Around this time last year, I complained that the trial version of Batman: Arkham Asylum was a poorly constructed demonstration of the final game, and lamented the days when demos were complete pieces of a larger game that allowed the player to make an educated decision on a purchase. Last week, Capcom released Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, a stand-alone introduction to Dead Rising 2. It is a mission – or “Case” as they were called in the original game – that takes place in the backwater town of Still Creek. Dead Rising 2 will be a multiplatform launch, so the exclusivity of Dead Rising 2: Case Zero on the Xbox 360 appears to be a token sign of loyalty to those that made the original so successful. The Prestige Points statistics levelling system returns, so that any character built in Case Zero can be carried across to the new game, as long as it is purchased for the Xbox 360. Case Zero costs 400 MS points, or around $5 US. Essentially, it is a pay-to-play demo.
On its surface, the intent of Case Zero is to explain how main character Chuck Greene gets to Fortune City, the setting for Dead Rising 2. Establishing Chuck’s character and his background, we are introduced to his situation and what got him there. However, the story in Case Zero isn’t set up as a “prequel”, proper. That is, the ending of the mission in Case Zero is Chuck Greene and his daughter driving to Fortune City. Anything could have happened before that; what happens in Case Zero isn’t essential to the story. Instead, Chuck’s detour in Still Creek is more apt as an introduction to developer Blue Castle Games’ rendition of the Dead Rising universe and the game’s mechanics. In this regard, Case Zero is one of the best video game demonstrations I have ever played.
Since Case Zero must be purchased, there is the theoretical incentive for the developers to create a finished product that is characteristic of the framework of the main game. In many modern demos, there are disclaimers on the menu screens that it doesn’t represent the final game, or that the developers make no claims the demo is a finished product. By contrast, Case Zero is intended to be a stand-alone product; a full game.
The difference between Case Zero and its successor is one of scale. Case Zero can be completed in under two hours by the experienced Dead Rising player. The town of Still Creek is small: as a result there are fewer missions, and the time limits for each task are shorter. There isn’t much time to get comfortable, so the player must hit the ground running.
In the first ten minutes of the game (including the introductory movie), Case Zero establishes the following:
- Zombrex is an experimental drug that staves off “zombification” for 12 hours with each dose. It is the most important resource in the game, as it will help keep Chuck’s daughter Katey alive. It is also the most scarce.
- There are time constraints. Chuck must be able to give Katey her dose of Zombrex every 12 hours.
- With Chuck’s truck stolen during the opening movie, they must find a new source of Zombrex, and a way to get out of town.
- There is a safe house, including a save point (restroom), where the player starts.
- There are objects everywhere to be used as weapons. Items can be combined to make new improvised weapons. The first combination is right next to where the player starts.
The player is then free to go and do whatever they please, understanding that there are hard constraints to this wandering. However, unlike the original Dead Rising, the constraints are not merely appointments to be kept so that the “big story” can be broken, which was perfectly fine in the context of Frank West’s occupation. For Case Zero this appointment is a life-or-death situation. Late on the dosage, and Katey becomes a zombie.
The importance of this task contributes to a darker atmosphere in this version of the game, as the stakes are suddenly higher. Things feel more serious, and there is a palpable sense of urgency. There is no government agency on hand to assist in investigating the outbreak. There is no helpful janitor watching everything through a mall security system. Although Dead Rising tried its best to be frightening, the camp underneath was consistently exposed through its often ridiculous exposition regarding the zombie outbreak. In Case Zero, the outbreak has spread throughout the continental United States. The Military are trying to contain the situation using lethal force. Chuck and his daughter are alone in a town without transportation, and must find a way to live for another day.
I enjoyed my time with Dead Rising; I often point to it as a reason I own an Xbox 360. Frustrated with the direction the genre took with Resident Evil 4, I saw it as the answer to my zombie outbreak survival simulator needs. Sure, the game was more than a little hackneyed at times: a cast of ridiculous caricatures to rescue, B-movie plot devices added as subtext to the adventure, and fear as the product of being without a weapon in the middle of a large crowd of slow-moving zombies.
As in the original Dead Rising, there are plenty of distractions that get in the way of the main objective. Whether this is bludgeoning your way through packs of zombies just to move around, rescuing the twelve different survivors scattered around town, or trying to find objects that will combine into new weapons, there is no shortage of activities.
Immediately noticable is the difference in controls. Dead Rising controlled like an old game; Frank’s movements were clumsy and exaggerated. Chuck Greene’s movements appear smoother and more natural than the original game, though the scope of movements are still limited to running, jumping and climbing over low ledges. A roll or dodge action would have been beneficial, though like the original game, it is possible that this action is an ability that is unlocked upon reaching a higher character level.
After stumbling across an old motorcycle chassis, Chuck decides this is his only hope for getting out of town. It is also learned that the Military are on their way to Still Creek, and since Katey is infected they will quarantine her. Instead of entrenching himself with Katey and waiting to be saved, Chuck has even more incentive to leave town before the Military arrives. This inversion of player expectations is a fantastic twist similar to the recent film The Crazies, where “quarantine” was just another word for mass killings to prevent further outbreak.
With these objectives in mind, Case Zero reinforces the time management aspect of the original Dead Rising. In a very short time – approximately 12 hours – Chuck must find the remaining parts of this motorcycle, and get out of Still Creek before the Military arrives. And remember to give Katey her dose of Zombrex.
Finding the missing motorcycle parts to reassemble it involves helping out some townspeople that have survived and searching through the abandoned buildings of the town. Picking up each part takes up an inventory slot, but unlike the item-fetching quests in Left 4 Dead 2, they can be used as weapons. For example: upon finding the motorcycle chassis, Chuck loads it into a large bin with wheels on it. Heart sinking, I thought about making my way back to the safe house through the crowd that had already closed up behind me with this unwieldy gear. However, there’s an action button for this bin. Moving forward and pressing this button allows the bin to be used as a plow, creating some hilarious visuals. As long as I didn’t stop running I was invincible, zombies launching into the air in my wake.
It is so easy to get distracted with activities like this. Once the Hunting Store is accessed, there are plenty of new weapons to play around with, including a broadsword reminiscent of the True Eye Cult leader’s weapon from the original game. It cuts a vicious arc through any crowd, with the swing appropriately weighty and leaves Chuck open for attack.
Indeed, Case Zero gets melee modeled right, so that heavier weapons like the sledgehammer will have a longer swing arc and recovery, while lighter weapons like the baseball bat will allow for quicker attacks and less damage per swing. This is a significant improvement over the original game. There are also two types of attacks: normal and strong (which includes a suitably gory animation). Unfortunately, weapon durabilities appear to be unchanged and do not reflect the materials.1
In Dead Rising 2‘s first official trailer the “Paddlesaw” was revealed: two chainsaws taped onto each blade of a kayak paddle. This weapon alone seemed to sell the concept for Dead Rising 2. To avoid disappointing the fans that have anxiously waited to use this weapon, the Paddlesaw can be built in Case Zero after finding the kayak paddle and making a trip to the hardware store. Other combinations include molotovs (whiskey and newspaper), and a spiked baseball bat (baseball bat and box of nails). You need a workbench to complete these weapon upgrades, which are scattered throughout town. I can see this system being interesting to experiment with, but the set combinations seem limited, and quantities don’t matter. For example, the “Drill Bucket” only needs one drill and a bucket, yet the finished product actually contains three drills. The Paddlesaw only requires one chainsaw and the kayak paddle. Why couldn’t I attach two circular saw blades to the ends of my kayak paddle instead? Why couldn’t I fashion new ammunition for my shotgun with a box of nails?2 Including this weapon combination system is a huge improvement on its own, but the scope of possibilities already feels limited on this small scale.
The most noticeable improvement to combat is in the use of firearms. In Dead Rising, guns could be shot from the hip but didn’t provide much accuracy at a distance. And aiming produced a view straight from Resident Evil 4, without the ability to strafe and shoot at the same time. In Case Zero, shooting from the hip is more predictable (though still not accurate), and aiming and shooting has been taken from the typical third-person shooter, complete with full use of the left and right trigger buttons for aiming and firing. Firearms are still underpowered compared to melee weapons, but in the close-combat situations typical of the Dead Rising series, if you are struggling to aim a gun you’re already dead. Once again, ammunition is not available separately from weapons. This was especially puzzling when I stumbled upon a military quarantine camp that had supply boxes that could only be used as weapons.
In the game’s only boss fight firearms become essential, however. This is another extension of the design from the previous game where victory is assured by running away, dodging return fire and shooting the boss character in the face. There is no encouragement of tactics or use of the game’s environment. While I could stun the boss character with the IED (propane tank and box of nails), I was only able to do serious damage with the Assault Rifle. I have a feeling this will be the same in the retail game, as I can’t see how any significant improvements have been made through use of the environment to defeat the zombie horde, let alone individual adversaries.
Like the original Dead Rising, there are a number of endings available to the player in Case Zero depending on whether they succeed in their main quest to escape Still Creek before the military arrives. The most troubling of all the failure conditions was forgetting to give Katey her dose of Zombrex. This occurred at nightfall, when the zombies become more powerful, and I was stuck behind a crowd trying to get back to the safehouse. Surrounded, I was furiously swinging a feeble two-by-four to make my way through the unyielding ravenous horde. The urgency was unbearable. Suddenly the game stopped, and I was given a scene where Chuck says “I’m too late.” You don’t see anything else except Chuck standing hopeless in the middle of the street. The fate of Katey is left to the imagination of the player.
While the characterization of Chuck and Katey can hardly be called deep, there is something in their relationship that echoes many horror and post-apocalyptic films that involve family. Survival is important, yes, but should it come at the cost of your loved ones? This theme was made prominent by the recent film adaptation of The Road. I don’t expect the emotional weight of McCarthy’s work to be carried by this game, but it lends the air of something greater than the typical survival horror tropes when the father of a doomed child is willing to risk everything for them regardless of the situation’s apparent futility.
Case Zero is not a predecessor or prequel to the retail version of Dead Rising 2. Rather, it is an excellent demonstration that successfully encapsulates the systems and mechanics that have been revised since the release of Dead Rising. For players that enjoy what Case Zero has to offer, it serves as a suitable appetizer for what is to come in the retail release of Dead Rising 2. It also acts as a refresher for experienced players of Dead Rising. For everyone else, its containment as a separate game provides enough closure that it can be left behind without wondering if it was representative of the final game, which most retail game demos fail to do. And if zombie outbreak survival on a small scale is enough for some players, Case Zero can be replayed without ever owning the full version of Dead Rising 2. In the town of Still Creek there are additional weapon combinations to experiment with, survivors to rescue, and unlimited zombies to kill – all under a prescribed time limit that is embedded in the game’s mechanics. Case Zero confidently stands on its own, but its most important contribution to the Dead Rising series is its ability to fully demonstrate the systems and mechanics in the world of Dead Rising 2 in an easily accessible package.