Dead Rising has always been a better playground than storyteller. The zombie series began as a blatant homage to Dawn of the Dead, and that afforded it a certain camp value that made mowing down countless undead feel right at home. After two departures, one even more cartoonish and the other oddly straight-faced, Dead Rising 4 gets back to its roots. It's another starring role for Frank West, another visit to the sleepy town of Willamette, and even another shopping mall. And like the original, it works best when it's functioning as a pulp-inspired toy.
Born a Shamblin' Man
To that end, Dead Rising 4 is a giant sandbox made up of smaller, more carefully constructed sandboxes. The campaign spends only a short time inside the mall proper, and quickly whisks you to the larger Willamette area. The area feels sprawling for one that is so littered with objects to pick up and combine into zombie-smashing weaponry. It was surprising how much area I traversed, because stopping in any one location felt well-crafted and individualized.
You won't have much time to appreciate the vistas, though, since almost every square inch of the map is crawling with the undead. This is where Dead Rising 4 shines, giving a wide array of weaponry to tear through zombies like wet tissue paper. The weapon crafting is ingenious as always, making blueprints the most valuable collectibles in the game. It can get tiring to slowly swipe your way through a horde with a mere sledgehammer, but freezing them in a wide arc with an ice sword never gets old. Similarly enjoyable is the vehicle mayhem, which punctuates the travel between most missions. As long as you can find a car with the lights blinking, you can drive to your next location in style with a row of ragdoll zombies flying in your wake.
The combat falters somewhat when the game begins introducing tougher enemies. The human soldiers and occasional Maniac bosses work well enough, and split up the pacing nicely. One late-game zombie form takes many more hits to defeat, though, and this isn't a combat system built for longer encounters with a single enemy. It feels dull and tedious to swing your melee weapon or fire endless bullets into a single undead, which makes the last hour or so a lot more challenging at the expense of some of the fun.
Some human enemies use Exo-Suits, powerful armor that gives them much more endurance as well. These are problematic or all the same reasons, though the addition of it as a game mechanic also naturally means Frank can equip the Exo-Suits as well. Those moments are perfectly empowering and the various elemental-based power-ups for the suit make it that much easier to take down swaths of zombies.
All those toys in this playground makes for some awkward mission design from time to time. I learned to resent missions that asked me to find a path, because the waypointing wasn't always immediately clear and I didn't want to fight off zombies while also trying to find my way. Sidequests are fairly repetitive–you can only clear out identical-looking emergency shelters so many times–but they work well enough as excuses to wreak havoc on the formerly living citizens of Willamette.
The open world shows its seams from time to time when zombies move erratically around a piece of the environment or one gets stuck inside some tight geometry. I found one zombie stuck inside a bunk bed, shaking as the A.I. apparently tried to find a path for it to walk.
If one element helps the jankiness feel at home, it's the writing. Frank West has become something of an icon for the series, and this new and improved Frank is ever more the lovable idiot-jerk this story needs. The story is absolutely rote, but the humor and wit had me chuckling throughout the entire experience. Somehow it's just easier to forgive broken open world elements when the game is clearly not taking itself too seriously. The one poor turn is a dramatic story beat near the end, which feels out of place in a game that's otherwise so self-aware and goofy.
If the main campaign is a guided tour, the multiplayer is much more of the sandbox experience. Though it features some loose story wrapped around simple goals, the main point is survival and mayhem. It peppers in mini objectives to keep the experience competitive and cooperative at once, and with the right combination of crew it captures the bloody antics at the heart of Dead Rising.
A Bloody Mess
It's fitting, somehow, that a game series so lovingly modeled after a famous B-movie would itself result in a B-tier game. Dead Rising 4 is uneven and less polished than many other games this fall. It's the kind of light, airy game I would have expected earlier in the year, when it wouldn't risk being swallowed up by the holiday season. At its core it's a pulp adventure, with winking witticisms and bloody messes strewn throughout. That makes it, if not entirely memorable, at least a bloody good time that understands the ephemeral nature of camp.
This review is based on an Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Dead Rising 4 will be available in retail and digital stores on December 6, for $59.99. The game is rated M.