Dead Rising 4 Review
One shuffle forward, two steps back
Dead Rising has been one of the most durable and consistently enjoyable zombie franchises around, and one that has managed to define itself as the de-facto zombie game series over many years. The series has managed to successfully mix combat against large hordes of enemies with an often enjoyable bunch of characters and a whacky, tongue in cheek visual customization system. The series is also known for unique features such as using a variety of everyday objects in the environment as weapons, combining them, and also trying to complete the story before a doomsday clock runs out. There were multiple endings, variety amongst zombie and human enemy behavior, and the franchise generally felt like making strides forward with each iteration. Dead Rising 3, a launch title for Xbox One, continued the legacy of the franchise with many of the same features, while also making tweaks to the core gameplay. With Dead Rising 4, it appears Capcom wanted to reset the franchise a bit. Frank West may be back at the helm, but he’s not quite the same character from the first game, and this fourth chapter is similarly a rather different and underwhelming entry.
Dead Rising 4 marks the return of protagonist Frank West. It has been 16 years since the events of the first game, and Frank is now working as an investigative journalism teacher. After agreeing to go on a road trip with one of his students named Vick, she reveals that they are actually going to Willamette, Colorado. Frank is obviously unhappy to be returning to the setting of the original US zombie outbreak, where he was at the center of it all and broke the story that made him so widely known. But with a bit of convincing and a promise of mini-golf, Frank agrees to just have a quick peek. In the town, the pair discover that a secret military base has been conducting some sort of experiment, once again involving the walking dead. However it turns out that while Frank just wants to get a story and get out, Vick is somewhat overwhelmed by the situation and wants to do right by the people of the town. They are discovered and manage to escape the base, though Vick abandons Frank to fend for himself. The break-in makes the news, and Frank has to change his name and move schools.
Some time passes by, and Frank is found by a member of Zombie Defense and Control (ZDC), a government agency aimed at preventing future outbreaks. We learn that there's been a full-scale outbreak in Willamette once again, and though Frank fiercely refuses to live through another zombie apocalypse, the idea of yet another huge story eggs him onwards, plus he learns that Vick went into the town earlier and has yet to return. Upon arrival, Frank and the ZDC chopper are shut down by the local military group and crash-land inside the Willamette Mall. From here Frank sets out to find Vick and discover the truth behind the outbreak, those responsible for it, as well as a mysterious creature that has been terrorizing even the local military.
As has been typically the case with Dead Rising franchise, the story in this fourth entry isn't really worth following. The narrative is actually rather brief, clocking in at about 7 hours and possibly much less if you simply focus on the main story missions. Very little time is spent exploring the protagonist and setting, which is fine for returning fans but may be a bit lacking for newcomers. Frank himself is pretty much the only redeeming quality in Dead Rising 4's story. His cynical, careless attitude makes him an almost anti-hero, yet he remains relatable - a very tough feat to pull off. He is also genuinely funny, with great comedic timing and some smirk-inducing dialogue. You also meet a few one-dimensional characters, none of whom get a lot of screen time or dialog. It often feels that a few story beats are missing, meant to flesh out these characters - for instance, a character you briefly met once turns out to be crazy and gets in Frank's way later on, only the second time we meet them. Vick's motivations and double-crossing never really pans out, and the rest of the cast are just there for an occasional cutscene. Last, but certainly not least, while the narrative may be harmless and forgettable, the ending absolutely crushes whatever good will the story earns for itself. Newcomers will find it to be a cheap and unwarranted ending, while fans of the franchise should keep a few antidepressants within reach. Perhaps the story will get a different conclusion – but not because of multiple endings, as this is the first game in the franchise that has just the single outcome. Instead, the traditional “overtime” mode that may have more story content as in previous games is coming as paid DLC this time out. So you can look forward to a terrible ending in the base game, and perhaps paying more money to see how things really turn out, later.
Venturing out into the zombie-infested corridors of the mall, players will find groups of undead roaming around. The map in the game somewhat resembles that of Dead Rising 3, though it feels a bit smaller. Basically, the large mall is placed in the center of the map, and surrounding it are a few districts of the town, separated rather artificially by a few connecting highways. It feels like a set of islands more than a complete town, and doesn't feel as expansive as Dead Rising 3. Inside the mall, the zombie populations aren't actually very large and running through is perfectly feasible; outside, the hordes do grow significantly larger and using vehicles or explosive custom weapons to mow them down remains satisfying.
It doesn't feel that the hordes are any larger than those in DR3, and they are actually a bit dumber. Players may recall that zombies in the last game were able to grab on to your car, and also slow you down on foot. Not so in this chapter - seemingly going back to basics, the developers made the zombies as brain-dead as literally possible, so all they will do is stand around or shuffle towards you. You can drive though large crowds and come out unscathed, as zombies no longer try to grab on at all. When walking, swinging your melee weapons around is good enough to always remain relatively free of harassment. On the whole the entire game feels quite easy, because zombies don't do much damage to Frank or your vehicles. There are no difficulty options or a Nightmare-like mode from DR3 in this entry. That's not to say that there aren't moments of slaying hordes of the undead that are gleefully satisfying. Some story missions are well done and let you fight insane zombie hoards with tons of weapons or crazy Exo suit customizations. These moments are exhilarating and pure joy to blast through, but they are too few and far between.
While part of the issue may be the reduced damage to the players and an overabundance of health items, the other problem is the AI. As mentioned, basic zombies don't really do much, but neither do other enemies. There are two new foes - the Fresh and the Evo zombies. They are quick, and their main strategy is to attack and retreat, jumping around the area and generally dodging your attacks. When fighting them on their own, it can be a bit tricky (but only because they move so fast it's difficult to aim, not because they pose a threat to your HP bar). But when you encounter them in a larger group of zombies, they don't really make a difference - you're just swinging/shooting at everything that moves, and they get caught in the blast anyway. Similarly, human enemies will shoot at you, but will get constantly distracted by the zombie hoard. Last but not least, the basic AI also makes boss encounters very easy and quick. Some fights were over in mere moments, without Frank even having to use a health item or getting hit at all. The boss design in general is rather shallow anyway, with many featuring multiple stages - but each stage is the same.
One of the few improvements that Dead Rising 4 does offer is the further streamlining of the weapon crafting mechanics and controls. As has been the franchise tradition, almost all loose items in the environment can be picked up and used as a weapon in a last-ditch effort, but crafting has also been made highly accessible. Crafting customized weapons based on blueprints you've discovered is still straightforward - you just need to find two items. For example, grenades combined with a hammer get you an explosive melee weapon, some liquid nitrogen and paint canisters create ice grenades, and so on. Many of the weapons are Christmas-themed, from explosive wreaths to fireworks-launching crossbows. Players no longer need to wade through menus or visit a crafting table - simply walking up to a helpfully highlighted item that can be used for crafting, and a prompt appears to create a weapon if you have the other half of the formula in your inventory. It makes crafting easy and accessible and you'll find yourself creating more custom weapons than before.
Controls are similarly streamlined, for the better. The D-Pad is now used to swap between your melee, thrown, and ranged weapons. Hitting Up will cycle through your available melee weapons, for example, or if you want to make a specific selection simply hold the button and a weapon wheel will appear. If you have any items that can be combined within your inventory, the weapon wheel will also provide that option. Further, you don't even need to bother with the D-Pad if you don't want to. Simply pressing the melee attack button (X) will make Frank swap to a melee weapon; if you suddenly feel the urge to shoot, pressing L2 or R2 will swap to your ranged weapon and begin firing; you don’t need to choose a weapon manually. One brand new addition is the Exo suit - this limited use robotic suit lets Frank dish out tremendous damage while also using weapons such as big machine guns, flame throwers, and even larger environment items that you normally aren't able to lift.
Another mechanic, which fans may remember from the original, is Frank's camera. At any time you're able to whip out the lens and take a shot, and there's a sort of challenge system where taking pictures of chaos, aftermath of bloody battles, and so on will earn you a rank and some points. Fulfilling various requirements will net you some bonus experience and cash. But the camera is also used during some missions, where you enter an investigation area and photograph specific clues. Having to stop in a room and scour it with the camera view for clues can break the flow of the action. The camera also has an alternate vision mode for things like identifying fingerprints on digital door codes, and a night vision mode when you're in pitch black areas. Mostly though, the camera comes across as a gimmicky addition with some very light gameplay elements and doesn't have a profound effect on the experience either way.
Many of the other elements remain largely the same. You’re still earning Prestige Points (experience) from missions and killing the undead, which levels you up and in turn unlocks skill points. You spend these skill points in one of four skill trees - brawling, shooting, fortitude, and survival (crafting) – which correspondingly improves your health, attack abilities, crafting speed and so on. While the system works well, and some of the early skills are somewhat useful, just like cash you will largely forget about spending your skill points because of the game’s low difficulty. Sure, getting an extra 50HP or increasing chances of critical hits with melee sounds like an improvement, but the gameplay experience changes are so marginal that there’s no particular motivator to upgrade skills as soon as you can.
It wouldn’t be a Dead Rising game without some inherent silliness, and that’s no different here. Players will be able to dress up Frank in a variety of whacky clothing options, from suits of armor to oversized dinosaur masks and tight tanktops. There’s over 70 outfits to collect, so you can look as wild as you want while getting covered in blood during messy horde encounters. You can take selfies of the aftermath with you camera, too. The game does try to offer some structure to the endless chaos via Trials, a series of challenges that prompt players to perform certain feats of combat, exploration, or just taking a photograph with many elements (be it death, drama or horror). Completing the trials nets you scrap, experience and even blueprints.
Although missing from Dead Rising 3, the money system returns for this iteration, with cash called Scrap. The scrap drops from enemies and can also be found throughout the game world inside drawers and so on. You can use this to buy components or complete custom weapons from vendors in safehouses. However, because of the relative ease of the game, it's entirely possible to never need to buy a single item, unless there’s a specific rare item combo you want to mess around with. Health items and weapon components are plentiful in the world, so the only things you may want to buy are clothes, blueprint/collectibles maps, or vehicles. Vehicles can still be combined as in DR3, however because it's still a fairly cumbersome task, you'll probably either buy them outright or not bother at all. Normal cars can plow through the zombies with relative ease and can take plenty of damage, so there is never any need for custom vehicles.
Exploring the game world of Dead Rising 4 is not particularly interesting. Most of the time, you'll be making your way from one location to the next, chatting with characters and doing their deeds as you uncover the mystery and try to find Vick. If you chose to explore, the game isn't exactly filled with side content. There are blueprints to find of course, and all sorts of other collectibles that provide more background into characters and the outbreak. You can also discover safehouses where you can take a break and buy things from vendors. There are a few activities that crop up as you explore - you will run across survivors that need to be saved by clearing zombies around them, and they automatically return to nearest safehouse (if you rescue a few survivors your safehouse levels up and new items become available for purchase). Or you could run across a military installation where a radio beacon must be destroyed, or perhaps looted to find an Exo suit. All of these activities last mere moments, and there's a severe lack of worthwhile side content. Fans may remember the Psychos from the previous games - these unique mini-bosses often came with a series of quests before you were able to have a tough showdown with them. DR4 unfortunately lacks this - you'll instead encounter Maniacs. You go to a Maniac location (simply provided to you), usually get locked-in, fight a total of maybe 8 foes and then a boss with a custom weapon, and it's over in a minute. There's no characterization of these enemies, no individuality, and they are easy to beat.
The franchise staple "countdown timer" has been removed - you're free to stick around Willamette for as long as you want. This decision is a welcome one, as being rushed to complete the campaign by an artificial countdown clock always seemed archaic. However, given how lacking in content and easy Dead Rising 4 is, this removal of the timer doesn’t carry as much impact as it should. After wrapping up the game, you’re able to start over from the beginning or select a specific case, and your upgrades and cash carry over. Unfortunately, the difficulty remains the same, even easier now that Frank has plenty of skills and blueprints to deal with the enemies.
Thematically, Dead Rising 4 is a much more cheery experience than its predecessor. And it’s not just because some great remixes of Christmas songs come on the radio and anytime you’re in the menus, and the entire town and mall looks to be ready for the holiday. As mentioned earlier, Frank’s voice actor does well and has great comedic timing, while the rest of the cast are just okay. The color palette of DR4 is more vibrant and bright than DR3, and it fits the silliness of Frank’s visual customization options better. For the most part, the game runs at a steady framerate, but there are a few problem areas. Texture pop-in does exist, and none of the less important characters or enemies are very detailed. The safehouses all look identical. The vibrant colors vanish from the game as soon as you drop below 50% health, which seems too early, and drains the joy out of the visuals. UI issues occur frequently, with some prompts disappearing; effects and notification windows get stuck on the screen. The stylized menus just don’t look very good, and the game did crash twice.
If you’re looking for a slightly more traditional Dead Rising experience, you may find it in multiplayer. No, not the co-operative campaign, as that has been removed. In its place is a structured series of missions that up to four players can undertake together. Players will embark on any of the four chapters, each spanning two days. During this time limit, you will try to complete a variety of objectives inside the Mall, such as clearing an area or finding items. Completing all objectives in a given day before the time runs out will get you a chance to fight a boss. In multiplayer, the time limit returns, your weapons deteriorate much faster, and zombies deal more damage. You’ll definitely need to adjust your strategy from the campaign and be cautious, but it’s still possible to complete the multiplayer content solo. The leveling process is the same, as you earn PP and unlock skills in the same four trees, plus an additional multiplayer skill tree. In an interesting decision, scrap is actually shared between offline Frank and your online profile. This is good because you’ll actually need to buy things online such as weapons, and utilize skills effectively, in order to survive.
Despite some positives, the multiplayer also contains its share of issues. You have four different characters to choose from (minor characters from the main story), but they all behave the same apart from their starting weapons (which break / run out of ammo quickly anyway). The game tries to inject some personality with banter between characters, but it falls flat. The missions are shallow and repetitive, with little replay value or variety. If you manage to get the missions done and beat the boss, there are random objectives like killing a certain number of zombies with a specific type of weapon – but beyond that, you’re just wasting time for the rest of the in-game day. Your weapon inventory is lost when going between chapters. Given that the zombie hordes inside the mall aren’t as large in size as those outdoors, you won’t ever be truly overwhelmed, though the game does have Exo suits if you find the keys for them. Online play also suffers from plenty of player and enemy warping, and general connectivity issues. As in the campaign, the menu UI’s are rather ugly and basic.
Dead Rising 4 attempts to bring back the elements of the original game while also making strides to push the franchise forward. Unfortunately, it ultimately fails to reach this goal. There are some positive elements – the return of Frank is welcome and his character is enjoyable to follow along, the zombie slaying is still occasionally fun and chaotic in the best way, crafting feels more intuitive, and with a lack of escort quests and no countdown timer, you can stick around as long as you want. Sadly, the game also regresses in a lot of areas from Dead Rising 3. The story in itself is highly forgettable and the ending will be annoying and upsetting to many fans; the game world doesn’t feel very varied and there is a severe lack of main and optional content – and what is there, is very shallow. The entire experience is also far too easy; rendering bosses, Maniacs, and general zombie hoards almost boring. The more challenging but repetitive multiplayer mode can’t replace the lack of co-operative story mode. So what we’re left with is a step back for the franchise as a whole, and a disappointing follow-up to Dead Rising 3.