Going into E3, I listed Dead Rising 3 as the game I most wanted to see announced. But now that it's been announced, I find myself more concerned than excited for it. And it's not just because getting any facts about the game in reality couldn't help but constrain the limitless possibility of the Dead Rising 3 in my imagination (although I admit, there's likely a bit of that at play).
I'm a bit turned off by what I've seen of Dead Rising 3 because I think the developers and I disagree on what it means to be a Dead Rising game. So here are a few things I see as essential to the series, along with the reasons I have to be a bit worried about Dead Rising 3.
(NOTE: Dead Rising 1 and 2 SPOILERS FOLLOW).
Dead Rising has something to say
One of the most interesting aspects of the original Dead Rising is that it was developed by a Japanese team to appeal to Western gamers, but the game itself is deeply critical of American culture. According to the backstory, the zombies are the accidental result of a US government experiment to mass produce enough cattle to meet America's out-of-control consumption demands. When the experiment goes haywire and creates zombies instead of strip steaks, the government contains the outbreak and covers it up by wiping the South American town where they'd been doing the experiments from the map. That disregard for non-American life spurs a survivor of the town to turn terrorist, unleashing the zombie plague within US borders and sets the stage for the game's Willamette, Colorado outbreak.
Like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, the bulk of Dead Rising takes place in a mall, the home of American capitalism. And the population of this stand-in for the USA is an assortment of potential victims and profoundly disturbed killers, many of whom are caricatures taking one aspect of American culture to an extreme. There's the family of gun nuts using the apocalypse as an excuse to exercise their Second Amendment rights on anything that moves, the man who trusts his neighbors so little that he would rather kill them than risk helping them, and the grocery clerk whose life is so dedicated to the job that minding the store is his priority even in the midst of an undead apocalypse.
Even the game's protagonist is an example of greed trumping compassion. Photojournalist Frank West dropped into a zombie outbreak not to help people but to take pictures of the carnage and win a Pulitzer prize. The game incorporates this into the action by letting players take pictures for experience points, with bonuses given for close-ups, action shots, and generally just capturing the insanity in glorious detail. The mechanic conditions players to take pictures first when they come across survivors under attack, and then get to the business of helping them. It's a process of optimization that tests to see how players weigh the lives of their fellow survivors against their own desires to level up, making Frank more powerful and unlocking new offensive techniques. It's a more subtle way to spark reflection on the player's part than you might find in something like Spec Ops: The Line, but those who pick up on it might feel the same shameful realization of what they've been doing without a second thought.
Dead Rising 2 (also developed by Capcom Vancouver, the studio behind Dead Rising 3) preserved the social commentary, though it had a bit less bite than the original. The game's equivalent of the Umbrella Corporation, Phenotrans, is a clear shot at the pharmaceutical industry. It's a giant corporation in the business of treating zombie infections rather than curing them, so when its bottom lines start to erode, it coordinates another zombie outbreak--this time in a Las Vegas-like tourism center--to scare up some more demand for its slyly named Zombrex suppressant drug. Beyond that, the game pokes fun at casinos (turns out they look pretty much the same whether the people numbly shambling between the rows of slot machines are actually dead or simply dead inside), reality TV competitions (the Terror is Reality game show has players slaughtering zombies for points), and angry protesters (a group of liberals getting eaten by the zombies they were trying to help is played for laughs). There is less of a focus to the commentary here, but it is certainly present.
The best zombie stories tend to have over-the-top social commentary and over-the-top violence in equal amounts. You can bet Dead Rising 3 will bring the gore, but the commentary is a question mark. The generic California setting of Los Perdidos isn't quite as obvious a metaphor as Dead Rising's typical suburban US mall or the Las Vegas-esque environment of Dead Rising 2.
Dead Rising isn't afraid to alienate players
Capcom Vancouver's developers ran into a bit of criticism recently when they said they were going after the Call of Duty player with Dead Rising 3. Combined with the serious tone and gritty look of the game's E3 trailer, that put a lot of fans on edge. It also concerned me, but not because I was worried about them sucking the humor out of the game. It bothers me because it means they're looking to replicate Call of Duty's broad appeal, its dogged pursuit of a purely enjoyable game experience, of never giving players a reason to put the controller down and walk away.
That might be fine for some games, but Dead Rising's willingness to risk dissatisfaction is its differentiating factor in the AAA market. Dead Rising and its sequel did things that were right for the game, even if they were sore spots for players.
The most prominent example of this is the game's clock system. In the first two games, time passes at a consistent rate, and story events and side quests can only be completed by being at the right place within the right span of time. The result is that players need to prioritize their actions, and they need to be OK with not saving everyone. The first game communicates this right off the bat. When Frank arrives, the mall is a safe place, with a number of survivors barricaded inside. After chatting with them a bit and getting to understand what their various motivations might be, the zombies break in. Before the player has a chance to do anything, the screen flashes prompts amidst the chaos: "ALAN PETERSON IS DEAD! TODD MENDELL IS DEAD! BRIAN REYNOLDS IS DEAD!" This is a zombie story. People will die. People with actual names. You will not be able to save them all.
That knowledge makes the player's choices so much more significant than being good or being bad. When the game gives you five minutes to get across the mall to trigger the next story event, you have to decide whether that's enough time to save three different survivors in three different positions across the map and deliver them back to the safe room before progressing. Or maybe you save them all then bring them along into the story critical boss fight and risk their lives in the process. Then again, you could deal with the boss ASAP while you still have full health and plenty of weapons, then hope to make it back in time to save the survivors. These are tough choices to make because they have consequences. Not morality system consequences, where Frank West grows a halo for saving everyone and demon horns for kicking puppies, but choices where you're constantly evaluating not whether to compromise, but how much of a comprise you're willing to make.
And just as important as those choices is the fact that the game supports them. If you don't like the time restrictions, you're free to ignore them and just spend your time in the games seeing the sights and killing zombies. In Dead Rising, you can safely chill on the helipad for three days and wait for your helicopter to pick you up. In Dead Rising 2, you can decide that getting your daughter the Zombrex she needs to control her infection is just too much of a hassle. She'll die, but whatever. You can keep going doing what you do. If you choose not to be a hero, both games are fine with it. You won't get the most satisfying ending, but you can make your choices and the games allow you to see them through.
But these approaches don't fit in the current AAA model. In AAA games, players should be able to impose their will on a game completely the first time through. Hurdles need to be lowered, whether it's a difficult boss fight or a design that makes completionists really work to soothe their compulsive need to do everything and save everyone. And as for choices, games should not only allow players to make them, they should make those choices equal, with explicit rewards of comparable value no matter what path the player takes. Players being a megajerk must unlock the megajerk powers and get the cool megajerk ending with plot twists and payoffs just as awesome as what the good guys get.
Dead Rising 1 and 2 don't do that. These games understand that choices are only important because their consequences are not equal, and they go to great lengths to offer meaningful narrative interaction through their gameplay.
The developers of Dead Rising 3 have said they are making the clock system an optional hardcore mode in the game, which suggests that players won't have to make any of those frustrating choices, what with their icky consequences and all.
Zombies aren't the real enemy
Here's another key tenet borrowed from a lot of other zombie stories. In Dead Rising 1 and 2, the zombies quickly become more of a nuisance than an adversary. After the first couple hours, they're more like a pathfinding minigame than enemies to beat up. Like a running back carrying the ball upfield, you survey a horde of bodies moving in different trajectories at different speeds, and you plot out a course through the crowd, minimizing contact and maximizing open space when possible. If you're spending all your time fighting the zombies, you're probably doing it wrong.
As a result, the real enemies are the clock (as discussed above) and the other humans. A zombie apocalypse puts a lot of stress on a person, and makes them behave in unpredictable ways. Some people may strip down to their boxers and don a toy Servbot mask before wading out into a field of zombies armed with a tricycle and a super soaker. (We'll call them protagonists.) Others just kill people. (They're the psychopaths.)
The human bosses may be the weakest link of the series gameplay-wise, but they've been a high point in the narrative. Instead of just another hulking zombie with a chainsaw like Resident Evil or House of the Dead might throw at you, Dead Rising casts delightfully broken human beings as the bosses. The zombie bosses in most games come from the Todd McFarlane school of generic baddie design, but Dead Rising's malicious misfits give the series its distinctively warped personality. A Dead Rising game without the psychopaths would be like Batman without the Joker.
I imagine the psychopaths will still be present in Dead Rising 3, but Capcom Vancouver has said it wants the zombies to be the player's biggest threat this time around. So they've removed the pressures of the clock system, and are apparently downplaying the psychopaths.
I can't condemn Dead Rising 3 just yet because all we know about it is the messaging of its marketing campaign. But marketing campaigns are meant to flare interest, not douse it. Even if this happens to be one of those rare campaigns that accurately captures the essence of the final product, Dead Rising 3 could still be a great game. I just don't expect it to be a great Dead Rising game.
Dead Rising 3 is set for release this holiday season exclusively on Xbox One.