There is something gleefully rebellious about the way Capcom defies the prevailing trends of the day. At a time when every publisher under the sun is trying to make gaming a family-friendly, gather-round-the-coffee-table experience, Capcom is scowling in the bathroom, shaving its hair into a Mohawk. Watch as Capcom stomps down the stairs in a pair of Doc Martins, kicks over a bowl of pimento-stuffed olives and spits in the face of the assembled casuals. "I AM CAPCOM!" it growls, "AND I WILL ALWAYS BE HARDCORE!"
It probably won't surprise you to learn that Dead Rising 2 is a game that embraces old-school values, and that it's a thumpingly hard one too; this is, as we well know, "the Capcom way". For many of us, this dedication to tradition is something to be praised and greatly admired, but if you're the kind of gamer who's grown used to modern design crutches - things like regenerating health and the omnipresent ability to save your game - then you may be in for a rude awakening. Four years have passed since the release of the original Dead Rising, but while Capcom has handed the development reins over to Vancouver studio Blue Castle Games, this long-awaited sequel is a virtual retread of its predecessor.
Once again the central conceit is that the player takes on the role of a lone hero, trapped in an open world packed with zombies. Last time we played photojournalist Frank West, at Willamette Mall; now we're in the boots of Chuck Greene, a former motorcross star who now earns cash by participating in Terror is Reality - a dodgy, Gladiators-like TV show that encourages contestants to butcher zombies in exchange for cash prizes. When the show arrives at the casino resort of Fortune City, someone uses a bomb to free the living dead from their cages. Zombies flood across the surrounding hotels, casinos and shopping malls, chomping on the locals and adding them to their swelling ranks. And just to top it all off, someone frames Chuck for causing the initial attack.
What follows is a 72-hour mission against the clock, with Chuck battling to rescue survivors and to clear his name before the military show up to arrest him. The action unfolds in accelerated real-time, with specific events taking place within set windows. If you're late for one of the appointments that are connected to the main plot, you may lose track of the central narrative thread entirely - preventing you from seeing the "true" ending. Somewhat perversely, the game tries as hard as it can to lead you off the beaten track at every opportunity. In addition to the near-endless array of side-quests and rescue missions, there's also a generous set of mini-games to find and try - from golf swing simulators to a Crystal Maze-style cash-grab booth. Towards the later stages of the story, there's even a rather unexpected (and given the circumstances, rather imprudent) opportunity to enter a game of strip poker.
In addition to all this, there's also the same 'raid any shop, grab anything you like' dynamic that made the first game so memorable. Rather than giving the player a set of stock weapons, your arsenal comprises of anything that you find to hand. You'll find yourself taking down zombies with everything from swords and fire axes, which lop the limbs off your foes or split them clean in half, to useless-yet-hilarious items like dildos and inflatable hammers. Dead Rising 1's Frank had the ability to take photos of the undead masses, but this has now been replaced by Chuck's uncanny knack for blending items together - a talent that is utilised by bringing specific items to one of the many maintenance rooms scattered around Fortune City. An aerosol can and a traffic cone, for example, can be used to make a klaxon that causes zombies' heads to pop, while strapping a car battery to a wheelchair results in The Electric Chair - a crowd-clearing trolley of death.
You can stumble across these combinations, or learn the recipes from Combo Cards, earned by looking at posters and defeating set bad guys scattered around the game world; if you don't have the relevant card you can still make the custom weapon, but it won't be as powerful. In addition to being powerful and fun to use, these homebrew tools earn you bonus PP - the currency which determines how quickly Chuck develops. At the start of the game he's a bit of a wuss, but as you gain experience he'll level up, gaining health, speed, the ability to carry more items, and even a few special moves. The odd thing about Dead Rising is that you're never as weak or as helpless as when you start playing for the very first time - which is arguably when you need the most assistance. With time you realise that the game almost wants you to fail at the main mission. The idea is that you grind Chuck up a few levels, screw up the main campaign (or wilfully ignore it in favour of messing around), and then eventually choose to restart from the beginning. When you begin the story a second time, with the clock reset to zero, you'll set out as a stronger, more knowledgeable hero.
It sounds like a terrible design choice, and it's certainly one that raises a middle finger to prevailing, user-friendly conventions - and yet this unusual structure is ultimately one of Dead Rising's strongest qualities. Because of the time limit there's a near constant need to get from A to B quickly, but because you're limited to three save slots, and because you can only save at one of the world's many toilets (no, really), every journey you make carries a significant risk. We live in a safe, molly-coddled era where we're used to developers holding our hand at every turn; when a game like this comes along, one that forces us to deal with the threat of genuine failure, it's intimidating and refreshing in equal measure.
Dead Rising 1 only gave you a lone save slot, a controversial bit of design that made it extremely easy to cock-up your progress; Dead Rising 2 now gives you three, and thankfully this feels like a perfect balance - allowing you a bit of room for experimentation and self-correction, without making things too easy. You'll still have to plan each outing carefully, however. Do you head straight to the objective, or do you stop off to restock on weapons and food supplies first? You'd love to grab that chainsaw that spawns in the church, but getting there requires a dangerous journey along the main strip. Is it worth the risk?
When everything goes as planned, Dead Rising 2 is nothing short of a riot. It's unfortunate, therefore, that every so often the game pulls the rug out from under your feet in a deeply unfair way. The boss battles are the worst offenders here. As the case was in the first game, you'll occasionally be confronted by fellow survivors who have inexplicably turned into raving, homicidal maniacs. The majority of these psychos can kill you extremely quickly, but will take an insane level of punishment before they finally lay down and die. The game takes a slightly schizophrenic approach to combat, encouraging you to use certain weapons at one time, and then actively punishing you for doing so at others. There are even a couple of fights that more or less force you to use hand-to-hand combat - despite the fact that this is one of the game's weakest areas. There's no lock-on, no block, and your unarmed prowess is dependant entirely upon the random distribution of special moves as you level up. In short, the boss fights are a bitch - in fact they're significantly worse than in the first game.
Dead Rising's other flaws have been addressed with varying degrees of attention. Load times have been improved since the preview build, but they're still notably longer than most other games on the market, and they pop up with grating regularity. The quest notification system - which previously took the form of an incessantly-ringing walkie-talkie - has been improved, but there's still no way to manually set waypoints on the map, which is a big oversight. The PS3 version (the build tested) is quite prone to the odd visual bug, albeit nothing game-wrecking. Finally, the basic controls retain the slightly clunky handling of the first game. Once you settle into the rhythm of things you'll find them to be fairly functional, but they do tend to make life a bit more awkward when you're under a lot of stress - which will be quite often towards the end of the game, when a sudden change (which I won't spoil) has a fairly significant impact on the game world.
Survivor AI has improved immeasurably, to the extent where you can rescue a whole bunch of stragglers, arm them with weapons and then tour the casinos as a ramshackle gang of zombie-killers. If you did this in the last game you'd have to keep a constant eye on your companions, but now they're more than capable of taking care of themselves. Running about in a large group tends to make the frame rate even choppier than normal (and it's hardly smooth at the best of times), but it's worth it just to watch your new friends gunning down one of the boss psychos in a matter of seconds. Again, the fact that you can do this doesn't say much for the boss design in general, but it's fun to do all the same - and that pretty much is the game in a nutshell.
For all its stumbling points, Dead Rising 2 offers an awful lot of fun - especially when it's allowing you to do wilfully silly things like making a lightsaber by duct-taping some gems on to the end of a torch. There are multiple endings to see, and the general structure ensures a tonne of replay value, and on top of that there's the option to invite a mate into your game for a bout of co-op laughs. Regrettably we've not had an opportunity to test this out properly, but the basic thrust is that only the host player can choose the active quest, gather survivors and so forth. The other participant appears as a second Chuck, but while you can earn PP and cash as a tourist, you can't make any progress with your own campaign; the visitor also has to stay within the same game area as the host. It has potential to be fun if the netcode holds up, but for the time being it's not something we can comment on.
In addition to co-op, there's also a fun but rather limited multiplayer mode, in which up to four players battle through an episode of Terror is Reality. This pans out as a four-round point-scoring contest, with players taking part in a variety of zombie-tormenting mini-games. One finds you racing to dress up the undead in humiliating costumes; others find you frantically sniping at the shuffling masses from the top of a tall tower, or mulching them up in combine harvesters which then fire liquid zombie into large, mouth-shaped receptacles. Matches are accompanied by a rather droll commentary that spoofs the excesses of American sports coverage, and at the end of each contest you can cash out your winnings and transfer them to any of your three game saves, allowing Chuck to buy some of the more expensive toys in Fortune City's pawn shops.
So, where does this leave us? If you're a PS3 owner with plenty of patience and a taste for hardcore gaming, you should certainly consider giving this a go; there's nothing else like it available on your console. If you're a 360 owner with similar qualities, you should also give it a chance - but if you've not played the original, you should get that first. Dead Rising veterans should feel safe about jumping straight in, provided that all they're really looking for is more of the same. Whatever your relation to the game, be aware that you're buying into a challenging and at times flawed experience - one that serves up plenty of frustration along with the rampant good times. Because no matter how hard you try or how carefully you plan your outings, you're almost certain to hit some kind of wall.
The maxim to remember here is, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." If you were feeling cruel, you might assert that the same advice applies to Capcom with its handling of this franchise - but in all fairness, this wouldn't quite be accurate. Dead Rising 2 isn't a failure; on the contrary, it's a fun and highly rewarding game that is held back by a handful of unfortunate design choices. It's a worthy sequel in many ways, but despite all the innovative weapon combinations, Dead Rising 2 suggests that Capcom has yet to find its perfect blend.