If you had told me about a Canadian version of a Japanese take on a popular American genre, I would have cynically assumed that such a product would result in a sloppy mess of too many cultures clashing with each other over the same idea. Yet, this combination actually works in Dead Rising 2. While the first Dead Rising was a fresh “Groundhog Day of the Dead” type experience, it also was a deeply flawed one. Sure, it was cool to fight lots of zombies, and mess with a system that lets you restart the story repeatedly while preserving your character’s levels, experience points, and stats. Yet that experience was hampered by several factors: It was an early Xbox 360 title with crude graphics and cruder-looking characters (the main protagonist, Frank West, looked positively Cro-Magnon at times). It featured a save system that added both tension and sheer frustration. It used a counterintuitive control scheme where Right trigger aimed instead of shot. Much of the game consisted of infuriating escort missions where your escortees got lost or killed way too easily. In short, it was a mishmash that couldn’t decide whether it was a Japanese or an American game. So while it would be easy to assume that having a Canadian studio develop the sequel would result in another culture clash, it ends up creating the very game that we should have had in the first place.

The two easiest ways to describe Dead Rising 2 would be either, “a bigger Dead Rising 2: Case Zero” or “a better Dead Rising.” Many things that were just cited above as flaws in the previous title get smoothed over by Capcom Vancouver (see Blue Castle Games). You still need to find restrooms to save your progress, but now there are three save slots instead of just one, and you’re automatically prompted to save whenever a main event happens. Like a traditional Western game, you now aim with the Left-Trigger and shoot with the Right-Trigger. The visuals now look like they’re from a proper high-definition game. Escortees will actually live — their improved health and A.I. means that it takes a concerted effort for one to die rather than the frustrating and frequent deaths in the first game.

Click the image above to check out all Dead Rising 2 screens.

But Dead Rising 2 isn’t just a polished version of its predecessor. While it shares the same overall structure and gameplay mechanics, it also features its own distinct feel — from plot to presentation to moment-to-moment gameplay. It takes place years after the first game, and features a wholly different protagonist with a different motivation. Instead of being photojournalist Frank West investigating a mysterious outbreak, you play gameshow contestant/motocross champion Chuck Greene investigating whoever has framed him. After participating in an episode of “Terror is Reality” (an American Gladiators type of show, but with zombies), Chuck gets momentarily knocked out and wakes up to find that the formerly caged zombies have been let loose all over Fortune City. After grabbing his infected daughter Katey and arriving at a nearby safehouse, he learns that he’s been accused of freeing the zombies. So while waiting for the military to arrive in 72 in-game hours (which translates to about six real-world hours), Chuck can attempt to figure out what’s really going on while keeping Katey alive (by injecting her with Zombrex, a sort of zombification inhibitor) and rescuing other survivors who are trapped within the Las Vegas Strip-wannabe called Fortune City.

Or not, if you so choose. Dead Rising 2 still features a zombie-filled open-world location with loads to do, and multiple endings that factor in how you play. You can try to finish every story case and administer Zombrex to Katey when needed for the best ending. Or you can instead try to save every optional survivor. Or maybe take on every psychopath (boss battles against crazed humans that reinforce the zombie movie trope of “man, not zombie, is the real monster”). Even if you don’t find or administer Zombrex, you can continue playing the game (just don’t expect a good ending when you can’t save your own daughter). Dead Rising 2 still encourages multiple playthroughs, since you don’t have enough time to do everything your first time through. Time, not zombies or psychopaths, remains your ultimate foe, and you can still carry over Chuck’s stats and experience in each playthrough.

What makes Chuck feel drastically different than Frank (besides the improved controls) is how he gains Prestige Points (the experience system in the game). While Frank’s talent was in photography, where taking pictures earned PP via composition and creativity, Chuck earns PP by MacGuyvering crazy weapons. That is, he can take certain items and combine them together to create powerful combo weapons that net lots of PP per kill. These range from simply putting nails in a baseball bat to making lightsabers out of gems and flashlights to strapping chainsaws onto motorcycles. Chuck earns Combo Cards (item recipes) through leveling up, rescuing survivors, defeating psychopaths, or even by examining movie posters for inspiration. If you simply combine two items before Chuck has officially unlocked the Combo Card, you get a Scratch Card that earns you less PP. So you can freely experiment yourself and make crazy zombie-slaying gadgets, while still remaining motivated to unlock the actual Combo Card recipes. This new system makes gameplay more consistent — less pausing to take pictures and more pure action from moment-to-moment; it also makes the leveling curve more consistent, as you earn levels through natural combat progression rather than through exploits that instantly jump you up a few levels like in the first game.

Other ways that Dead Rising 2 distinguishes itself from its predecessor is through its multiplayer treatment. You can play the story in co-op, where another player takes his own Chuck into someone else’s game to help out (which makes most psychopaths incredibly easy). While only the host can progress in the storyline, the joining player still gains money and PP to take back into his own story playthrough. And while it’s initially a bit odd to have two Chucks at once, each player is likely going to have a wacky costume (Chuck can pretty much put on any outfit in the game, which leads to some hilariously inappropriate-looking cut-scenes), and it’s no odder than having two or more Master Chiefs in Halo. Besides co-op, there’s also the competitive Terror Is Reality, a sort of Mario Party/Fusion Frenzy-with-zombies experience where you play four rounds of minigames against three other players for cash to take back into your story. Neither multiplayer is particularly deep nor addictive in the same way as Call of Duty, but they’re amusing distractions that help out the main game.

It’s a bit of a downer that while Blue Castle has done so much to make Dead Rising both more accessible and enjoyable to play, it’s still ultimately hampered by some severe issues. While the game, by definition, lasts no more than six hours per playthrough, your actual game clock is going to be longer — not due to more content, but due to loadtimes. Anytime either a cut-scene plays or Chuck goes from a mall to a casino to an outdoor strip, the game takes a good thirty seconds or so to load. By itself, not too bad, but the frequency of loadtimes can get really irritating. Another technical issue is the inconsistent framerate — it’s a bit ironic that the very feature that makes Dead Rising 2 cool (tons of zombies on-screen) can also make the game chug along. Or that any time you have fire on-screen, whether via cut-scene or Molotov cocktail or flaming boxing glove, that also kills the framerate.

There are also some issues in core gameplay as well. Veterans of the first game might quibble at how much easier this one is by comparison (you can unlock Overtime mode and then the S-rank ending on your first try, and the zombies, even at night, aren’t as aggressive in this game as in the previous), but everyone will probably agree that the psychopaths are a bit of a letdown. Sure, their presentation is satirical and wacky, but their gameplay boils down to rote pattern memorization and exploiting them when they’re vulnerable. One psychopath encounter breaks this dreary pattern by being more of a rhythm game, but that kind of imaginative encounter is more the exception than the rule. And if you hated how the motorcycle handled in Case Zero, you’re still going to hate how the vehicles alternate between sluggishness and hypersensitivity in their handling.

Ultimately, sure, Dead Rising 2 has annoying technical flaws and uninteresting boss battles. But the ability to jump into a friend’s game while wearing a Borat-inspired mankini and a Servbot helmet with a lawnmower blade strapped on top help you quickly forget those problems.

By Thierry Nguyen