There’s a poster for the first season of The Walking Dead – the TV show, that is – that feels like the founding artistic guideline for Dead Rising 3. It depicts protagonist Rick Grimes alone in the desolate outskirts of Atlanta, where rows upon rows of cars have been abandoned in the wake of the recent zombie apocalypse. That’s the utterly serious end of zombie fiction, almost to a fault, and Capcom Vancouver intriguingly chose to marry this straight-faced approach to Dead Rising’s existing penchant for total silliness. Tonally, the ridiculous and the dramatic exist along side each other. This creative decision is one of the primary reasons this Xbox One exclusive is the best entry in the series, along with a large and detailed open world that demonstrates the potential of this new generation.
Following a similar structure to the other Dead Rising games, time is counting down in this third entry as the government plans on Raccoon City-ing the fictional locale of Los Perdidos in seven days (fair enough that Capcom is recycling a premise it created, we suppose). Your character, Nick Ramos, has to find a way out before the bomb drops, aiding other survivors along the way.
The big difference in Dead Rising 3 is the size of the open environment and the inclusion of vehicles. Los Perdidos isn’t exactly massive, but it’s big enough to make driving a comfortable and valid inclusion, with highways and city streets to speed around. It feels about as big as an island in the earlier GTA games, and for the purposes of what Dead Rising 3 aims to accomplish, Los Perdidos certainly feels adequately sized. The key element in exploring this open world is uncovering details as opposed to cruising over masses of land. If, ever since GTA III arrived in 2001, you’ve been dreaming of an open world game where you can enter every building and have them be different, Dead Rising 3 is as close to that as you’ll ever get.
Herein lies the most impressive thing about the game. Locations feel hand-crafted, extraordinarily detailed and anything but arbitrary. There’s a subway system in Los Perdidos, an art gallery, a laundrette, a posh hotel where the ambience completely changes and a theatre where zombies are crowding the tables. The details are impressively realised, resulting in an experience where covering the streets only encompasses one half of what the environment has to offer.
It’s an open world quite unlike anything else, filled with secrets – combining weapons returns to Dead Rising 3, allowing Nick to fuse everyday objects, after finding or unlocking the appropriate blueprints, and creating something unique and deadly in its place. These elements are balanced well against the world’s geography. If you’re out in zombie-infested streets with the intention of faffing about, you’ll find yourself drawn into discovering new blueprints or collectables anyway. It’s deft open world design that organically draws you into further playing.
You see a sword stuck in the ground in somebody’s back garden and can’t help picking it up, or see an undead-harrassed survivor asking for help, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare style, or even a bull mascot outfit outside a store that you just can’t help but have Nick try on. It is, if you will, a Dead Rising game that a Grand Theft Auto fan might enjoy – a little more accessible, a lot less clunky in basic mechanics and so playable.
Then, of course, there are thousands of zombies haunting the streets between these gorgeously specific locations. If you’re looking for the thing that makes Dead Rising 3 ‘next-gen’, as it were, it’s seeing all of these elements together at once: the hordes of decaying zombie character models, the wonderfully overplayed lighting effects, the densely designed streets and the laudable absence of loading screens that keeps it all together. As a technical showcase, Dead Rising 3 is a very strong start for the Xbox One, and aside from some rarely noticeable pop-in textures, seeing this collection of visually ambitious ideas in action is genuinely impressive.
The RPG-like progression system means that sense of reward grows, too, and gradually through collecting blueprints you feel better equipped to deal with the legions of undead inhabiting the open world. While at first you may be overwhelmed, soon you’re electrocuting a broad radius of enemies at once while wearing a Blanka helmet, or planting a twin-armed Freedom Bear to mow down a massive crowd of enemies. A lot of the basic elements of Dead Rising have returned in a more refined form – the major differences are the scale of the world and the addition of vehicles.
Vehicle combos operate much the same as weapons, but they’re even simpler: park two matching vehicles next to each other then combine them, providing you have the right blueprints. The resulting vehicle usually looks like something from Robot Wars, with a number of gloriously hodgepodge creations that offer more colourful ways to batter the undead in a set of wheels, from turrets to projectiles and even secondary weapons to add further value to them. Once created, these are stored in your garage and accessible at any time, and their existence gives Dead Rising 3 that extra layer of interaction that demonstrates a step forward for the series.
Less inspiring are the story missions themselves, which are usually just variations on fetch quests. You realise that they’re essentially an attempt to get you to properly explore the different bits of the city, but they don’t offer nearly the same level of feedback or ingenuity as a mission does in Saints Row or GTA – the one aspect where Dead Rising 3’s open-world design doesn’t match up favourably. This dovetails with the weakness of boss battles, too, which feel like they’re made for a more immediate and fast-paced action experience than the DNA of Dead Rising really permits. While the missions generally don’t contribute much in terms of ideas, boss fights are the most criminally archaic aspects of Dead Rising 3, despite being reasonably infrequent. They’re just spam jobs, most of the time, with a couple of QTEs thrown in to generate a few sighs from anyone who’s been playing games for more than four years.
There’s a Nightmare Mode for those who desire a more traditional time limit-driven, difficult version of this story, and series veterans will no doubt want to at least give it a try. For us, though, going a little broader with the remit of Dead Rising 3 actually does it a lot of favours. It now feels like Dead Rising operates in a similar sandbox style to Saints Row, a transition into awe-inspiring folly that feels natural – are time limits and difficulty really the only point of Dead Rising, or is occupying a zombie-infested open world at your own pace with an arsenal of ludicrous weapons a more desirable experience? It’s up to you. Dead Rising 3 offers both and greatly expands its potential audience as a result.
While the missions may feel throwaway, existing in Los Perdidos has a longer-lasting appeal. Turning a corner into a sea of zombies offers a relentlessly impressive image that always compels you to get stuck in, with or without sufficient weaponry to deal with the onslaught. Dynamic stories happen on the fly, as you always hope from this type of game – nothing to the same degree as GTA V, you understand, it all involves killing zombies and a few armed blokes – but the player expression offered by different costumes and visually diverse landscape makes that entirely possible.
Which brings us back round to the influence of The Walking Dead. It’s fascinatingly odd that Capcom Vancouver chose to take that as an obvious visual touchstone for the washed-out cityscape depicted here, yet still have the types of cutscenes where a man can be wearing hot pants, a tennis shirt and a Servbot helmet and watch in horror as someone’s intestines are ripped out and tossed around like wet sausages. Yet that dichotomy is why Dead Rising 3 remains so fun throughout: silly and serious should really never be this close together, but in this context it works. Blood is splattered onto car bonnets and windows, limbs fire off and Nick’s choice of attire, from engineer civvies to basketball vest, quickly become stained with undead remains. Despite that and appropriately aggressive zombie groans, it never really tries to be scary – Capcom Vancouver instead has opted for a more striking approach, in the way that iconic poster of The Walking Dead is, an elevated zombie survival experience that marches to the beat of its own drum.
Capcom Vancouver has therefore given the Xbox One something that PS4 does not have right now: a strong triple-A exclusive. Dead Rising 3 dares you to dream about high the bar can be set for the open world game during this generation on a technical and creative level, even with its obvious flaws in mission design. Not bad for a launch title.