The Dead Rising series holds a special place in the gaming landscape. Former entries have simultaneously been mass-market crowd pleasers as well as niche products for challenge-seekers. How? The melding of simple gameplay with punishing boss fights and borderline obtuse restraints. For better or worse, we see a more casual approach in Dead Rising 4, with many of the less-marketable elements of the series removed.
Frank West returns, albeit with a different voice actor and, arguably, a different personality. Ty Olssen voices the iconic character, replacing TJ Rotolo, as Capcom Game Studio Vancouver sought to "provide a more grizzled, older take on Frank." Oddly, the new Frank seems younger in personality and looks both than his Case West or Off the Record counterpart. In Case West, which is canon (unlike Off the Record), Frank was balding, pudgy and wrinklier than he is in Dead Rising 4. More irritating than his apparent newfound youth is the downgrade in the personality now sported by the character. Frank always had a sarcastic side, but he also had a cool swagger to him, akin to the ilk of John McLane. This charisma has been replaced by a performance that is at times too gritty and self-serious, or otherwise reliant on ironic humor that would be more at home in the mouth of a teenager. The man with whom we are met is not a great character on his own merits, but by passing him off as the already established Frank West, Capcom is inviting comparison to a character that many fans have grown to love.
The story kicks off with Frank, now a university professor, being reluctantly driven to a research facility outside of the familiar Willamette. After he is falsely accused of terrorism and sent into hiding, he is brought back into the fray with the chance to clear his name by investigating the cause of a Black Friday outbreak in Willamette. Dead Rising games are not known for their great stories, but that's OK, because they are lighthearted B-movies, in essence. The plot typically fits the tone well enough and amounts to pulp-grade fodder, perfunctorily served to move the game along. Dead Rising 4 still sticks to the base plot point of figuring out the 'truth' about a zombie outbreak, with twists and turns involving the military (or, in this case, paramilitary), but the story is presented in such a joyless fashion, with virtually no likable characters. The overly serious presentation clashes with how you'll spend the rest of the game — mowing down zombies with ever-more ludicrous weapons — making for a baffling tonal shift.
Where Dead Rising lives and dies is in its gameplay, and that's not the exception here. Unfortunately, Dead Rising 4 has some problems in this area as well. Depending on what side of the fence you're on, the removal of the time restraints featured in past iterations of the series is either a much-needed, or a detrimental, change. I had no issue with the removal before playing Dead Rising 4; I figured that being able to explore the environments and complete side-objectives at my own pace would be refreshing for the franchise. I was wrong. The problem is that Capcom Vancouver has taken a philosophy of subtraction rather than addition when it comes to changes made to Dead Rising 4. There is now unlimited time to spend in Willamette, but shockingly little to spend your time on in terms of substance outside the main story missions. Collectables aren't enough to justify open-world exploration, yet they make up nearly all of the optional content. Side-objectives, such as rescuing survivors or destroying military equipment, generate randomly and usually fairly close to your current location. As such, there's little need for backtracking and discovery. Of the collectibles, the only enticing ones are weapon blueprints — or, at least they were in past titles, as more powerful combo weapons could mean the difference between life and death during some of the more unforgiving psychopath encounters. However, the newly introduced "Maniacs" that I encountered were all pushovers, even with basic firearms. This makes combo weapons not only optional, but underwhelming as well. This lack of difficulty extends to everything from boss fights to human soldiers, so I recommend starting on hard or the "Blackest Friday" difficulty mode for a real challenge.
Safe houses make their return from Dead Rising 3, but they, too, are underdeveloped. In Dead Rising 3, clearing out safe-houses was a good idea, as they served as readily available save points as well as places to change-out unlocked weapons and outfits. Dead Rising 4's incredibly forgiving checkpoints and autosaves removes the necessity to visit the new safehouses. Their only real use is relegated to their vendors, who sell items such as maps, weapons, and vehicles. Unfortunately, the amount of scrap (the currency in DR4) needed for combo weapons and vehicles is prohibitively high. Paying a third of your scrap for a weapon that soon breaks will likely cause you to forgo this feature entirely and craft items yourself.
A new feature to Dead Rising 4 is the exo-suits that Frank can equip around the world map. Upon stepping into one of these suits, players are, for a limited time, given substantially increased strength and damage resistance. Certain items can only be picked up when wearing the exo-suit, as they'd be too heavy for Frank to hold without it. Though they're a decent gameplay element, the exo-suits add little to the overall experience and come off as a 'me-too' afterthought in a gaming landscape littered with suit-enhanced soldiers.
This entry tweaks the leveling up system, providing the player with 100 levels to attain, rather than the 50 levels of previous entries. While leveling-up happens frequently enough, the problem is that most perks are too repetitive. For example, melee weapons are divided into multiple categories, such as blade, close combat, and blunt, and the first skill unlocked for any category is a mere increase of critical hits. Compare that to previous games, where there were fewer perks per category, but the perks provided more advantages. In this sense, DR4 allows for more levels, but it cheapens the satisfaction that leveling-up provides, thus defeating the point. Similarly, the inventory system has been reworked in a way that removes a significant amount of strategy. Rather than having to juggle a limited inventory space where health and weapons equally take up space, the player is given at the very start four melee, four thrown, four ranged, and two health item slots. Unlocking more slots is an option, but an entirely unnecessary one. Previous Dead Rising entries forced you to decide, for instance, whether you wanted to fill up an inventory space with a health item, and potentially be underprepared on the item front if you encountered a boss. This restriction, in turn, meant that every upgrade to the inventory space helped immensely. Dead Rising 4 neuters the risk-reward strategy that has been a mainstay of the franchise.
Perhaps most disappointing about Dead Rising 4 is the world map. On a positive note, the newly redesigned mall at the center of town is brilliant: it's basically the most well-themed mall you can imagine, with areas based on the Amazon, medieval history, or pirates, for example. These areas are also furnished with an art style and graphics engine that never fail to impress. The problem? The majority of Dead Rising 4 is spent in the town outside of the mall. The town is not visually boring per se, but it isn't unique, not in the least when considering other open-world environments. Capcom struck gold in the mall; it's a shame to see it go to waste.
Besides the single player, there is a multiplayer mode that has its own progression system. Here, up to four players can group together to take on missions. While it's sad to see free roaming co-op get the axe, the multiplayer mode on offer is a decent substitute. Completing an objective triggers loot drops wherein random combo weapons and health will spawn in a location. This feature is a pretty creative way to give the multiplayer its own feel.
Finally, Dead Rising 4 still shines in the gameplay department: killing zombies with wacky weapons is still entertaining. However, running around and killing the same-looking horde in perpetuity is not fun for long. That said, the monotonous horde is visually appealing. The graphics are top-notch: textures are sharp, and the lighting is some of the best I've seen in the industry. This comes at a cost, however, in the form of bugs and crashes. In about eight to ten hours of playtime, the game crashed three times, and I experienced a fairly persistent bug where audio had significant lag. My rig meets the most of the recommended requirements; though it's possible some of these problems were due to my somewhat out-of-date i5 3350k processor. The game did run smoothly on high settings at around 60 fps, these hiccups notwithstanding.
The audio design is another high point for Dead Rising 4, with speakers around the mall playing Christmas jingles, as well as jazzy renditions of famous holiday tunes in the menu screens. The music also ramps up with intense, orchestrated music whenever action gets heavy. The music in these encounters helps create an urgency and tension. Weapons also make satisfying sounds that complement the often-bizarre contraptions to which they are attached.
Dead Rising 4 has a bit of an identity crisis. It neither commits to the open-world aspect enough to be considered exemplary in the genre, nor does it deliver enough of the mainstays of the series to satisfy longtime fans. Unfortunately, Dead Rising 4 marks the low point in the franchise, and while you may get some mindless enjoyment from killing zombie hordes, the fun is dying, not rising.