Dead Rising and its sequels have largely been known for their wild sense of humor, insane number of weapons, challenging difficulty, and memorable boss fights. Only half of those key aspects remain in Dead Rising 4, but is it still a good game?
The core gameplay is exactly what you might expect from the series: zombie survival mayhem in a sandbox environment. It revels in all the blood and gore of B-Horror movies, dropping gamers into a large city overrun with zombies and filled with deadly weapons. The basics are all there — like blades, blunt instruments, explosives, throwable objects, and multiple kitchen sinks. What’s more, collectible blueprints grant you the ability to combine two separate weapons, creating one superbly ridiculous combo weapon with one push of a button. Dead Rising 3’s emphasis on vehicles also returns, allowing you to create metal monstrosities whenever new blueprints are collected.
Blunt weapons arc through the air with satisfying weight, blades slice through foes with ease, and guns handle much better than in previous games. The combo weapons are hit-or-miss, as some are clearly more useful than others. The ice sword quickly became my constant companion because of its brutal damage output and capability to freeze large mobs with each swing. Standard firearms are surprisingly underpowered, but most combo guns — like the Holey Terror — kill damn-near everything in one shot.
Unfortunately, Dead Rising 4 is just too damn easy. This change comes down to some very simple, yet profound alterations to the formula established by the first game. First and foremost, the timer — which counted down to a specific time and day before which every mission needed to be completed — is absent. Secondly, manual save points have been removed in favor of an auto-save which triggers at frequent intervals. Lastly (and most irksome of all), the memorable Psychopath bosses have also been benched.
The end result is a zombie game utterly devoid of both urgency and challenge, creating an unnecessarily bland experience, which sadly carries through to the features that do remain. A focal point of the series has always been the stranded survivors encountered often throughout each game, all of which could either be ignored entirely or rescued and escorted back to a safe room. The survivors are still around, but remain stationary until a single mob of zombies is slain, at which point they drop a reward and scamper away. There is no grand struggle, nor is there a moral dilemma when discovering someone. Their rewards are often lackluster, and the only real benefit is the fact that rescuing enough of them upgrades your safe houses, which in turn allows for the purchase of better gear. Also worth noting is that these same survivors tend to respawn where you first met them, making this whole feature feel sloppily implemented.
Inventory management has also been greatly simplified. Rather than having one inventory with limited slots, forcing players to carefully choose what to carry, there are now four separate inventories: firearms, melee weapons, throwable weapons, and health items. Each corresponds to a direction on the d-pad and switching weapons or using health items has never been easier.
The new inventory setup does lead to some problems. Melee weapons can no longer be thrown, which eliminates one of my favorite offensive options from earlier entries. The health items cannot be cycled through nor identified once picked up (they become a generic + symbol), and so the game chooses which one is used to heal you. Since some food and drinks recover more health than others, that’s problematic. Because the D-pad is now taken up by these functions, there is no way to cycle between highlighted objects in the world, which means we’re back to grabbing and dropping items in close proximity until the correct one is picked up. That was one of Dead Rising 3’s best new improvements, and its removal is a massively frustrating step back.
The RPG-like level-up system is still in place, but the skills gained by spending Prestige Points (PP, earned through actions like taking pictures and defeating enemies) are more technical than in past DR games. Rather than unlocking powerful new melee moves or a Shaun of the Dead-esque zombie walk, various stats are improved. Across four separate skill trees, players can earn bonuses like a larger health meter, more stamina, increased damage with weapons, and additional inventory slots. Gamers looking for a challenge may want to avoid purchasing any such upgrades, as they turn your character into an unstoppable badass. Speaking of the protagonist…
As every DR4 advertisement emphasizes repeatedly, the original hero of the series, Frank West, is back and more jaded than ever. Regardless of his new, uncharacteristically chiseled appearance, the years have not been kind to Frank. His crusade to expose the true monsters behind the zombie outbreaks has left him discredited and disgruntled by a continued lack of fame. After settling for a job as a teacher, one of his students tricks him into getting in the middle of a new conspiracy… and things get a bit bloody from there.
Every trailer, interview, and public demo leaned heavily on nostalgia to entice gamers to buy this latest sequel. “FRANK IS BACK! RETURN TO THE MALL!” Such phrases were repeated in marketing material, though it was a bit misleading. The story may kick-off in the mall, but it moves on all too quickly with little reason to return. Sadly, Frank West himself nicely sums up this game as he sports a new look, a spotty sense of humor (with one or two Obama jokes), and can’t quite recapture that original magic.
At least he is still a photographer, albeit one who has been corrupted by the selfie generation. The camera mechanics from the first DR have returned with a similar function, and has received considerable improvements. The push of a button raises Frank’s camera and switches to a first-person view, allowing you to zoom and snap as many photos as you wish — though only 50 can be saved at one time. Capturing key moments and characters showers you in PP bonuses and lets you level up quickly, but the camera’s new filters are the best aspect.
The camera’s night vision allows you to see in the darkest areas of the game, as you may expect. Since enemies are blind in thick shadows, this allows you to crouch and sneak up behind them to execute a ninja-esque stealth takedown — except Frank “The Showboat” West poses for a photo with his victim before following through. Their surprised reactions combined with Frank’s goofy expressions are always amusing.
A spectral analyzer also allows you to locate secret rooms, detect fingerprints, and crack specific locks. This feature is most useful in the Batman: Arkham Asylum-like investigations, where key details within a small area must be scanned to progress.
The most advertised new weapon in DR4 is assuredly the Exo Suit, which can be found in scattered cases and worn to imbue Frank with super strength. They actually are quite fun, and the upgrades you can cobble together add spectacularly destructive abilities… but in practice, they barely factored into my playtime. Each one runs off a limited battery that will last two minutes, which is barely enough time to play around. The time limit also makes the upgrades rather pointless, as they are hidden in specific spots and difficult to locate quickly. Two or three missions give you unlimited battery power within certain areas, and the Exo Suit truly shines in these instances… but it still seems like a wasted concept.
As for the story, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The continuity with other titles in the series is questionable, as an early segment contains dialogue from the non-canon Dead Rising 2: Off The Record, and games other than the original receive only the most basic lip service. That makes it a bit difficult to follow the plot, though first timers won’t have that confusion.
Taken on its own, the story of Dead Rising 4 is pretty intriguing. After getting stuck in yet another outbreak, Frank catches wind of a powerful monster unlike anything he (or anyone else) has ever encountered. The early mystery is a nice hook, as are the ensuing investigations which serve to highlight Frank’s career as a photojournalist. A strange new take on the standard zombies is also introduced during the tutorial mission, but gets dropped just as suddenly as it was introduced. Futureproofing, perhaps?
If any one aspect of the game fails the interesting story, it would be the graphics. Open world games always sacrifice realism for content, of course — but DR4 somehow looks worse than DR3. The wider array of colors this time around are definitely an upgrade over the third entry, which I believe is worth mentioning. Even so, this isn’t a pretty game, and you shouldn’t go in expecting it to be one. While it isn’t overtly apparent unless you use the camera often, the zombie models are especially basic and pixelated, while most textures are surprisingly ugly up close. These shortcomings are only further highlighted with the game’s in-game cutscenes, which tend to get a bit too close to the worst character faces in recent memory.
The length is also an issue, as the main plot can be completed within five hours. Your time with the game will be increased significantly if you enjoy slaughtering mobs or chasing collectibles, but gamers focusing on the story-based missions will quickly run out of things to do.
A four player cooperative mode also exists… and that’s almost all that can be said. Because co-op is separate from the single player campaign this time around, it is instead an episodic set of missions wherein specific challenges need to be met to progress. I wouldn’t consider it a selling point, primarily because it’s the kind of thing you play through once and never return. It is a far cry from the full-featured co-op of the second and third games.
For all my qualms with this game, there are some high points. With a tremendous collection of fun costumes (many of which pay tribute to beloved Capcom characters), at least one amazing post-game unlockable, some creative vehicle designs, and an option for co-op, there is still some fun to be mined from this sucker.
THE VERDICT: 6.5 OUT OF 10
Ultimately, Dead Rising 4 would have been a better experience without the nostalgia ploy. The storyline tries too hard to appeal to longtime fans like myself, even when the game as a whole is meant to welcome a new audience. First-time DR players will definitely find entertainment in this particular brand of mayhem, humor, and spectacle — especially if you like the insanity of the Saints Row sequels. Unfortunately, this game has removed too much of what set the series apart from other sandbox-style zombie games. Without the signature humor, Dead Rising 4 would be just another walking corpse in the horde.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale. This game was provided to us as a review copy.