I've been calling 2011 a year of thirds in gaming — third entries in popular series — but it's just as much a year of slightly enhanced remakes, too. In Dead Rising 2: Off The Record, Capcom Vancouver (formerly Blue Castle Games) attempts to squash these two things together. Generally, they've managed, though the discount-price, disc-based title is aimed squarely at, and will mostly appeal to, avid Dead Rising franchise fans — especially those who were thrilled with the first game in the series.
These purist fans will be pleased Capcom has brought back the original protagonist, reporter Frank West, in search of scoops in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Devotees of fresh gameplay, new content and unexplored environments will be let down that they also brought back Fortune City, almost exactly as it was in Dead Rising 2. With Frank West, you get a camera. For someone who enjoyed the divergent narrative of last year's Dead Rising 2, which had no logical place for a shutterbug main character, I was quickly reminded how much stylish camp and quality gameplay the photography mechanic brought to the original game. Camerawork even adds to the zombie-inspired tension; framing the perfect shot while a 300-pound undead plumber tries to eat your face is not the easiest thing in the world.
Besides rediscovering the novelty of shooting gory pictures in a zombie-themed game, the other element I found most surprising is the title's awkward, amateurish presentation. Little over a year has passed since Dead Rising 2's release, but that could be five times that in "game years." Even terrible, shoestring-budget games are now sporting near-splendid interfaces and front-end presentation. Dead Rising 2: Off The Record, which indeed has more going for it under the hood than all the schlock, looks a lot like lowbrow shovelware. In the original Dead Rising, this wasn't an issue. That was a long time back, and even then, the game was seen as something of a diamond in the rough. In Dead Rising 2, the presentation came across as acceptable, especially considering the franchise had a legacy look and feel. Today, however, when as much effort is placed into presentation glitz as game design, Off The Record seems clunky compared with current mid-list titles.
I'd even forgotten how loose and plodding are the controls. Playing Off The Record, I sometimes felt like I was telling someone who was actually holding the controller what to do. Of course, it's not consistently so rough, but there are frustrating times when Frank is too clumsy and too slow. It's not just "dead rising"; it's "dead gamer," too. You're going to die a lot, and sometimes that's really beyond your control. Granted, this is not a military shooter predicated on the tightest control. In Dead Rising titles, you're meant to die and replay sections. In a way, the hobbled controls even add to the impression of being overwhelmed by dense crowds of flesh-eating monsters. Further, the control scheme is now a signature part of the franchise, so it's a dangerous risk altering it, even for the sake of definite improvement.
Although gameplay and setting aren't much changed from Dead Rising 2, or Dead Rising for that matter, alterations to narrative aren't completely insubstantial. Frank West has no children — at least none he knows about. Frank is still infected; he still has to dose up with Zombrex every 24 hours. However, unlike the second game's Chuck Greene, he doesn't have to keep dashing back to the underground shelter to inject daughter Katey with the drug, holding her off from switching sides the hard way. This changes the timer mechanics. Though Frank has to take Zombrex every day, he only has to find and buy it in time to take it. He doesn't have to cart the dose all the way back across Fortune City; his operating range is wider, and, while playing, you don't feel so bound to a specific place. Therefore, the overarching timer scheme becomes again Frank's 72-hour window to discover what's really going on, this time in Fortune City.
Though many cut scenes are only slightly altered to incorporate Frank, the opening sequence is completely changed. It's still the gladiator-inspired "Terror is Reality" game show, but Frank's a reporter, not a motocross rider. There's not as obvious a choice for his role in the show, so Capcom Vancouver made him a wrestler, complete with colorful togs, and the combat arena is a ring, enhanced with corner posts you activate to trigger mass zombie-slaying effects. Once Frank has competed in "Terror is Reality," he takes his winnings, your starting stake for the game, and heads for Fortune City's main strip. Once you're out and about, the story unfolds much as it did in Dead Rising 2, though from Frank's perspective.
Back from the original Dead Rising is a formal sandbox mode. A sore subject with fans of the series, the only sandbox mode in Dead Rising 2 was one you created yourself by ignoring case objectives, scrambling around wreaking havoc until the timer ran out. Off The Record not only revives a real sandbox mode, but unlike the original title, it's also available immediately, not locked until you complete both the main campaign and Overtime mode. In the new version's sandbox, you can spend your time snapping photographs for points and killing off hordes of zombies and some rogue looters, but there are also numerous timed challenges. These challenges require you to rack up points or zombie kills before they're playable. A few challenges are easily unlocked, while most require substantial time playing in sandbox mode. The save-point system is the same as in Dead Rising 2, but saves are portable between campaign and sandbox, so you can easily switch back and forth.
Gone from Off The Record is the score-based online competitive mode based upon "Terror is Reality." Although the multiplayer style had some conceptual strengths, it was plagued by technical and implementation issues that sucked the life out of it. Withdrawing the mode from the new game doesn't detract from the whole package.
Joinable online co-op carries over from Dead Rising 2, in both story and sandbox modes. Co-op players joining a game are represented by Chuck Greene, although he's now carrying a camera. At first I thought this somewhat incongruent, even considering the photo mechanic is essential to Off The Record's gameplay. But Frank uses an expensive pro digital SLR suitable for war stories. Chuck's camera is a little candy-colored point-and-shoot model that suits his more touristy approach to photography. It's a better solution than merely dropping in a twin Frank, and, ultimately, it makes sense retaining a character with a backstory developed in Dead Rising 2 over creating an entirely new character to fight alongside the famous reporter.
I still question the developer's decision to make both Dead Rising 2 and Off The Record always-online games, play sessions set by default to allow random strangers to join. You can allow or deny joins on an individual basis, or set them to friends-only, even globally set your sessions to private, but the default option should be private. I can't figure the logic in defaulting games to public; perhaps the game designers have been hanging out with the people at Facebook.
Dead Rising 2: Off The Record likely will only appeal to a couple of audiences: serious long-time fans of the titles, and people who've never played them before but want to sample the franchise in a version with photography, immediately available sandbox mode and a discounted retail price. I suspect the motivation to release another Dead Rising title only a year after the last was driven most by the substantial success of the XBLA-exclusive stand-alone prequel and epilogue Dead Rising 2 games — Case Zero and Case West, respectively. Capcom Vancouver could have aimed high and crammed in a full-fledged Dead Rising 3, hoping they could pull off an entirely new game in a hurry. Facing the abbreviated development cycle, they instead delivered an average game with ample fan appeal at a discount price: a wise decision.
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