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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: Dead Rising 2: Off The Record

Posted by Earnest "Nex" Cavalli on Sat, Oct 15, 2011 at 9:52 PM

Hes covered wars, yknow.
  • Capcom
  • He's covered wars, y'know.

Full disclosure: I’m a total Dead Rising fanboy. Smashing zombie skulls and stabbing psychotic survivors is one of my greatest joys in life, and as such I’m almost entirely convinced that Capcom birthed this series to appeal directly to me.

Thus, I’m a bit torn on Dead Rising 2: Off The Record. It’s everything I crave in a game, and yet, it feels like I’ve done this all before. I’ve killed these zombies. I’ve stabbed that guy in the pig-face codpiece.

I’m just not entirely sure what Capcom was trying to do here. Obviously it’s not a true sequel, but how am I to grade a sidestory to a game I already fawned over? What’s a critic to do?

Before I get into the hypotheticals, let’s examine the facts. If nothing else, I can fill you in on the whats, whys and hows of this game. Hit the jump.

Superficially speaking, Dead Rising 2: Off The Record is a retelling of the events of Dead Rising 2 as they might have happened. Instead of motocross star Chuck Greene, players control Frank West, photojournalist and star of the original Dead Rising. So far the game has been described as a "What if?" scenario, though Capcom could easily dub Off The Record the canonical version of this tale.

Whereas Chuck was a doting single father, concerned solely with saving his little girl, Frank is a surly, arrogant, sexist bastard, driven by a desire to recapture the glory he earned by surviving the zombie outbreak at the Willamette Mall. To Frank the outbreak in Fortune City is just a story, and shambling corpses are an annoyance to be smirked at, then decapitated.

Time permitting, Frank might also toss in a bit of snark.

As a result, Frank’s version of the Fortune City outbreak is far more irreverent than Chuck’s. Yes, Mr. West is still beset on all sides by the undead and a number of evil living humans, but even in its darkest moments, Off The Record never takes itself that seriously. At times it’s almost a dark comedy; akin to something like 1985’s The Return Of The Living Dead.

In short, Resident Evil this is not, and honestly I prefer it that way. In a series defined by the myriad wacky set pieces and over-the-top methods of zombie disposal, it’s nice to play as a hero who flirts with pretty girls, and reminds onlookers that he’s “covered wars, y’know” while nearly winking at whatever theoretical audience he might have.

Speaking of the series’ trademark wackiness, Off The Record takes it to a whole ‘nother level. Everything you could do in Chuck’s adventure is present here. All the costumes, all the jerryrigged weaponry, all the hidden nooks and secret crannies — plus dozens more. Added to the mix though is Frank’s ability to capture photographs. As in the original Dead Rising, Frank carries his camera with him at all times and by snapping photos of zombies, survivors and various bits of scenery, Frank can earn greater and greater experience (in this case, it’s called “PP") points, which go toward upgrading his skills and unlocking new fighting techniques.

Though you start out relatively underpowered, part of the game’s appeal is the ability to essentially farm these points and eventually turn Frank into a living death machine. Say you run into a boss who is simply too difficult for you. Instead of giving up on the game, you can start over from the beginning with all your skills and stats intact. When you work your way up to that boss again, you will be far more powerful than you were originally, thanks to the compounded PP you’ve earned.

None of this should be much of a shock to anyone who has played a Dead Rising game in the past. It’s essentially the same system that’s been in place since the original. The big difference in this game is that Capcom finally listened to their fans' pleas and included a Sandbox Mode that allows players to explore the city at will.

OOOOHHHHHH YEEEEEEAAAAHHHHHH!
  • Capcom
  • OOOOHHHHHH YEEEEEEAAAAHHHHHH!

Or at least, that’s what I initially thought. Yes, Sandbox Mode does let you ignore those pesky time limits and the annoying cries of survivors in favor of playing the slots, or clubbing zombies to death with guitars, but it also offers an entirely new, objective-based game type. As you roam the wide-open streets of Fortune City, you’ll discover floating stars strewn about the landscape that task you with fulfilling certain goals. “Kill as many zombies as possible before time runs out,” for instance. Each star offers a bronze, silver or gold medal based on your performance. By earning these medals, you earn increasingly greater cash rewards.

The neat bit is that these cash rewards, and all the PP you earn by killing zombies and exploring the city's various locales in Sandbox Mode can be transferred back into the main Singleplayer Mode. When you save a game, you’ve essentially saving a single iteration of Frank West, and whether you use that version in Singleplayer or in Sandbox, everything you earn is cumulative.

It’s a small touch, but just enough to push the Sandbox Mode over that invisible line that separates “cute little diversion” from “worthwhile gameplay option.” Especially if you take to the streets in the game’s co-op mode.

Granted, previous Dead Rising games offered the chance to play alongside a friend, but in Off The Record, it seems as if Capcom wanted to make that as large a part of the experience as the solitary game. There’s nothing stopping players from enjoying the game solo, but there are a number of co-op challenges (and obligatory Achievements/Trophies) that offer a very solid argument for being social.

Plus in co-op mode, one of the players takes the role of Chuck Greene. Without spoiling anything, just know that this can make certain events hilariously awkward.

Oh, and I should also mention the game’s improved engine. Truthfully, the technological upgrade isn’t all that impressive, but it does allow for slightly improved graphics, better AI for the non-player characters, and most crucially, the largest on-screen zombie hordes you’ve ever seen. I wasn’t expecting any sort of improvements to the game’s tech, so seeing the bits that Capcom further polished was a nice surprise.

One addition that puzzles me however is the game’s new “Checkpoint” system. Fans of earlier Dead Rising games will recall the stress of dying only to realize that you last visited a bathroom save point two hours back. It was annoying, yes, but it was a vital part of the gameplay as far as I'm concerned. That omnipresent sense that death might be right around the corner, and you might suddenly be out a few hours of progress added a very real sense of stress to the ongoing zombie apocalypse. Now however, the game auto-saves every time you enter a new area and prior to every boss fight, almost entirely removing any sense of dread one might have felt in its predecessors.

These checkpoints will disappear if you turn the game off, but as long as you continue playing, you can attempt particularly difficult sections as many times as you'd like. You can see how this might reduce Off The Record's overall difficulty.

Maybe I’m alone in my feelings here. Maybe the lack of an automatic save system was a terrible design flaw in earlier Dead Rising games that just so happened to appeal to my twisted sense of gaming logic. I was raised on NES games that physically couldn’t save my progress, after all. So maybe this change is a happy addition for players who would otherwise grow frustrated by Dead Rising 2: Off The Record. I honestly can’t say.

With all of this in the game (and an entirely new martian-themed amusement park area featuring new weapons, zombies and very entertaining ways to destroy the latter), what’s the problem? After all, my affection for Dead Rising 2 borders on romantic, and I once described Frank West as “my spirit animal.” In theory, I should love this, right?

Well, yes and no. The content here is phenomenal, the additions are clever and well-implemented and the story is even more entertaining than it was in the original Dead Rising 2. The problem though, is that this game is far too similar to its predecessor.

Get it? Homonym!

Over the past year I’ve become very good at Dead Rising 2, and as a result, I burned through the entire singleplayer mode in Off The Record in less than 12 hours. And that’s with saving 80% of the survivors, dying only once and finding time to dress myself as a classic Capcom character.

Granted, this is not going to be typical for the average person, but I will warn those of you that explored Dead Rising 2 to its very limits that you may want to rent this game prior to purchasing it, if only to see whether the added content is enough to earn your $40.

For the record, that $40 price point is the bit that caused all that confusion at the beginning of this review. Had this game been marketed as a full $60 sequel, I would be bashing it as a cheap cash-in, but $20 less puts the title right on the line between “bargain priced sidestory” and “cynical money grab.” One moment I’m thinking Off The Record is the best Dead Rising to date, and a perfect way for new players to get acquainted with the series, and the next I’m wondering if fans who fell in love with earlier Dead Rising games — the exact sort of people who would be most likely to buy Off The Record — would really be getting much out of this title.

Subjectively, I want to shout at you until you run down to the store and buy a copy, because this is the pinnacle of the most entertaining zombie apocalypse simulator on the market. Objectively however, it really depends on your familiarity with the series as a whole, and your desire to spend a few more days in Fortune City.

Oh wait, I forgot I was writing a review. Screw objectivity. With season 2 of The Walking Dead starting soon, you’ll need an outlet for your zombie-fueled angst.

Buy this thing.

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