I’m an unashamed Dead Rising fanboy. Whereas the vast majority of games I acquire are completed once and forgotten, if not abandoned midway, I’ve finished both Xbox 360 outings multiple times. If any exclusive can convince me to stump up for the (frankly uninspiring) Xbox One instead of just upgrading my PC graphics card, it’s another Dead Rising sequel.
Dead Rising was one of the first outgoing-gen games I played extensively. Launched roughly nine months after the Xbox 360 hit the North American market, and designed ground-up for the platform rather than straddling the generational divide like many contemporary titles, Capcom’s George A. Romero-indebted hack and slash sandbox was something of a technical showcase. The establishing on-rails helicopter swoop across Willamette, snapping shots of zombie stragglers and scripted events en route to the town’s sprawling mall was vivid, cinematic, deftly introducing the Prestige Point-earning camera mechanic and exhibiting a game engine capable of animating dozens, nay hundreds of shambling undead on screen simultaneously without breaking a sweat. Its scope and density of detail felt like the previous console generation’s constraints had been blown wide open.
While I enjoyed the schlocky story and exploration aspects (if feeling forever a little nonchalant towards the meat and potatoes repetitive combat), what got me so disgracefully hooked on Dead Rising, what kept me up all night, night after night, transfixed, robotically scything through tides of reanimated fodder, grabbing scoops, persevering after red eyes glazed and fingertips numbed, abuzz with pins and needles - my bingeing on the game triggered persistent flare-ups of RSI, something I’ve long since forgiven the game and myself over - was that crucial, overbearing countdown mechanic. Dead Rising’s true antagonist was never the undead horde, or the scattered comic book psychopath minibosses, or the tooled-up military goons who crash the party in the game’s latter part, or even the cakewalk end boss – it was the unrelenting march of time, the necessary adherence to tough deadlines, the continually captioned reminders time was ticking away. In a crèche of cartoon violence, crammed with rank and file baddies amounting to little more than slice and dice playthings, the simple wrist watch represents a severe threat indeed. Miss a mandatory mark and the trail of clues comprising the story arc goes cold - while the player isn’t presented with an explicit game over screen, they’re left with the ignominy of knowing they’ve ultimately failed - the mall can still be explored, survivors rescued, XP gained (and transferred over to a new playthrough), but the core case can’t be cracked and the game’s ‘overtime’ mode leading to the canon ending remains barred. Compounding this is the allocation of a single save slot, which means toying with trial and error isn’t an option: courses of action must be committed to, consequences accepted.
These restrictions were repeated in Dead Rising 2, which offered a profoundly similar, albeit denser and more refined experience - a larger, more varied mall, more minigames, weapons, vehicles. With a cursory nod to the ill-advised, inevitably cut-down and forgettable Wii reimagination, Chop Till You Chop, a smattering of short form DLC quests and the curious, non-canon alternate take on the sequel, Off the Record, this brings us to the impending Dead Rising 3.
First clapping eyes on the E3 reveal video, my heart sank a little. A muted, murky colour palette had replaced the Lego-brick-bright style of the series. Minutes in, dropping through a broken skylight into a darkened house, out-and-out scary zombie eyes glint in flashlight beams: immediate impressions are so much closer to Capcom’s Resident Evil games, so much more po-faced, so much more formulaic, like the franchise had been set upon by a generic survival horror sander. Have the teeth of conformity sunk in? Can we still feel an offbeat heartbeat? Is the series lifeblood slowly draining? Neat flare distraction tactics are demonstrated, smacking of Left 4 Dead’s pipe bombs or even Land of the Dead’s ‘skyflower’ firework displays. But calling in airstrikes at will? What happened to the post-watershed Blue Peter sticky back plastic ingenuity of the first two games? Isn’t our blue collar hero meant to be less carpet bomber, more carpet layer?
Initial fears the franchise had renounced its goofball edge were somewhat allayed by a more recent video, where new protagonist, Nick Ramos, sports a full shark mascot costume and clouts zombies with a surfboard. However, pushing aside aesthetic concerns, something niggling remains: Dead Rising 3 will be scrapping customary time limits, bar in an optional nightmare mode. Though Capcom has stated that the game will be nebulously “harder,” will players feel the same pressure when able to dilly-dally, leisurely planning strategies out of harm’s way, never taking down-to-the-line risks to ensure progress? Without clockwatching being a major factor, will it be feasible to rescue every survivor dotted around the map in one swoop, given enough slogging? The dawning realisation early in Dead Rising not EVERYONE could be saved was key: sacrifices had to made along the way for the greater good, cries for help ignored, stragglers left to the jaws of death if they jeopardised a group run to the security room (or occasionally, unintentionally, infuriatingly slaughtered with a single bowling ball bash to the skull in the fog of war). Besides, depending on who was rescued, interactions back at base would play out differently, adding a little unpredictability to the mix as characters became ill, squabbled amongst each other or shunned refuge and hightailed it back into the mall under their own steam.
I’ve always been drawn to harshly-imposed time limits: an incredibly easy way to instill a sense of urgency, of vitality, and to jettison overthinking inhibitions in gaming. The use of time constraints helps establish the player’s presence in a world - a world that carries on regardless, that will not permit idling, and that hunts down and censures players for sheer inactivity. Hell, except for perhaps those ultra-privileged few, real life doesn’t just let folks mooch around at their own pace – marks must be hit, routines replayed day-in-day-out, punctuality a personal and professional near-necessity: time and tide wait for no man. Perhaps my fascination stems from something really deeeeep, from a basic human realization that life is fleeting, that shit needs to get done in the brief flash of existence I’m granted on this unusually habitable lump of space rock, however much the concept of getting shit done terrifies me. Perhaps it stems from sensorially-bombarding formative trips to amusement arcades, lumbered with twin childhood shortcomings of cracking under pressure and being shit at games – you’re up son, you’re on the spot, you’ve got a clammy 50p piece and at best a few minutes to shine… oh you’ve died, that’s your lot I’m afraid, better luck next time. Perhaps it stems from the fact that (dear reader, peer into this electron microscope eyepiece and marvel at the violin-playing amoeba) my parents never bought me or my younger brother a dedicated games console growing up, claiming they were a waste of money, would rot our minds and damage the TV screen (we finally pooled our pocket money savings together and bought an N64 in 1997, gorging almost exclusively on GoldenEye 007 for months afterwards, with time constraints an integral part of unlocking bonus modes). Those early cravings for a console of my own were temporarily sated by snatches of gaming at friends’ houses, or on the demonstration machines in Fenwick’s toy department while parents were elsewhere - typically Nintendos running M82 cart-switching jukeboxes or suchlike which automatically reset after a few minutes to prevent brats such as myself treating them as free 8-bit arcades. Shop floor demo machines running Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt and Mega Man were the overwhelming focus of boring Saturday afternoon shopping trips with mam and dad; the auto time-out, coupled with queues of other kids encouraged breakneck playing as I attempted to cram as much progression and exploration in as possible before an inevitable restart, a finite trial meaning every second was precious, vital.
While consoles were a latecomer to the Douglas household, a second-hand Amstrad CPC 464 with a clutch of tapes appeared on Christmas Day 1989. Probably the most impressive game I owned, the one that came closest to offering a fully-fledged console experience, was a run-and-gun gem called Trantor: The Last Strormtrooper, featuring smooth scrolling, chunky, detailed sprites, a snippet of guttural synthesised speech, even a primitive cut scene. Taking place on an off-world base set to self-destruct, fundamental was a two-digit time limit, bold as brass at the top of the screen - a mere 90 seconds allotted until total detonation of the player’s vicinity, abruptly ending the game. Frantically descending floors and logging into consoles to acquire letters for a teleporter passcode resets the timer, so the game boils down to an exercise in managing precious seconds while fending off a horde of bizarre foes with Trantor’s refuelable flamethrower. This walkthrough makes it look like a doddle, but I never finished it as a kid: despite ploughing hours in, the time limit always foiled me, if the insta-killing Alien-influenced hulks on the fourth floor down didn’t first. Around the same time, I was a huge fan of Bubble Bobble, a game granted a rare, half-decent home conversion on my trusty 8-bit: if players loiter too long finishing any given stage, a HURRY UP prompt heralds the arrival of Baron Von Blubba, an impervious ghostly prick capable of drifting directly through the level’s layout and killing if he comes into contact. This ‘anti-dawdle’ or ‘persistent’ assassin is something I’d love to see in more action modern games, as it’s an adversary capable of generating real fear, encouraging the player to push on and never let up - Body Harvest on the N64 had a wonderful take on it, whereby if you permit too many innocents to be consumed by the alien invaders, a super-tough mercenary beast is spawned and makes an immediate beeline for the player. BioShock 2 explored something similar, albeit not time-dependent, with its sporadic Big Sister visitations, while Resident Evil 3: Nemesis had the ever-present threat of its eponymous tyrant hot on heels, and ellipsoid DOS classic Ecstatica had that bastard werewolf tailing the player 24/7. More recently, Dark Soul’s phantom invaders have pushed this concept into the multiplayer realm with aplomb. Even TV’s Knightmare, a key show for me growing up, was heavily informed by the pressure of ebbing seconds and defined, limited schedule slots. Visions of the lagging on-screen player’s deteriorating life force, skull plates sloughing off and tumbling towards the camera as teammates yelled over each other, pleading for the hapless helmeted adventurer to quicken their sidesteps were superb at instilling a sense of utter panic. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask played with persistence of time and inevitability fantastically, utilising a three-day cycle before the game’s overbearing menace, a moon on collision course, impacts, ending the game. Though players can reset the clock on a whim, penalties come into effect, including potentially lost progress and an emptied wallet, forcing the adoption of keen time management and a wary skyward eye.
Back to Dead Rising 3: I hope I’m proved wrong. I hope it finds new ways to innovate, isn’t harmed by shrugging off the finite time mechanic and provides a satisfying adventure. It’ll no doubt prove to the most popular title in the franchise, but I fear this crucial change represents something ever more endemic of AAA games: the need for a degree of feature set concurrence between titles, for pervasive expected qualities, for basic requirement boxes to be ticked. Is Dead Rising 3 a victim of what is anticipated and accepted now? The former games’ limitations and single save slot is still a point of contention between players, wonderfully wayward as it is. Is it a necessarily a good thing to subvert this game-defining attribute and pander to certain potential audiences? Will it divide players into two camps, camps who have wildly different ‘diet’ regular difficulty and ‘full-fat’ nightmare difficulty experiences of the game? Will the self-appointed ‘hardcore’ players feel aggrieved they aren’t really seeing anything extra, compared to those allowed to languish and amble through at their own pace? Such a huge skew on a major franchise brings to mind the curse of Hollywood test audiences favouring neatly wrapped-up, upbeat endings and reshoots, of tarnished initial visions. Perhaps diluting the game by default and offering a less-persistently stressful experience will push the popularity of the Dead Rising games towards flagship COD or GTA levels, maybe even see it realised as the go-to sandbox as the next console generation kicks into gear. Or perhaps it will bastardise it into an unrecognisably compromised shadow of its former self, fun to play but never truly fraught. I like games to throw me off guard, to pull the rug, to occasionally screw me over in a harsh but fair fashion. Feeling unbalanced, nigh-on invincible in any action game strips away the sense of peril that makes it compelling, a degree of vulnerability is essential, and vulnerability in Dead Rising focused on respecting the ticking clock: removing it feel like regression.