Deck the halls with bowels and trolleys, fa-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. It’s Christmas in Willamette’s Memorial Megaplex shopping mall, and Santa brought zombies for everybody. I guess the boys and girls in this town were on the Very, Very, Very Naughty List or something. That, or maybe it’s a top secret black ops military project to develop cheap labour that’s gone all kinds of wrong.
And international megastar investigative journalist – he’s covered wars, you know – Frank West is on the job.
Before this one, I’d only played a bit of the first Dead Rising back in 2006. That was, however, a somewhat different game – and I think those differences matter even now, 10 years on. For me, I hated the time limit in the original game, and it’s actually what made me quit playing. For other people, not so much. That’s out in this game, so there’s no intrinsic urgency anymore. For me, that’s totally cool. For other people, not so much. But what game isn’t divisive like that?
And, I mean, zombie games are not unique anymore. But where games like Left 4 Dead, State of Decay, and Dying Light are mostly super serious survival horror apocalypse sims, Dead Rising 4 is its own special sort of eccentric, mashing up campy violence, dad jokes, and Christmas kitsch into something legitimately – and, at times, ludicrously – unconventional. It’s got its problems, and I’ll get back to those, but in a genre crammed with too much smugly cynical subtext about the human condition, this game has zero pretensions about saving the world.
The whole point of Dead Rising 4 is to rush around the place in garish costumes and punch out zombies with weaponised Christmas decorations.
The Christmas thing is probably the biggest part of what makes this game work. And not just because it’s almost entirely unprecedented, but also because there’s something hilariously absurd about hearing jazz-sleazy, department store versions of Christmas songs like Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Jingle Bells in the pause menu of a zombie game. There’s a minigun that shoots multicoloured Christmas tree baubles and a spear that fires exploding Christmas elves and a wired-up Christmas wreath that electro-shocks enemies and you get the idea. For everybody who’s already fed up with the ubiquitous tinsel and traffic of real life in December, this is the best kind of therapy.
Much like the first game – and the others too, I assume – Dead Rising 4‘s campaign is a series of “Cases”, in which Frank must find clues and solve some mystery to get to the next plot point. It’s not bad, exactly, but relies on too many predictable clichés and some clumsy exposition, and now, two days since I finished the game, I don’t remember most of what even happened besides a gratuitously frustrating boss battle near the end.
In between that, there’s loads of stuff to keep you busy – establishing safehouses which then serve as vendor hubs, rescuing survivors, collecting things, side missions, and, you know, killing zombies. The game features several sizeable locations in and around Willamette, including the mall and suburbs. The mall is an extravagant venue, almost more like a theme park than a shopping centre, but most of the other places feel drab, even perfunctory in comparison. And that’s a shame, because a lot of the campaign happens outside the mall.
Even more disappointing, though, is that Dead Rising 4 is so easy. I clocked the campaign in about 10 hours or so, and died only four times. Not even the ultra-powered “Fresh” and “Evolved” zombies present much of a threat, and every death was due to stupid negligence, not AI ingenuity. I’m okay with games not being as merciless as Dark Souls, for example, but some sense of risk and tension keeps things interesting. Also, the controls can be super awkward sometimes – skipping around objects to get the interaction prompt back up and in focus, and then still picking up the wrong thing anyway because the prompt randomly decided to swap to something else because LOL isn’t clever game design.