This review originally appeared in E167, October 2006.
With an erratic pace, unpredictable direction and complementary habits of falling flat on its face and getting straight back up, Dead Rising plays a more complete zombie than you'd ever have anticipated. Much of what it's achieved with its formidable brief – to create the world's first survival shopper game, staged in a fully-stocked environment worthy of both George A Romero and Xbox 360 – will have your jaw hanging off. Considering some of the bitter flaws that plague it en route, that should be enough to earn the game your forgiveness.
Learning the ropes of its new subgenre is to marvel at its behind-the-scenes demands. Blueprinting the arid razzle-dazzle of an entirely believable shopping mall must have been the easy part; lining the shelves and setting the displays of every store, annex and backroom with hundreds of faked-up brands and products must have been something else. All of it, remarkably, still represents the game's foundation-level design.
The more substantial challenge has been turning Frank West, a delightful concoction of hero and prick, into a balanced combination of everyman and superman. Charged with wielding, riding, hurdling, climbing and, don't forget, photographing a lion's share of what his environment presents, he has to guarantee the smoothest possible ride for players overwhelmed by diversely clothed and decomposed zombies, distorted psychopaths and, several twists down the line, far deadlier foes.
When introduced last year he was barely alive himself, hobbled by an almost unplayable prototype build, but Frank's come a long way. Natural and yet nimble, his stride is enough to nudge bodies aside, his fists and feet strong enough to knock them down, his moveset upgradeable to include stabs at crowd-surfing, martial arts and wrestling. The control scheme switches efficiently between throw, photography and meleÈ views, with firearms snapping neatly into position with reticule primed. In all, he's a great compromise: still one of us but built to withstand a computer generated army rather than face-painted actors with latex guts.
As antagonists, these zombies are a revelation. Just as Romero had it, the mall was an important place for them, and watching them habitually push trolleys, stumble down the up escalators, queue for the amusement rides and patter on the Willamette doors is an uncannily authentic joy. Troublesome as individuals but inexorable en masse, they punish those who overindulge or otherwise let their awareness slip. As in Dawn Of The Dead, the key to survival isn't speed, momentum or power, but care. Too long in a sniping position or behind the camera leaves you open for the chomp, and while plenty of weapons can cut a disembowelling swathe through whole mosh-pits of zombies, the empowerment must be managed sensibly; when the weapon breaks or runs dry, you'll need an answer for the groaning wave before it crashes upon your cocky head.
Frank curses himself for such stupidity when injured without cause – one of many casual nods to Dawn that supplement the carbon copied premise. And Rising's no less referential in its structure. Across an accelerated timeframe that lasts 72 gamehours and, retries excluded, just over five actual hours, the critical missions of the game's primary mode are issued in the security room (one of the mall's few impenetrable retreats, accessed through a rooftop duct), while the abundant emerging 'scoop' opportunities are presented via radio. Occurring between one preset time and another, they all impose a strict, sometimes ruthless schedule upon your sandbox killathon. Miss the allocated window and you lose the mission (commonly a boss battle followed by civilian rescue attempt), its Prestige Points reward, and potentially the entire story thread as well.
If that suggestion of escort missions sets your teeth on edge, then grit them hard because Rising's allied AI is its most rotten limb. Throwing a grand experiment in AI management into its wealth of existing burdens is just the kind of overzealous foulup to earn one of Frank's rebukes, and of the various means by which you're expected to guide people back to the security room – holding hands, shouting, leading the way and offering piggybacks – only the last is reliable, the rest failing with irksome regularity and consequence. A lesser moan is an inventory system that files items in order of acquisition, cycling them automatically if the object in use expires. Since buttonmashing is a primary interaction, the inevitable result is that stockpiled objects such as health (food and drink items) are used accidentally.
You fast come to appreciate that Dead Rising does everything big, including its mistakes. Offering only one save slot is a particularly hazardous example, and when you commit your progress to hard drive, you'd better make sure you have enough time left to meet that next critical deadline or it's game (the story part, at least) over. But Production Studio 1's buckshot approach to design, aiming wide and hitting hard, achieves a successful, albeit unorthodox balance. Because its explorative hack and slash is so visceral, its point-scoring opportunities tucked up so many sleeves, its attention to detail so immeasurably fine and its engine – the lovingly-crafted tide of undead that makes for such an enduring toy – so immaculately tuned, it returns to its feet as grand and remarkable an achievement as it was before it fell down.
Thematically eccentric, mechanically shambolic and technically stunning, Dead Rising is the kind of infectious experience that yearns for a sequel, though that's far from guaranteed considering its pinpoint premise and proximity to Resident Evil. As well as paving the way for the game's greatest Dawn omission – "We got this by the ass" – a co-op mode would give even a straight Willamette reprise a whole new lease of life, should it ever actually need one.