How do you stop a zombie game from getting old?

Dead Rising 3’s executive producer talks murder fantasies, banana hammocks and studying Twilight.
How do you stop a zombie game from getting old?
How do you stop a zombie game from getting old? © Microsoft Studios
By Richard Wordsworth

 "I think it's a primal thing. There's an aspect of all of us that would like to live out this fantasy."

We’re sitting in the dark with Capcom Vancouver's Josh Bridge. We're at a preview event for the Xbox One in the basement of London's One Marylebone, a cavernous space of arches and shadows only half lit with Xbox-green mood lighting. If Dead Rising 3 were a horror game, you couldn't pick a scarier place to play. Fortunately, after around 90 minutes of gameplay, the only thing that's disturbing is how comfortably we’re blitzing swarm after swarm of undead shamblers into showers of red-grey pulp.

Bridge is the game's executive producer, and unlike the reps from the other games on show, he sits with us as we plough through the city of walking corpses, pointing out new and unlikely weapon combinations and laughing as we turn them on the horde to grizzly effect. With dozens of high-level weapons unlocked early, we've been busily rolling out zombies like pizza dough from the seat of a motorbike/steamroller hybrid, hacking them in half with a dual-bladed ninja staff and punching them off into the distance with the MacGyver-esque combination of a pair of boxing gloves and a motorbike engine. Bridge is gleeful. There's something of Zombieland's hero Tallahassee in the joy he gleans from watching us pull the undead literally limb from limb.

Screenshot from Dead Rising 3
Screenshot from Dead Rising 3 © Microsoft Studios

 "It's an excuse to have that fantasy because it's a zombie," says Bridge as we douse a group of walkers with a jerry-rigged flamethrower. "People like to think, 'what if there were no laws? What would it be like to stab that zombie? Could I kill this zombie?' There's something in there that's animalistic, something that's interesting. That's what our game is tickling the whole time with these things."

On-screen, hero Nick Ramos freezes a group of walkers solid and smashes them to pieces with a hammer. Bridge laughs again.

Dead Rising, as a series, has shambled a long way from its first incarnation as a slightly shaky third-person tribute to George Romero's 1978 Dawn Of The Dead. The first game trapped you as photojournalist Frank West in a quintessential shopping mall overrun with the undead. As West, you had just 72 hours to rescue surviving shoppers and unravel the mystery behind the zombie outbreak. But unlike what fans had seen before, developers Capcom ditched the cramped interiors and limited ammunition of franchises like Resident Evil and focussed instead on wringing processing power out of the Xbox 360 to generate as many on-screen zombies as players could shake a chainsaw at.

© Microsoft Studios

 For the first time on a console, the undead would swarm around you, staggering in their hundreds from all directions while you swung at them with an arsenal of improvised weapons sourced from the abandoned stores - a fire axe taped to a sledgehammer, a propane tank covered with nails, or a bow and arrow taken from a novelty Indian Casino with sticks of dynamite for ammunition. Dead Rising had found its niche – sure, it’s the end of the world, but you can still enjoy the little things in life.

But neither it, nor its sequel, were without their teeth-grinding flaws. The hapless survivors in both the Willamette Mall and Dead Rising 2's Fortune City Casino had terrible habits of running directly into crowds of undead as you tried to ferry them from their hiding places to your makeshift safe house. The boss encounters – almost all crazed survivors, including deranged clowns and bitterly lovesick store mascots – tipped the balance from casual zombie slaughter into desperately unfair exercises in failing and reloading. And the characters – when they spoke at all, usually only during cutscenes – sounded like they'd been cast in a high school drama production of Shaun of the Dead. And resented it.

When it came time to spread the zombie plague to Xbox One, Capcom took these complaints on board. Dead Rising 3 is an impressive tune-up to an engine that many other studios would have just let run and run. For the voice acting, for example, the team brought in Hollywood talent and voice directors to manage the actors during motion capture and recordings.

Screenshot from Dead Rising 3
Screenshot from Dead Rising 3 © Microsoft Studios

 "We saw [the voice acting] as an area we wanted to get better at," Bridge admits, candidly. "We were aware [it was bad], not just from fans but from our point of view, and we wanted to improve on that."

"In the past we would have one person do the voice in a booth, one person do the motion, and we [the developers] would be the ones trying to assemble all this," he says. "This time, we got the actors together to do the performance as well as the voice on one sound stage. What you end up with are more natural performances - and more unplanned ad-libbing. Nuances like a character slightly tripping over a corpse. We didn't plan that, but it's awesome."

But if that sounds a little close to the po-faced, David Cage school of video game storytelling, you're not using your imagination - or Dead Rising 3's multitude of tasteful wardrobe options.

© Microsoft Studios

 "We wanted to make sure that their performances were believable," Bridge explains, "that the actors believed in their context even if it's the most absurd thing ever. My hope is that you have these realistic, believable performances and then your character comes in wearing a banana hammock. Almost like you're photobombing the game."

Gameplay has also been refined for next-gen based on fan feedback, opening the game up more to the mainstream while clinging on, with rotting fingers, to its core fans. In the first two instalments, players were forced to race against an in-game clock: the mystery of the Willamette Mall's outbreak would vanish if Frank missed crucial timed story events, and Dead Rising 2's Chuck Greene had to regularly break off from zombie slaying to track down doses of Zombrex – a miracle drug that prevents the spread of infection – to give to his sick daughter Katey. For much of the series' audience, the brutal time limits added a layer of tension and urgency to otherwise free-for-all carnage. And while purists can play with a time limit on in Dead Rising 3's Nightmare Mode, Bridge highlights its inclusion as a major point of contention – even amongst the developers.

Screenshot from Dead Rising 3
Screenshot from Dead Rising 3 © Microsoft Studios

 "The biggest [gameplay decision] was the time limit, because it's really divisive," Bridge says. "Even in our team there are some people who like it and others who are like, 'screw it, I want to have that freedom'."

Such tweaks to Dead Rising's formula were initially a hard sell. When the game was announced at Microsoft's E3 presentation in June, there was outcry that the game sold out to the Call of Duty crowd; that it was wandering off down the dark path of series like Resident Evil and Dead Space, sanding off the edges that made the series unique in pursuit of of the mass-market-action dollar. What it turned out to be wasn't a direction shift, but a refinement: adding smoother controls, fairer boss fights, more ridiculous weapons and, of course, thousands more zombies to test them on. Despite its initially chilly reception and misleadingly generic brown-and-grey box art, Dead Rising 3 feels fresh – even while its core remains as deliciously rotten as ever it was.

But as the third instalment of a franchise now the better part of a decade old, and with seemingly every third game released somehow centred around zombies (whether that's shooting them, defending your garden from them, or harnessing them as free labour for your boutique cafe), isn't there a risk of the zombie genre finally decomposing altogether? Of femurs splintering and abscessed legs buckling under the weight of the genre's ubiquity?

© Microsoft Studios

 "Zombie culture has been going on for years – longer than games. I don't see it getting stale," says Bridge. "There's something really attractive about that 'what would you do?' experience. But from a gameplay point of view, there always needs to be evolution. Some tropes need to evolve. Look at, say, vampires. Love it or hate it, but Twilight took vampires, took a few tropes out, added a few new ones in, and boom! It got the audience really excited about vampires again. Anyone can take something, give it a bit of an adjustment and make a really fresh experience.

"I think the other part of it is the environment we're living in – social unrest, concerns about the economy... There's a sense of dread and a feeling that people don't trust government. [These games are] a way to vent. These things become an outlet – a way to see how the world would unravel."

So, if the economy takes another nose-dive and sends society spiralling into a Dystopian future of unfettered looting and violence, be on the look out for nails, a motorbike engine and a pair of boxing gloves. You read it here first.

Dead Rising 3 is an Xbox One exclusive, and is out now.

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