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Dead Rising 4 review: Frank West’s triumphant return

I played through the original Dead Rising game when it first came out, and I absolutely loved it. Like so many other people who picked the game up during the rise of the zombie-loving era of pop culture, I was pleasantly surprised by just how completely silly and off-the-wall the game was. It wasn’t a hardcore horror-survival game – it was a game where you dressed up in the dumbest clothes you could find and enjoyed a sandbox playground. It’s that silly tone – and the excellent protagonist in Frank West – that made the game so special. It’s for that reason that so many fans cried out at Dead Rising 3’s grittier tone, claiming that the franchise lost its way.

With Dead Rising 4, it seems like Capcom took that criticism to heart. It feels like a true return to form – a game that does justice to the original while still adding in the mechanical complexity that the franchise has evolved since. The game is absolutely dripping with a good sense of humor, ranging from the subtlety of a well-told joke to the ridiculousness of beating a zombie to death with a Christmas tree. Throughout my playthrough, I was laughing out loud about once every 30 minutes or so – that’s a good mark for a Dead Rising game to hit.

Old town, new tricks

Dead Rising 4 takes place in the town of Willamette, and features Frank West as its protagonist. That’s the same setting and main character that carried the show in Dead Rising 1. Unlike the first game, where you were mostly confined to one shopping mall, Frank has the entire town of Willamette to explore. There’s a new mall for you to play around in, but the bulk of your experience is going to be taking place in the town proper. While exploration can sometimes feel like a drag (I got a little bit lost on multiple occasions) there’s plenty of content to keep it interesting. You’re frequently given opportunities to save stranded survivors from any number of deadly situations, and there are tons of goodies lying around for people who want to poke around.

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If you want, you can sneak up behind someone and snap a selfie before dispatching them.

You’ll also frequently run into “maniacs” – people who snapped during this new zombie outbreak and became insane, albeit entertaining, murderers. People dressing up in shark costumes, people who think they’re pirates, people dressing up as insane killer Santas – you get the picture. The maniacs keep things fresh when you want to take a break from the game’s story and just have a laugh. and while some of them don’t quite hit their mark, most of them are memorable.

Willamette is also littered with shelters, which you can clear out in order to set up a safe place for yourself. When you clear out a shelter, survivors will populate it and offer to sell you a few things. You’ll be able to grab clothes, weapons, food, and vehicles from them without the hassle of searching for them. Unfortunately, this mechanic doesn’t really hit its mark. In my playthrough, I almost never felt the need to clear out shelters, and every time I looked over the inventory of one of these enterprising survivors, I decided I would pass on it. Going out in the world and collecting what you need is too fun and too easy to justify buying pretty much any of the things that are on sale.

Zombies, flaming broadswords, and you

In Dead Rising 4, you kill zombies. You kill a lot of them. You kill so many, in fact, that the game keeps count of just how many zombies you’ve killed. By the end of my playthrough, I’d killed about 7,000 zombies – and that’s with me usually not bothering to kill them, on account of how easy they are to run past. The game gives you an almost absurd amount of weapons and “combo weapons” for you to dispatch large groups of undead, ranging anywhere from flaming/ice-infused swords to sledgehammers with grenades duct-taped onto them. Dead Rising 4, in true Dead Rising fashion, doesn’t care about what makes sense – it only cares about what would be a cool way to kill a bunch of zombies. You can mix and match weapons to create completely implausible and hilarious combinations, you can jump in “exo suits” to demolish your enemies in style, and you can just take a truck to drive over a thousand zombies at once.

There are two basic categories that enemies fall into: Soldiers and zombies. Either group of baddy has some variety to keep things fresh, but those are the two types of enemy you’re looking at. You’ll usually want to take down zombies using your melee weapons, and you’ll generally take care of soldiers using your ranged weapons. For this reason, you can switch between the two with general ease, without having to do very much in the way of inventory management. The combat feels fairly fluid in this way, and it does a good job of making sure that switching between living and not-so-living targets isn’t going to disturb the flow of combat, and make you feel any less cool.

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There are a few new zombies in DR4 – these Evo zombies are slippery, and they hit hard.

The game’s combat does have a combo meter that lets you execute powerful finishing moves after pulling off successful chains, but it isn’t necessarily similar to games like Batman: Arkham Knight which employ that same kind of mechanic. Unlike Batman, Dead Rising 4 does not have a very deliberate combat system. Dead Rising asks you to wildly flail around your weapon in the general direction of your enemies in order to mow them down – players who have a history with the Dead Rising series will definitely be familiar with the concept. Even though this clunky nature is technically true to the roots of the franchise, it’s easy to wonder if that’s a good enough reason to keep it in. Until Dead Rising can find a way to create a more fluid and precise control scheme, it’s hard to imagine the franchise’s combat mechanics ever graduating from good to great.

Even though the combat lacks precision, it’s still impossible to deny that jumping into a horde of hundreds of zombies and slicing through them like butter is satisfying. When you create weapons like the ice sword, you get to slice and shatter massive groups of zombies as if it was nothing. It’s moments like those – moments of absolute, unmitigated, hilariously unapologetic slaughter – that make Dead Rising 4 such a joy to play. It may not challenge you all that much, or ask you to do a lot of planning in order to overcome challenges, but it can reliably put a smile on your face and give you some good, old-fashioned, enjoyable mayhem.

A story worth paying attention to

I’ve always been convinced that Dead Rising is a game that isn’t about story. To a certain degree, I still believe that – story is never going to take priority over silly, fun gameplay in this franchise. That being said, the story in Dead Rising 4 is one that I, more or less, found myself wanting to pay attention to. After the tutorial that sets up the events of the game (and an unexpected animated cutscene set to some holiday music) I was firmly invested in the characters that I was following. Frank is, as always, a joy to be with – he’s selfish, he’s an all-around bad guy with a heart of coal, and he’s one of the most lovable protagonists in modern video gaming history. Dead Rising 4’s story is, in a lot of ways, a story about the personal evolution of Frank West, and how he’s come to the realization that he’s an egomaniac who should probably try being a better person.

Frank West at the end of Dead Rising 4 is a very different Frank West than the one going in. Frank is given the foil of Vick Chu, a journalist who studied under him and has a much more idealistic view of her work. Vick tends to resent Frank’s professional “get the story and get out” attitude, and gravitates more towards the “vigilante warrior of truth” angle. The contrast ends up creating a lot of tension, and it makes for a very useful plot device when Frank needs to think about the way that he does things as a journalist. Both Frank and Vick are very flawed – both as people and as journalists – but their flaws are mostly realistic, and they’re likable enough characters that I was never bothered by them when they made a mistake.

The game is paced relatively well, with none of the game’s 6 chapters feeling like they’re filler. Each one lets you go explore a different aspect of Willamette, and does enough to push the story forward that you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time. The game only offers a few noteworthy side characters, and each one of them is given a decent enough motivation in order to serve their purpose in the plot. Things start off slow, ramp up to build tension and let you get attached to the world, and then come to a fairly explosive conclusion that ties up most of the loose ends. You can’t really ask for much more.

A welcome return to form

Dead Rising 4 is, more or less, the game that I was hoping it would be. It combines the great mechanical ideas of the franchise while doing away with many of the not-so-great ones, and it comes back to the classic Dead Rising sense of humor that made the franchise popular in the first place. The game is definitely not perfect – on top of the several nitpicks I have about the game’s combat system, and a few bits of the story that I didn’t care for, my build of the game also had quite a few bugs (some of which were game-breaking, and required a reset.) Hopefully those bugs are fixed in a day-one patch on release, but they could cause some serious frustration for players if they end up staying in.

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You can kill zombies in a lot of ways – almost all of them are ridiculous.

It took me about 10 hours to complete the game, although I didn’t stop and smell the flowers that often. If you really take your time with Dead Rising 4 and play around in the sandbox every once in a while, you should easily be able to get at least 20 hours of gameplay. It’s the sort of game that you can play however you want – pick it up and put it down for some dumb fun every once in a while, or play through it in two or three sittings and really get the full experience. The game keeps track of how much of it you’ve completed, so there’s plenty of replay value for those of you who want to be able to do 100% of the content. While it may not be a perfect game, it’s one that’s thoroughly enjoyable, and well worth the price tag especially if you’re a fan of the franchise already.

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Are you going to pick up Dead Rising 4?