In the land before time (or at least the land before Halo 3), 2006’s Dead Rising was one of the first true reasons anyone had to own an Xbox 360. Dead Rising boasted hundreds of zombies on screen at any given moment and the inventory of an entire shopping mall meant to be used against them as hero Frank West tried to survive three days until rescue. Dead Rising 2, on the other hand, boasts hundreds of zombies on screen at any given moment – and the inventory of an entire shopping district to be used against them – as hero Chuck Greene tries to survive three days until rescue.

Yeah.

If you’ve already played the original Dead Rising, you’ll find that Dead Rising 2 doesn’t do much to shake up the formula that worked so well in the first game. The biggest change, of course, is the setting and story: As former motocross champion Chuck Greene, you are caught in the middle of a zombie outbreak in scenic Fortune City, Nevada (Las Vegas by any other name). To make matters worse, you’re blamed for it – and your zombie-infected daughter needs a rare medicine every day, or she’ll die. You have three days before the military rolls in to save the day, and if you haven’t cleared your name by then you – and your daughter – are done for.

Ultimately, Dead Rising 2 is a game about timers. Your Mission Control will periodically call you with the location of zombie-attack survivors throughout the Fortune City strip. If you go to their aid and escort them back to the safe house, you’ll be rewarded – sometimes substantially – but they won’t hold out forever, and if you wait too long they’ll be killed by the zombies. You’ll have to juggle timers between saving survivors, progressing the plot and finding anti-zombie drug Zombrex for your daughter Katey, and the three-day timer is omnipresent and ever-ticking.

If you’re intent on saving everybody – whether for the rewards or to be a nice guy – you won’t have much time to explore the world that developer Blue Castle has laid out for gamers, which is really kind of a shame. The Fortune City strip is large and vibrant, and exploring the various casinos and shopping districts is almost entertaining enough to be a game in its own right, but completionists never get to see much of it beyond what they pass through on their way to the next mission.

In this, Dead Rising 2 almost feels like a self-contradiction. Katey needs a shot of Zombrex every twenty-four hours, and if you don’t feel like shelling out exorbitant prices at the makeshift pawnshops or can’t find a survivor with a spare dose, you’ll need to find it yourself via extensive exploration – which the game’s timer-focused gameplay discourages. It’s undoubtedly a design choice on the part of the dev team to make sure players feel like what they choose to do has weight, but it gets more than a little frustrating. If there was any game that needed a pure “sandbox mode,” Dead Rising 2 is at the top of the list.

The Psychopath battles complicate things, too. Sometimes you’ll head to a mission only to find that the survivor in question is not there to be led to safety but has lost their mind and will attack you instead. These boss battles feel more like chores than anything else, particularly in combination with the cumbersome save system: Since the game only saves when Chuck goes to the bathroom (or at major plot events, which are few and far between), it isn’t uncommon for you to go long stretches of time without saving.

While it’s usually clear when a mission will be a Psychopath battle, that isn’t always the case – and if you lose half an hour of progress because you accidentally wandered into a fight you couldn’t handle, it induces controller-tossing levels of frustration. Even if you did remember to save, frequent loading screens make the trek back to the boss a slog, and the game’s combat engine simply wasn’t made for fighting individual targets.

What it is made for is killing groups of zombies, and it does that as expertly as ever. The meat of Dead Rising 2 is slaughtering the undead en masse with whatever happens to be at hand, and it’s terrific amounts of fun. The original Dead Rising let you use anything you could pick up as a weapon, and Dead Rising 2 ups it a notch with the addition of combo weapons. From a nail-studded baseball bat to a water gun squirting flaming gasoline, the combo weapons are creative to behold and a delight to use.

As with the environment, though, the system feels a bit restrictive. The game doesn’t tell you you can use a weapon to its full extent until you’ve found the appropriate combo card, and generally, each item combines with exactly one or two other things. It would have been nice to allow players some more experimentation: What happens when I stick knives on a boxing glove as opposed to, say, a saw blade? (Saw-punchers!)

There’s no doubt that Dead Rising 2 is an upgraded Dead Rising. It inherits problems from its predecessor, some of which it fixes (thank goodness for multiple save files), and some of which it doesn’t. The frequent load screens are irritating, and it seems to have suffered problems in transition from the Xbox 360 to the PS3 – like choppy framerates and glitching during boss fights, to name the two most glaring ones.

Dead Rising 2 has its share of flaws and shortcomings, but it also preserves the original Dead Rising‘s sense of silly fun. Riding a pink tricycle through a crowd of zombies in just your heart-patterned boxers is hilarious. Impaling the living dead on the horns of a moose head is a riot. Getting dressed up in a polo shirt and jeans and taking a sword to the shambling undead like a yuppie ninja is as entertaining as it’s ever been. It’s enough to make you almost forgive every bit of teeth-gnashingly frustrating game design you’ll run into.

Almost. Those loading screens can die in a fire.

Bottom Line: It’s an upgraded and improved Dead Rising set in a Las Vegas knockoff. Dead Rising 2 is at its best when you’re goofing off, finding new combo weapons and exploring the Fortune City Strip – and that works so well that you’re almost inclined to forgive it its faults, like irritating boss battles and a cumbersome save system. Those zombies aren’t going to kill themselves, you know.

Recommendation: If you ever liked the first Dead Rising, this is a no-brainer – it’s that, but better. If you’re a zombie fan, it’s also a damn good choice. A rental for everyone else.

This review was based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.

[rating=4]

John Funk dresses in his Sunday best to hunt zombies.

Game: Dead Rising 2
Genre: Action
Developer: Blue Castle
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: September 24th, 2010
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon (360), Amazon (PS3)

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