Dead Rising 4 offers a fun zombie-bashing playground, but is not a good Dead Rising game.
Dead Rising 4 is a sandbox survival game where you explore and fight against massive waves of zombies. You move from case to case, trying to solve a giant conspiracy. You’ll cut down zombies, try to take the best photographs you can, and rescue survivors along the way.
Frank West returns, but the intrepid reporter has since washed up. He’s now a subpar college professor with a massive chip on his shoulder. After a turn of events starts a new zombie outbreak in Willamette, the same setting as the original Dead Rising, he rushes off to get the big scoop as well as rescue a former student.
One of Dead Rising 4's biggest problems is tone. At one moment, it will toss up sight gags and quippy one-liners before weaving into a hardcore zombie thriller. The very start of the game leaps into a bloody and hilarious dream sequence where Frank chases his past self while blowing up tons of zombies. It is followed up with sneaky infiltration of a government blacksite where your empathetic protégé go to lengths to remind Frank that zombies used to be people. High quality voice acting keeps the jokes sharp but also adds an excessive amount of pathos to the heavier plot beats. It’s a tense sequence between a teacher and student that ends only to jump into free roam zombie slaying hijinks shortly after.
Moment to moment, Dead Rising 4 changes tone so much that I don’t know what the hell it actually wants to be. One second, you’ll be fighting roleplaying looters dressed as knights, and the next, you might stumble into a gruesome courtyard full of bodybags. The early games felt like ironic B movies but some moments here are surprisingly sincere sometimes. It can get too serious. It never works.
Another disappointment is the loss of essential game systems that made Dead Rising, well, Dead Rising. The series, particularly the first two games under Keiji Inafune, were chock full of unique if awkward systems that defined the play of the game. Time limits to get to the next scoop? Completely removed. Rescuing other survivors? A simple process of killing zombie; gone are thrilling escorts and distinct personalities to discover. Limited saves? Undercut by the inclusion of multiple checkpoints.
Say what you will for the clumsiness of the franchise’s early design decisions, they provided an important structure that kept the pace up and made the player make meaningful choices. Do I run to stop this clown boss or do I find out what the main villain is up to? Can I afford to run and save those survivors before giving my daughter her life saving anti-zombie medication?
Moving the series away from eastern designers has paid little dividends. Losing Keiji Inafune robbed the series of a strong voice. It started in Dead Rising 3, the first title where Inafune was not involved. That game retained some of the essential structures but moved slightly away from the established series tone. The team has totally gone their own way here. Dead Rising 4 streamlines things to an excessive degree. The basic RPG-esque skill point system of past games is now a tree of potential bonuses and skills. Powerful weapons like guns and elemental swords are commonplace. Movement is faster. Finding objectives is simple and travel is easier. This might sound great but the game has sanded off so many hard edges that it lacks any defining features.
An additional downside of this is that I’m just not drawn in by Dead Rising 4's world, even though the setting is arguably the series’ best. Taking place just after Black Friday in a snow swept Willamette, you have access to a well stocked mall full of garish decorations and the outlying town itself. The scenery is beautiful and the occasional chime of gaudy Christmas tunes makes fighting zombies genuinely hilarious.
The problem is that the game does not ask me to learn and care about the space, because it provides tools to actively bypass sections with ease. Dead Rising 4 is an easy game and you never really need to explore too heavily to find essentials. The game always pushes you forward, leaving little time to appreciate the world around you. I remember Jill’s Sandwiches in the first games Willamette mall. I remember that the Children’s Castle toy shop is right near the sports store in Dead Rising 2. I don’t have a sense for anything in Dead Rising 4. While part of me suspects this will change as I play more, it stands in contrast to how quickly I learned the other titles and their worlds. It is very easy push on at a leisurely pace, leaving zones behind you as you effortless walk through challenges.
The lack of difficulty frees players to focus on fighting zombies, which is good because the game does get that right. If you want to run around, dress up as a knight and bash a zombie with an electric guitar, you have come to the right place.
The game does crafting well too, and gives you the ability to grab a variety of items that can be taped together to create amazing new weapons. You’ll run around with crossbows that shoot fireworks, fire breathing dinosaur masks, and even craft some killer vehicles to help you traverse the snowy streets of Willamette. You’ll even find power armor that lets you rip heavier weapons from the environment. Go ahead, pull that sword from the stone with your super robot arms!
After getting frustrated with the game’s narrative, I resorted to screwing around in the sandbox. The zombies are little heartier than in previous titles but this might be the bloodiest entry into the series. It starts a little chaotic but you eventually learn special weapon combos and their attacks. It helps keep combat fresh but fun side diversions, like go karting, also add to the experience by providing a welcome change of pace.
Still, everything feels a little bit off. When Dead Rising came out in 2006, few games had done crowds of zombies on that scale. Nowadays, zombies and ghouls are everywhere, so the novelty factor isn’t really there. Without the unique systems of the previous titles, Dead Rising 4 feels painfully generic. All the zombie smashing and furiously flying viscera loses effect after a while.
The end result is a that is perfectly competent on its own merits but feels so disconnected from its lineage that it might as well be its own title or a spin off. The fun lasts for a few hours before getting tiresome.