Dead Rising 5 is a fresh take on a familiar premise. You play Chip West, great-grandson of the legendary Frank West. Like his ancestor, Chip is a wiseacre journalist, but the medium has had nearly a century to evolve. Chip’s holocam can record, transmit, and project holographic images. Conveniently enough, these convincing duplicates can be used to distract and confuse enemies, much like the holograms in the original Total Recall movie. “Hahahaha! You think this is the real Chip?”
Chip West is at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the lunar Westplex 2100, a state-of-the-art lunar habitat. It’s a self-contained, domed environment that includes a Frank West museum, multistory office building, eateries, shopping center, and more. Even though half of the habitat was under construction in my playtest copy, I had a massive area to explore. One of my favorite details is how the story interrupts Chip’s ribbon cutting, which leaves me holding a gigantic pair of gold scissors. They break after a couple dozen uses but are one of the most gory and spectacular weapons in the game.
*MASSIVE SPOILERS* One of the things that had me wary about this franchise entry was the conspicuous absence of any zombies. There’s a whole Westworld thing going on with androids running amok, along with the perennial batch of lunatics. The action was the same, but the premise felt a little alien and off-putting . . . until I took a close look at one of the downed “androids.” I had to zoom in with my camera to realize that I had been fighting zombies all along. Not long thereafter, the expository stranger, Nadia 01, showed up and confirmed my suspicions. The developer behind the Westplex 2100 had figured out a way to control zombies and employ them as service workers. He encased them in faux android costumes to avoid public outcry. The story went from Westworld to Disney’s The Black Hole in an instant. There’s even a transmitter dart tied to a short range remote control that lets you hack zombies. The inclusion of animal zombies in plush teddy bear exteriors is a fun touch conceptually, but they are miserable to fight, especially in zero-gravity. The Ted-e-torium is one of the hardest locations in the game.
The logistics of transporting so many zombies to the moon isn’t ever explained, but why was the population of the entire county at the Williamette Parkview Mall? Something, something Zombrex . . . something, something, newer, more aggressive strain . . . yadda, yadda zombies. There are clusters of zombies, rather than the wall-to-wall hordes in previous iterations. There are even unsettling moments without a zombie in sight, which may be a deal-breaker for some players. That said, they are relentless. Even with an upper tier arsenal, you can hit a zombie ten times and still end up being grappled and injured. Knock them down, and they crawl after you. Cut off a hand, and it crawls after you. The hands are the worst! Head shots are vital, but you have to knock off their armored helmets in close combat. The hands-down best feature of the game are the spontaneous ambushes that can occur nearly anywhere in the game. I was caught completely off-guard when zombies broke through a wall and attacked me while I was jogging down an empty hallway. They reach through grates, burst out of closets, and silently wander up behind you whenever you think that you are alone. DR5 went with quality over quantity. That choice may defy the franchise paradigm, but it feels like the first step toward a game that will marry both approaches when technology permits. My favorite zombie spawning point is the ball pit at the Play Palace. How did all of those zombies get there? Was there a pedophile convention in there before the outbreak?
I was initially frustrated at having to find a safe house. There are several options, but you have to locate them, clear out any zombies or hostile survivors, reinforce, and stockpile supplies before you can deposit any survivors there. The survivors are holed up in different locations. Each has a timer keeping track of how long they can hold out, but you won’t be aware of any given time constraint until you find them. Some only require that you have a safe house, others demand certain concessions before they will accompany you, and a handful are just overtly hostile. That last category comes with a caveat. After killing several hostile survivors, I ran into a couple groups whose attitudes shifted once I accomplished a particular goal. In one case, they decided I was enough of a “bad hombre” to follow after I’d killed half of the group and had the rest down to a sliver of health. The others stopped attacking when I picked up a Chip West cutout to smack them with and they realized who I was. It is possible that I could have convinced the other hostile groups to join me if only I had realized that there were conditions to be met. It’s important, because . . .
Saving people really matters. The number of rescued survivors determines the game’s outcome. You can dispatch survivors to accomplish numerous side quests, including rescuing other survivors, but you have to be very picky about your decisions. Sometimes the six survivors that you send to rescue a dozen people will fail, and you lose all eighteen. There are even sleepers who will turn into full-blown psychopaths if you dispatch them on a quest. One will turn your safe house into a cult compound if left unchecked, and another survivor . . . takes a much, much darker turn (I have a hard time seeing this make it into the final game). The petty bickering and whining gets tedious, but a lot of effort went into humanizing the survivors. Luckily, you can upload your photos of them to an online database, which will provide a few insights into their personalities and quirks. It is a tedious process though, especially considering the number of people you are managing. I gave up on it and just let the dice roll where they may.
One issue that I was happy to see addressed is that everyday objects have some value in the game again. Previous installments had veered further and further into the realm of the wild and wacky. There were numerous objects strewn about and nearly anything could technically be used as a weapon, but they only had real worth when combined into some goofy Rube Goldberg contraption. The zany weapons are still present, but the wackiness is dialed back just a tad. You can make it through the entire game just applying some slight tweaks to normal objects. For example, a stack of twenty steel cafeteria trays sounds underwhelming, but it only takes a couple of seconds to hone the edges to razor sharpness on a futuristic grindstone. Throw a bag of gemstones on the ground and fire a laser at them. The laser refracts and splits into a score of beams, which blast in all directions. The weapon system is more about spontaneous synchronicity than hunting down the components for optimized combos. You can go at it either way, but the game makes it consistently fun to use everything as a weapon.
I still can’t decide if some of the game’s quirks were intentional or just massively buggy. Zombies fall out of the sky on occasion. I think that they are falling out of upper-story windows, which would be kind of awesome, but there is no tinkle of broken glass, or even a splat, to signal their impact. I suspect that they are spawning in the wrong places. The gang of golf cart-riding geriatrics are obscenely tough. I quit the game for two days out of frustration and nearly gave up entirely. Even when I realized that I could cut down the palm trees and the importance of the golf balls, I just barely scraped by. Maybe this part is easy for other people.
I have probably spoiled more than I ought to, but I want to share a little about two of the endings. The worst possible outcome is that the dome gets blown open and everyone is sucked out into space. It is disheartening, but it is undeniably the coolest cinematic in the entire game, so polished that it feels like they started with it and worked backwards on designing the rest of the game. About the only way that you can get this result is if you have only rescued a handful of survivors or failed to dispatch them on maintenance runs. Harvey Flores, the custodian, is invaluable here, whereas Nadia 01 gets to be an annoying pain-in-the-ass. The “A” ending plays out a lot like an old James Bond flick. There is a bonus stretch in which you confront the man who designed the androids, an orange-skinned braggart, named Duterte Fuego. But, first you have to fight his “wives.” Hopefully, you can figure it out from the quotation marks, because the Stepford Wives implications are pretty disgusting. Fuego is a fun bad guy, a caricature of Donald Trump who aspires to be Walt Disney but can’t help becoming Idi Amin. Ultimately, he claims that it is better to be feared than loved, but he spends the big fight scene desperately fishing for compliments and approval. There is a break in the action while he puts on a mix tape of his experimental prog-rock. “I won’t kill you without blowing your mind.” If you lose, he begs, “Wait! Wait! Don’t die yet. What did you think of my music?” before you bleed out and the screen fades to black.
The sad news is that this version may never see daylight. Dead Rising 4 did not meet expectations, so Capcom Vancouver hedged its bets and started developing two potential sequels in tandem, Plan A and B. I received a copy of Plan A but have been told by multiple insiders that Plan B is gaining traction. There are a lot of factors at play, some tragic. Plan A’s lead developer dropped out after his wife was diagnosed with cancer, and two high profile software engineers died in a car accident on their way to lunch. The project lost its momentum after that and had a hard time finding the leadership that it needed to move forward. The game is engaging, but it is still very rough and clearly unfinished. This is definitely the point in development when it would be easier to cannibalize the game than to complete it for commercial release. The new lead wants to dial back the scope of the game, change the lunar dome into a terrestrial bio-dome, drop the android angle, and adjust the time frame to the more immediate future. Essentially, he wants the game to mirror the Plan B model that the other team is working on. Layoffs ensued, and so the writing is on the wall. It’s a shame, because this is certainly the Dead Rising that I want to exist.