Thursday 9 September 2010

Video Game Review: Dead Rising 2 - Case Zero

In the United States, publishing monolith Macmillan has released pay-per-prologue ebooks for each installment of The Wheel of Time series since the turn of the millennium. The latest, Distinctions, just hit electronic shelves everywhere: $3 will net you a few thousand words meant to set the scene for Towers of Midnight, volume thirteen of Robert Jordan's sprawling fantasy saga.

Now. I'll confess to an utter dearth of interest in The Wheel of Time, even given Brandon Sanderson's involvement - pillory me if you will - so I don't suppose I can say with any certainty that Distinctions and its decade of antecedents are the calculated cash-ins they appear to be; certainly fans of the series eat them up, or else we wouldn't be seeing one for every new novel in the saga, would we? My raised eyebrows aside, I can see the purpose such premium taste-tests serve: the better to whet one's appetite (that is presupposing one has a hankering for such a dish) for the main course to come.

In literature, then, paid previews - at least for giants of the genre like Jordan (and Sanderson, evidently) - are old news. In other media, however... not so much. Case Zero, for instance, is something of a first in gaming: a payquel, they're calling it, though I've heard a few pundits bandying about the term "pre-DLC," too. It's a short, standalone experience, in any event; perhaps three hours in length - though your mileage may vary dramatically, depending on whether you mean to accomplish everything Case Zero has to offer or just to power through the story - it takes place, in narrative terms, a full three years before the events of Dead Rising 2, the belated sequel to a fan-favourite game due for release later this month. It introduces us to Chuck Greene, former motocross champion and DIY enthusiast, as well as his daughter, Katey.

Katey hasn't been keeping so well, sadly. In the aftermath of the outbreak in Santa Cabeza chronicled in the original Dead Rising, her mum fell tragically afoul of the zombie horde and bit - the beast - her own little girl. Chuck and Katey have been on the run ever since, the former stalling the onset of the undead plague in the latter with injections of Zombrex every twelve hours. Thus, they stop off in the unassuming little town of Still Creek to replenish their supplies of such, only for some opportunistic git to steal away in Chuck's truck, stranding the father and daughter in a town the military (read: evil authority figures) mean to blockade when night falls that very day.

The plot is so much stuff and nonsense, of course. This isn't The Reapers Are The Angels, by any stretch. At best, in narrative terms, it's Land of the Dead... but no-one's coming to Case Zero for its gripping storytelling, anyway. What plot there is serves singularly to justify an array of gameplay mechanics you'll either love or utterly loathe: the small, if surprisingly fully formed area in which you can face off against the never-ending zombie menace; the dreadfully oppressive march of time which inhibits you, as Chuck (in, for instance, a beer hat and a repurposed cocktail waitress' dress), from doing everything there is to be done in this Dead Rising payquel. The acquired mechanics of that Xbox 360 launch game are back in full force in Case Zero, you see. Three hours will get you from start to finish, yes, but only if you ignore the twelve Still Creek survivors, who each have their own demands on your limited time and resources, and leave off the new core mechanic, which is to say fashioning ridiculous new weapons out of the scrap abandoned around town.

For each new weapon you craft - from the hilariously unhelpful drill helmet through to the paddlesaw, with which you can carve a bloody path through the horde - Chuck will earn PP, and thus level up, gaining a largely random buff to one of his abilities. You might win more health, an additional inventory slot (and inventory management is as high a priority as ever it was in the original game), a new move, or else a combo card, which multiplies the PP you get for each kill with a particular combination weapon. There are a few other ways to earn PP - by saving a survivor, say, or completing a chapter of the short story - but combination weapons are your prime source of income in terms of experience. There are nine on offer in Case Zero alone... well, eight and a handy beer hat!

And it's great time. Scouring the streets of Still Creek for cast-off equipment and making something supremely fun out of a traffic cone and a tin of spraypaint - if lamentably unhelpful - easily supplants the photography component of the original game; those who feared Blue Castle Games would lose what essentially defined Dead Rising in so doing should be pleasantly surprised. There's more depth, I dare say, and certainly more flexibility to the workbench action in Case Zero than there ever was to Frank Castle's old Kodak.

For myself, I don't S-Rank many games. I play a whole lot of the things - love you LoveFilm! - but I'm mostly in them for the fun, and the glazed-eye grind to kill however many thousands of enemies for some paltry gamerscore is not often that. Initially, in fact, I wasn't even sure I'd part with my hard-earned for Case Zero, but the pittance Capcom are pushing it for - 400 MSP (spacebucks to the value of $5 or just shy of £4) - made the sale a no-brainer. In terms of value for money, then, there's so much game in here that the publishers are practically giving Case Zero away, and though the quirky mechanics of Dead Rising return in full force, once the initial frustration over having to drop your spiked bat to pick up a shiny new broadsword wears off, it feels... it feels like coming home. Technically, this ballsy payquel is far from perfect: there are wonky animations, dodgy textures, a bit of framiness and load times a touch too long. That said, what Case Zero is, from top to bottom, is fun - and isn't that all that matters, in the end?

Dead Rising 2, here I come!

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