Dead Rising 4 Review: 'Tis the Season (to Hunt Zombies)

Frank West is back, and he's too middle-aged for this sh**. I know it, because he says those exact words. That's even when his clothes are soaked through with blood and he's taking zombies on with a sledgehammer. There's a grenade nearby. He grabs it and fuses the weapons together, making a hammer that explodes on impact. The next zombie goes flying, and its body smolders. There's another 40 zombies between Frank and the door.

Dead Rising 4 brings back the series' first protagonist, keeps classic franchise elements such as weapon combos and crazy outfits, and makes the open-world map gigantic. The newest version adds new enemies and powered exosuits to inflate the craziness to 11. The zombie slaying is addictive and brutal, but the game's bland, formulaic story is nowhere as interesting as the bloody battles.

Out of Retirement, But Tired

The start of the game finds Frank teaching photography courses, so when a zombie outbreak occurs at the Willamette Memorial Megaplex Mall, the largest shopping center in Colorado, he lays low. But when Zombie Defense and Control (ZDC) agent Brad Park contacts Frank, he gets a scoop: It may just be a government conspiracy. That's more than enough to appeal to Frank's love for a good story. Just like that, he is out of retirement.

Unfortunately for Frank, one of his students, Vick Chu, is one step ahead of him. She doesn't like Frank's ideas of getting a fat paycheck for his journalism. Instead, she's out to get the information to the public, no matter the cost, which ultimately gives Frank a lot of trouble as she makes rash decisions that put both of them in danger. The two get mixed up with a paramilitary group, Obscuris, looking for the same answers they are, setting up a race for answers about the outbreak.

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Dead Rising 4 takes place right after Thanksgiving, giving the game an eerie sense of seasonal cheer. There are Christmas trees around town, and when you pause the game, you'll hear cheery Christmas tunes. It feels absolutely twisted to drive through a crowd of zombies with an SUV while listening to holiday-themed music on the car radio.

But beyond that initial setup, the story is safe and bland. You go from objective to objective, and meet some survivors, both good and bad. The game's antagonist is underwhelming, despite what should be an interesting twist on zombie-ism. (I won't mention the specifics of the big bad here, as it delves into serious spoiler territory.) Besides Frank, whose jokes land every time, lightening up a bloody, violent game, there's no one with whom you spend enough time to actually care about.

Everything's a Weapon

Fortunately, slaying zombies by the hundreds is a ton of fun. Almost anything you find can be a weapon, from a computer keyboard to a martini shaker to a cement saw. As in previous games, you can combine weapons to amazing, often brutal effect. There are 51 weapons to choose from in the game; my favorites were the Blambow, a crossbow that shoots fireworks, and the Hit Maker, a turntable that fires records at oncoming zombies. While you can also fuse vehicles, I rarely found myself driving cars into the proper positions to combine them — too much work for too little reward.

To manage all of your undead-bashing tools, the game now has an easy-to-learn inventory system. A press of the directional pad instantly switches your throwing, melee or shooting weapon, and holding down a respective direction lets you choose from among all of your arms for each category.

Frank also gets access to the game's new exosuits, which give him superstrength and super stamina. I hitched a Slushee machine to the back of an exosuit to freeze as many oncoming baddies as possible. The exosuits are somewhat rare and don't last long, except for the few times the plot deems it important for Frank to have unlimited access to extra power.

You'll need to be quick with your weapons, because Dead Rising 4 introduces some new enemies that are far scarier than regular zombies. The freshly infected are only just turning when you meet them, and they're faster and angrier than the ordinary walking dead — and we can all agree that fast zombies are the worst zombies. If that's not terrifying enough, evolved zombies are stronger and faster, and tend to climb up walls.

Even some of the survivors are dangerous. The Maniacs are survivors who have snapped, and they tend to dress up in weird costumes and carry deadly weapons.

If it sounds like the game is killing, killing and more killing … well, you're mostly right. It's a bit formulaic. But there are a few chances to put Frank's photography skills to use in investigations, searching the play area for the next major plot point. The camera also has two filters: one for night vision and another for simple hacking and sensing otherwise invisible clues. I appreciated the camera sections for breaking up the otherwise endless stream of zombies.

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Apart from combo weapons, there's an additional element of customization. You can tune Frank to your liking by applying experience points to skill trees. While I focused on building up health and melee abilities, there are also several branches for shooting and endurance.

For instance, I chose skills that increased my maximum health and the amount of food I could carry before increasing the speed of how quickly Frank's health regenerated. This system provides a bit more choice than what Dead Rising 3 offered; that game let you choose from seven categories, providing new abilities but not letting players drill down into specific bonuses.

Travel Light

Dead Rising 4's map is absolutely massive, and slightly larger than what Capcom offered in the previous installment. Between the mall and the entire town of Willamette, there is a lot to explore, and the story pushes you through a fair bit of it. But the campaign is extremely linear, sending Frank from one area to the next and not inviting the player to explore. There are some side missions, including chasing the Maniacs around to find clues for a crazy podcaster's show and saving locals being threatened by the undead. But going off-course often felt like I was going out of the way.

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Completionists will love the open world, as exploring is the only way to find blueprints for every weapon, discover every costume for Frank to wear (often with references to old Capcom games), and locate every panic room and shelter. The shelters are filled with survivors who hawk their wares, letting you buy the goods you need in order to go into battle with badass weapons, vehicles, crazy costumes and lots of food for health. They also connect to each other via basement tunnels for fast travel throughout Willamette. The panic rooms are even rarer, as you need to find the keys throughout your adventure and search for very specific signs pointing you to the hidden areas filled with powerful items.

Graphics and Glitches

What amazed me the most about Dead Rising 4 was the sheer number of zombies on the screen at once. A few zombies on the screen is scary enough, but preparing to fight hundreds at a time, with no end in sight, was terrifying. The horde didn't even clear up when the zombies were killed, as their corpses were left behind.

Thousands of zombies dying brutal deaths means thousands of zombies' worth of blood flying in the air and all over Frank's clothes. The patterns soaked into the fabrics looked disturbingly real, and they were a constant reminder of how just how much killing was going on.

But besides the sheer number of undead, I couldn't help but notice a few animation hiccups and glitches. There was also the occasional camera problem. Sometimes, I would be fighting so many zombies (usually in a cramped room or the middle of a highway) that Frank couldn't move freely. He'd be pinned down, locked in the corner of the camera until I could button-mash enough zombies away.

There was a bit of stuttering motion in intense scenes, and occasionally a zombie's fallen body would pop into the frame when the Xbox struggled to render all of the undead on the screen at once.

Multiplayer

A brand-new, online co-op mode lets four players fight back against the zombies of the Willamette Memorial Megaplex in an arcade-style mode in which beating down baddies earns you points. The characters are four survivors from the single-player campaign, though you didn't get to know them well in that environment, and they're fairly bland here, too.

There are four "episodes'" worth of missions, each getting progressively more difficult. The missions are randomly picked, so you can play over and over and never have the same experience twice. The missions include taking pictures of objects, setting up explosives, and killing lots and lots of undead. Definitely try to play with a full party, as the zombies are even more powerful in this mode, and it's easy to get overwhelmed without someone watching your back.

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Multiplayer also introduces healing weapons, including a gun and grenade that increase your teammates' health. I found that these weapons added a bit of a strategy element I couldn't get while playing through the single-player story. You bring all of your blueprints and money from the single-player campaign into the multiplayer mode, which encourages switching between the two for a full experience.

As in the single-player campaign, I noticed a few hiccups here. Particularly, I found some felled zombies that continued to get up to their feet and collapse again ad nauseum, and I noticed one of my fellow survivors driving a golf cart out of nowhere.

Bottom Line

If you play Dead Rising 4, don't do it for the story, which is completely uninspired. Instead, do it for the seemingly endless ways of making zombies gush blood. The answers Frank seeks are unimportant, but filling mercenaries with lead and beating down the undead using a baseball bat filled with nails is crazy, albeit brutal, fun that should not be missed.

The single-player campaign isn't lengthy, but the open-world map is massive (should you choose to explore it), and multiplayer mode provides fodder for several hours of additional playtime, which means more beating up zombies, which is really why you're playing the game anyway.

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