Since its debut a decade ago, Dead Rising has continuously evolved with each new game. It's changed settings and protagonists, added crafting and vehicles, abandoned escort missions and limited saves. In spite of all these changes, however, the core gameplay always remained intact: grab whatever's handy to kill and maim droves of zombies in a huge variety of gruesome, hilarious ways. Dead Rising 4 maintains this tradition of superficial yet entertaining mayhem by adapting ideas from every previous iteration.
Intrepid photojournalist Frank West, for example, finally returns as our playable protagonist. We also revisit Willamette, Colorado, which has been completely rebuilt since the original outbreak many years prior. Tragically, it's once again the epicenter of an undead pandemic, only now its citizens are supposed to be inoculated. This raises a lot of questions for Frank and his rebellious protege Vick Chu, both of whom fight to uncover the truth in their own ways.
For a game that's all about mindless zombie murder, the storytelling is remarkably adept. Frank and Vick's relationship feels nuanced and believable. The central mystery consistently metes out new clues that keep the plot intriguing and the action meaningful. And though Frank isn't always likable, he's frequently relatable and entertaining, spouting goofy, smart-assed quips at every opportunity. There's also a coherent personality that binds every aspect of the experience together. From the dark, satirical humor of the collectible journals to the jaunty holiday music that plays over the pause screen, Dead Rising's juxtaposition of slaughter and silliness makes for a memorable world.
The gameplay, on the other hand, is a bit more mixed. Fundamentally, the core combat has evolved less than any other facet of the series. Though Frank uses a mix of melee, ranged, and throwable weapons, you're going to spend most of your time just mashing the X button to whack whatever's in front of you. It's serviceable, even satisfying in its cathartic brutality, but it's also rudimentary, offering little depth or challenge.
In fact, Dead Rising 4 is rarely challenging in any way, and there's no way to select a higher difficulty level. I always had plenty of health and weapons, and armed enemy soldiers seemed nearly as braindead as the undead. The new super-agile Evo zombies are definitely harder to put down, but of the 14,000-plus zombies I killed, only 71 were Evos. Honestly, the hardest part of Dead Rising 4 is trying to pick a specific item up when it's situated too near a pile of other objects.
While greater mechanical depth could have made Dead Rising 4 a more intense and rewarding game, I can mostly forgive its one-note combat for two big reasons. First, the deep and hilarious supply of outrageous combo weapons. There are now more than 50 in total, and once you've obtained a blueprint and the requisite materials, you can craft your new death-dealer on the fly rather than dragging everything to a workbench like Dead Rising 2.
Whether you've created an electrified axe or a toy Santa that spits acid, new combo weapons consistently provide fleeting bursts of concentrated joy. And though not technically a combo weapon, the new Exo suit--a mechanical exoskeleton that turns Frank into a robotic superhuman--provides several hilarious ways to send zombies screaming into oblivion. Suits are scattered sparingly across the map and they lose power pretty quickly, but they're a blast while they last. The game may not challenge your skills, but it certainly rewards your curiosity.
There's also plenty to do outside of combat. Unlike the original and its immediate sequel, Dead Rising 4's campaign doesn't have a timer, and while that erodes the series' identity to a degree, it allows the open world and all its activities to breathe. The central mall and its surrounding areas are packed with hidden secrets, interesting weapons, and compelling collectibles. Obtaining combo weapon blueprints frequently forces exploration and puzzle-solving, which can be frustrating but also satisfying. You can also seek out "maniacs"--special side bosses that aren't quite as memorable as previous games' "psychopaths" but can nonetheless hit you with an amusing curveball. Along the way, you might also discover survivors that need rescuing--though thankfully you'll never have to escort anyone to a safehouse.
And of course, Frank's packing his trademark camera, so photography returns as an optional method for accruing experience and Achievements--and the progression system, though perfunctory, does give the campaign a sense of forward momentum. Frank's camera also plays a crucial role in the Arkham-esque investigation sequences that periodically pop up during the campaign. The process of saving your photos isn't particularly well explained upfront, but having a metagame that's always available can turn even random exploration into a worthwhile endeavor.
In defiance of the two most recent Dead Rising games, co-op has been removed from the campaign and funneled into a separate multiplayer mode. The pacing and narrative scaffolding of the campaign work well without a partner, but the new mode doesn't offer much consolation for co-op fans. Basically, you and your squad spawn in a slice of the world, complete a series of objectives selected from a small, preset pool, then head for a randomly designated safe zone. It's enjoyable enough, but the unimaginative structure and lack of distinct gameplay ideas make the mode feel like an afterthought. You can, at least, find continued enjoyment in the campaign by starting again with all your blueprints and skill unlocks intact once you've completed your first playthrough.
Regardless of what you choose to play, Dead Rising 4's tech holds up well--for the most part. I noticed a few zombies trapped in objects with just their arms poking out of, say, a giant rock, but the framerate never slowed noticeably, which is quite a feat considering how zombies could populate the screen at once.
Dead Rising's zombie-slaughtering formula has started to wear a bit thin after all these years, especially since its combat remains largely routine. The surprisingly well-crafted story, wild new combo weapons, and expansive open world elements, however, turn Dead Rising 4 into an over-the-top piece of popcorn entertainment that captures the series' best elements.