On Christmas Eve, photojournalist Frank West—formerly a John McClane-style everyman, now a goofball resembling Ash Williams by way of Peter Venkman—is stranded in the town of Willamette, where military experimentation has led to a mass zombie outbreak. Only Frank, of course, can weld together a sledgehammer and buzzsaw to slice up the undead and rescue the few survivors still clinging to their humanity. And as you craft weapons and vehicles in insane ways to enhance your rampage through hundreds of zombies, Dead Rising 4 certainly makes a terrific first impression.
The game begins in a large, detailed shopping mall reminiscent of the original Dead Rising’s setting; every store is packed to the brim with weapons and items that can be collected and utilized for zombie slaughter. Then, players are moved to the larger city outside the mall, at which point Dead Rising 4 begins to stick closely to the gameplay mechanics that made the series stand out against other modern open-world action games: Frank can use every item in the game to punch, stab, slice, dismember, crush, and explode zombies, sometimes hundreds at a time, and the controls are so satisfyingly fluid as to feel empowering. Unfortunately, every other element that would have made this game another solid entry in the series is undercut.
The original Dead Rising evinces a take-no-prisoners approach to the zombie apocalypse: enemies are strong and plentiful, supplies are limited, and missions depend on rescuing survivors across large areas. The cutthroat time limits ensure that many innocents will perish. The game also has a single save file; deaths are permanent and there are no mulligans. Dead Rising 3 was derided for easing the difficulty of this gameplay so as to accommodate newcomers, but it still offers the option of a “Nightmare Mode” that makes the game just as difficult as previous series entries. The pathetically easy Dead Rising 4, though, does away with time limits and other difficulty settings altogether. Survivors will not expire if ignored; they’re effectively invincible, and often it feels as if Frank’s actions make little difference to the world.
Even the game’s tougher enemies and bosses are easily dispatched with base weapons, and the narrative is a pointless mess of tropes and instantly forgettable characters. Not only does this sequel provide little challenge, it’s also effectively free of tension. The joys of strapping together power tools to dismember large crowds of zombies is undeniable but short-lived without characters to engage with and a narrative to care about.
Worse, the game’s potentially exciting Christmas theme proves irrelevant, as the handful of festive weapons and holiday-inspired areas make negligible impact on the gameplay. The opportunity to build upon the series’s combo-weapon system by allowing players to fashion their own recipe of items is missed entirely; combinations can only be made from blueprints found in the world. (At some point in the time between Dead Rising and Dead Rising 4 Frank forgot how to combine nails with a baseball bat and now requires a guide.) Worse, these essential blueprints are randomly staggered around the world and a sizeable portion of them create useless devices.
In the end, the pleasure derived from Dead Rising 4’s gameplay is fleeting, and the goofy sense of humor diminishes the longer the game goes on, all the way through to a tonally abrupt ending that channels at random the wackiness of Saint’s Row and the grim bleakness of The Walking Dead. (A proper ending to the game will be available next year as paid downloadable content, meaning salt will be rubbed on a festering wound.) This is a defanged sequel unlikely to satisfy series fans or appeal to new ones.