It was director George A. Romero who first realized that the sprawling American mall — that Muzak-swathed temple of consumerism — would make an ideal setting for a story about zombies — those mindlessly, endlessly hungry vestiges of our very own selves. The film that resulted from that particular brain storm was 1978's "Dawn of the Dead," one of the greatest zombie films of all time, not to mention a wicked little cinematic statement about uncurbed appetites of all kinds.
And now it's Capcom's turn. The gaming company that brought us the "Resident Evil" franchise has delivered a new zombie story – one that not only takes place in a familiar setting but speaks to familiar themes. It's called "Dead Rising," an addictive and ultra-violent action game for the Xbox 360.
Here, you play freelance photojournalist Frank West, a go-to kinda guy who's hired a pilot to helicopter him into Willamette, Colorado, in hopes of getting the inside scoop on why the military has quarantined this backwater burg. Only after being dropped inside the no-fly zone do you discover that the town has a bad case of the walking dead.
In what must be an homage to Romero, you find yourself holed up in a giant suburban shopping mall with several dozen survivors. And the clock is ticking. In 72 hours, your pilot is supposed to return to pick you up. Until then, you've got to kill as many zombies as you can, shoot photographs of the carnage (the more gruesome the pictures, the better), save your fellow human beings and unravel the mystery behind what caused this spreading infection.
Borrowing a page from the "Grand Theft Auto" book of gaming, "Dead Rising" offers an expansive, wide open environment to explore. And what a marvelously horrific thing that is in this context: Here, the rambling suburban mall is done in extremely realistic detail and then filled with swarms of famished fiends (the spine absolutely tingles when you see them coming).
More importantly, this cheery hub of materialism is littered with objects you can use as weapons. Standard items like guns and bats are at your disposal, but the most entertaining aspect of this game comes in exploring the various stores to see what other manner of consumer goods can be used to bash the brainless feeding machines into submission. Gumball machines, lawn mowers, stuffed animals, a flying V electric guitar — heck, even a boomerang stops a zombie nicely.
Beyond that, the game incorporates a well-engineered leveling system to help your character progress. Shoot bloody photographs, save your fellow non-zombies, complete the many side missions offered — these little endeavors give you the Prestige Points you'll need to improve your combat skills and enhance your power and speed.
Overall, the voice acting is solid and the sound design is excellent. The graphics are good, if not particularly mind blowing for a next-generation game. Story wise, the plot is no worse than most of the zombie films we've seen in the theaters recently.
"Dead Rising," however, is seriously undermined by two things: First, a maddening save system that only allows you to store your progress in a limited number of locations and only allows for one save slot. The result: You frequently have to start over.
Second, and more importantly, the game apparently doesn't play well on standard-definition televisions (SDTVs). Gamers with standard-definition screens have raised a furor in recent days after discovering that the text in the game — which appears as vital character dialog and mission objectives — is almost too small to read when played on their televisions. They have flooded the Capcom message board (and various boards across the Internet) with complaints much like this one from a player dubbed Ca11ous:
"I can not play this game, because the conversations and directions are so small on a non hdtv that I do not know what's going on. I do not own, nor can I afford to go out and buy an hdtv just to be able to read the text on one video game."
Public relations representatives from Capcom acknowledged Wednesday that the game was optimized for HDTVs, and suggested that gamers with SDTVs try using component cables and setting their televisions to widescreen ratio – both imperfect and rather paltry solutions, to be sure.
So, ultimately, it looks like "Dead Rising" is not quite the horror masterpiece or social statement triumph that "Dawn of the Dead" was. But, for those players with HDTV, it's a great way to kill some time while killing some zombies.