To me the Xbox 360 will always be the first ‘next generation’ experience, and almost all of that has to do with Dead Rising. It released shortly after the retail debut of the new Microsoft console and, in my mind, delivered on every promise of the mid 2000s. It had a sandbox gameplay style that didn’t simply boast about it’s size, polygons or fit and finish. Oh, it did have those things! But it also focused on true limitation-breaking innovations. Dead Rising has a -still- unprecedented level of interactivity with the world. Almost fucking everything is a weapon, for instance. I might even go as far to say that the -modern- sandbox game owes a lot, if not everything, to this unconventional hit.
By now everyone knows who Frank West is. His shtick is tired after all these years of reboots and remodels, yet the original character holds fast as one of the best every-men to ever every-man. He was a little husky, pretty sarcastic, kinda cool but most of all he was hairy. Such lovingly modeled body hair. One of the great things about Dead Rising is its downright RPG treatment of Frank. At level one Frank is a borderline bumbling idiot. He walks SO SLOW and gets grabbed by what feels like every zombie in the mall. By the end, though, he’s a zombie murdering super machine that literally can’t be stopped. He’s a god damn super speed ninja train, dropping suplexes and punching through zombie chests like it’s easier than breathing. I love that! It’s borderline alarming how fast he walks at level 50. It’s a nice spin on the classic RPG trope of an innocent young adventurer transforming into a fucking god-slayer on his journey. It’s not strictly stats with Frank either, though. His personal metamorphosis from a slick photographer into a hero is endearing. The guy survives so much insanity that you can’t help but to love him in the end.
Which wouldn’t even be possible if the developers didn’t put a weird level of detail and thoughtfulness into the story. Just when you think Dead Rising is going to be all hokey winks and nods to zombie films, it slowly turns into it’s own story about politics and corruption. A lot of games try really hard to pull off a rewarding humor/serious balance and fail. Metal Gear Solid games toy with this a lot, to some success. But I feel like there’s something that’s specific to getting zombie stuff just right. The campy and gory history of zombie films is well-respected…and hard to duplicate. Somehow Dead Rising did it! Take for instance the psychopaths. They’re regular old folks, either mall shop employees or just mall visitors whom the events of the day have had a severe emotional or mental impact on. Suddenly your standard american hardware store guy is a fucking navy seal extreme hunter who’s merc’ing people and zombies left and right, with a machete no less. Wacky? Yes, but, also like, kinda realistic? You can understand how under this most horrible set of circumstances a Vietnam War vet might find himself back on the battlefield and unable to distinguish his awful memories from reality. The game takes the time necessary to explain why Cliff Hudson lost his shit and the player is treated to a level of sincerity that almost doesn’t really belong in a game of this nature. Some of the scenarios are goofier than that, but they’re all fun and rewarding in the same way.
Trying to rescue survivors can be equally interesting. There are living people out there and Frank will hear or see them randomly, stuck in a jewelry shop or locked in a roller coaster car gone haywire. The methods required to get them back to a safe zone are varied, usually frustrating and horribly difficult. But god dammit if I don’t want to save every last one of them…even today their situations burn bright in my memory. The Japanese guys in the book store who require you to hold a translation booklet while you talk to them. The old couple at the very beginning separated simply by the corner of a building who lovingly embrace when you point out the obvious. The limping woman wandering across the outdoor park while maniacs in a turreted jeep try to gun her down. Everyone is traumatized and has a personal little story as to why, apart from the zombie apocalypse of course.
Not that I’m calling the narrative Shakespearean or anything. There’s just more to it than necessary. Dead Rising could’ve released with a simple story that just focused on the gore and told a few jokes along the way. Instead took it far beyond the “get people out of the mall and take the chopper to safety in 3 days”. Things escalate and the game changes quite a bit. Special forces get involved and a face to the new threat emerges in the form of a military hard ass (a guy you eventually have a showdown ON TOP OF A TANK with). Along the way to that ridiculous finish your goals become much more serious: finding a cure for the bite and exposing not only the origin of the outbreak but the corruption that lead to it’s cover-up.
All ON A TIMER no less, a concept I usually hate. Thankfully Dead Rising found a way to make a ticking clock an asset instead of a limitation. They did this by not punishing you too strictly for dying or having the timer run out. If you die without a save Frank starts his journey from the beginning with his levels and experience intact. Which is sweet because with your upgraded self and the repetition of having to do things multiple times (at least I did…) you can usually breeze back to the point of death much quicker than the previous attempt. Couple that with your ever-growing knowledge of the mall/locations for favorite weapons and these replays can sometimes feel even more rewarding than the first attempts. If you do happen to miss out on a timed story mission and are still alive, the case is closed and you can continue bangin’ around Willamette until your chopper arrives in 72 hours, which is kinda cool too. Replayability is a major selling point in Dead Rising and the manner in which they’ve installed this particular virtue leads players to discover more each time they enter the mall. I recently replayed the HD re-release on my PS4 and still unearthed new shit despite pouring tons of time into the original.
If you somehow haven’t made it around to Dead Rising yet, I highly recommend it! It’s a game that blew me away back in 2006 for it’s next gen content in a way that I personally feel hasn’t ever been duplicated. Which is weird. It’s such an interactive game that even its own sequels struggle to emulate the complexity or feel (or graphics). The weapon selection is incredible, the physics are really impressive and the writing/voice acting quality is surprising. Oh hey, did I mention there’s a picture taking mode? Yeah! It’s pretty fun and not a stupid throwaway function like it is in every game before or after. Now that I’ve written this I’m actually kind of surprised that very few games were able to capture the essence of what made this game so great. Where are the copycats? Maybe Dead Rising is better as lightning in a bottle.
-LIST UPDATE: DEAD RISING-
2. Chrono Cross
10. Mass Effect
11. Dead Rising
DR is probably one of the best action sandbox games I’ve ever played…but…from here on up there are some heavy hitters and a lot of great RPGs. Not quite a strong enough showing to crack my top ten. I love this game though.
14. Brutal Legend
15. Paper Mario
16. Radiata Stories
17. Kingdom Hearts
21. Final Fantasy XV