shopping malls, though. Dead Rising 3’s playground spans a city, and the introduction of Los Perdidos signals the series’ abandonment of its Romero influences for more contemporary ones (its tumbling, cascading zombies, for example, bring to mind World War Z). The city itself is split into four areas, each linked by a mess of blockaded highways. It’s no Los Santos, but it’s a sizeable space that’s bigger than both of the previous games’ maps combined.
Thank goodness, then, for the liberal placement of drivable vehicles, and for new hero Nick Ramos’s ability to sprint. In a game where staying still can be deadly, both prove essential to your survival, and demonstrate Capcom’s desire to streamline the staccato movement of previous Dead Risings. Ramos can also grab weapons and items without breaking his stride, and consume food on the hoof. These may seem like only small enhancements, but in play they make managing the game’s crowds of zombies a pleasure, not an ordeal.
And what crowds. Xbox One allows for something in the region of three times as many zombies onscreen as the last game, their looks procedurally generated and their bodies full of guts to expose through a flexible dismemberment system. One zombie is no threat at all, but when they gather, paths become clogged with hundreds of moaning undead, necessitating the use of wheelie bins and abandoned vehicles as stepping stones.
The price for so many foes is some visual instability. The environments, crowds and lighting effects occasionally cohere into something to show off the host platform, but too often the engine shambles about with its texture-popping guts on show. Objects and road markings sometimes appear out of nowhere, while prominent textures flip between resolutions gracelessly. Such compromises mean the game maintains a steady 30fps (once you’ve downloaded the day-one patch), even during busy scenes, and once you’re playing there are no loading times to interrupt your journey.
Mechanically, things are more sound. Dead Rising 2’s combo weapon system is back, refreshed by Capcom’s effort to make everything flow. Weapons can now be combined anywhere; hold RB to bring up your inventory wheel, select an item and tap A to hastily cobble together something that’s even more dangerous than its constituent parts. Schematics for combo weapons are strewn across the city, their locations marked on the map – always found lying conveniently next to the ingredients you need – and include familiar items from the previous game and many more new ones. One highlight is the Dragon Punch, which is constructed by bolting a motorcycle engine to a pair of boxing gloves and deployed with a cry of “Shoryuken!”
Thanks to his day job as a mechanic, Ramos is also pretty handy with vehicles, and greatly expands on Chuck Greene’s modified bikes. With the right schematics to hand, any vehicle can be combined with any other, most featuring a turret for co-op partners. And food can also be combined to create tonics. Mixing cabbage and soda makes you inexplicably immune to zombie grapples for a limited time, while vodka and sushi allows you to incinerate foes with fiery breath.
As is tradition, survivors can be found around the city. Most of them will set you a task, and join you once you’ve run their errands. They can still be killed, but will look after themselves for the most part, and if you keep them alive you’ll be able to call on their services from any of the safe houses around the city, from which you can access your ever-expanding weapons cache, garage of vehicles and wardrobe.
As before, Ramos levels up by accruing Prestige Points. These are handed out for finding collectables; killing zombies; taking part in Survival Training challenges, which task you with killing a target number of zombies under specific conditions; and defeating optional Psycho missions, which are essentially mini-bosses. As you level up, you’ll gain Attribute Points to be spent on more combo categories and bolstering Ramos’ abilities. With so much to do, Capcom has removed the suffocating time pressure of past games. The clock is still ticking down, but it’s slow enough to let you to take on every side mission. Nightmare mode, however, removes checkpoints, requires you to save in bathrooms and enforces a much tighter time limit.
For all its innovation, Dead Rising 3’s bosses – both the mandatory storyline encounters and the Psycho missions – remain a frustrating low point. Even with your new-found abilities, boss fights feel awkward and unfair. Controls that work well when navigating through the lumbering undead come unstuck against more agile foes, or even track-mounted robotic arms, as one particularly hateful and drawn-out encounter proves.
But even these charismatic roadblocks can’t quite derail an ambitious overhaul of the series that offers more than enough incentive for you to endure its less progressive design choices. Dead Rising 3 is a sandbox in the purest sense, one that urges you to experiment with its innumerable toys at your leisure. The result is an open world that, in spite of its reanimated inhabitants, feels more alive than most.