August 23, 2006

Game Dork

Mall Rat Trap: 'Dead Rising' is 'Dawn of the Dead' Revisited

Zombie/Cosmo quiz: You're stuck in a mall with thousands of zombies moaning for your flesh. Do you A) pause to steal a watch from a jewelry store; B) save Japanese tourists from hungry zombie teeth; or C) search for a pharmacy so you can save the life of a guy named Brad who may tell you what's turning people into the living dead?

There is no correct answer in "Dead Rising." The choice is yours. But if you dilly-dally, Brad dies, and you will be stuck in this mall for three days, killing zombies with no purpose. And really, what's zombie-killing without a deeper understanding of their psychological profiles?

By contrast, in the movie predecessors to "Dead Rising" — "Dawn of the Dead" and "Night of the Comet" — there was no purpose to random slaying zombies other than staying alive. The same was true of "Doom" and other early video games.

But games have come a long way. They've trained us to be literalists of absurd situations; we desire answers even to the question of what turns a human's DNA into "argh," and "grr!" and "body meat, yum!"

Like games before it, "Dead Rising" uses your distrust of the government to explain zombie evolution. Clearly, government mysterios, religious nuts and possibly terrorists are involved in the zombie-ification of human mall rats. But if I told you if the government is either the bad guy or the good guy, that would spoil the ending.

Besides, I don't know the answer, because I didn't reach the ending before writing this. I tried for many, many hours. But "Dead Rising" is the hardest game — of the past year, at least.

And even though it's also one of the coolest games of the past year, it's too difficult for a bad reason. The game's "save system" is a bloody nightmare. In most games, you beat a level in a game, and the game saves your progress to that point. If you die, you can start from that save point.

In "Dead Rising," you have to beat several levels before it lets you save. You end up playing long, hard sections over and over. In one unbearable section, I killed scores of zombies while skateboarding through the huge mall, but it took me two hours to beat an evil human in the middle of this quest. His Uzi trumped my sword.

I'm tempted to give "Dead Rising" only a two-star review, but it does deserve three stars, along with a cautionary note for casual and novice gamers to avoid it like the zombie plague.

"Dead Rising" is a fantastical thing. You play as a photojournalist named Frank. Not only do you kill, you take photos of action and blood-splattered scenes, and this gives you game points that turn you into a more efficient killer.

The mall is your oasis of weaponry. You must pick up things you'd find in a mall to pummel zombies. Planters. Wooden benches. Purses. CDs. You ride on skateboards from the sporting goods store. This is way cool.

My favorite weapons are tall, metal bookshelves that you swing to wallop the holy-shmoley out of zombie skulls. A construction worker's giant drill spins their bloody corpses around on a huge drill bit. A merry-go-round of frustration, "Dead Rising" is nevertheless gore-tastic.

("Dead Rising" for Xbox 360 — Plays fun, if frustratingly hard. Looks great. Very challenging. Rated "M" for blood, gore, intense violence, language, use of alcohol. Three stars.)

Doug Elfman is an award-winning columnist who is also the TV critic at the Chicago Sun-Times.

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