Wednesday, August 18, 2010

F@#$-ing Zombies: A Dead Rising Retrospective

I was looking over my posts the other day, and while the book review section has enjoyed a flourishing, the video game section is a veritable barren wasteland. Thus, it would behoove me to devote a few posts to What I Played This Summer. Admittedly, I have less practice thinking academically about games, so there's going to be a lot of "OMG THIS IS SO COOL" style ranting rather than actual analysis. First up: Dead Rising, the best flawed zombie video game ever. (Unless you play Left 4 Dead.)

Capcom's Dead Rising came out early in the Xbox 360's lifespan, back in 2006. I purchased the game near that date, and just got around to completing it last month. Why the long wait? you ask. Simple: it's a friggin' hard game. Every mechanic in it is designed to be hard. Dozens of Capcom developers specializing in hardness made devotions to the hard god of video games and prayed for it to be imbued with celestial hardness, a hardness equal to the hardest hard games of all hard gaming history. (AKA, their Megaman series.)

Let's start with the elements that arise directly from the plot. The core concept of the game is simple enough: Fight zombies in a mall. To do so, you can use either items found inside the mall, or your own special unarmed moves. But where do you find these items? And how do you learn these moves? And why are you fighting zombies anyway? To answer any of these questions, the liturgy of hardness begins.

The plot, for example, is slightly more complex than "fight zombies." The game has you assume the role of Frank West, photojournalist. Frank has received word that the town of Willamette has been quarantined by the US military, and, in order to get the scoop, Frank's paid for a helicopter pilot to drop him off at the Willamette Mall. The pilot's been instructed to wait 72 hours, then come and pick him up--or, if Frank fails to be on the roof, leave him stranded forever. Thus, the player is introduced to the first mechanic of difficulty in the game: time.

The 72 hour limit isn't really a big deal; game time progresses at a rate of about 5:1 to real time, but if you're really concerned about being left behind, you can spend the entire game on the helipad until your ride shows up. The catch, however, is that there's more going on here than just surviving a zombie infestation. To discover the exact cause, you need to follow a series of clues--time-based clues. And if you're late in following up a single clue, that's it--you've lost your chance. You can wait out the 72 hours if you'd like, but the chance at the A ending is gone forever.

There's a few moments in the game where the time limit is especially heartless, forcing you to dash from one clue to the next in a ridiculously hurried fashion. And the problem is exacerbated by two further elements: the save system and the side quests. Let's start with the side quests. The side quests in Dead Rising are generally of two varieties: fight the psychopaths (people driven violently insane by the zombies' presence), or rescue the survivors. You learn about these quests through the walkie talkie Frank shares with Otis, the mall janitor. Every time Otis learns about some psycho or survivor, he calls you. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Every time you listen to a call from Otis, all you can do is listen. Frank drops his weapon and becomes oblivious to his surroundings. Since Otis usually calls in the middle of a case, that means you're usually surrounded by zombies at the time, and usually utterly defenseless. If you're hit while listening to the call, it's interrupted, and the connection immediately breaks. Otis will call again once, and you'll have to start the entire conversation over. To add salt to the wound, before he'll start over, Otis will first berate you interrupting the call in the first place--it's rude to hang up, you know?

Then there's the actual quests. Fighting the psychopaths is easy enough, provided you're properly equipped. And the psychopaths can be pretty interesting, in terms of design. Here's a memorable one:

The survivors, though... Rescuing survivors is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I've ever had to go through in a game. First, upon locating the survivors, you need to go through a lengthy conversation in order to convince them you can lead them to safety--a conversation that takes place while zombies amass all around you. It's the Otis problem, all over again. Then, once you actually have them, you have to get them to follow you through zombie-infested corridors, a fact made difficult especially because, after a few playthroughs, you're at least double their speed, and have to routinely backtrack because they've gotten stuck in the middle of a zombie mob. If they are stuck, you need to get them immediately, because they're generally unarmed and quickly overwhelmed. You have the option of arming them, but beware--they're generally such lousy aims with a gun that they'll shoot you as often as zombies. It got to the point where I actually hoped that any given survivor was crippled, because while I'm utterly defenseless while carrying a survivor on my back, at least I know it's not stuck behind me in the middle of a zombie swarm. On top of all that, even after you rescue the survivors, there's no rest. Certain survivors become convinced that they can do a better job leading than Frank, and, if left alone for too long, will convince other survivors to take their chances and go BACK into the zombie-infested mall. There was more than one instance where I had to choose between finishing a case or convincing my vitality-challenged survivors that staying in the saferoom was a good idea. (Hint: I went with the choice that meant that there'd be significantly fewer chances for the survivors to bother me later.)

Just look at these survivors. Don't they just look like a bunch of whiners? Do you want to save these people?

So that's the sidequest feature. There's also the save feature. Good lord, the save feature. It's become accepted now that save points are almost antiquated. The player of today wants to be able to save his or her game whenever he or she wants, and any violation of this privilege is a slap in the face. On that level, Dead Rising is a knee to the groin. Game saves can only be done in restrooms and in the safe room. Further, there is only one save slot. Consequently, it's more than impossible to accidentally put yourself in an unwinnable scenario. For example, let's say you save immediately after concluding a lengthy psychopath battle. You proceed to travel to the next clue, but quickly determine it's impossible to reach it within the time span. Congratulations: you've learned a valuable lesson in time-management--for your next attempt at completing the game, since this one is now over. To offset this unforgiving element, the game has a unique experience dynamic: every time Frank dies, you are given the option to start the entire game over, with all the experience you've earned up to that point. While this sounds like a great feature, in practice it means that the game is all but unwinnable until you've made it half-way through about six times, and have levelled up enough to be able to face the mall. And that means you're going to see the exact same damn 4 hours or so of gameplay before you can finally advance. While killing zombies never gets old, fighting that girl on a motorcycle for the umpteenth time certainly does.

There's a myriad of other elements that bring teh hard as well. There's the re-spawning convicts with a jeep and a machine gun

that make outside travel nearly impossible. There's the game text, which is unreadable without an HD TV. There's the camera mechanic--as a photojournalist, Frank gets experience for taking pictures as well as the other heroics--which works with the same "drop everything while enemies swarm you" method as receiving calls. There's wildly uneven boss fights which jump back and forth from nearly unbeatable to "just stand here and slash." There's the item breakage system combined with the low number of items Frank can actually carry in the beginning, which means you spend large portions in the early days of play unarmed--too bad you don't learn any of the good unarmed combat moves until level 20 or so. And there's the psychopath who takes control of the gunshop for the first two days, thus preventing you from accessing the best weapons you need to defeat the psychopath at the gunshop. And then there's the game's wild redefinitions. On the third day, for example, if you've done everything right, the army steps in, and the game shifts from fighting masses of zombies to a stealth-based game where you avoid being fenced in by special ops. The end boss of the game is a two part on-the-rails-shooter and an unarmed combat fight, neither of which has been featured in the game up to that point. And so on.

And yet, I'd still say it's one of the best game experiences I've had on the Xbox 360, for one simple reason: more than virtually anything I've played, the gameplay matches the game. Take Frank West himself. As portrayed, the character is kind of a bastard. He's there for the scoop, first and foremost. Saving lives is a far and distant concern in comparison. There's more than one instance where he chooses to stay back and snap photos while survivors are attacked brutally by zombies or worse. And Frank's amorality matches the choices you need to make in the game. More than once, I've come across survivors desperately fending off hordes of zombies only to turn away, because I've already got as many following me as I can handle, or I couldn't save them without putting myself at risk, or I just couldn't be bothered to take time from the case at hand. (As another plus for Frank's character, you get to try on various outfits throughout the mall, of both sexes. How can you not like a protagonist who finds time to do a bit of drag between zombie slayings?)

In a similar fashion, the game's other features are excellent in creating a sense of desperation. While the plot tries somewhat in vain and vainly to reach the social commentary and emotional adrenalin found in the Romero zombie flicks, it's the gameplay that really enforces the dire straits of the situation. The item breakage is a fair match for disposable consumerism, and the save system carries a weight with it--saving becomes something you don't do lightly. The survivor subquests make a mockery of the notion that disaster creates heroes; choosing whether or not you rescue anyone becomes a narcissistic decision between amassing potential experience points versus potential self-risk. Just as many zombie movies are about the dehumanizing of the survivors, I felt myself regarding the survivors as less and less human to justify my focus on solving the cases over saving them. The question is, how much of this was deliberate on Capcom's part, and how much was just bad design? There's no way of telling--there's just my own experience.

Another element of Dead Rising I found interesting, if not actually enjoyable, was the way the high-level achievements demanded that the game be played in different ways. First, if you choose to attempt any of these, you've given up on reaching the true ending--there's just no time to do both. Already, then, you're in a mindset where you've accepted that you'll lose the supposed main objective. The "Kill 10 psychopaths" achievement requires a fairly manic pace, in which you've got to rush from one psychopath battle to the next in order to get them all before their individual timers expire. The "escort 8 female survivors at once" achievement requires the ultimate defensive approach. It requires you, first, to have encyclopedic knowledge of the game to know where and when each female survivor appears, and second, to be able to survive with the survivors in tow, since you can't go back to the safe room at any point without losing them. And another achievement, kill 54 000 zombies, requires an incredible amount of patience, since even the best strategies produce a killing rate of about 100 zombies per minute.

But for sheer masochistic horror, the worst challenge I've ever seen is the 7-day survivor achievement. First, you need to complete the regular game, which is a feat in itself. Then, you need to complete the bonus over time mode, including the unarmed combat and shooter sequences I've mentioned earlier. Then, and only then, do you get access to "infinity mode," the only game mode that lasts more than three days, and is thus necessary for the achievement. Infinity mode contains a couple of changes--there's no saving, first of all. Wrap your head around that one. If one second of real life constitutes five seconds of game time, that means in order to get the 7-day achievement, you need to play for about 35 hours straight. And you can't just leave the xbox on for a day and go do something else; the second change in infinity mode is that, every one hundred seconds or so, you lose one bar of health. Thus, you're in a constant search for health-increasing items. This brings us to change 3: most of the health items are now in the hands of the survivors and psychopaths from the regular game mode, and you're going to have to locate and kill them to get them, creating a series of moral and strategic choices. Are you okay with killing the people you were trying to save previously? And on a more practical level, is the amount of health items you get from killing them worth the risk of fighting them and endangering the health you have left? There's been entire strategy guides written on the best method for getting this achievement--a crucial element is extreme patience. You can't just use a healing item as soon as you find it--you need to travel some place safe and let your health go down as far as you can risk before using it, so you can get the maximum effect.

Actually going for the achievement is something I'll leave for other, more dedicated individuals. But what fascinates me about the infinity mode in general is the ultimate bleakness behind it. More than anything, i think the mode conveys the desperation of the survivor we seen in post-apocalyptic novels. There's no way to save the day any more, there's no way to achieve a happy ending. What's a video game when there's nothing left to beat any more? If everyone's an enemy, there's no future to hope for, there's no task left to achieve, there's nothing but surviving for as long as possible--what's the difference between the player and the zombies?

As a final note, the sequel game to Dead Rising, imaginatively named "Dead Rising 2," comes out at the end of September. There's some elements that seem like good steps--increased number of onscreen zombies, the ability to combine items--but it appears they're dropping Frank in favor of "Chuck Greene," a man fighting to save his daughter from zombie infection. Honestly, I think this change is a mistake--a shift towards more traditional video game heroics and motivations is a shift towards making Dead Rising more mundane.

On the other hand, as long as there's still time to play dress-up during a zombie apocalypse, I'm in.

Later Days.

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