Sunday, June 22, 2014

Game Retrospective: Dead Rising 2: Off The Record

It seems like just yesterday I was penning a retrospective on the first Dead Rising game. Where has the time gone?

The time has gone into Dead Rising games.

With Dead Rising 2 in 2010, Dead Rising went from quirky Capcom title to quirky Capcom franchise, the company's pastiche to Western zombie pop culture and to its history. It traded the Willamette Mall for the casinos of Fortune City, photojournalist Frank West for motorcross champion Chuck Greene, and the 72 hour time limit for... well, no, that's still here. But a lot of the original game's rough edges were smoothed away, somewhat. There were three save files instead of one, the camera system had been ditched for a make-your-own-weapon system, survivors no longer die if someone looks at them funny, and the sandbox mode was now a true sandbox rather than a grim survivalist nightmare. And rather than trying to get to the truth, Greene's goal was to protect his daughter and supply her with her daily dose of Zombrex, to keep the zombie disease away. (In 2010, that put the game on the forefront of the daddification wave, by the way.)

This is about as interesting as either character ever gets.
It was, in short, a somewhat easier game,  and as it sold more than double reported sales for Dead Rising, so the greater simplicity is probably appreciated.  But it's a bit flatter, too, as Greene just doesn't have the personality of Frank. I mean, sure, he can dress up in miniskirts and crop tops as readily as Frank, but you can tell, his heart isn't in it. Someone at Capcom apparently recognized the appeal of the war-covering zombie slayer, as Frank returned in the DLC Case West, teaming up with Chuck at the end of the plot in Dead Rising 2. But then they decided that even MORE money could be made, and created Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, a non-canon reworking of Dead Rising 2, where Frank is the only protagonist. It uses the same locations, enemies (with a few minor additions), and weapons as the original Dead Rising 2, and yet Capcom hoped people would buy it anyway. And clearly, some would, because here we are.

Together again, for the first time.
Dead Rising 2's plot of zombie infestation and secret corporate and governmental maleficence, while slightly satirical, was clearly a remix of the original game's plot. And Dead Rising 2 : Off the Record is then a  remix of a remix, which even Frank recognizes, making quips about how all of this seems familiar.  Speaking of Frank, he's clearly seen better days; while not exactly buff in the first game, he's now sporting a thinning hairline, a gut, and visibly older. Dead Rising's debt to Dawn of the Dead has always been pretty obvious; now, the game is more clearly acknowledging what it owes the Armies of Darkness series, implicitly, with its dark humor, and overtly, with some items--the boomstick weapon--but most specifically, with a protagonist that resembles a more current Bruce Campbell.
Apparently, constantly drinking whiskey to restore your health isn't a good plan in the long term.

The 72 time limit is still here, although, like most elements of the game, it has been neutered a bit. There's rarely a mad dash between major events. In the original Dead Rising 2, it was a bit more difficult, as you had to be in the safe room every day between 7:00 to 8:00 to give Chuck's daughter her daily dose of Zombrex; while West is similarly infected, he can take the Zombrex everywhere, which makes it a bit simpler. But there's still enough going on that you'll have to make choices about which side missions you can fit into your schedule, and who has to be left behind, which is all I can ask for from a deadline horror game.

Speaking of which, as I mentioned, the survivor AI has improved, and their overall hardiness has been increased as well. In fact, the biggest threat to the survivors is less the zombies than other survivors; most can push their way through a zombie crowd without much fuss, but when you throw a survivor with a gun into the mix, a bullet will do a lot of damage. More than once, I wound up outright dying because I exerted too much energy trying to keep my survivors from accidentally shooting each other (and me!). And there were some I just flat out didn't rescue, because I knew how much trouble they'd be. Once the snipers start taking up position in the main strip (they're the equivalent of the jeep convicts from the first game, designed to keep you indoors), I got very choosy about who I let into my safe house.

What really attracted me to the first game was the level of difficulty and planning required.  Dead Rising 2: Off the Record is mostly a much easier game (checkpoints, more saving, etc), but there are spikes of difficulty, if you look for them. The final fight of the game, like the final fight of Dead Rising, is hard to the point of unfair. It's not quite as bad as Dead Rising, which threw in a vehicle shooting scene unlike anything else in the game and followed it up with hand-to-hand combat, a skill not really emphasized anywhere else in the game, but... it's bad enough. You're stripped of all your items, then thrown into a combat ring, where you have to fend off zombies for an unspecified period of time. Then you're put into a one on one fight with the real boss, having to break off periodically to revive his hostage. At least there are weapons scattered around the area, so it's not just you and your bare knuckle boxing. But it commits the same sin as the original: much of the game is about using your environment to your own advantage, using your knowledge of the areas to build up a supply of weapons and health items. Even more so, given that the big innovation of the game is the ability to combine items at special locations to form more powerful items. To strip that all away at the end feels like a false note.
Aided by the post-apocalypse handyman's secret weapon: duct tape.
There's still a level of difficulty, but you have to work to get it--now, it's mostly in the achievements. The top zombie slaying achievement is reaching a six digit level of zombie kills, which means finding the most time-efficient means to the end. (I'm thinking it's getting in the jeep and grinding death.) There's getting the gold in all of the sandbox challenges, which is mostly a challenge in planning. There's an achievement for getting eight survivors into a single vehicle, which is a challenge because first you have to find a clown car (what else could fit eight people?), but more a challenge because it's friggin' hard to track down eight survivors. I'm not sure if this holds for Off the Record, but for Dead Rising 2 proper, only eight survivors would spawn in the game at one time--and that included survivors who just appear, without being made the center of a proper submission. So in order to get all eight, you have to know exactly where all eight are and where to find, which can be pretty challenging. Finally, there's the alpha vs omega challenge, in which you have to keep the first survivor of the game you  can rescue with you long enough to fight the army psycho boss, hours later. The catch is, that means (unlike the 8 in a car challenge) you have to keep the main game plot going, so the army comes in in the first place. And that means several trips to the safe room. But if you go to the safe room with Denyce in tow, she automatically leaves you. So you have to leave her behind, and she's constantly losing health whenever she's not in the same area as you, necessitating you to speed through all scenes requiring separation. Likewise, since survivors are especially prone to other human attacks, you have to keep her out of harm's way during the psychopath battles, which means locking her somewhere free from zombies--and then racing through the battle, before she dies. It's a challenge, all right.

Denyce, you and I are going to get to know each other very,  very well.
(Also: 21? Really?)

I'm not going to say that Dead Rising 2: Off the Record is less true to the spirit of the series than the original or more true than Dead Rising 2 proper, because the spirit of the series is whatever direction Capcom wants to take it, which means the latest game is true to the series by default. It's nice to see Frank again, and somehow, the shift to a overweight middle-aged scmuck fits him in a way that doesn't make him the object of pity. My favorite moment in the whole game is when Frank gets bored during a villain's exposition rant, and pulls over a park bench to sit down. Then, when she just keeps talking, he starts miming "yap yap yap" with his hand. It's such a Frank moment, and it's exactly what's missing from Dead Rising 2. I'm not thrilled that the photography aspect seems more a last minute addition than integrated into the plot; yes, Frank is driven by his desire for the truth, but there seems to be less a focus on exposing the secret here and more on kicking ass and chewing bubblegum. Admittedly, the same thing happened in the first game; as you replayed, the experience system shifted from taking pictures to fighting. But here, it seems like the photography is always an also ran. (And as a very minor complaint, I don't like that in both Dead Rising 2s, every ending that isn't the final one is a bad ending; it makes me remember fondly the original game's ending where you could survive without finishing the cases, you'd just never never know what's really going on.) In general, it is a step towards the action hero away from the survival hero. Or, it's more Armies of Darkness (the last movie, at least) than Dawn of the Dead.

side note: I gave a paper recently on the concept of the deadline horror game, horror-oriented videogames that have a strict deadline for gameplay. My argument was that the horror/terror of these games comes less from the immediate threat, which is usually fairly easy to dispatch, and more the system itself, that the game is working towards a conclusion that doesn't need your participation. What I'd like to add to that is that the deadline game is also usually a game set in a specific, limited location that you move in throughout the course of the game, that the tipping point towards success lies in mastering that space for the moment at hand. Granted, most videogames shift towards such mastery, but a hallmark of the deadline game is that you're going through the same areas over and over, and you learn to use that area and appreciate what it has to offer. For example, if I was going to the Uranus Zone (super mature Capcom) from the Safe House, I knew exactly the route to take to pick up a sniper rifle and an appropriate hand-to-hand weapon on the way. In most games, you go through an area, and move on, but in a deadline game, it's about how to use that area to minimize the time spent in whatever you're doing at the time.

In my review of Dead Rising, I made a point of saying I'm not used to evaluating videogames critically. Well, that was a long time ago, and I'm very, very used to doing that now. As a pastiche of a pastiche, Dead Rising 2: Off the Record could easily be analyzed in post-modern terms, with Capcom remixing itself, and the genre of zombies.It's no coincidence that zombies have rose to prominence in the videogame age, because in a way, any wave of enemies in a videogame is already a wave of zombies, lifeless hulks shuffling towards doom at the player's hands.  (Although the real winner in postmodern category is the DLC pack for Dead Rising 3, Arcade Remix Hyper Edition EX Plus Alpha, which ends with Frank and co fighting a giant zombie M. Bison.) You could do the usual critique of capitalism, with a plot looking at how the military is in bed with big pharmacy and the entertainment industry, and a game centered around casinos and malls where the best items are those you make yourself, but even those are inspired by pop culture at large. You could even do some gender study, as there's something weird (read: borderline misogynist, maybe transphobic) about the juxtaposition of Frank's willingness to put on high heels and a ballroom gown in one scene, then sneer at a psychopath for being too flat-chested in the next (Granted, I would probably be less polite and politically correct towards people who unleash zombies and try to kill me with giant robots too.) . And yes, it does go beyond characterizing just Frank as sexist when the game lovingly lingers on its bevy of busty beauties. And citing genre conventions doesn't really cut it. (I'd really like to see what Dead Rising 3 does with its playable female protagonist, although I think she may only be in the DLC.) Anyway, there are a lot of different ways you could go, depending on what you want to focus on.

I don't understand your gender politics, Frank.

Dead Rising 2 and Off the Record are never going to mean as much to me as that original game did. But they both serve their purpose, as games I can have running while I'm doing other things. And I like that. Only 80 000 more zombies to go for the achievement...

Later Days.

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