Dead Rising 2: Case Zero

Dead Rising is one of my favourite games ever. I spent the week before last playing it in preparation for Dead Rising 2. The more obvious way to prepare for the coming Game of the Year™ lies in playing Dead Rising 2: Case Zero.

This XBox 360 exclusive prologue is a two hour game that gives a taste of what’s to come, a sense of what has been lost and what has been gained in the transition from Willamette to Still Creek and on to Fortune City.

As a prologue, Case Zero is a mere sampling of what we’re to expect in the much bigger leagues of Dead Rising 2 proper. As a 360 exclusive, Capcom likely didn’t want to put anything too essential in to upset PS3 households too much. As such, Case Zero is a little shot in the arm to tide you over in the weeks it will take you until your console develops a full blown case of zombosis.

You don’t need Case Zero; in many ways it’s hamstrung by its format and there were scant few moments that made it feel truly worth my while – but those moments were there nonetheless and I definitely do not regret the purchase. If I am forced to subscribe to only one zombie franchise in an industry presently choked by the undead, Dead Rising is easily my drug of choice.

Chuck Greene stops in the town of Still Creek to get gas and administer his daughter’s anti-zombie meds. Being an idiot, Chuck gets his truck – and the meds – stolen. He has to keep his daughter safe, find her some more Zombrex and get the hell out of Still Creek without being eaten by zombies or having his daughter captured by the military.

The level cap in Case Zero is a mere level five, and the level-up bonuses are randomly allocated. There is little chance that you can build a lean Chuck Greene who can go to town on the zombies like a level 50 Frank West could in the original game. This is somewhat frustrating because part of the thrill of the original was learning new powers and becoming stronger and better to the point that difficult zombies and psychopaths became mere pebbles to be kicked aside. It was a game built entirely upon the player learning how to exploit it in the most entertaining ways; a game that demanded true mastery and, admittedly, a game that actively tried to make itself unnecessarily difficult for the player through poor design choices and AI programming.

It is understandable for Case Zero to have a level cap, because a particularly dedicated cadre could spend the month between releases grinding themselves to level fifty and instantly tear the game proper to shreds upon release, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun in Case Zero itself. Dead Rising is about the momentum of your character and his improvement.

When you reach the max level, you have nothing to work towards, and you’re butting against a wall. This doesn’t matter when your cap is fifty and you’re nigh unstoppable, but at level five Chuck is a weakling with the throwing power of an osteoporotic man and a zombie resistance only marginally higher than that of his hideous four year old daughter.

A level five Chuck in Case Zero has no hope of getting any better than his piteous state. It’s therefore hard to say if Case Zero, as it is, is any harder than the original Dead Rising, because Chuck doesn’t have the chance to improve. I’m hoping that those with Dead Rising 2 will be able to start Case Zero again, if they so choose, with a properly maxed out Chuck.

Due to the limitations of Chuck‘s character growth as it stands, I’m going to say that I’m comfortable not calling Case Zero a demo: a demo would make itself easier on the player and allow them to do more cool things – imposing a different set of time and scale limitations. Chuck is capable of a lot, but there is nothing he can do that is a real “showcase” for the deeper charms and delights of the Dead Rising franchise.

Much of what was good about Dead Rising is the same in Case Zero, and that is likely to frustrate some people: Chuck is subject to very strict time limits. Time limits don’t work in every game (see: Pikmin), but without a clock to race against there’s no sense of urgency to Chuck or Frank’s actions. Without the threat of failure, you can simply saunter through the game and do things in your own sweet time.

Maybe this would be a problem were it not for the Groundhog Day type save system that persists in Case Zero, albeit with minor tweaks. Many people hated Dead Rising’s save system and Capcom has responded by keeping it intact but trebling the number of saves you’re allowed to have. If you’ve sailed too close to the wind, not allowing Chuck enough time to succeed in his mission, you can revert to a previous save rather than starting from scratch with your experience gained. People can survive on one save or they can hedge their bets with a triple threat.

Everyone should be happy with that, but a lot of people buckle under time constraints. To them, I can offer no succor except to suggest that they take advantage of the restart system and try harder next time: that’s precisely what it’s there for.

The selection of weapons on display is fairly diverse considering the small scale of the operation and one of the draw cards of Dead Rising 2, custom weapons, is present in force. The taste for duct-tape fuelled mayhem is firmly implanted in the player’s mind, from the obvious (a bat with nails) to the sensical yet bizarre (a “boom stick” consisting of a pitchfork married to  a shotgun) to the unthinkably insane (an IED made out of a box of nails and a propane tank).

It’s just a pity – and I know I’m a broken record here – that Chuck is never really strong enough to make effective use of all of these cool weapons.

The survivor system is greatly improved from Dead Rising, with none of them seeming to actually be in danger from their own stupidity. Admittedly, only two hours of the game take place at night, when the zombies go red-eyed and turn into right bastards but, generally speaking, your charges are now more likely to follow instructions and will swap weapons with you rather than dropping them to the ground like uncoordinated idiots. You can also now perform a kicking attack when you’re carrying a survivor, so Chuck is actually somewhat useful (admittedly Frank was practically invincible when he was piggybacking someone to safety).

No survivors died on my watch, but the first time through I neglected to leave enough time to actually escape and then got eaten anyway, so back to the beginning it was with me. Despite the level cap, I still felt that I wasn’t wasting my time playing the whole thing over again – this time with more survivors! More custom weapons! More ridiculously inflated pawnshop goods! (Zombrex costs $25,000, but you can make that easily because Still Creek is filled with destructible slot machines – it’s on the outskirts of Las Vegas so, uh, gambling).

So Dead Rising 2: Case Zero isn’t an excellent game, or even a game at all, but rather a brief primer hinting at a deeper experience yet to come. You wouldn’t get Case Zero and expect it to meet your zombie craving – it’s the first hit, the dangerous entrée to a main course of mayhem, destruction, and the love of a father for his malformed daughter (and more on that later).

Sadly the 360 exclusivity of Case Zero and the just announced epilogue DLC means that Capcom doesn’t want you to buy Dead Rising 2 on your PS3. Not everyone can be like me and have the full smorgasbord of the console experience. So, sorry if you’ve only got a PS3 – but please, try to make the most of it. Dead Rising 2 is going to be good.

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