Let me get this out of the way first. I didn't really like the first Dead Rising. I had great fun playing in the sandbox, hitting hockey pucks into zombie heads and running crowds of the undead down with shopping trolleys, but I hated the way the game was structured, specifically how the save points were implemented. And then there was the infuriating boss fights; they still make me shudder to think of them. I returned several times, intent on giving it another chance, mainly because of the fun I'd had with the game's various weapons, but every time I put it down again disappointed.
So, it was with some trepidation that I put the disc of Dead Rising 3 into the drive of the Xbox One. At first, I have to say, I wasn't entirely convinced about the third entry in the series from Capcom Vancouver; rough edges and lingering memories came to the fore. However, my mind was changed about two hours in. Once the game had sunk its virus-infected teeth into me, I revised my initial conclusion: this is my favourite Dead Rising.
Gone is the playful and vibrant aesthetic. Gone is the comic book-like take on reality. DR3 is a grittier, more atmospheric take on the formula, but make no mistake, it's Dead Rising through and through.
Players still control a survivor - this time a mechanic called Nick Ramos - and move him around a zombie-packed world, rescuing citizens from the undead, racing against the clock to objectives, unravelling the mysteries that underpin the latest outbreak, and picking up a huge variety of objects from the environment and using them to violent (and often comedic) effect.
Where Dead Rising 3 improves on the formula for me is in the shift of art style, and the revisions to the save system. On a normal play-through you can save anywhere, logging any progress instantly (although your exact position isn't retained - you still go back to the last checkpoint). You can also save at the many "porter-potties" situated across the map, and there's plenty of them so there's ample opportunity throughout. I never felt harshly treated by the new save system, and as such I had a much more enjoyable time.
The boss fights are also an improvement. It's a subtle one, but I found them to be a more accessible experience. As in previous games, the boss battles are against psychos that are taking advantage of the zombie holocaust, though this time they're usually optional, not barring progress through the main story. Even in the battles that must be fought, there's the odd restart, but there was nothing that felt insurmountable. Approach certain psychos too early and they'll be a tough, sometimes overwhelming challenge, but once you've got to grips with the game's systems, there's nothing that is too difficult; victory is always achievable. There's a nice balance between challenge and accessibility.
For all its grit, Dead Rising 3 is still bordering on silly. I liked the new, darker feel to proceedings, but sometimes it didn't quite sit right when juxtaposed with the ridiculousness on offer to players who want to explore the more extravagant aspects of its design. It's clearly been made to appeal to two different markets; those that enjoyed the playfulness of the first two games, and those wanting something a little maturer. Most of the time you can make what you want of it, but sometimes the lines blur and you're left in no-mans land, stuck between the game's twin identities.
This blurred duality usually manifests itself most prominently in the weapons and vehicles you use in the game. DR3 is set in a city (albeit a small one), broken into four areas and linked by highways. There's no loading as you move around (although the load times between deaths are roughly 45 seconds - if you hit a tricky patch that requires several restarts that can start to really drag), and it's big enough that navigating between the various sections of the map requires a vehicle.
There's plenty just waiting around, headlights flickering to indicate that they're roadworthy, and once you've discovered various blueprints that are dotted around the world and have levelled up your combo skills, you can start to craft your own custom vehicles (by parking normal vehicles side-by-side, standing between them and pressing A). There's a decent variety of homemade options, and they're more robust than normal cars, and they come packing weapons or features that makes running through swathes of zombies a joy.
Similarly, weapons can be combined to make more potent combinations. Some of the combos make absolutely no sense, and look nothing like their component parts (the same applies with the vehicles), but it's a small gripe. For the most part it's a fun system that encourages exploration in order to find the required blueprints, and the tools you create can make all the difference in some of the trickier situations you'll find yourself in. Unlike Dead Rising 2, where you were limited to crafting weapons on work benches, here you can combo your gear anywhere you like, which means there's plenty more opportunity to see the different possibilities on offer.
As you level Nick up he becomes more capable. Each level yields up ‘attribute points' which can be spent on either boosting certain skills (health, inventory slots, melee, etc etc.) or combo abilities (cars, trucks, melee, ranged etc etc.). There's a fair amount of flexibility in how you specialise, and once you've completed the game you can restart with your stats intact. You'll also have a much better idea of what is where on the map, and will be able to take advantage of this knowledge in subsequent play-throughs.
The story itself is spread out over nine chapters. In normal story mode you have seven days - which is more than enough time to do everything - before you need to get out of town. The military is planning on destroying the whole area, so as to wipe out the latest zombie epidemic.
For those who want an experience more akin to that of the original Dead Rising, there's Nightmare mode. Here the time at your disposal is shortened, so there won't be enough minutes in the day to save everyone, and it increases the strength of the zombies you'll encounter (though with the skills earned over a full play-through, progress is still manageable). It's basically the old Dead Rising version of the new game, with more pressure to hit your objectives. You'll miss content and survivors will perish because you can't save them in time, so if you want to make those kind of life and death decisions, this is where you'll make them.
Along the way you'll meet an eclectic mix of characters, each of whom will send Nick on a variety of tasks (usually fetch quests) around the city. The plot itself, as is the way with the zombie genre in general, is bordering on B movie, but it's engaging, and delivered in an entertaining manner. There's some genuinely funny moments, there's plenty of intrigue in the overall plot, and Nick comes across as a likeable character (even if he does start off as a bit of a wet blanket). There's twists and turns along the way, and the last chapter is particularly well handled (there's multiple endings depending on the decisions you make along the way - the one I experienced was difficult but brilliant).
There's a SmartGlass feature where you can use your tablet or mobile to assist you on your travels, setting waypoints and calling in airstrikes. Sadly we weren't able to test the feature - we couldn't get it working. Apparently it's good for co-op play, which is another thing we weren't able to try. However, Kinect functionality is in place. You can yell at the undead, and through the microphone you'll get their attention on screen. Have the Kinect plugged in and if a zombie on the floor grabs Nick's foot, you'll have to do a DualShock shake with the controller to get it off - switch off the Kinect and it's replaced with a button tap on a timer. Worryingly, when Kinect was on, sometimes the game would come out of pause unprompted, which led to a couple of deaths during toilet breaks. This wasn't a problem when the Kinect was turned off.
Having praised the game, there's still a few issues that need to be mentioned, and they're fairly significant. Given that Dead Rising 3 is a next-gen launch title, much attention is going to be paid to the visual and technical side of the game. Sad to say, it's not tiptop in either area. The grimy graphical sheen definitely works, but it doesn't distract from the many visual imperfections you'll discover as you move around the fictitious city of Los Perdidos. Scenery pop-ups, textures phase in and out of view, and there's plenty of glitches (items hovering in the air and whatnot). Much has been made of the game's frame rate, and while it dips from time to time, it's never dropped low enough to ruin my enjoyment. Overall it's clear that there's not been enough time spent on polishing the final product, likely a result of the rush to meet the next-gen launch deadline - we'll be keeping an eye out come launch day to see if a patch appears to clean up these issues.
There's an impressive amount of zombies on screen, especially when driving across the highways that link the four sections of the map. There's not a huge variety of zombie skins on display, but given the large numbers present that's excusable. What's less excusable is the zombie tableaux that you'll often see, with huge groups of the undead stuck in a pose, waiting for you get close before springing to life. At times it can feel like they're playing zombie musical statues, and it's a regular reminder that, despite the impressive number of enemies on screen, the game still has technical limitations.
However, despite the aforementioned shortcomings, Dead Rising 3 is good fun to play. The map is just big enough to keep things interesting (though it's not big enough to compare to other open-world adventures like Far Cry 3 or GTA V), and there's a lot of things to do in the sandbox. A friendly soul will regularly contact you on a walkie talkie to tell you about survivors that are stranded across the city and in need of assistance, and there's plenty of buildings to explore as you go, each offering collectibles and seemingly irrelevant objects that can be used to create daft new weapons.
For those seeking a return to the comedy thrills of past iterations, there's enough of that original spirit here for that to still be possible, despite the grittier tone. Some won't appreciate the new save system and relaxed emphasis on timekeeping, but the remedy for that is to go straight to Nightmare mode as it's more inline with what's come before. If you're new to the series and are just after a decent zombie-fest and an open-world to explore on your new console, you'll find that here too. If you can forgive the fact that it's not the perfect advert for next-gen gaming, there's plenty of reasons to take a trip to Los Perdidos.