Sunday, January 20, 2008

Case Study: Dead Rising

I finally got a 360 a couple of weeks ago, and one of the first games I got for it was Dead Rising, a title I had been looking forward to playing as a guilty pleasure since before it came out. I can't say I am completely disappointed as I have completed it and plan to play through it again at least once more, but there are a few key areas where it fell quite short of my expectations.

Small text on standard def TVs

This is a big deal, and really my main complaint with the title. The text is so small, and notoriously so, as to be illegible on standard def TVs. The excuse for this is that Dead Rising is intended to be one of the first true “next gen” games and so doesn't need to waste its time on pathetic fools like myself who don't have a television set priced in the four digit range. But there is no voice acting outside of cutscenes either, so don't expect aural clues to help you out if you find the text too small to read. I guess “next gen” isn't as concerned with sound quality….

To make matters even worse, most of the guidance in the game comes in the form of textual phone calls that you will receive, likely while fending off dozens of zombies. These phone calls do not pause the game, so while you are squinting trying to read the tiny text at the bottom of the screen to figure out where to go next you better keep your avatar moving away from the horde. And you better squint-read fast; the phone dialog advances automatically, with no extra time padding for standard def setups.

Identity Crisis

There are two main types of horror games, each appealing to different types of players and providing a different experience. The first type is the survival sub-genre, pretty self-explanatory: think Resident Evil before RE4, or the Silent Hill series. In these games, the horror element really stands out as nearly every encounter is a challenge and constantly trying to avoid an easy death gives the player an appreciation for life that makes every victory in combat (including running away) feel significant. Naturally, enemies are sparse in these types of games to keep tension up.

The second type of horror game is the action sub-genre; think Doom or Quake, or even RE4, which went in a different direction from previous Resident Evil titles in terms of controls and enemy density. Action horror games are all about empowering the player; scaring them with hideous humanoids and demons, sure, but giving them powerful weapons and Olympic-caliber running speed so they can take on dozens of foes with ease. Action horror games induce adrenaline in the player, but for different reasons. Survival horror games are flight, action horror games are fight.

The problem with Dead Rising is that it tries in too many ways to be both. Instead of elegantly straddling the fence like Resident Evil 4, it just ends up feeling fragmented. The basic premise of the game, being trapped in a mall with tens of thousands of zombies and being able to use almost anything in the environment as a weapon, lends itself perfectly well to the action horror genre. However, the player starts the game with only four health, and it isn't terribly rare to get grabbed by a group of zombies as you run by them and lose one (or more) health. Replenishing health and saving slow the pace of the game down (you can't just save anywhere), and each boss fight feels overly difficult considering how early in the game you can run into said bosses, long before becoming comfortable with the controls.

*spoiler, but frankly: mild*
And don't get me started on the cultists, groups of enemies that wield knives and can dash at you or even blow themselves up. No, I will get myself started. These enemies appear early in the game in a time-release manner (from what I can tell). And when you trigger the cutscene that causes them to appear—a cutscene which is triggered by returning to a part of the mall that you have to run through many times to get back to your security room “base”, ensuring that you will trigger it— you will suddenly see cultists all over the mall until you find their base and kill their leader. They will respawn when you leave and return to the area, just like regular zombies. On top of their knives and suicide bombing technique, cultists also have a gas attack. If you get hit by this, it is not an instant game over—but at low levels, it just as well be. You will wake up in the cultists' hideout, stripped of your clothes and weapons, and have to fight through just as many cultists with no equipment. This will happen regardless of how much health you have when hit by the gas, from what I could tell. Fun times to be had.

Normally I would be ecstatic about this sort of alternative to a game over, which I think is a healthy direction for game designers to keep exploring. However, the proper theory behind game over alternatives is to provide the player with a second chance at a problem by challenging another set of skills that they may be better at—stealth would be a good example here. Unfortunately, the cultist gimmick merely challenges the player in the same dimension—the dimension of combat—and even removes their weapons, making it even harder. It tries to be a neat gimmick, but with how often the cultists use this attack it really only takes one or two occurrences before it gets old.
*end mild spoiler*


Some people laud the difficulty, saying that it makes you appreciate the effort of planning and staying alive. Yet how much finesse can you expect your player to work with in a game with so many enemies you can mow them down like blades of grass? Most of the justification that I can find for this game's difficulty comes from people explaining how easy it is once you know how to get this weapon, or where these healing items are. Unfortunately for new players, they don't know the mall like the back of their hands, and the bosses and tougher enemies are not going to wait for them to learn it. And what few clues the player is given come in the form of illegible text that the player must read during said difficult combat.

Dead Rising sets itself up to be an adrenaline ride, an empowering killathon. Unfortunately, overly difficult enemies and a strict save system tend to cause initial playthroughs to feel sluggish, nearly ruining the promised experience. With all of that said, I still enjoyed the game enough to beat it (the 72 hour mode at least, which is far less than 72 real time hours), and look forward to going back and trying to complete more case files as well as the overtime and infinity play modes. I get and respect what Capcom was going for with the strange and strict save system (only one save at a time, save points somewhat scarce), I just don't think this was the game to plug that into.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I was always surprised you were interested in Dead Rising, because by the time it had come out you seemed (to me anyways) to have developed more refined tastes in games--which I guess is to be expected of anyone whose profession revolves around the Art. Of course, I'm implying that Dead Rising looked like a game with little substance. "Oh cool, Final Fight got a graphic overhaul and some violence."

I like your point about Game Overs, and I share your sentiments. It's time for game developers to stop taking the phrase literally. There is also something to be said of games which lack any sort of Game Over concept, like Animal Crossing or Brain Age.

It absolutely amazes me that the 72 hour mode doesn't last 72 hours. Hey--what ever happened to our game "Eighty Hours"? That was going to be the best RPG ever.