Game: Dead Rising 2: Off The Record
Developer: Capcom Vancouver
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
When Dead Rising 2 launched last year, it certainly didn’t set the world on fire. Many fans who had been waiting for a sequel to the mildly successful 2006 title were left disappointed by the fact that a new protagonist was thrust upon them, and others, who were unimpressed by the first game saw all too many of that games faults re-appear in the sequel. After including original hero Frank West in a portion of DLC for the game, Capcom made the unusual decision to begin work on a re-imagining of the game. Off the Record sees the full return of Frank West, but in the same situation that we found Chuck Greene in Dead Rising 2. Tweaks and alterations have also been made, but does this chunk of Dead Rising fill that craving for zombie action?
STORY: The game serves as an alternate version or a “what if?” scenario of Dead Rising 2. What would have happened if Frank West, Photo-Journalist and anti-hero, had been the main character in the game, rather than Motorbike-riding, single dad Chuck Greene. After the events of the first game, when Frank West revealed the terrible events of the zombie outbreak at the Williamette Parkview Mall, he came upon great success and fortune, writing a popular book and getting his own chat show, however, the excesses of celebrity soon took their toll and Frank wasted away his millions.
In an attempt to re-capture his success, Frank accepts an invitation to take part in Terror is Reality, the game show where regular people take on hordes of zombies for money, in a controlled environment. Frank takes part, and whilst he succeeds, he realises that rather than recapture his fame, he has now become a figure of fun. But this is where Frank finally gets the chance to redeem himself, he eavesdrops on some shady dealings and decides that any good journalist would want to follow-up, before a fresh zombie outbreak begins in Fortune City. Caught up in a zombie nightmare once again, Frank fights for his life, whilst trying to expose the real reasons behind this latest disaster.
Whilst it is certainly interesting to play as Frank once again, which is what most fans of the original always wanted, the story doesn’t actually differ greatly from that of the first version of Dead Rising 2. The premise is different of course, in order to re-introduce Frank to gamers, but the majority of the other in-game events and characters you will meet are all familiar. This makes sense, as the game is meant to run in the same timeline as Dead Rising 2, but many cutscenes and action sequences are lifted almost directly from the last game – simply replacing Chuck with the Frank character model and voices. Different events and a whole new area to explore, the theme park “Uranus Zone”, have been added to the title, but it does all feel like re-treading the same territory for those who played Dead Rising 2 to completion. Of course, Capcom are almost selling this game as the real Dead Rising 2, and it seems likely that the main target market for the title may even be those who never played the second game, as they wanted to continue the story of Frank West. In that respect, the game allows fans to get more closure on his personal tale, and to spend more time with a character who, despite his shortcomings and anti-hero nature, many fans wanted to see back.
GRAPHICS: Visually, the game remains very similar to Dead Rising 2. Obviously the game engine is the same as before and the results are very similar. Capcom have tweaked the formula a little though, and now the game can handle more zombies on-screen at once than ever before, meaning that your survival action will be more populated and congested than in previous titles. This does little to effect performance, as the game has been optimised to allow for this improvement, but the end result will only really be noticeable to the very observant and pedantic amongst you.
There is slightly more variety in NPC models than before too. Whilst zombie hordes used to be massive groups of a handful of different Zombie stereotypes, we see a lot more area-specific Zombie skins and outfits this time out, particularly in the new Uranus Zone, where purple and space-themed undead lurk. All of the returning characters from Dead Rising 2 appear almost unchanged, whereas Frank West has obviously received a major overhaul since the first game in the series. Visibly fatter and balder, he still shows the characteristics we remember from the past, whilst looking slightly more realistic this time around, but still maintaining the stylised design of the series. It remains true that these are all minor points though, and this title certainly does little to push things forward from a visual standpoint.
SOUND: The sound perhaps shows even less change since the last game. Of course, with the addition of Frank instead of Chuck, and a selection of new objectives and slightly altered story-lines, the game required an entirely new voice-over track to be put together. Most of the characters are relatively well-acted, and Frank comes across well as an egotistical, sarcastic jerk, who still manages to make us like him somehow. The cheesy writing and delivery remains for many of the psychopath bosses and even a selection of the other survivors, but it should be made clear that this is quite intentional. Part of the fun of horror films and games is the stereotypically hammy acting and predictable script-writing, and Dead Rising certainly takes a leaf out of this book, taking part parody and part homage from other horror staples as it goes along, and to great effect too.
In missions, voice-overs are kept to a minimum, but at least the subtitles are more legible than in the first instalment, where players could barely read any of the in-game text. Sound effects remain as satisfying as ever, with blood splatters and zombie groans making us recall fond memories of our horror favourites, and weapons sound suitably violent and satisfying when used. Most of the music tracks from the last game are recycled, and the game maintains its metal music core, with dramatic score pieces added in at certain times when the story reaches a crescendo.
GAMEPLAY: Whilst the core game here remains very similar to the last two offerings, there have been some advancements and tweaks made. It must be said that the mission structure and control scheme have changed very little from the first entry, right up until this point. The bulk of the game is dedicated to the main story mode, which is timed to last for three days (not real-time). Events will occur at set points throughout the this three-day period, and if you miss something, it’ll be gone forever. This maintains the tried and tested formula that the series has become known for, and pushes time management to the forefront of your mind at all times. This is the main dilemma in the game, as you’ll have to weigh up if you have time to rescue a particular survivor, before another event will trigger, and so on. As was the case in Dead Rising 2, where Chuck Greene had to return to his daughter with anti-zombie Zombrex medication every twenty-four hours, Frank must now self-medicate himself at the same intervals, as he was infected in the first game. This adds further fuel to the fires that push you forever forward, and the excitement of having to meet particular goals in a set time can be quite exhilarating.
Whilst this is a great premise in respects of pushing the plot forward and keeping a great pace, with a tense atmosphere, it does tend to also detract from the overall idea of exploration and customisation. The weapon creation mechanic from Dead Rising 2 returns, but at times you feel handcuffed to the main plot and feel like you don’t have the time to go wandering off to experiment with crazy weapon combinations, even if you wanted to. The same could be said for the huge amount of costumes and secret areas to find. Frank can dress up in clothes from most shops, and find keys to safe boxes and money stashes, but the game does tend to confine you to the straight and narrow of the main objective. Whilst you will be rewarded with bonus PP (the in-game XP system) for experimenting and finding certain objects, the game will punish you at the same time, by informing you that you missed the opportunity to save another survivor, for example.
In the worst-case scenario, your failure to complete specific goals in time can make it impossible for you to achieve the best ending for the game. This hard-line punishment is quite refreshing, considering the spate of simple games with regular checkpoints nowadays, but the difficulty of managing everything properly can take some getting used to. On that same topic, after more toilet save-rooms were added into the game for Dead Rising 2, Off the Record goes one further and adds in some automatic checkpoints of its own. These occur most often before boss battles and when entering new areas, but are somewhat optional. The checkpoints won’t create a new save game, but will enable you to reload from that point upon death. If you find this system too forgiving, especially after the intense difficulty of sparse save points in the first title in the series, you can simply choose to reload your previous save game when you die, and ignore the checkpoints entirely. This gives players the chance to shape their own difficulty to some extent, which is a nice option.
With the return of Frank West comes the return of photography. As one of the best features of the first game, it is a very welcome return, and adds another dimension that was missing from the first sequel. Players can build up extra PP by taking pictures of particular items, people or events – as well as secret bonus PP stickers that are scattered throughout Fortune City. The zoom on the camera is also useful for scoping out areas before you venture forward. Photos can be saved, when you get a particularly good one, and some of the in-game Achievements are linked to putting together well-composed images. This is something you can ignore or really run with, being up to the individual player, but it is nice to have the option back in the game, and it can certainly speed up the levelling up system.
One unwelcome return from the previous instalments in the slow speed of our protagonist. Both Frank and Chuck were rather lumbering at all times, and this game is no different. Players will find themselves looking for a dash button on regular occasions, as Frank never seems to have much urgency to his actions. Add to that the fact that when you fall down, or are knocked back by an enemy, you will take a long time to recover and get back to your feet. This is irritating and certainly slows the pace of the action down. As you level up, there are more special moves and throws than ever before, but these are all fairly unimaginative and you will find yourself more likely to want to use weapons than your melee moves most of the time. Even picking up particular items or wearing items of clothing can be a long and slow process, which unfortunately leaves you open to a zombie ambush whilst Frank admires his new tube top in the mirror. For a game based on survival in a zombie outbreak, the hero lacks a real sense of speed and the game feels like it is dragging itself along at times, such is the slow pace of movement.
The main addition to the title is the Sandbox mode. Where previously the game included a 72 hour Survival mode, whereby your life slowly decreased and you had to simply survive for three days, whilst feeding yourself to keep your energy up, with no missions involved, the Sandbox mode changes the set-up slightly. Now your life bar doesn’t deplete, and you have total freedom over the city. The idea of this mode is to explore and discover the new challenges. Challenges require the player to complete particular goals, such as killing 50 Zombies in 30 seconds – in order to achieve bronze, silver or gold medals. The better the medal you reach, the more money and PP you are rewarded with. Some challenges require you to have killed a certain number of zombies in Sandbox before they will unlock, so you have to keep on killing whilst you explore, which can become tedious when you want to access the later challenges. But the real plus point about Sandbox mode is the fact that all of your PP gained will transfer directly into your story mode progress. This will speed up levelling up even further and helps you unlock extra moves and more health blocks easier than ever before. It also allows you more time to experiment with weapons and different ways of killing the undead, but most people are likely to mainly use the Sandbox feature in order to power-up their story stats. As there are no objectives in Sandbox mode, aside from the challenges, it can become a bit tiring, there isn’t enough variety in the different goals to complete in each challenge in order to make you keep coming back for more.
MULTIPLAYER: The multiplayer modes have been changed quite significantly for this re-imagining, but not really in a positive way. The whole Terror is Reality online multiplayer section, where players took part in zombie-themed game show events against one another, has been completely taken out of this entry. This is quite surprising, even though they weren’t amazing, the games were original and added a different element to the title; they were unique.
Unfortunately, with the removal of this mode, the game only sports co-operative play online. This mode is still unavailable offline, but meet up with a friend online and player one will control Frank, with player two taking on the role of Chuck. Again, as was the case last time around, only the host will gain any story mode progression in co-op so, once again, the client gets a raw deal. This is something many would have hoped Capcom could have changed for this game, and it seems rather lazy that this wasn’t rectified. More player customisation options, such as outfits and accessories, have been added to help the two of you give your character a personal touch, but this adds little overall to the experience. The fact that you can also enter the Sandbox mode in co-op is a nice bonus though, and a selection of Achievements based around completing the Sandbox Challenges in co-op have also been included. Trying to reach the requirements for these challenges is more fun in two player, but once again, player two will not receive any of the XP benefits from taking part in this mode, which makes it somewhat redundant.
LONGEVITY: The real longevity comes from the fact that you won’t be able to rescue all survivors, kill all bosses and find all of the secrets of the game in one playthrough, the time limit just won’t allow it. The same goes for finding customisation cards and then building the weapons on them, and from finding secret areas. You will be able to find lots of new items and things to do, probably enough for three or four playthroughs if you really want to find everything the game has to offer. The problem is whether or not you will want to experience everything over again. Core missions must still be completed, regardless of what you are trying to do elsewhere. So even if you are exploring a new area, you will be pulled back to find some medication, for example, to avoid getting a Game Over status. In this sense, you could dedicate each playthrough to particular tasks, and focus on only survivors, or only weapon customisation – but then we lose the spontaneity and fun of running from one situation to another and stumbling into missions you didn’t intend to. It really depends on how much you like the core gameplay as to whether you would want to visit Fortune City on several occasions.
VERDICT: Off the Record adds features we have missed, new content and fixes problems from previous versions oft he game, whilst also sticking to some of the less popular mechanics we have grown accustomed to. Dead Rising is still unlike any other game, but after four different versions, across different platforms, the formula isn’t as fresh as it once was. Some of the faults of the first game still remain, which is surprising when the team have been working with the IP for some time now.
The return of Frank West certainly makes the argument for owning the game a more compelling one for fans of the original, and they will no doubt want to find out how his story concludes. The extra modes that have been added to help put some variety into proceedings, but ultimately it is likely that most players will only see the Sandbox mode as a means to an end for levelling up faster in Story Mode, and the fact that co-op play still only rewards the host is criminal.
But when we look at the game by itself, in the way Capcom are marketing it, as the true sequel to Dead Rising, it does stand up quite well. Ignoring Dead Rising 2, this game is closer to the sequel fans always wanted. Offered at the budget price it is, you feel less aggrieved by the fact that this is a mere update, rather than a total overhaul of the game. Yes, the title is very similar to Dead Rising 2, but the game benefits from the humour Frank West brings to proceedings and from the fact that there has been a concerted effort to fix some of the failings that were present last time out. It remains a challenging title that doesn’t hold back from its unrelenting story progression and the fact it keeps to its own rhythm. Few games nowadays restrict the player so much, but in a positive way. The restriction itself helps keep the game moving along and adds to the horror film tension. In forcing you to play the game the way they want it to be played, Capcom display a directorial flair that George A. Romero himself would be proud of.
I would hope, if there is a Dead Rising 3, that it does feature a complete re-working of the series, as the formula is showing its age. An acquired taste, as the series has become known for, but as the last hurrah of an ageing photo-journalist and part-time zombie-slayer, the game still holds a certain charm that just won’t die.