At the dawn of the seventh console generation, the Dead Rising series turned as many heads as its protagonist removed. With its multitudes of everyday items as weapons, enormous numbers of on-screen zombies, and sly sense of humour, it was a flawed but memorable title that did well enough to spawn follow-ups of various sizes. As is expected from a sequel on new hardware, Dead Rising 3 improves on its ancestors in key areas, and from a technical standpoint ambitiously looks to up the ante considerably. The result is an entertaining sandbox experience marred only by a carbon copy story and the unvarnished fetch-quest nature of its missions.

Dead Rising 3 takes place 10 years after the events of Dead Rising 2, and 72 hours after the series’ zombie parasite has swept through the Californian city of Los Perdidos (literally “The Lost” in Spanish). The player character is a young mechanic by the name of Nick Ramos, whose talent for constructing something of great utility out of very little would make McGuyver blush. Together with a disparate group of fellow survivors, Ramos must escape Los Perdidos in six days, before it is erased from the landscape by a series of military strikes.

Dead Rising 3 review

The city is already in bad shape thanks to targeted airstrikes and general zombie misbehaviour. Roadblocks, destroyed bridges, the wrecks of abandoned vehicles, and huge hordes of slow-witted zombies make travel difficult – all the more so when the latter get feistier at nightfall. Still, travel Nick must – mainly to perform a series of seemingly-neverending fetch quests, each of which brings him one small step closer to freedom. This city ain’t gonna escape itself, after all.

As was the case in previous Dead Rising titles, there is a fair amount of climbing on things, building hilariously silly weapons using odd combinations of items, levelling up various skills, and smashing thousands of zombies. There have been a number of tweaks to the formula though, all of which are positive and many of which it is hard to imagine would have been possible on current-gen hardware.

Dead Rising 3 review
Dead Rising 3 review
Dead Rising 3 review

The most obvious change is one of scale. Los Perdidos is larger than the maps of both prior games combined, and the Xbox One can render three times as many zombies on-screen at once – all of which are unique – at a good draw distance. Despite the pressure this no doubt places on the hardware, loading times only occur after player death – an impressive feat. The city is full of zombies, but also items and collectibles galore, and its distinct quarters, varied topography, and explorable buildings and subway easily keep it interesting for the campaign’s lengthy runtime.

Players can explore Los Perdidos pretty much in their own time because Zombrex and the oppressive mission timers from the previous games have been excised from the normal (although not the hardcore) campaign. There are still many activities that must be completed by a certain time on a certain day or that content is missed and the story irrevocably altered, but the time allowed per mission is beyond generous, so only those utterly unable to focus their non-stop zombie destruction in the direction of an objective marker will miss out.

Most zombies are so weak that a broom will kill them eventually, and weapons generally kill them in a couple of shots. That allows Nick to wade through seemingly impossible-to-pass crowds, clearing a small path with every swing. Weapons degrade and break though, and tougher zombies show up in the form of football players, policemen, firemen, marines, as well as mutants, all of which require a more than the usual “swing at everything” strategy.

Dead Rising 3 review
Dead Rising 3 review
Dead Rising 3 review

The size and setting make driving a much larger component of the game than before, and the assortment of generic vehicles (“Sedan”, “Forklift”, ”Hearse” etc) are great for clearing a path through a writhing mass of undead bodies. There are minor issues here with pop-in, and high-speed driving and massive numbers of zombies can trigger frame rate drops. These things can occur outside of vehicles too, but they're rarer.

Faster vehicles can drift around corners, and the driving physics overall are strong: all vehicles handle well even when flung over one of the city’s many improvised ramps. Zombies do get in the way though, and cars ploughing through crowds of them will be slowed to a crawl. Players should also watch out for hop-ons – enemies who manage to grab part of a passing vehicle and claw their way to the driver’s window in a quest for brains. These may be rubbed off using buildings or sent flying by a quick change of speed or direction, but should they attack a well-timed button press or shake of the controller allows the player to shake them off without taking damage. A similar system exists when Nick is grabbed while walking around, and zombies can even be pushed off by making a push motion in the appropriate direction with the Kinect on. That device’s much-improved latency means this actually works really well and is surprisingly satisfying.

Dead Rising’s combo weapon system has been extended to vehicles in Dead Rising 3, so once a blueprint (which replace combo cards) is discovered and the appropriate vehicles placed side-by-side, Nick can quickly meld them into a death-dealing behemoth. A favourite is the “RollerHawg”, a motorcycle/steamroller hybrid that’s fast, barely slowed by even the thickest of zombie mobs, and totes twin flamethrowers on the front. The weird-ass street sweeper/party van monstrosity the “Party Slapper” is a close second.

Speaking of combos, vehicle and weapon combos may now be crafted anywhere at any time no workbench required – a massive step up. (Save games work the same way, incidentally.) When out in the open, Nick will just take damage for the 10 or so seconds it takes to whip up whatever concoction, and usually then exact grossly disproportionate revenge. Indeed, the series’ fondness for creative weapons and over-the-top splatter has – if anything – increased. Seeing zombies getting bisected by a sword, rag-dolled by a bat, set on fire, or otherwise mangled is never tedious.

As far as combo weapons go, perennial favourites the Laser Sword and Freedom Bear reappear, but there are plenty of new and nasty methods of mayhem: MMA gloves and a toy turn Nick into an Iron Man-equivalent, while a parasol, dragon’s head, and firecrackers allow him to briefly glide and breath fire. Dead Rising 3 is noticeably more grim than its predecessors, but that just makes the wacky stuff all the more hilarious, and thanks to new weapons lockers the craziness is never far away, with any weapons found or created always accessible there.

Dead Rising 3 review
Dead Rising 3 review
Dead Rising 3 review

For every level gained, Attribute Points are earned, and these are dispersed among seven categories that improve Nick’s weapon handling, unlock melee moves, aid agility, toughen his posse members, and much more. Although it depends on how much zombie slaughter is engaged in and how many side missions are crossed off, most players will hit level 40 during the main campaign, and by that stage Nick is a strong, nimble, corpse-destroying beast of a man. Books further augment his skills by providing passive abilities, which buff weapon durability or decrease the zombies’ detection radius, for example.

Helping stranded survivors is still a great way to level up, and some stranded will even join Nick’s posse, may be armed with weapons of the player’s choosing, and can have their health increased through the Attribute Points system. They can be a bit slow getting into vehicles, and one went on a killing spree and failed a mission for me, but overall they’re a great addition – just don’t get too attached.

They’re no match for another human player though, but fortunately Dead Rising 3 brilliantly integrates two-player online co-op. Those keen to play with others can select a matchmaking play style (completionist, speed run, casual, hardcore) at any time during the campaign and be joined by another regardless of where they are at in the game. Those joining play as a truck driver named Dick, but retain all their weapons, skill unlocks, clothes, and blueprints, and any new stuff found by either player is given to both automatically. Better still, all combo vehicle have a turret or secondary attack for a passenger to use, and any progress story of level-wise will be saved when they return to their own game – even if it’s in a chapter ahead of where they are at. Players can wander completely freely although sticking together obviously makes the game easier, and the netcode is almost unbelievably strong – playing with someone in the United States didn’t result in an ounce of lag.

Dead Rising 3 review

Where Dead Rising 3 runs into trouble is its story, as there simply isn’t much of one on offer. Nick is pretty much a blank slate, and none of the supporting cast are memorable or particularly appealing in the slightest, so it’s hard to care what happens to any of them. That leaves generic zombie-related story beats to do the heavy lifting, but those decades-old tropes have been flogged once too often. Nothing here will even raise the eyebrow of even the most casual of zombie game players.

So without a compelling narrative to dress things up, it soon becomes painfully clear that the campaign is just a long string of fetch quests – usually to the opposite side of the map, and usually for the slimmest of story advancements. The game also suffers from Grand Theft Auto IV syndrome, where the player character murders literally thousands of zombies but then gets remorseful about killing humans who were clearly evil bastards.

The boss battles are also pretty weak, with most involving little more than dodging attacks until said boss is winded, then hammering them into the concrete. The thing is, Dead Rising 3 is such a great sandbox experience that these things are more than forgivable. Capcom Vancouver has nailed that aspect so thoroughly that it’s hard to be too upset about the game’s downfalls. Many will complete the game and happily dive into its Nightmare mode for a greater challenge, but most will probably be happy letting the game's clock run down while they carve up zombies in a Kermit the Frog jacket.