Capcom is on a huge resurgence recently with the Resident Evil franchise back where it belongs at the top of the Horror genre, but with Dead Rising recently turning 15, it's had me thinking back on how underappreciated Capcoms initial entry in the zombie smashing franchise is. Dead Rising is a game I hold close to my heart, it was a game that I was exposed to at a time when my parents didn’t want me playing games as graphic as this, but fortunately, my brother was currently playing through it and so I would sit and watch him play it all day.
Years later I managed to get my copy after playing the demo religiously and in 2016 Capcom answered my prayers by releasing it on modern consoles and PC. However, you played it, Dead Rising is easily one of the best zombie titles of all time and did what Resident Evil did for the horror genre for the zombie genre.
Visually it is undeniable the game hasn’t aged well with some wonky looking cutscenes and lip-syncing, even during its time of release this was a factor nut to me it adds another level of charm to the game. Where the game still impresses to this day is in the amount and variety of zombies on screen at any one time, it’s truly staggering the amount of undead that Frank can face at any one time, the whole complex is swarmed with the hordes. Admittedly where the game suffers visually is within its character models which are dated even for the period, it's clear that sacrifices had to be made to ensure that its main technical achievement could be pulled off.
On top of the staggering zombie numbers, variety is also impressive with zombies having a mixture of clothing, wounds, and movement patterns on their bodies. Another notable presentation element is the use of TV news channel aesthetics in things like the loading screen, pause menu as well as the use of your pictures in loading screens further cementing the journalistic nature of the protagonist.
On the audio side of things, the voice acting is mostly competent with Frank’s TJ Rotolo being the obvious standout, the voice acting is mostly hampered by the at times very cheesy dialogue. Music in the game is quite good, with each psycho having their own theme song that adds to the experience, as well as the game's fun recurring main them that adds a nice cinematic feel to some of the cutscenes. Also, the closing credits song is the perfect mix of cheese and epic scale that perfectly encapsulates the tone of the game.
The story is something I’ve always found incredibly underrated about Dead Rising, the premise alone is very gripping. You are a freelance Photojournalist named Frank West who has a storied history and knows how to handle himself (He’s covered wars y’know), he is sent into the town of Willamette Colorado to investigate stories of the town being cut off by the military for unknown reasons. What stands out immediately about our protagonist is that he isn’t a clean-cut good guy, he is presented very early on as incredibly selfish and out to further his career, despite this his goal is ultimately honourable regardless of his motivations he wants to get the truth about what is happening to the town to the public.
The opening section of the game flawlessly establishes the overall tone of the game with Frank flying overhead of the town, taking photos of the ongoing carnage. It’s a fantastic sequence that both introduces us to the games photo mechanic and does what all great zombie films do by showing us the chaos taking place below. Highlights of this sequence include watching a man feebly attempt to fight off a group of zombies on top of a car with a bat, as well as a massive gas station explosion and an unfortunate woman falling to her death, it’s an intense introduction that also establishes Frank’s selfish nature as no attempt is made to help any of these people.
After this section, you arrive at the game’s main location the Willamette Parkview Mall, where you are tasked with spending the next 72 hours uncovering the mystery of the zombie outbreak. Throughout the game you are following a trail of breadcrumbs, waiting for new clues to appear, meeting different persons of interest that will give you just a little bit more information. The revelations the game throws at you as the story develops at first seem a little campy due to some occasionally silly dialogue and voice acting, but this just adds to the charm and narrative overall is one that is unique to the genre certainly at the time of its original release at least.
As the game goes on Frank becomes less single-minded becoming more concerned about getting the truth not because it will benefit him but because it may save lives in the future and help those around him. He becomes closer to his fellow survivors and looks out for them but he also never loses his sarcastic wit and humour all of which is delivered perfectly by TJ Rotolo, who after this game has become an icon in his own right to fans of the game (so much so that his replacement years later caused a huge uproar).
Frank works as a character because whilst he is not a complete everyman, he is very believable and despite his initial questionable motives and methods, you want the truth just as badly as he does. The story that plays out is classic Capcom feeling very Resident Evil in nature with conspiracies and corporations at the centre of the story and much like the film the game is inspired by (Dawn of the Dead, 1978) it also has a message surrounding overconsumption. The game also features multiple endings and an endgame mode available to those who achieve the best ending. Overall the story wraps in a mostly satisfying if somewhat sudden ending that was initially jarring at the time of its release but subsequent sequels answered the questions that were left at the end of this game.
A kid in a toy store
Where Dead Rising shines most and has yet to topped in is its weapon variety, being in a mall Frank can pick up almost anything and use it as a weapon be it a guitar, bowling ball, or even a coat hanger. The more creative you get the more you’ll be rewarded with gross and squishy kills one notable one being a showerhead that causes blood to power from the head once you stick it in a zombie, it is this kind of creativity that constantly keeps the game exciting.
However, it can often be tempting to stick to the workhorse weapons like 2*4s, Baseball bats and knives, due to their multiple uses as all weapons break from continued use. Guns are also an option however they have limited ammunition and unless you unlock the gun store, you’ll be limited to pistols and several hidden uzi’s scattered around the mall.
It's this variety in the weapons and their uses that make the early game almost experimental as you try to figure out what weapons should occupy your precious inventory slots. What I’ve always loved about Dead Rising 1’s combat is its ramshackle nature being surrounded by a crowd of zombies or being attacked by human enemies, it forces you to scramble for the nearest object and use it to fight off your attackers sometimes leading to hilarious results.
But it's not just weapons you can find scattered around the vast mall, the game also offers fun customization options in the form of wearable clothing scattered around the mall, allowing you to dress Frank however you want these clothes will then show up in cutscenes adding some levity to certain darker moments. You can also find several vehicles around the mall which allow you to both get around the mall faster and bolster that kill count, they come in the forms of cars, vans motorbikes, or even bicycles and skateboards, its hidden elements that the game never tells you about that add so much charm.
Another staple of the franchise is the RPG style levelling up which rewards you with experience points for creative kills, photos, the completion of missions, and reaching kill milestones. Each time you reach a new level you are rewarded with new skills, increased inventory, increases health or even a new skill move such as being able to walk on zombie's heads.
Additionally, you can develop franks skills through the use of his camera, this allows you to take photos of pivotal moments or kills that gives you experience points based on several different categories. This mechanic is certainly enjoyable but is not crucial to progression outside of a few side missions, one of which puts Frank against someone who shares his profession to a deadly degree. The mechanic definitely adds some nice depth to the gameplay but I can see some players completely overlooking it.
The game’s progression is great fun and adds a good level of replay ability allowing you to start again at any time with your level and skills intact, which helps to handle missions better the next go around. The game also has several fun endgame unlocks such as the mega man buster or lightsabre, which to unlock you’ll need to kill an insane number of zombies.
Alongside solving the mystery of the Willamette outbreak you’ll also be tasked with saving survivors who like you are trapped in the mall. Survivors will appear as both side quests offered by a survivor on the radio and at certain times in the mall, each survivor will have different requirements to rescue them. These requirements can include things like an injured woman needing to be carried because she can’t walk properly or a character asking for a gun to shoot himself with but if you are patient, you can talk him down and he will come to his senses and travel with you. Figuring out these needs from survivors adds a level of depth to what is essentially an escort mission repeated over and over again.
These escort missions undoubtedly will cause a great deal of frustration as NPCs will often get stuck or run in the wrong direction, this is something that whilst frustration also unintentionally adds tension to the gameplay. In true zombie movie fashion, if a survivor falls to the horde, they receive a suitably gory death and, in some cases, even come back from the dead.
Not everyone wants to be saved
Another element of this franchise that was introduced here and is still Its best iteration is the psychopath’s mechanic, these are people who have survived the initial outbreak of zombies but for one reason or another have become hostile. Each of these characters is presented with unique cutscenes and backstories, there is an element of tragedy to most of these characters as well humanising them, for example, one psychopath is a Vietnam vet with PTSD who has regressed into his military ways after being unable to protect his family.
Psychopaths present some of the greatest challenges in the game, with their boss battles having unique attack patterns and weapons, each fight requires the player to quickly learn how to manage the enemies’ attacks to overcome them. Defeating these enemies may reward players with a special weapon, a survivor escort mission, access to new resources like the gun store, or even a shortcut to expedite your travel around the mall. Defeating these psychopaths also gives us a little more insight into Frank, we see him go from initially disgusted at the idea of killing a person with some of the earlier psychopaths to more confident and quippy as he takes on more vicious killers, this was carried over into the game’s sequels.
The most controversial aspect of Dead rising is its brutal saving and time management mechanics, the game is running on a constantly ticking clock where every mission has a set amount of time for it to be completed, this goes even for main missions. If you miss the deadline to complete a story mission you will lose the story for that playthrough, but the game will let you continue saving survivors and allowing you to see a different ending where the main story is lost.
This element of time management can be incredibly stressful but also incredibly rewarding, there is a level of accomplishment to successfully managing time well to rescue as many survivors as possible whilst still completing the games main quest.
Failing these main quests adds a great deal of replay ability, forcing you to delegate your time well to ensure you see all the game has to offer. Saving is also very punishing with you only having set locations to save your game within, and upon death being forced to return to those previous saves this can again be frustrating, but it also forces you to learn the game better to be prepared for your next attempt, there is almost a rogue-lite experience to the first few hours of the game that I appreciate.
Overall Dead Rising is by no means a perfect game (none are), but it is the best at what it sets out to do, and that gives players a sandbox to tackle however they see fit. It’s the experimentation with the weapons and items available to the player and the freedom that the game world offers, that makes Dead Rising so unique. If you choose to follow the story, you’ll find one that is classic Capcom, with an interesting set of characters and a conspiracy-laden grand plot. Once you complete the campaign (successfully) there is some great endgame content including the challenge infinite mode which tasks you with surviving the mall as long as possible with no saving and a constantly draining health bar.
Right now, is the perfect time to give this old classic a revisit and see why the first entry in this legendary franchise is still its strongest.
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