Time and efficiency are most often the factor that creates tension in a zombie story, which is about when you will be overwhelmed and then if you have enough time to prepare to do something about it. So where is the source of tension in Dead Rising 3?
It's always a comfort to me after the advent of a zombie apocalypse to know that I can make a quick stop off at home to pick up a fiery scythe or a sawed off shotgun with a machete mounted on it (or both for that matter) to fend off the undead hordes.
Certainly any game that features the ability to light a scythe on fire or strap a light machine gun to a teddy bear to create a cute, portable gun turret is, of course, not one committed in any way to some form of grim and gritty realism. The Dead Rising games do not share the serious tone of another zombie-infused series like The Walking Dead, in which the need for a survivalist philosophy in the face of an overwhelming threat leads to players making difficult moral and sociopolitical decisions. The only “tough” decisions that you will have to make in Dead Rising 3 are things like whether to use that stoplight that you jury rigged to shoot arcs of electricity to destroy the shambling monstrosities that surround you or to instead use the other similarly jury rigged stoplight that you seem to carry around in your back pocket that belches fire -- at least this time out.
Dead Rising is a game about zombies and it is a game about survival, but it is also a game that treats wading through the gore of 1,000 undead corpses into a zany, arcade-like activity, especially because you just decided to do so while dressed in a full-sized shark costume while wielding a bullhorn that shoots electrical blasts. That being said, Dead Rising is a series that recognizes the narrative genre that its gameplay falls into and the sorts of themes prevalent to that genre even in its zaniest components, like being able to cobble together crazy weaponry out of household item. Since Dead Rising 2 the player has been able to scavenge items from the world of Dead Rising, infusing, say, a baseball bat with nails to make a spiky mace-like weapon, in order to better battle the undead. But, of course, the idea that scavenging and living by your wits is one of the key components of zombie-related literature, cinema, and video games justifies these acts. These ideas, goofy as they are, seem to dovetail well with the circumstances that create the context for the gameplay.
However, what has changed between Dead Rising 2 and Dead Rising 3 is the accessibility of scavenged items to the player. Since the weapons in Dead Rising games are not indestructible (whack 1,000 zombies with the aforementioned spiky bat, and it will eventually break, leading to the need to find new scarce resources to cobble together a new one), in Dead Rising 2 scavenging became a regular and requisite activity. No matter where you were in the game environment in Dead Rising 2, there was an awareness that your weapons were perishable, so the need to keep an eye out for places to scavenge necessary parts is a good idea. While weapons remain “perishable goods” of a sort, Dead Rising 3 simplifies the scavenging process by making anything that you pick up over the course of the game (whether you then immediately drop it or not) accessible in lockers in base camps spread around its game world. This locker also houses duplicates of any of the more powerful combo weapons that you have created over the course of the game.
On the one hand, this is kind of nice, as I recall always having to run errands any time that I went back to my home base in Dead Rising 2, those errands being picking up a few things like boxing gloves from a sporting goods store, knives from a restraunt, a flashlight from an undead mall cop, and some gems from a jewelry store, so that I could make my go-to arsenal of bladed boxing gloves and a lightsaber-like beam weapon before I could ever get to the business at hand -- killing zombies and rescuing survivors. Skipping this repetitive act is kind of nice, but it also takes away from what Dead Rising does offer in the way of highlighting its zombie-fiction thematics of survivalism and scarcity. It also takes away from some of the tension that running these errands, which are fraught with some peril, create – after all, there are always zombies wandering around as you travel from here to there).
Indeed, though, on the whole Dead Rising 3 just seems a lot easier than the previous two Dead Rising titles. The true challenge of these games has actually never really been the zombies, which are a nuisance to be sure, but still remain fairly slow moving, weak opponents. What the hordes serve as in the game are obstacles to getting quickly from here to there. After all, the true enemy in Dead Rising has always been the clock, since the game requires that you complete missions and side missions within a fixed amount of time (for more on the idea of time being the true “big boss” of the Dead Rising series, see Nick Dinicola's essay, "Dead Rising Does Zombies Right"). Indeed, if Dead Rising ever has offered any opportunity to its players for any more serious moral decision-making in the context of a zombie apocalypse, it has done so in the past by making the player subject to several clocks on any given mission, which required the player to either be really, really efficient in their use of time to try to “save everyone” or else to make decisions about who could reasonably by saved within such a time frame (for more on this idea, see my essay from a few years ago, ”Time for Consequences: Moral Dilemmas in Dead Rising”).
Time and efficiency and practicality, again, seem like good gameplay mechanisms through which to relate the themes of zombie fiction. After all, for the most part in zombie fiction of the past, zombies as individuals are of only some small threat to humanity, and they usually don't have the capability of chasing down humans and destroying them quickly through superior strength (zombies are not vampires or werewolves). Zombies are terrifying because of their numbers (something Dead Rising represents exceptionally well) and because of their slow crawl towards overwhelming their victims. Time is most often the factor that creates tension in a zombie story, which is about when you will be overwhelmed and then if you have enough time to prepare to do something about it.
By seemingly removing the clock from main story missions, accomplishing side missions easily means you never have to choose between your moral responsibility to help others or the need for efficiency in order to get the things done that are needed to halt the threat in a more permanent way in Dead Rising 3.
Is this lack of scarcity or this lack of temporal tension a blow to challenging gameplay? Or a blow to the game's narrative context? Or both? In my mind, the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” Dead Rising 3 lacks the tension that the other two games still managed to create despite the whole series's often whimsical and comedic tone. Although I still have to admit that the game remains fun and still one that I find it difficult to pull myself away from. Dead Rising 3 is less a pleasure as a challenging, tension-filled rollercoaster ride, but the simplicity of its button mashing arcade-like combat and silliness in its MacGyver-like weapon crafting system still creates the visceral thrill of an amusement park -- just not an especially scary one.