I was prepared to find reviewing Dead Rising 2: Off the Record a tedious exercise. I mean, I really liked Dead Rising 2, and apparently unlike many fans of the series, I didn’t really much care about the replacement of Dead Rising protagonist Frank West with Chuck Greene in the game’s sequel. So, the idea of playing a remake of a game that I liked a lot but that is essentially the same game with some slight modifications seemed like a less than fresh or engaging exercise.
I’m not sure what the allure of Frank West is. Admittedly, he is an unusual game protagonist. After all, usually we get macho balls of muscle with little to no neck with a machine gun and a snarl in our video games. So, Frank, a shlubby, somewhat chubby, middle-aged photo journalist, might be kind of refreshing serving as a “hero” of sorts. Honestly, though, he strikes me as a pretty flat character.
Frank has no really great lines, doesn’t seem especially clever, or really at all exceptional in any way. Thus, when Dead Rising 2 arrived with a slightly younger, maybe hipper (?) protagonist in the form of Chuck Greene (who strikes me as equally flat), I just didn’t really care. Dead Rising works because of its tone, but even more so, because of its gameplay, not its main characters.
I guess the hue and cry over Frank’s replacement was significant enough, though, for Capcom to consider giving the game a redo (the fact that the sequel seems to have done pretty well in sales probably didn’t hurt either). One benefit of the return of Frank that I do care about (and other fans as well) is the return of Frank’s camera. So, in addition to concerning one’s self with the undead and ferreting out survivors of their infestation of Fortune City, a kind of (mostly) indoor Vegas full of malls and casinos, one can once again take shots of the brutal carnage and other forms of salaciousness that emerge during runs through zombie clogged streets. What Chuck brought to the series, the ability to craft crazy weapons out of materials scavenged throughout Fortune City, is, likewise, still an available option for Frank. So, both of these engaging occupations return in Off the Record and the game is the better for it.
Such an addition seems a relatively minor one, as it doesn’t really change much in the way of objectives in the game or the overall gameplay. Frankly, all of the tweaks of the game seem—on the face of them—quite minor as well. There is now more voice acting, and cutscenes now feature Frank, rather than Chuck. These scenes generally play out in much the same way as the first game. Dialogue is different, but the premise is more or less the same.
In some ways, the plot is slightly less personal from the perspective of the main character. In Dead Rising 2, Chuck was accompanied by his daughter Katey, a victim of a previous zombie outbreak and a carrier of the disease. Chuck has to make sure that Katey receives a dose of Zombrex, a drug that staves off the effects of the infection, every 24 hours, which adds a further wrinkle in the “time mangement simulation” that is Dead Rising. As my colleague, Nick Dinicola, has (I believe) quite aptly pointed out, Dead Rising‘s main antagonist is not the zombies. The main enemy in the game is time. Combat with the undead is definitely a focus in the game, but more time is often spent running past zombies because there are both main missions and side quests that have to be accomplished within a three day time frame and that is what creates the real tension in the game. Thus, Katey became another time sink in Dead Rising 2, someone else to take care of within a limited amount of time.
This issue still exists in Off the Record, as Frank himself is infected. However, it removes the little amount of pathos that Chuck’s concern for Katey was supposed to evoke in the previous version. Keeping a shlub alive is less compelling than a cute, little girl. This also makes life a little easier for the player, as Frank can administer a dose of Zombrex from anywhere in Fortune city, whereas Chuck would have to stop what he was doing to return to the survivors’ safe house to give Katey her shot.
Additionally, the main motivators for Frank and Chuck are slightly different in Dead Rising 2. Chuck needs to clear his name, as he has been implicated in the zombie outbreak. Frank is looking for a story again, as he was in the first Dead Rising.
Again, though, all of this matters very little in terms of the real quality of the game, like its characters, much of Dead Rising‘s plotting is quite flat. Capcom has obviously put a lot of time in to revise a boat load of previous cutscenes to fit Frank into the story. And it is strangely compelling to see the subtle shifts in sequences that are familiar, but still, Dead Rising is more or less a pretty humdrum take on the zombie story.
It should also be noted that the developers added an additional zone to Fortune City, the Uranus Zone (yeah, not that clever), which is also fine and adds a few newish sequences to the plot, but it isn’t exceptionally exciting or drastically different than environments that already exist in the game.
So, with all of my ho humming about the revision of the game, I guess I should be not feeling much love for Off the Record, right? Yeah, I think so, too. But I don’t. I just can’t escape how much I really enjoy the game.
Its tone is very odd. Much of its humor is quirky and only occasionally hits the mark, mostly it is pretty juvenile. Mixed with this is some rather sadistic and twisted sequences that usually involve “the psychos” (boss-type challenges that involve human survivors that have gone mad because of the outbreak and now are an additional threat to the other survivors or Frank himself). The not-quite-funny and the sadistic somehow create a really appropriate tone for a game that essentially takes part in a gigantic Vegas-style theme park.
More importantly though, is the gameplay itself. Slow moving zombies that sometimes need to be cleared away through the use of outrageous weapons and sometimes that just need to be avoided as you race to some new objective coupled with a constantly ticking clock and a desire to save as many additional survivors as you can (since saving folks is not required to complete the game, but you do feel that need to “collect ‘em all” despite their optional nature) just works really, really well. Dead Rising is just exceptional at creating tension, and there is some additionally exceptional ability on the part of the developers to really know just how long it takes to get from one objective to the next because trying to get everything done that you can just always leaves you with a few scant moments to complete the main story objectives.
I often find myself standing up while playing, as if being at full attention will somehow get me to that goal a bit faster, which (because the clock is creeping into the red) looks just out of my reach for completion all the time.
The tension is just about perfect, especially because the game and its seeming main antagonists, the zombies themselves, just aren’t especially tough. Your weapons will allow you to dismember and eviscerate swathes of zombies if you wish but that just isn’t the point. Doing all that you possibly can in as short a period of time as you can is the challenge, and for some reason, that activity is outrageously satisfying if accomplished successfully. Weirdly, I want to suggest that Dead Rising has more in common with The Sims than it does, say, Resident Evil because the emphasis is on efficiency, not horror in the traditional sense.
This iteration of the game “cheats” a little bit and eases up on the player by offering a Sandbox mode, which features the same game spaces to play in in Fortune City, but without time constraints. You can hack up zombies to your heart’s delight in Sandbox mode and also complete some new challenges (kill X amount of zombies in X amount of time and the like) in the area. More importantly, though, this zone allows the player to gather money and experience points that can be carried over to the main game without wasting precious minutes on such things. You can still start a game over at any time, restarting with the money and experience accrued to that point in the main game, in order to try to do a better run through, but Sandbox mode allows you to dodge the requirement of revisiting all of the plot points along the way.
Finally, it should be mentioned that Chuck is still playable in multiplayer mode. He also makes an appearance in a newish scene in the single player plot. Ironically, given my relative indifference to both Frank and Chuck, I kind of feel like the new scene is one of the better dramatic moments in a Dead Rising game. Chuck, who is not quite himself in this scene, becomes a character that is slightly more compelling than Frank or Chuck have ever been to me. But honestly, don’t play this game for either protagonists. Play it because it is good. If you have to choose a version, Off the Record is the one to go with just because it includes things like Frank’s camera and the like. Its discounted price also seems fair in this regard.
I was prepared to find Off the Record tedious, but I just can’t help finding it as much a pleasure to play as the previous game of a similar name.