Thursday, August 24, 2006

Dead Rising

So close and yet so far.

Though the boxcover legalistically proclaims that Dead Rising is "not developed, approved, or licensed by the owners or creators or George A. Romero's Dawn Of The Dead", the Capcom release is easily the movie's gaming equivalent: a compelling mix of horror and satire, of character and gore, of plot and ultraviolence. At it's best, Dead Rising throws you into that most suburban of banalities - the shopping mall - and pits you against legions of the shambling undead wielding nothing but your wits and whatever you can find lying around. As you run from store to store, scrambling to find weaponry, you'll end up dispatching zombies using everything from chainsaws to golf clubs to plastic lightsabers to red-hot skillets. The combat's fast and fluid, and the different animations and styles attached to each weapon keep the game exciting on a strategic level, as each weapon requires some adjustment. With wonderful art design, great cutscenes, and a likeable main character, this is your chance to play out the kind of zombie madness previously trapped on celluloid. It's truly "next-gen gaming", as the ability of the Xbox 360 to handle so many of the living dead at one time is more than a technical feat - it's essential to the feel of the game. Zombie herds will easily number twenty or more, and will swarm around you in the kind of scene that simply was not possible on earlier gaming systems.

For all "next-gen" power packed into Dead Rising, it's the "last-gen" gameplay elements still rearing their heads that unfortunately consign this game to the "B" list. Dead Rising is so tied to old Capcom survival horror tropes like limited saves, sparse save points, and clumsy inventory systems that every time you are about to get sucked into the well-developed world of the game, you get dragged right back to "just a game" as you struggle to find one of the few save points available.

On top of those old-school gameplay concepts, there's an ugly twist as Capcom tries to integrate an "open world" style of gameplay into it's successful survival horror formula. The whole game takes place over 72 time compressed hours (a few game hours will pass for every hour of playing), and you're constantly managing time and balancing off the demands of the main plot, the side quests, and the sheer joy of wading through animated corpses with a sledgehammer. I can't shake the feeling that I've been given a wide-open world to play in, but am punished if I play in it. One of the joys of "sandbox" games is, well ... the sandbox.

Dead Rising comes close to greatness, but a devotion to gameplay concepts that should have stayed dead and buried keeps it from becoming one of the very few stellar Xbox 360 titles available. It's an excellent title, with central gameplay that's as fun as any the console has to offer, and those that can persevere and unlock the modes that allow you to simply play in the undead sandbox will have a fantastic time. I'll keep plugging away and having fun, but I'll be holding out hope for a future sequel that will dispense with the Resident Evil stodginess.

(As a side note, it has become apparent that if you're playing this game on an SDTV, you may be in a world of hurt. HDTV looks excellent, but it seems the game was not tested on a regular ol' TV. See Joystiq for the lowdown. And the "fixes".)