Surviving Deadline: An Exposé on Dead Rising’s Absurd Zombie Apocalypse

Survival depends on your ability to properly manage your supplies in a complex world where dangers lurk around every corner. With Dead Rising, Capcom reworked the survival horror concepts of its more famous zombie-fighting series to challenge players to survive three days against an endless mob of monsters and your own hunger. By fighting his way through the Rogue-like structured brawler, photojournalist Frank West will document an absurd horror-comedy about dying and coming back again.

While the term traditionally refers to a specific RPG style, Rogue-likes usually have one key goal in common: test a player’s endurance by forcing them to learn the game’s systems, tools, enemies, and environments so well that they can get through the hostile setting without dying. Capcom’s 2003 Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter combined their classic JRPG series with Rogue’s ideas into a turn-based strategy game with real-time action, where you could restart the story with the gear and abilities you had earned through your previous attempts. Dead Rising further streamlines the action by merging the design with Resident Evil’s survival horror gameplay into a dynamic free-form brawler that forces players to navigate a different kind of undead maze: one with a Wild West-themed food court.

Weird shit is going down in Willamette, Colorado, and Frank “I’ve covered wars, you know” West is there to get to the bottom of it. With his line-backer build and stern chin, he’s obviously used to combat, but when he finds the local mall’s been overrun with zombies, he is the perfect person to punch one and send it bowling over half a dozen more or weave between the lingering masses. Luckily the mall’s stores have more than 250 items to maim, topple, and humiliate them all, giving Frank the experience to deal considerable damage.

Despite the simple enemies you are confronted with, Dead Rising is a fully-realized brawler that faithfully captures the essence of the genre. Like its 2D equivalents, you have to punch, kick, and grapple your way through hordes while snagging weapons from the environment. But where 2D games had the luxury of stopping at scripted points to throw waves of enemies at you within a single screen of TV real estate, 3D maps let players run wherever they want, which is so often why games like Devil May Cry and God of War arbitrarily close areas off for impromptu combat arenas. Zombies are the perfect solution for the open-world brawler problem, as you can fill every inch of a room with them and they will only attack when you approach. It also opens up player skill from purely fighting the crowd to agilely snaking through it.

Willamette Parkview Mall’s setting is familiar for horror film fans, as George Romero’s classic film Dawn of the Dead famously used a similar one to satirize American commercialism with the mindless shoppers shuffling between stores. But it’s also perfect for Resident Evil’s haunted mansion structure and level progression. It’s a setting that balances the dangerous zombie-filled corridors with the bountiful resources in the stores lining them. From the restaurants to hardware supplies, the clothing boutiques and sports gear, the Willamette Parkview is a great place to survive the Apocalypse.

Survival depends on being able to keep useful items for any situation and the player will need to take advantage of the mall’s well-stocked shelves. At first this is a simple matter of discovering what’s there and collecting a few items to confidently explore deeper, but as your options grow quicker than your pockets the game becomes about selectively choosing the best items for the task ahead and knowing where the useful ones are when your need them. High weapon degradation means that the difference between the perfect weapon and useless junk is just a few strikes to a zombie’s head, so you need to constantly restock on the fly.

The item-based gameplay is more than it initially seems, giving you a world full of parts to combine with others. This allows blenders and ovens to create performance-boosting food, sure, but items can be combined with a zombie in so many ways that the game stops being about how you can kill and becomes about how you can strategically incapacitate. This is helped by well-designed physics systems and action-forward mechanics. This means you could just run through the Willamette Mall swinging at zombies, or you could slap a parking cone on their heads to keep them from biting; you could meticulously shoot them to clear a gap or you could break a bubblegum machine and have them all slip around to make room.

The game handles using the immense number of items so modestly that it’s easy not to notice how amazing the design really is. Not only do they have unique attributes and attacks, but by necessity require that Frank has dozens of different attack animations and that zombies can appropriately react to each. Weapons like sledgehammers and pistols are joined with yard umbrellas and shopping carts to clear paths, skateboards and hedge trimmers, and puck-slapping hockey sticks and cash registers. Dead Rising has a complex set of actions and consequences.

All this was possible because of Capcom’s MT Framework engine, which allowed the game to keep the large number of animations, objects, and physics elements accessible in the console’s RAM. The physics system alone is responsible for a lot of the game’s charm, as it lets zombies slip, fall, and overall fail in pleasingly stupid ways that adds important texture to the ridiculous gameplay. Even in the ways the physics are broken sell the absurdity of this dumb world and it simply wouldn’t be as endearing, or believable, without it. And of equal consequence is the anxiety inducing internal clock.

Because life is made up of time, it is the greatest existential pressure there is. Its constant march pushes you forward, forcing you to do things or be places. It’s the distance between your last meal and starvation, the difference between getting lifesaving supplies and losing out to someone else. Everything in an action game is built on time, from evading a foe before they bite you to picking the perfect moment to jump while running towards a ledge; it separates success and failure, life and death.

The time limit has existed in games since the beginning, usually a level timer similar to the type in Super Mario Bros., but there are many ways to keep the game world moving with every passing second. In order to keep the clock a pressing concern, the game is built of real-time elements, from constantly draining your health to simulate hunger, cycling through your inventory by hitting the controller bumpers rather than going into a pause menu, timely answering calls for updates, and inspecting the map. Since zombies keep coming at you while you’re doing all this, you need to move quickly.

Open ended games need to find ways to keep the player focused and interested, and Dead Rising’s case-file structure requires them to fulfill specific requirements by certain times. This changes the game so it’s not just about making it through the masses, but about doing so as efficiently as possible so you don’t miss on the next big story. If you’re fast, strong, and smart enough to juggle your priorities and get the hot scoop, Frank’s investigation becomes a twisting tale of Doomsday cults, military cover-up, and biological terror. But fail to meet a deadline, and the truth disappears forever.

The game’s internal schedule is packed with tons of limited-timed events even outside the main cases. Throughout the three day window, dozens of vulnerable survivors and deadly psychopaths take shelter in the mall, organically tuning the flow with optional escort missions and mini-bosses. All of these side missions are difficult in their own ways, but completing them often rewards you with special items outside of their base experience points, from giving you Adam the clown’s powerful chainsaws to revealing hidden shortcuts. But these rewards are only there if you want them. The fact is that the gameplay is free enough that each run creates a unique story.

Every journalist knows the risk of becoming part of the story, but in Dead Rising’s absurd dystopia, jumping in the fray is celebrated. Good thing your camera makes capturing the chaos incredibly easy. In many ways, Frank’s photography mechanic is a commentary on a news media industry that sells stories that shock and titillate, and it was smartly implemented here. It’s about unabashedly putting yourself in harm’s way to get the money-making shot, and justifies screwing around with items to create ridiculous scenes for no other reason than because it’s fun. Dead Rising’s absurd collection of systems fuse to create the perfect tabloid trash-tier pic that feeds the zombiefied audience with brutal, erotic, horrific, dramatic, and humorous content.

One of the game’s great achievements is how all its elements actively support player improvement, smartly applying Dragon Quarter’s RPG character stats. Even though Frank starts with low carrying capacity, minimal health and strength, and no knowledge about the mall’s layout, the player progressively overcomes all that. Leveling Frank up strengthens his stats and abilities, but as the player raids stores and deals with the NPCs, he too becomes stronger. He will be able to race through crowds, smartly defeat psychopaths, and learn how to mix the best juices, and discover the best way to safely get through the mall. The game beautifully balances the player’s developing skillset and Frank’s permanent attributes. And if you hit a wall, you can start over and try again with everything you’ve learned.

While the adventure’s openness allows players to simply ignore events outright, mastery comes from knowing which ones help in the long run. It may be hard to save a specific survivor or defeat a psycho, but the rewards help with difficult sections later on, creating an organic pathing system. The game becomes about accomplishing as much as you can, seeing as much of the story as you can, before that time limit runs out. And if you make it through, you get to pick up overtime hours documenting the armed Special Forces squad that raids the mall and eliminates every zombie and person in sight so they can’t tell the story of what transpired there.

It’s easy to talk about the dynamic gameplay opportunities that a game can give you, but it’s another thing to actually mold the game systems and mechanics to create them. But Dead Rising is so well designed that you can approach any situation in thousands of ways, from fighting a psychopath hand to hand with an arsenal wrestling moves while dodging zombies, to sniping them from afar as he fights the undead himself, or run in guns blazing with an eight-lady posse of survivors you have outfitted with pistols, machine guns, and rifles, all while sporting tennis shorts and Mega Man’s blue helmet. You can do all this and more, with the perfect photo as proof, because you learned how to survive and prepare for whatever lies ahead.

One of Dead Rising’s biggest challenges is the Zombie Genocider achievement that tasks you with killing 53,594 zombies in a single run. Aside from rewarding you with the most powerful gun in the game, it promises some much needed catharsis after batting, jumping, and chainsawing your way through the mall. So start a new game, head for the underground tunnels with a fortified vehicle, and start plowing through the undead horde. Now that you know how to fight Dead Rising’s apocalypse, it’s time to see how long the zombies can survive against you.

DEVELOPER: Capcom
PLATFORM: Xbox 360
2006

Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.

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