Dead Rising 4 – Frank’s Big Package review: improved and expanded, but Frank West still has an identity crisis

By Alex Donaldson, Tuesday, 5 December 2017 11:50 GMT

The same shit happens to the same guy twice. At Christmas. It’s decent, but not a patch on the original. Sound familiar?

When Dead Rising 4 was originally announced as an Xbox One exclusive back at E3 2016, I was pumped. It was a great trailer, and the Christmas theme felt like a perfect fit for the macabre, conspiracy theory antics of the Dead Rising series. It all seemed like a perfect match – and the promise that Frank West was back left me pretty much instantly excited. As you all no doubt know, that excitement was pretty quickly tested.

Frank was back, but in what form? At what cost? He looks different, he sounds different. From an outside perspective it looked suspiciously like Frank’s excellently goofy eighties Dan Aykroyd vibe had been focus-grouped into submission. Where before he was the straight but quirky guy in a mad world, he’s now in on the joke, all quips, nudges and winks.

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The more that was revealed about the game, the more worried I became. Soon the same thing that’d happened to Frank began to emerge around other areas of the game. The timer was gone, with it removed a great deal of pressure and strategy for the player to work through. A forage around the world reveals that there really isn’t the same depth of detail to what can be picked up and used in the fight against zombies. In the original Dead Rising you could pick up what felt like anything, even useless items like stacks of CDs or crockery. Now only items immediately useful in the also-streamlined combo weapon system can be snatched off store shelves. Survivors now don’t have to be escorted, merely rescued.

“Dead Rising 4 is a well-made video game, and plenty of people will enjoy it – but I can’t help feel apathetic about its positives considering it has strayed so far from what made Dead Rising so unique.”

Alarm bells were everywhere, and so I went into the final release with gritted teeth. The truth is less harsh than the outside picture: Dead Rising 4 is a well-made video game, and plenty of people will enjoy it – but I can’t help feel apathetic about its positives considering it has strayed so far from what made Dead Rising so unique.

“We’re going back to the roots,” was the battle cry of Capcom Producers as they lined up for pre-launch interviews. Except, you know, they weren’t. I’m still not sure if that was a lie or if what made Dead Rising great was so fundamentally misunderstood that they really believe it. Dead Rising 4 feels like a series mid identity-crisis, simultaneously reaching back to its heyday while desperately streamlining in search of wider appeal. Neither quite works out.

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Many of the decisions here are good ones in isolation, for what it’s worth. The new weapon equipping system is clever – rather than one great big line of weapons as an inventory stuff you pick up is split into four categories: thrown, melee, firearms and health-replenishing. Each of these is assigned a direction on the D-Pad, so pressing up on the D-pad will cycle between your different melee weapons. Hitting down will use a health item.

Each category has its own distinct number of inventory slots that can be upgraded as Frank levels up and each type of weapon is assigned to a particular button for use. The end result of this system is remarkably slick: you can switch between different weapon types far more easily than scrolling left and right through one clunky long menu. For switching between types it’s a mid-combat button press while for switching weapon within a type it’s a tap of a d-pad direction or a quick hop to a radial menu by holding that same button. It works.

I also really like how weapon combining has been simplified. If you’ve got the ingredients to hand it’s just a matter of hopping into the radial menu. One early game upgrade makes it better still, making it so you can combine the item currently in your hand with another that’s in front of you on the floor. It’s quick, it’s easy – I like it a lot.

All of this would be a welcome addition atop the formula of Dead Rising and its sequel (the third game was decent, but that apple arguably also fell to far from the tree). The current console generation’s horsepower is leveraged well to ensure there’s always a sea of zombies on-screen, and though even this later release of the game is occasionally plagued with the sort of jankiness in performance that players of open world titles will be well accustomed to, all of this is few and far between enough to say that on all platforms Dead Rising 4 is an impressive thing. The vision of Wilamette as a town rather than just a mall is wonderful, too, satisfying those ‘I wonder what it’s like’ questions series fans have been left considering since the first game’s helicopter flight introduction.

In other ways this fan service driven return to Wilamette causes problems, though. The narrative feels as though it’s constantly straining to remind you of the first game and Frank, but everything is too different to really resonate. I think the voice-over change is a mistake (and one wonders if Capcom agrees considering Frank’s original voice reappeared in Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite this year), but the new performance is fine. The biggest issue is with the writing itself.

As mentioned earlier, Dead Rising 4 Frank is a weird little caricature of his old self. He quips his way through the game and is weirdly callous. At one point an NPC begs him to save a friend’s life. Frank’s response is abnormally cool – he doesn’t care about lives, he only saves them by accident. He rolls through the game being an asshole to pretty much everyone, and while he is occasionally funny he’s just not very likable, a stark contrast to the original version and even the down-and-out alternate universe version from Dead Rising 2: Off The Record. Frank was always a goofy, funny guy, but he’s a different kind of that here. Why bring Frank back if the intent is to turn him into something so different? In a weird kicker this new PS4 edition and patched version offers a ‘Classic Frank West’ costume, but the point stands.

The same is true of Wilamette itself. The first chapter places you in an enormous megaplex of a mall that was built to memorialize those who died during the events of the first game. It’s gorgeous and well-designed, and in a lovely touch some of the mall music you’ll overhear is ripped from the malls of the first two games. But then the game kicks you out into the city proper. The city is an impressive, sprawling map one can’t help but feel like some of the point has been missed: as with Dead Rising 3 the game area is too big, the story not claustrophobic enough.

“The idea is to give players the freedom to do what they want, but in doing so a lot of the sense of claustrophobic urgency the series has had is eliminated. Suddenly, it’s a Musou game with zombies.”

These large spaces give way for you to do things like drive a cop car through a huge hoard of zombies, but in its use of the zombie masses I can’t help but feel like Dead Rising 4 continues 3’s mistake – in the first few games the zombies were an obstacle, an annoyance you’d navigate while completing or on your way to other challenges. Here the zombies feel the focus; the game always wants you to focus down on slaying them. This is fun and just as Capcom’s producers claim absolutely was a staple of the earlier games, but I feel at its best the Dead Rising series has used killing zombies as a means rather than an end. Even running back and forth in the car park was done in service of an achievement.

This is, I think, what the removal of the series’ famed timer mechanic is really about: the idea is to give players the freedom to do what they want in the impressive world and allow them to spend time just slaughtering the undead, but in doing so a lot of the sense of claustrophobic urgency the series has had is eliminated. Suddenly, it’s a Musou/Warriors game with zombies, in a sense – just in an awesome sprawling open world.

For all these complaints, however, there’s a lot to love about Dead Rising 4. It seems there are less combo weapons but those featured are more unique. The Christmas setting is perfect, with this one of the best executions of a seasonal video game setting I’ve ever seen, even if quips about how Black Friday looks like a zombie apocalypse feel a little on-the-nose. The story intrigues, and every time it gets a little melodramatically silly and serious my interest is pricked further. Use of classic Dead Rising music beats around the story certainly helps my inner fanboy there, too.

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The level-up system is a little too generous and helps to make the game a little too easy, but the core mechanics are all well-executed. There’s photography, saving and leveling up multiple safe haven shelters for survivors, new and more threatening types of zombies and the exo-suits – all work well. The latter is a mechanic I dreaded from the preview phase, but they’re fun to use and a half decent attempt is made to justify their existence in the world.

Some changes are a hard swing and a miss even if you don’t care about the earlier Dead Rising games. Survivors have little personality now, a shame, but the bigger loss is the psychopaths. Now called maniacs, they feel far more generic thanks to the lack of story built around them as you encounter them. These have been improved significantly in this new release, but they still feel largely meaningless. Maniacs often now drop unique weapons for you, but this doesn’t replace the memorable aspects of the psychopaths.

This new release adds a bunch of stuff, but none of it is really significant enough to sway my original opinion on the game. The new maniacs aren’t improved enough and the distress calls offer a glimmer of more in-depth survivor rescuing – but after a few missions it’s back to the drudgery the original release featured. The new Capcom Heroes content is a great silly addition that lets Frank dress up as classic Capcom characters from Street Fighter, Mega Man, Ghost Trick, Devil May Cry and the like, but these are distractions and by no means a fix for Dead Rising 4’s deeper problems. Capcom deserves props for bringing this content to the PC and Xbox One versions of the game as well.

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“Its use of Christmas as a backdrop to a non-Christmas story is excellent too – there’s strong Die Hard vibes here.”

If I divorce myself from the expectations I have of what this series should be, Dead Rising 4 is a solid but flawed game that’s perhaps hurt most of all by its desire to be open world. Even now with some of its open world jank patched its sprawling map would benefit from more focus, but there’s also a lot of fun to be had here wailing on zombies, plus an intriguing main storyline and some smart mechanical changes. Its use of Christmas as a backdrop to a non-Christmas story is excellent too – there’s strong Die Hard vibes here. At its best Dead Rising 4 is a great time-killer, a casual game where you can smash some zombies while jaunty Christmas tunes blast out of store sound systems. When you let go and treat it as a casual sandbox, it’s good fun.

Coming at it from the perspective of a Dead Rising fan, however, my expectations compound that verdict: I feel like the tone of Frank, the bland survivors and the weak antagonists leave one missing some of what made the juxtaposition of the mundane and the insane so satisfying in earlier entries. I miss the timer too, but times change and I realize it wasn’t for everyone. Unlike the timer choice the tone and structural decisions feel like more a misstep than a difficult decision, however.

It feels like Capcom couldn’t quite decide what it wanted Dead Rising 4 to be. Should it be a return to roots and the style of the first game, as the use of Frank and Wilamette suggests? Should it be a Saint’s Row style casual sandbox fun, gleefully nuts without much restraint, as the design and combat is? Should it be something new, a new vision for the series? Dead Rising 4 tries to be all three, and while it’s by no means a bad game little about it stands out as a result.

Tested on PlayStation 4. This review adapted, updated and expanded from the Xbox One review which ran in December 2016.

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