Dead Rising 2 (for some reason, I almost typed Dead To Rights 2, and now I’m picturing a game where Jack Slate crushes the undead legions between his massive balls) is a game that has earned an extremely rare distinction: it is a game that I actually wanted to play more of after I’d finished reviewing it. Usually, my interest drains when I am no longer under a professional obligation to play a game, but over the years I’ve been compiling a list of games to come back to once I’m a rich and comfortable novelist with more free time. Dead Rising 2 is on the list, along with Assassin’s Creed 2, Just Cause 2, and the Mario Galaxies.
Unusually, though, I actually had time last week to play Dead Rising 2 as far as Overtime Mode, and came to an additional conclusion that they may have scaled back the difficulty too far. While Dead Rising 1’s psychopaths and escorts were an extremely meaty challenge, if somewhat marred by infuriating stunlocking and terrible AI, Dead Rising 2 is a comparative breeze. While in DR1 you’d need to kit out your team of survivors like the marines from Aliens and patiently set waypoints all the way to the safehouse in case anyone forgot how to navigate an ankle-high ledge, you barely even need to acknowledge the DR2 survivors and they’ll follow you to the edge of the world, or at least the edge of the current map. And most of the bosses are easily defeated with powerful combo weapons and copious amounts of orange juice and coffee creamer. The final boss in the main story mode is absolutely trivial if you take five minutes out of your time to visit the gun shop before confronting him and pick up a sniper rifle.
But then I realized that the common thread of my “too easy” arguments was preparation. The boss fights are only easy if you’re properly prepared for them. Even the final boss killed me on my first go, but after seeing that all he did was stand on an elevated platform throwing things, I realized that he had an obvious throbbing weakness to long-range weapons and went on a gun shop tour before my second attempt. And the only reason I knew that orange juice and coffee creamer were the best healing items in the game was because I remember that being the case in DR1. Nothing in the games draw your attention to this fact – you just have to experiment and find out for yourself.
And with that in mind, I remembered that my first attempt at the game had been fraught with difficulty. Bosses gave me considerably more trouble, and several of them I’d simply gave up on ever beating. This wasn’t just because I was low level and hadn’t learned the dodge roll: Until I conversed with a friend about it, I didn’t actually know that you could make combo weapons even if you haven’t found its recipe card. This same friend also taught me about the fireaxe/sledgehammer combo which not only does massive damage but is also a license to print experience points when you swing it into a zombie horde. But the game doesn’t draw any attention to the weapon, or the orange juice, and didn’t really tell me anything except “you have 72 hours before rescue, also: zombies.” Everything has to be discovered.
I think there’s a lot to be said for a game that has zero instructions and makes the player figure out everything for his or her self. Some weeks ago, after reviewing Shadow of the Colossus, I said that more games should emphasize exploration, and Dead Rising embodies a particular aspect of exploration: scientifically discovering the use and application of the game’s pickups and weapons rather than just its environments; setting up a row of five melee weapons in your inventory and systematically determining which one is the best at detaching mandibles. It adds a whole extra dimension to gameplay. Lord knows there are enough games that obnoxiously hold your hand for far too long – I’m thinking of the start of the first Red Steel, where you are instructed to look at four different fish in turn to prove you know the difference between up, down, left and right.
Not that leaving out instructions and tutorials would always be preferable. In, say, linear sequential platformers like Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia, the game requires the player to pick up some quite complicated maneuvers just to proceed through the game at its most basic level, so player training is necessary. There’s a notorious case in the otherwise quite good 90s step platformer Flashback. For a 2D platformer the controls were overcomplicated at the best of times, but there’s a ledge at the start of the second level that can only be accessed by performing a specific kind of running jump quite separate to the standard running jump that wasn’t necessary up to that point and never will be again. Yes, the details on the jump were given in the game’s manual, but this was back in Amiga days when 90 percent of your game collection was copied from schoolyard chums. And don’t even try to deny it, you thieving prick.
More to the point, protagonists like Lara Croft are supposed to be career adventurers with years of training and independent knowledge, so her actions at the hands of an inexperienced player – like continually running into walls and jumping up and down fruitlessly in front of a chest-high wall – would seem out of character. Deliberately giving a player zero or limited instruction would, thinking about it, be more of a thematic benefit than anything else. There was an old C64 game called Hacker, a science fiction-y computer hacking “sim” whose major selling point was that the game came with virtually no instructions, because the player character was supposed to be improvising their way through unknown systems. I didn’t play it myself, but apparently the game was memorable enough to warrant a Wikipedia page, which is usually a good sign.
And Dead Rising’s lack of instruction also fits well with the theme, because your characters are supposed to be scrappy, unprepared survivors forced to jury-rig spontaneous solutions from whatever comes to hand. That’s why DR makes good watercooler conversation, because every player has their own story of how their favorite melee weapon broke while they were in a toy shop holding off the horde, forcing them to grab a nearby cash register or teddy bear and beat a path to the door (Dead Rising is one of the few games where including weapon degradation was a good idea, Silent Hill: Origins, take note).
The major issue I can see with games that base themselves around discovery is that it is, by its very nature, limited. It’ll never be the same as that first bleary-eyed playthrough when there was so much to learn. As Dead Rising 2 demonstrates, once you have figured out where to get the best weapons and orange juice then it can become quite routine, and you’ve just got to hope the gameplay is still entertaining enough to hold up the experience. But then again, am I really so hard to please that I’m now asking games to just continue surprising me infinitely? Well, why shouldn’t I? It’s because of big dreamers like me that things like motor cars were invented, even though horses did the job perfectly well and didn’t emit as many catastrophic farts.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.