It’s never a good idea to start with a food metaphor, but – if the first Dead Rising was an acquired taste, Dead Rising 4 is popcorn. That’s to say, it’s pretty low on flavour or nutritional content, but if you shovel gigantic handfuls into your mouth without cease you can just about maintain the illusion that you’re eating something substantial. By turns demented and uninspired, Capcom Vancouver’s latest shopping-turned-killing-spree feels like a series marking time till the executioner arrives, but there’s a lot to chew over here and it can be oddly, even annoyingly hard to stop.
Abundance has always been Dead Rising’s keyword, of course. The 2006 original cast players as Frank West, a tabloid photographer scoping out a zombie-infested mall in Willamette, Colorado – a mall that proved a testing ground for the weaponisable potential of common household commodities, as players sallied into battle armed not just with guns and blades but parosols, TV sets, bowling balls and fruit. There were a few notable checks and rough edges, however: a strict six-hour campaign running time, fussy controls and a cast of goofy locals on journeys of their own through the game, characters destined to meet a sticky end out of shot unless waylaid and escorted to the mall’s saferoom. The campaign and character death mechanics, in particular, split audiences down the middle – some hailing this approach as a source of suspense that adds to the impression of a living world, others decrying it as an arbitrary hindrance that forces you to play and replay if you want to chase up every lead.
Fast forward 10 years and Frank is back – hot on the trail of his wayward apprentice Vick in the midst of yet another, unexplained zombie outbreak. The mall is back, too, though it has evolved almost beyond recognition – new sights and sounds include a mini-car racetrack, a gingerbread Santa’s village and a Caribbean-themed section where thousands of corpses squelch in the shadow of a life-sized pirate galleon. There is still an absolute ton of gaudy crap with which to abuse the undead (the game takes place in the aftermath of a particularly bloodthirsty Black Friday sale), and the zombies themselves are, as ever, not so much a threat as an army of crash test dummies, begging to be crowned with a Christmas wreath, lit on fire and kicked off an escalator.