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Review: Dead Rising 2 (Xbox 360)

Dead Rising 2 is set in the not-Las-Vegas setting of Fortune City, Nevada. The main character is Chuck Greene, an ex-motorcross star who is now taking part in the gruesome game show “Terror Is Reality” (think Gladiators, but with zombie killing and no sense of shame) so he can earn enough money to pay for “Zombrex”, the medicine keeping his infected daughter from turning undead. After he collects his winnings from one show, a bomb goes off and soon the streets of Fortune City are flooded with TIR’s zombie supply. What’s more, there’s a reporter claiming that Chuck was the one who set the bomb. There’s seventy-two hours before the military gets sent in to clean up the zombie horde, so Chuck has that long to get to the bottom of the conspiracy while rescuing survivors and finding enough Zombrex to keep his girl from turning.

There’s a lot of improvements from the original game. For one thing, even though you still have a radio to receive messages from your mission command (a zombie-rights activist named Stacey), the system acts more like email and doesn’t require you to answer the radio and put yourself at risk in the process. The photography element has been removed (which is a shame, since it really distinguished the first game) but has been replaced with an item-creation game that allows you to duct-tape items together into ridiculous implements of destruction. Ever wanted to see what happens when you combine a teddy bear and a machine gun? What about dynamite and a fire extinguisher? While there are a lot of fun combinations, it’s not unlimited (you’re confined to fifty or so “recipes”) and has some odd exceptions. For example, one of the first things I attempted to do was combine a fire extinguisher with a wheelchair… which the game declined to allow, despite the obvious potential for jet-powered fun.

The leveling system from the previous game returns, giving you “PP” for rescuing survivors, killing zombies and psychopaths or taking part in one of the many cute little minigames scattered around Fortune City. I was able to make it from Lv.5 to Lv.39 in one runthrough easily, so grinding isn’t a problem as long as you’re interested in immersing yourself in the missions the game presents. The game supplies you with a healthy dose of missions to accomplish and survivors to find, and there are enough distractions in Fortune City that you’ll rarely have nothing to do. If you’re not interested in that, the game also provides a party-game mode in the form of Terror Is Reality, where you face off against three other online players in a gory collection of mini-games to earn money that you can import into your main game. Terror Is Reality is a pinpoint-accurate satire of the kind of bombastic, violence-laden television that terrorists believe all American telly is like, and everything- from the opening title sequence to the irony-free banter of the play-by-play commentators- is genius.

The graphics are much improved from the original game, and the sheer number of zombies on screen at once is still impressive enough to be a selling point. The wonky survivor AI has been greatly improved as well, meaning that survivors are now more than capable of holding their own for a while. I was also greatly impressed by just how many fun little minigames there were around Fortune City. Most of them are Mario Party-style events, like “jab the button repeatedly” or “press X not to fail”, but that’s certainly not a bad thing: they’re simple yet addictive, which is all mini-games need to be. The game rewards you for having fun, which is excellent. Use a sledgehammer to bang the “Test Your Strength” bell? That’s worth PP. Roll a 7 on the giant craps table with ludicrously oversized dice? That’s worth PP. Win at the giant slot machine? That’s worth PP. Fortune City is a wonderful playground.

The plot is all it really needs to be, considering that the game is a homage to B-level zombie disaster movies: there’s government conspiracies, evil black men, a lone hero and a few damsels in distress. Chuck Greene is a pretty cool protagonist, even if he does have some of the worst one-liners I have ever encountered. Stacey is less developed, and the game never does address just how utterly ridiculous her beliefs are: have we gotten so PC that we’re supposed to sympathise with her “equal-rights-for-zombies” speeches? There’s also a remarkable dissonance in the fact that the game encourages the slaughter of zombies (featuring a “Zombies Killed” counter in the bottom corner and an achievement for killing 72,000 of the things) but pairs you with someone who was protesting such gratuitous carnage not more than a day before the game started. Katey is an annoying character in that the developers seem to think that the only requirement for an emotional attachment is the fact that she’s a child. I’ve written before about how powerful the father/daughter bond can be as a motivation, and Dead Rising 2 never manages to fully tap its potential because Katey is less of a character and more of a plot device. Rebecca Chang is a ridiculously oversexed character, to the point where every other shot of her focuses on her chest or legs. The game also features the Disney technique of making (nearly) all the psychopaths grotesque parodies of popular clichés.

The combat system is atrocious, sadly. It’s absolutely fine when you’re fighting through wave after wave of mindless undead flesh, but the system’s crippling weaknesses come to light when you fight any psychopath (boss). You don’t get any kind of proper dodge button until Lv.27, and psychopaths often have long invincibility frames when your blows will simply pass straight through them. The final boss of 72 Hour Mode is the worst example of this in the game, simply refusing to acknowledge nearly all of your attacks. Often this means that such battles will turn into wars of attrition, where success is determined by how many healing items are in your inventory rather than by player skill. Meanwhile, guns are next to worthless- with their weak power and very limited ammunition reservoir- necessitating the use of melee weapons to make any kind of progress even if they’re woefully inadequate for the task at hand.

The game never really gives you a moment to relax, either. There were a lot of times when I just wanted to explore the massive world that had been created for me to play around in, but I found myself chided by the game: “how can you be dicking around when you’ve got medicine to find for your sick daughter?” it asked repeatedly. This wasn’t like Assassin’s Creed II, which encouraged my playfulness; in Dead Rising 2, the clock is always ticking and you have to choose between satisfying your curiosity and satisfying the game’s objectives. Even Bully, a sandbox game that also made you adhere to a tight schedule, let you off the reins after you had satisfied enough objectives.

There’s also a co-op mode, where two players can play clones of Chuck Greene and take on the zombie hordes together. There’s not much to say about this mode: it’s exactly like the single player mode, only now there are two of you. While it’s always fun to play with a friend, it left me feeling as if it were an afterthought: the game doesn’t really let you do anything that you couldn’t do by yourself. Just to contrast, I’m reminded of a 1992 game called World of Illusion for the Mega Drive that had Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as the playable characters. It also had single player and co-op. However, World of Illusion’s co-op became quite a different game, as the addition of a second player opened up new routes and presented new obstacles. They could stand on each other’s shoulders to reach higher ground and new paths, and Mickey could help Donald through some of the tight spaces that would otherwise be inaccessible to him. The only additional ability that co-op in Dead Rising 2 grants is the power to revive your partner after death. It feels like such a waste, especially for a game with as much scope as Dead Rising 2.

It took me about eight hours to get through the main story of Dead Rising 2, which was a good amount of time. Even though I decided to trade it in almost immediately after completing it, my grade for Dead Rising 2 is Recommended. This is a well-designed game with a wonderful sense of inventiveness and fun. Just as a sequel should, it has built on what made Dead Rising successful while fixing the mistakes and including something new. The inclusion of Terror Is Reality as a wonderful multiplayer party game only sweetens the deal. Had the game allowed me the opportunity for some stress-free exploration and had a more tolerable combat system, I may have decided to keep it.

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