Dead Rising 2: Be Careful What You Wish For
I loved the first Dead Rising. For all its flaws, it presented a unique challenge that was unlike any other game on the market. And when the dust settled, and I'd collected my 50 achievements, I wanted more. More of the same would have been just fine with me. Needless to say, Dead Rising 2 had me suitably excited.
Dead Rising, as a franchise, is not meant to be played once. Playing through the story a single time is akin to playing the first stage in any other game. That's because the goal of Dead Rising games is not to finish the story, to save survivors, or to defeat psychopaths. It certainly isn't to kill zombies. The goal of Dead Rising games is to explore and master your environment. Although this goal is never made explicit, you've "beaten" a Dead Rising game when you know the locations of all of your favorite weapons, the times that survivors appear, and the best routes through the mall.
The Dead Rising games are essentially "Groundhog Day" in game form. If you fail at your goal, you start over again. Your in-game avatar retains his experience and skill, but, more importantly, so do you, the player. It's through this iterative process that the true game mechanic begins to shine through: mastering your environment and becoming the anointed King of the Mall. Your first time through, zombies might be a significant danger (or at least annoyance) to you, and psychopaths are extremely challenging battles of attrition, as your attacks chip away tiny slivers of health, and you take every chance to eat food just to stay alive. The first time through the game sets the stage. It makes you feel vulnerable to the surroundings (as someone in a real zombie outbreak might), so that when you return with knowledge and a higher level, laughing as you lay waste to everything in your path feels satisfying, not cheap.
Dead Rising 2 makes a lot of improvements on the formula from the first game. The movement feels smoother, the survivors are smarter and more resilient, and the psychopaths are more varied. The combo weapon system (replacing the photography mechanic of the first game) adds a lot of fun ways to splatter zombies, and encourages players to experiment and use different weapons by placing different combo components in different places. If you can't make your favorite go-to weapon, there's always a maintenance closet nearby containing the makings of something else. Similarly, the psychopaths encourage the use of different weapons. Some will require a quick melee weapon, while others will reward a heavy hitter. Some will be best fought with ranged weapons. This is in stark contrast to the first game, where there was a hands-down best weapon to use throughout the game.
But the favorable comparisons end there. The story is insipid, with huge plot holes at every turn (for the sake of feeding the player red herrings) and even a major plot point that goes counter to Dead Rising "canon". I'm not saying the first game was a work of art, but the story was compelling and self-consistent. The story in Dead Rising 2 left me feeling hollow, with questions unanswered and some disdain for the lazy shortcuts taken. In addition to the story taking a step down in quality, the survivor AI's bump in effectiveness steals a lot of the gameplay away from the player. I would never want it to go back to the way it was in the first game, where I half-jokingly referred to the survivors as the "real villains" of the game, but when I can just take off running without any regard to the people following me, why can't I just tell them where the safe house is? Before, the only reason you needed to kill zombies was to keep the survivors safe. Now, you don't even have that reason.
The addition of co-op and competitive multiplayer give you new ways to goof around and kill zombies, but they come at the price of Survival mode, which I found to be a worthwhile challenge to the player who has otherwise mastered the mall. True, getting the achievement for 7-day survivor (and the now trivial-to-acquire laser sword) took 4 real days of leaving my console on, but the Survival mode in general added some much needed challenge and stress back into a game where I had become a superhero. It gave me more to learn when I thought I knew it all.
For all its flaws, Dead Rising 2 grabbed me on day one and didn't let go. I finished the main story in two 7-hour sessions the first time, and, armed with my extensive knowledge from Dead Rising 1, I was able to beat all but one psychopath and save most of the survivors as well. It's a great game that makes no apologies for being a game, living up to its predecessor's penchant for silliness and zombie humiliation. It's a game for people who played Dead Rising 1 and wanted more, but for those same people, it may not scratch that itch quite enough. It might just be too easy for an audience that expects punishment.