Dead Rising released a decade ago on the Xbox 360 to the delight of bloodthirsty survivalists everywhere. Created by Keiji Inafune and his team and published by Capcom, the thinly veiled tribute to George Romero combined the maturing open-world genre with the budding, pre-The Walking Dead appetite for the undead. Now, in 2016 — an affirmatively apocalyptic year — Frank West is back in Dead Rising 4, a game that loses much of the teeth that made the original unique but provides a more robust and genuinely fun experience.
The original Dead Rising from 2006 was revelatory in offering open season on zombies, but it imposed a time limit in a story that was way too morbid and joyless, even with Frank’s deadpan bragging about covering wars. The time limit was meant to provide immediacy to every action, but the promise of “Chop ‘till you drop!” on the box art rang false when players didn’t actually have time to indulge. Dead Rising also had a jarring tone; getting bonus points for taking erotic pictures of zombies with Servbot hats felt out of place when there’s cutscenes of monstrous maniacs and droning ambient music.
In Dead Rising 4, the series has finally nailed down what it wants to be. After a kooky Dead Rising 2 in Las Vegas and a straightforward Dead Rising 3 in southern California, the game returns to its mountainous roots in Willamette, Colorado and does so in comical style. A satire on Black Friday hysteria, it’s Christmas in Willamette while Frank West languishes as a college professor, a dead end to his fame from breaking the first outbreak 16 years ago. Dragged into a new investigation by a student, Frank becomes the most wanted man in America until the powers that be force him into getting intel on a suspicious paramilitary occupation amidst a new outbreak at the Willamette Mall.
Older than the last time we saw him, Frank West (now voiced by Victor Nosslo) has transformed from a cocky reporter into Bruce Campbell’s grizzled Ash from Ash vs Evil Dead. While Frank’s humor can be interpreted as a shield against trauma — think Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool — Dead Rising 4 has become the genuine horror-comedy it always thought it was. Frank cracks wit more than ever, and though not all of his jokes land (or are funny), he brings levity where there would otherwise be overwhelming dread, a plague from the first Dead Rising. Adding to the definitive tone are poppy, elegant Christmas music instrumentals in the pause menu. Thumbing through options to upgrade stats has unexpectedly become an enjoyable, festive delight.
Also absent is the time limit, a staple since 2006. Although this change will be polarizing for fans, there’s no anxious feeling while slaughtering the undead en masse. It was always ill-conceived that Dead Rising would offer up a world to mow down the dead — not to mention the effort required to unlock hella sweet weapons like Mega Man’s arm laser — only for there to be a bummer time limit. Now, there’s freedom to experiment with weaponry or to simply give in to any killing urges that need satisfying.
While the Dead Rising games were always meant to be a lighthearted zombie romp, it often took itself too seriously in surprising ways. Whether it was in its presentation or in its gameplay architecture, Capcom’s open-world zombie playground sometimes felt too overwrought in spite of its bright colors, silly arsenal, and square-jawed protagonists. Now, with the return of Frank West as the primary lens, Dead Rising 4 has left behind everything else that’s held it back for maybe too long.
Dead Rising 4 is now available on Xbox One and PC.