A Solid, Fun Time That Falls Short of "Fantastic!"
Okay, a disclaimer before I begin- this review will likely have spoilers for Dead Rising, Dead Rising 2 and Dead Rising 2: Case West. I'm not sure why you'd be reading a review on Off the Record if you didn't already know the plots of the last few games, but I'll throw this up here just in case.
Dead Rising 2: Off the Record is extremely similar to Dead Rising 2, which launched a little over a year before this one. This game is meant only to be a fun distraction- a completely non-canon version of the events of the last game, with one major change. Instead of Chuck Greene being the Hero of Fortune City, Frank West is there instead. It's a Dead Rising Elseworlds tale, so one shouldn't expect to come into this as a full new game.
Dead Rising 2: Off the Record's story is, for the most part, a rehash of the last game. Instead of Chuck Greene, Frank West has to take part in the Terror is Reality games to try and win money, but instead of doing it for Katey Greene, Frank is trying to get the money because he's the one who needs the Zombrex injections, and his career as a TV celebrity washed up over time and controversy. The game immediately goes off the rails, when Frank discovers the host of the show, TK, making a deal with the CURE member (and optional boss battle from the last game) Brandon Whittaker. After snapping a few key photos of the event, Frank leaves and suddenly the Zombies are loose from their Terror is Reality pens and the Fortune City Outbreak begins. The set-up is more-or-less the same as the Second game, with Frank needing to discover what TK's evil plots are while fighting hordes of zombies and rescuing all the survivors he can get.
Surprisingly, a lot of the story missions are changed just enough to keep them interesting. While a few encounters seem a little forced since it's clear that it's playing a Dead Rising 2 cutscene with, what is effectively, a Frank West skin for Chuck, leaving a few moments a little awkwardly placed, these moments are few and far between and a lot of the voice acting cast has returned to record new dialogue. This goes beyond just saying "Frank" instead of "Chuck"- while some cutscenes follow the same path and actions as the last game, a lot of the dialogue is completely reworded just to change things up. The biggest changes as a result, are the final few cases which play out MUCH differently, and the Psychopath encounters.
In DR2, most of the Psychos attacked Chuck as a result of them seeing the TV reports that Greene was responsible for the outbreak, but in Off the Record, CURE is being framed instead of Frank, so all of their motivations for attacking Frank have to be updated accordingly, with only a few major exceptions. While all of the classic Psychos make their returns, two new notable ones join the cast- both of whom were so heavily spoiled before the game's release that I don't even consider it a spoiler to talk about them.
Chuck Greene, unable to save Katey, is now a raging lunatic- there's still glimmers of his protective and skills, but these are clouded by a haze of depression-induced binge drinking. While I enjoyed Chuck's character in the second game, the moments he really shined as a character was in the character moments between himself, Katey, Rebecca and Stacey- while he faced everything else with a level of stoicism that felt out of place in a game where you can dress up in a banana hammock and cowboy hat and club things to death with a giant teddy bear. This change has made Chuck Greene a far more interesting character, and it's a shame that we can't have a canon Chuck this interesting. The second new psycho is Evan McIntyre, the dwarf clown ice-cream salesman, who's name you may recognize as the brother of Adam, the chainsaw juggling terror of Wonderland Plaza that you murdered all the way back in the original game. Evan is out for vengeance on our boy Frank West for killing his brother, and while he's not much of a challenge, he's a fun encounter with a number of nostalgic moments, and a few cheap laughs.
It is a little disappointing that, after all the other changes done to the end-game, the entire sub-plot about the Phenotrans creating the Gas Zombies to drive up Zombrex prices is still intact- a non-canon Dead Rising should've allowed them to do something crazy with this plot point instead, but it remains almost completely unchanged. Similarly, Overtime Mode in this game seems to have no redeeming qualities about it at all. Like Dead Rising 2, Off the Record's Overtime mode is a mad dash to gather some useless crap for TK, followed by a redux of the Terror is Reality games, and ending with a battle with the Host himself to earn a happy ending. The extra work seems a lot less worth it when you already know that the events won't matter, and TK is as cheap a boss as ever.
These are small complaints, however. Not only does DR2:OTR keep everything good about the second game's plot, but Frank's appearance actually improves it. West seems to be more naturally suited to unraveling the conspiracy around him, and once the Phenotran's hilarious plan is revealed, it seems MUCH less forced than it did when combined with Chuck's no-nonsense, "it's personal" approach to the Reveal.
First and foremost, Off the Record makes one of the best decisions in the history of the franchise, ever. It takes the horrible multiplayer mode that was tacked on to the second game, and it throws it away entirely, replacing it with Sandbox Mode. Sandbox Mode is by far my favorite new addition to Off the Record- basically, it's DR1's Infinite Mode, but not made to be "kick to the teeth" hard. No time limits, no cases- just you, whatever you can scavenge and a millions of zombies to slaughter as much as you want. Any XP and Money earned along the way can be carried over to the main game, so there are practical reasons to play as well. When you get tired of slaughtering zombies, you can load up various mini-games. Most of these are kind of meh, and a lot of them are just more variants on "kill zombies in time limit", but hey- it works.
The overall gameplay is rather unchanged from the sequel, and that's not really a bad thing. The item placements have been completely rearranged, which does quite a bit to force you to find a new playstyle for this one, and the boss battles have adopted a new feature- after so many hits, they take next to no melee damage until they can recover. Gone are the days when you can just swing your defiler and turn Ted's face into a puddle in a few hits, and while the Psychos have less health to compensate for the change, they also all seem to have become more fun to fight as a result.
Photography makes a much appreciated return, and is full of all the mainstays you expect- PP stickers, bonuses and cries of "FAN-TASTIC" abound. Frank's devastating unarmed abilities aren't all back in this game like in Case West, but they are notably better than Chuck's still, allowing the player to enjoy a few new moves along the way.
They say the devil's in the details, and Off the Record makes great strides to proof this. Off the Record may not be much of a change from the last game, but all of the small changes really add up to a superior experience.
Dead Rising 2: Off the Record is a blast to play through- it's full of all the mainstays the series is famous for, an amazing Sandbox mode and while it's still not the Citizen Kane of gaming, it's an absolute blast to play, and is without a doubt a superior experience to all of the Dead Rising games to come before it. When it came out, it was only 40 dollars, which is a great price for it, but I bought it used for 16, which is practically a steal- if you're a fan of the series, or never got the chance to try it out, I can't recommend picking this game up enough. It's small problems add up like the small advantages, which make this simply a "very good" instead of a "must buy", but it's still a great time to be had... especially if you have a friend to go Co-Op on.