The original Xbox 360-exclusive Dead Rising was a very peculiar game. Its most hyped feature was the ability to weaponize most of the objects located in its shopping mall environment. Guitars, televisions, stuffed bears, water guns, and even park benches could be used to bash zombie brains in. Obviously, some items made for more effective weapons than others, but being able to put a silly hat on a zombie and then run him over with a lawnmower was pretty great. The game was a big hit back in the early days of the 360, showing off the machine’s graphical power with hundreds of enemies on screen at once, but it still had some glaring faults. There were strict time limits to rescuing survivors from the mall and completing story missions. You could only save your progress in a few restrooms scattered throughout the mall, and the single save slot meant that if you saved in a bad spot, you’d be forced to restart the game with your current status to finish the story. And while the animations were great, the controls felt cumbersome and made navigating the thick crowds of zombies a chore. Nonetheless, Dead Rising sold well enough that a sequel was inevitable. But instead of tackling the criticisms of the first, Dead Rising 2 seemingly accepts its predecessor’s faults while improving on all of its better points, making for a game that can only appeal to fans of the first, while bewildering everyone else.
The introduction to DR2 is ludicrous and silly, setting the tone for the rest of the game perfectly. You play as ex-Motocross star Chuck Greene, competing on a zombie-killing game show in Vegas-clone ?Fortune City? in order to pay for your infected daughter’s expensive anti-zombification drug, which she needs daily. Zombies are an accepted part of life now, three years following the initial outbreak of the first game. Too bad no one has figured out that keeping lots of zombies in one place behind a thin fence is a bad idea, because they get loose and turn the glitzy city into a sandbox of shuffling undead. Chuck gets framed for setting the ghouls free, and must leave his daughter in the safe house while he ventures out into the city to find her Zombrex, rescue survivors, defeat psychopaths and gather evidence to clear his name.
While it may sound like a lot to handle, learning to juggle these activities while keeping the swarms of undead from overwhelming you makes up the core of Dead Rising 2’s gameplay. Thankfully, Fortune City is really just one giant shopping mall with a few casinos and a hotel, making it a nearly identical setting to Dead Rising. Most of the game’s missions are entirely optional, but will level you up much faster than just mindlessly slaughtering zombies. Gaining levels is crucial, as each level will add to Chuck’s speed, damage, inventory, or Combo Card collection. Inventory space is frustratingly limited at first, making you choose carefully between health-restoring food or weapons. It also limits your ability to use the most interesting feature of the game, the weapon combo system, which replaces the last game’s photography. You can still use anything you find in the environment as a weapon, but if you bring the right combination of items with wrench icons to one of the many work benches scattered around the city, you can turn them into devastatingly effective tools of destruction with the help of man’s greatest invention: duct tape. A knife and boxing gloves become an almost-illegal version of Wolverine’s signature claws. A water gun and gas can become an effective flamethrower. A sledgehammer and fire axe become… well, a sledgehammer taped to a fire axe, which is way more powerful than you’d expect. All of these weapons grant you more experience per kill than their individual parts, and many also have special attacks that can only be used once you acquire that weapon’s Combo Card from leveling, killing a psycho or gaining inspiration from a movie poster. Figuring out which items will combine and getting to use them to wreak havoc is the best part of Dead Rising 2, but you can get through the story easily using only a few simple-yet-effective weapon combos.
As enjoyable as wanton zombie slaughter can be, the psychopath fights can be a nightmare. Each crazed human you come across will have a pretty simple attack pattern, but they never seem to deviate from it even when you’re wailing on them with blunt objects. Meanwhile, most of their attacks will stun or knock Chuck down, forcing each fight into a trial-and-error endurance test that feels part chance, part manipulating game mechanics in unintended ways. You can arm any survivors that you currently have in tow and hope they distract the psycho, but there’s a good chance they’ll die in the struggle. Saving before any fight is a must, which is made more convenient by the presence of three save slots as opposed to Dead Rising’s one. Expect to load your game often, which compounded with the substantial load times between areas of the mall makes for a slowly paced game. It seems strange to be staring at load screens this often in 2010, and it only adds to the feeling that this game shares a bit too much with its predecessor.
Despite the problems, Dead Rising 2 is a fun and satisfying package overall. Like Grand Theft Auto, there is an unmistakeable charm in it’s absurdity and the ways it parodies American culture. This is a game almost demands several plays through, not only to grind your level up, which carries over, but to build up cash. There are costumes to find and buy, as well as vehicles that help skyrocket your zombie kill count for the sake of achievements. The multiplayer components are thin, consisting of simple zombie-killing arena games that generate cash for your campaign, and online co-op that lets someone else jump into your game and help out without progressing their story at all. Slaying with a buddy can be fun, but both of these modes simply serve to compliment the single-player game. So if constantly escorting survivors with mediocre AI sounds like too much of a turn off, try out the downloadable prequel Dead Rising 2: Case Zero on Xbox Live. It’s a satisfying chunk of the full game with a unique setting and story, and it’s only five bucks. I can’t recommend it enough to newcomers to the franchise. For everyone else, Dead Rising 2 is exactly what you think it is, which is ridiculous and fun, as well as frustrating. It’s a gamble worth taking.