This review contains spoilers regarding the plot of Dead Rising 2.
Frank West is a popular guy. Over the lengthy course of the original Dead Rising, he won our hearts with his wonky face, his renegade approach to photojournalism, and his ability to pull people's guts out with his bare hands. The fact that he was more than happy to wear women's clothing probably didn't hurt either.
As a result of this popularity, there were a fair few disappointed faces when Frank failed to show for duty in Dead Rising 2. Chuck Green wasn't a bad frontman, exactly: he seemed like a bit of a loser at times, but he was also able to make a lightsaber out of a torch and some gems - something that has never, ever worked for me in real life. All the same, he was no Frank.
Now, thankfully, our favourite cross-dressing photographer has returned, teaming up with Chuck for a DLC epilogue to last year's sequel. Case West finds the pair attempting to infiltrate a high-tech facility belonging to Phenotrans, the not-at-all-like-Umbrella corporation that was ultimately behind all the bad stuff that happened in the main game. To be honest, you should really know that already - because this three-to-four hour adventure is squarely aimed at people who've finished Dead Rising 2, and ideally the first game too.
Under the circumstances, I'm going to spare myself the task of explaining how Dead Rising works; if your memory has been blunted by some form of debilitating head trauma, you can check out our review here. All you really need to know is that this DLC is a standalone affair that starts you out as a level 40 Chuck, affording you a generous inventory and health allowance as well as a full compliment of special moves. Sadly, there's no immediate option to play as Frank, although you do get to take control of him if you're joining someone else's game in co-op (more on this in a moment or two). I presume this decision was taken to encourage people to play together, but it certainly feels like a big slip-up on the part of Capcom and Blue Castle.
Still, it's undeniably great to have Frank back, and in all other regards his presence in Case West is handled with aplomb. In single-player games he acts as a loyal companion, following wherever Chuck leads. Once upon a time this might have been cause for concern, but Dead Rising 2 proved that Blue Castle can teach its NPCs to defend themselves. In fact, the AI-controlled Frank West is something of a beast, happily laying into massive crowds of zombies with his magically-reappearing baseball bat, or with anything else you deign to give him. Unlike the Fortune City survivors he's also capable of wielding combo weapons, so it's quite possible to kit him out with explosive footballs, plate launchers and the like. Even on the rare occasions when Frank does run into zombie-related trouble, it's actually impossible for him to die - because, hey, he's Frank West.
This might sound like a controversial design choice, but it's actually a very smart move on the developer's part. Without the need to babysit Frank - or, for that matter, to go running off in search of Zombrex - the player is free to enjoy themselves. There's an endearing chemistry between the two heroes, one that extends beyond the frequently amusing cutscenes. Perform a special move as Chuck, and Frank will acknowledge the feat with a cocky, "Did you learn that from me?" Hit him with a stray bullet or melee swipe, and he'll complain as Chuck gruffly apologises. He's blessed with a decent selection of in-game dialogue, including a few choice words for the final boss, and this ultimately makes him a credible companion. He's a useful one, too, and when the going gets rough (as it invariably does, this being a Dead Rising game) you'll be grateful to have him around.
On the whole, Case West feels like less of a mad scramble than Risings 1 and 2, or even Case Zero. The series' trademark time limits are still present and correct, but here they're less of a threat than the combination of mass zombies and the less numerous human enemies, armed with guns and cattle prods. The latter require a different combat strategy to the omnipresent zombies, and you'll frequently be required to deal with both at the same time - exercising crowd control on the walking dead while trading bullets with guards who snipe from raised walkways. Such challenges are countered by Frank's assistance, and by the fact that you're playing as a level 40 character, with room for further growth.
This careful sense of balance is echoed elsewhere. There are survivors to rescue, but there's no need to escort them to a safehouse: the early characters simply need to be rescued from their various predicaments, while their later ones will often send you on a fetch quest of some kind. If you can't be arsed with such distractions you're welcome to ignore them, but meeting their demands will usually earn you some form of reward. There are new weapons to use (including a wickedly effective scythe) and new combo inventions to build, but the most effective examples of both will require a fair degree of careful scouting, so it's harder to build up an unstoppable arsenal. Even the gas zombies, one of Blue Castle's more annoying additions to Capcom's formula, are used here with a thoughtfully light touch. In Dead Rising 2, they became a constant, close-to-game-wrecking nuisance; in Case West, they're simply an added threat that crops up every once in a while.
If there's one sour plum in Case West's pudding, it's the aforementioned difficulty in playing as Frank himself. As I've said, the only way to access him is to join somebody else's game, but this assumes that someone else actually wants your company. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the majority of Case West's users would rather play with themselves (not like that, you filthy boy) than with a stranger. You can't really blame people for expressing a preference, and if anything it's the developers' fault for not offering privacy settings. If you're joining a random player, your only option is to keep spamming the "join game" button until you eventually hit paydirt. Even if you do get a game, it seems that no-one bothered to fix the bug that kicks out the guest player when the host saves their game - a rather serious omission, given that co-op is supposed to be the focus of proceedings.
By far the best option is to play with a friend, but even then you'll have to win the inevitable argument over who gets to play as Frankie. All the same, the final experience of playing as him is just about worth the hassle, as he can do almost all his old moves and tricks: the Haggar-style lariat and Guile-like flip-kick are so powerful that you'll barely need weapons at all. It's a mild shame that he can't disembowel people anymore, but he's still something of a combat god... albeit a combat god that looks a bit like Dan Akroyd, or a fat Johnny Knoxville.
Dead Rising purists may complain about the way the photography mechanics have been tinkered with (in essence, random snaps no longer grant you PP), but most people will just be happy to have the option back. Dead Rising is ultimately a game about messing around, and the working in-game camera is just one more way to have fun.
Despite being twice the price of Case Zero, Case West happily justifies the 800 point price tag. It's funny, challenging, and easily worth replaying a few times; there are only two endings this time around, but you're unlikely to see everything the Phenotrans lab has to offer in a single outing. As great as it is to see Frank again, I'm better pleased by the sense that Blue Castle is really hitting its stride with this franchise. If Dead Rising 2 had been so carefully weighted, I'd have gladly given it an extra digit or two; as it is, Case West suggests that the best may be yet to come.