Dead Rising 4 is an odd game, moving away from the series' roots while looking back to the first game in the series. After two other embittered everymen up against hordes of the undead, Capcom Vancouver has returned to Frank West. Instead of a zombie game show in faux-Las Vegas or an outbreak in not-Los Angeles, Dead Rising 4 returns to Willamette, Colorado.
The Blackest of Fridays - Story
The mall was the setting of the first Dead Rising, but here it has been rebuilt and revamped as something closer to the immense Mall of America. On Black Friday, the biggest of sales holidays, folks flocked to the mall's grand opening for the best of deals only to fall to the worst deal of all: zombie outbreak. Dead Rising 4 isn't constrained to the mall though, as it splits its time between the shopping megaplex and the town of Willamette.
Like Dead Rising 3, Capcom Vancouver has spent a lot of time populating the open-world of Dead Rising 4 with a things to find. There are a ton of a weapons, a modest selection of vehicles, and various clothing items to find in the stores and homes of Willamette. You'll come across a horde of zombies, but there are also the soldiers from the secret organization Obscuris, other hostile humans, and survivors.
There are secrets hidden away: find a key in one spot, and it'll open a treasure trove or panic room in another (everyone has zombie panic rooms in Willamette now). Use your camera to find hidden hand prints and safe codes. There's cell phones and newspapers detailing life in Willamette in the early stages of the outbreak, or recordings from one of Frank's students detailing her whereabouts in the city.
The latter is Frank's motivation for returning to Zombietown, USA. The opening of the game shows Frank West as a retired Professor of journalism. He fought his zombies and covered his wars; he's out. One of his students, Vicky Chu, draws Frank into the shadowy dealings of a secret group experimenting on zombies and in the course of showing her the ropes, Frank West becomes public enemy number one.
The story jumps forward a few months and Frank is hiding - as wedding photography teacher Hank East - from the Feds. ZDC operative Brad Park draws Frank back in with a living carrot: young activist journalist Vicky is in Willamette trying to get the story of a lifetime. It's up to Frank to get in there, figure out what's up, find Vicky, and kill some zombies.
Dead Rising has always had this tension between what you can do in the game itself and the overall story it's trying to tell. Dead Rising 2 leaned into the gameplay a bit, but otherwise, they're these wacky games that try to tell their stories in a straight-faced manner. Frank West and Nick Ramos just wanted to survive and Chuck Greene wanted to save his daughter.
The overall story is still serious, but it's punctuated by moments of dark humor. West is painted as an old timer and a bit of a screw-up. There's an early scene where he tries to escape from Park by throwing a chair at a window, only to have the chair harmlessly bounce off. ("I though that would work.") West is full of an endless bravado that's not actually backed up by his abilities. It's an interesting balancing line for the game's overall story and one that actually works out pretty well. Not as over-the-top as the current Ash vs. Evil Dead television series, but in the same wheelhouse.
A Reason For The Season - Gameplay
Mechanically, Dead Rising used to be all about the timer. Frank West had 72 hours in which he had to figure out what was going on, save some people, and get out of dodge. The looming timer lent a sense of urgency to every action in the game. You couldn't save every survivor and many would die on the way back to the safe area. Dead Rising ended up requiring players to plan a bit. You had to play through multiple times and Frank himself was rather weak in early playthroughs. Dead Rising 2 carried that forward with two timers, the overall 72 hour one and the 24 hour periods where you needed to give Chuck's daughter her Zombrex cure.
Capcom's problem was the average player wanted to run around in wacky costumes with weird weapons and kill zombies. The timers were antithetical to that style of play. Players were always asking for a free-roam mode so they could just mess around and explore. Dead Rising 3 had a lengthy 7 in-game days to complete the entire game, making it almost like there was no timer at all. That game did have the optional Nightmare Mode, which brought the timer more in line with previous games.
In Dead Rising 4, the timer is simply gone. There's no Nightmare Mode. This is a free-roam zombie murder game, where you find cool costumes and weapons. You can murder to your heart's content. The game does provide some small impetus for you to do better via a rating system at the end of each Case File, but that's it. (Read: Story Chapter, of which there are seven.)
Dead Rising 4 wants you to have fun smashing zombies and it's overwhelmingly tuned in that direction. Most of the time, zombies aren't really a threat; they're more of a pest to be managed and cleaned up. There are tougher foes - hostile humans, powered-suit soldiers, the elaborate Maniacs, the fast-moving Fresh zombies, and the intelligent crafty Evo zombies - but for the most part, life is good for Frank West. You can hold two health items in the beginning of the game and they're everywhere. I barely died in the game, outside of specific situations.
Crafting, leveling through Prestige Points, and perks return from Dead Rising 3 largely intact, but the weapon system has been tuned more towards fun as well. In previous games, you could have multiple weapons in your inventory, but you could only have one out at a time. In Dead Rising 3, you always have a melee, ranged, and thrown weapon available, each on different buttons. While you had to tap a button or go into your weapon wheel to switch between melee and ranged before, now you can do it on the fly. It makes the arsenal you have at your fingertips even bigger and it's easier to survive now that you can be slamming a horde of zombies with a hammer, shoot a gas can to clear a crowd, and then throw a molotov.
Since Frank is back in the driver's seat, photography also makes a return. You can take pictures at anytime for a quick influx of PP and Capcom Vancouver also added a selfie mode if you want to include Frank's mug in your pictures. The camera factors into investigation as well. Like Batman: Arkham Knight, these are specific areas where you'll use your camera to scan for clues before you can move forward. There's also the night vision mode for dark areas and the spectrum analyzer for finding the aforementioned hand prints and whatnot.
At every point, it feels like Capcom Vancouver is saying to the player, "We know what you really want to do with Dead Rising games. Go kills hordes of zombies while dressed as Haggar." Survivors don't have to be brought back to a safe area. Once you save them from a zombie horde, they'll get back on their own. The Exo-Suit can be found here and there around town, turning you in a zombie-smashing Hulk for two minutes.
There's a transient feeling to much of Dead Rising 4. You can find weapons or make your own by combining different items together, but they'll all break eventually. There's no way to repair a weapon either, so if your favorite axe breaks, you'll just have to hope you run across the materials to make a new one. It pushes you towards flexbility. Likewise, vehicles and combo vehicles only have a certain amount of durability and you'll wear that down running over zombies. Even the Exo-Suit is temporary at best.
All that really remains are your perks and your outfits. You'll level pretty quickly, unlocking new perks. With perks and the huge number of costume items you can find, customizing your Frank West is the lasting change you'll make. Your Frank, in whatever weird costume you've chosen, will move forward, mowing down zombies until his weapon breaks, at which point he'll switch to another one. And cycle begins anew.
Let It Go - The Verdict
You'll be disappointed is if you look towards Dead Rising 4 expecting the same tension found in Dead Rising 1 & 2. That game is gone and I don't necessarily know how I feel about that. What Dead Rising was, for all it faults, was a tense game that pushed you to use the tools you had at your disposal in the most efficient way possible. Dead Rising 4 is a game that wants you to make cool weapons, put on the Akuma costume, and explore the sandbox Capcom has made for you. That's not bad, it's just different. If you're looking for the former, Dead Rising 1 & 2 were just re-released.
Dead Rising 4 knows what it is. It's a fun romp through a zombie winter wonderland.
Kicking back and slicing into zombies with my ice sword as Christmas muzak plays? (Yeah, the whole soundtrack is big band Christmas songs punctuated by Jaws-style monster cues when zombies appear.) It feels good, man. Yeah, there's a plot, but we all know why you're actually here. Put on that football helmet, a cashmere sweater, some swim trunks, and a pair of ski boots. Pick up that acid hammer, hoist your exploding Santa statue high, and make sure your fireworks crossbow is loaded. Get out there and kill some zombies.
Since there's no timer, once you picked the game's bones clean, the only replay value is in multiplayer.
Christmas music played via big band, just like your local mall. If you're a mall employee, you know that feel.
Visually on Xbox One, Dead Rising 4 doesn't feel like a huge jump over Dead Rising 3.
Dead Rising 4 continues the idea of mainstream accessibility that started in Dead Rising 3. While the first two games were about watching the timer and making efficient choices, Dead Rising 4 is about killing zombies in silly costumes with cool weapons. If that's what you want, Dead Rising 4 delivers good, gory zombie fun in a Christmas-themed wrapper. If you're looking for something more like the first game, I'd pick up that re-release. If you liked Dead Rising 3, you'll get a kick out of this.