Friday, May 13, 2011

Post Play Analysis: Dead Rising: Case Zero/Case West (XBox 360)

When Dead Rising was first announced, there was a strong sense of deja vu. Capcom and a zombie games again? By the time the game was released, those comparisons were gone: people loved the simplicity of hacking at brain dead zombies, but absolutely hated the cumbersome save system. Four years and a new developer later, Dead Rising 2 fixed up most of the problems and received much better praises. More interestingly was Capcom's decision to spin-off a short story prequel/sequel with Dead Rising: Case Zero/West. Many have claimed that the bite size format of releasing Case Zero as a "paid demo" was a brilliant financial move at the expense of community goodwill. While these games serves as great bookends and creates a richer story, I believe they may have done more harm than good to the franchise by showing how much better Dead Rising is as a bite-size game experience.

Dead Rising: Case Zero / Dead Rising: Case West (Played on XBox 360, single player completed for both games, ~ 12 hours)

When the original Dead Rising launched in 2006, it was hailed as the true arrival of the hack and slash genre: finally, a game that isn't limited by the number of opponents drawn on screen, and the variety and customizable gameplay allows for players to beat up mindless zombies to their hearts content (best of all, brain dead zombies is the best explanation of the hack and slash genre's issue of bad AI). However, the dreaded continuous timer and cumbersome save system held the game back in my mind. It's one of those games that I'd argue was great for it's experience, not necessary by it's story (I would argue that you'll get what the game is without finishing it, like my previous blog post on "completionists"), and the achievement rate backs me up on this (TrueAchievement pegs this game's completion rate at a mere 3%, with the bulk of players not past 20% of the game).

Dead Rising's core mechanics of resource management (health and weapons in same slots), weapon management (degrading weapons, merging weapons), mission driving events (escort, reach point X, photography) were all pretty sound. In fact, most of it were carried over to the Dead Rising 2 Suite (Core game, Case Zero and Case West) without major changes. Sure, photography was no longer the core of the game, but I don't think anyone will miss it much. What did change though, was the mission structure: In all three games, key missions were no longer dependent on the timer (Dead Rising 1 was on a 72 hour clock, when you miss out on a certain hour, the event disappears). Instead, many events became the main triggers for the actual time change. Players have less chance to be stuck on one mission which forces them to miss out on other missions that are happening co-currently. AI allies being competent characters also help out.

As mentioned before, Case Zero/West are bite size Downloadable games that serves as bookends to Dead Rising 2. Both games were much shorter in length and play area (no larger than any given wing of the mall). In addition to being a shorter game, both Zero/West takes a significant departure into changing the mission structure, but each in their own direction, so let's talk about them separately.

With the prequel Case Zero, players are given one clear mission: find 5 motorcycle parts, and get out. Outside of the introductionary mission(s), there were no other "required" objectives. In my first run, I was able to find all the parts within 2 hours, ~1/5 of the allotted time before the entire game ends. While this serves to remove the sense of urgency in the mission, it does allow for players to freely explore and toy with the environments: Rescuing survivors were completely optional, along with finding key combination of weapons and exploring abandoned locales. By the second playthrough, it was obvious that I had exhausted all actual game events, and was just wandering aimlessly around to see how many zombies I can mow down with weapon combinations (which was just as satisfying). Even thought the AI escorts couldn't defend themselves, they were significantly better than the first game at avoiding getting caught by zombies in general.

Case West, on the other hand, takes a much different approach to handling mission structure by guiding the player constantly from one key event to the other with ample time in between for players to explore. As an example, one key mission is takes the player to the processing room, normally an event that only takes 5 minutes, but players are given almost 2+ hours (a full day in-game time) to get there. Players are encouraged to wander off and look for other things to do (like rescuing survivors), and triggering the key mission events actually shorten the game length. In one instance, players were told to "keep busy" while the next key mission is in waiting ("the informant is looking for stuff, come back later" is a pretty good trick that worked). Another tweak is that AI survivors don't need to be escorted anymore, as all of them are capable of defending for themselves. This change further removes the tedium that many have complained about Dead Rising's AI.

So, why are these changes good, yet damaging to the core Dead Rising brand? By creating a smaller, bite size experience game, it shows that not much is lost when it comes to the "feel" of the game. Players can still enjoy hacking away and brainless zombies with absurd weapon combinations without being bogged down by a story, time limits, bothersome requirements and structure. Players have always described most hack and slash games (like Koei's Dynasty Warriors) as a cathartic experience, and cutting out the "unnecessary" content allows players to get the "experience" most people are looking for in the first place. In my experience, I felt so tied down by critical points in Dead Rising 1/2's story that I can't further my progress without restarting; with Zero/West, I got a small, digestible game that I was able to start and finish in a day, and I was compelled to come back and play again because it was so satisfying. At this point, I don't know if I can ever go back to 1/2, or play any sequel that doesn't address the issues of story missions as it relates to gameplay.

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