Over the past few years, zombies have infected mainstream popular culture like never before. They’ve appeared in countless big-budget videogames, including a popular mode in perennial megahit Call of Duty. They’re pulling in so much money at the box office that Brad Pitt agreed to costar alongside their shambling hordes in one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters. They’ve even got their own hit TV show, courtesy of AMC’s The Walking Dead. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time until necrotic flesh makes People’s list of hot fashion dos. (“Don’t just show some skin, ladies. Show what’s underneath it!”) It’s hip to be dead.
That newfound ubiquity means the upcoming Xbox One exclusive Dead Rising 3 faces tougher competition and higher expectations than its two predecessors ever did. As if that weren’t enough, it also shoulders the unenviable burden of being the first zombie-centric game to appear on a next-generation platform.
For the developers at Capcom Vancouver, that pressure is palpable. “It’s fear and excitement all mixed into one,” says executive producer Josh Bridge. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this is so scary,’ but we’re scratching at stuff that we’ve never seen before as developers. It’s really exciting to be in this position.”
Fear and Joking in Los Perdidos
Those high stakes meant the team was forced to rethink the most fundamental tenets of the series, searching for a new direction that would simultaneously add depth and increase accessibility. One of the earliest decisions was to do away with the oppressive time limit of the earlier games, instead offering it as an optional mode for more daring players. This change had a cascading effect on every other aspect of the design, right down to the franchise’s wacky atmosphere.
“When I worked on Dead Rising 2, we always called it a comedy horror game,” Bridge recounts. “In Dead Rising 3, zombies are the enemy and time isn’t. So, it felt like we should change the emphasis to horror first and comedy second. That’s where we went.”
As a result of this tonal shift, Dead Rising 3’s graphics won’t be as cartoony, and the zombies themselves will present a more immediate threat, with smarter AI and new enemy variants that require different tactics. Think an undead football player who can plow through a crowd and tackle you to the ground, or an ex-fireman whose gear renders him resistant to fire-based attacks.
What it doesn’t mean, though, is that Dead Rising 3 will be abandoning its ridiculous roots altogether. As you explore the massive open-world city of Los Perdidos, California, there are still plenty of over-the-top antics and humorous weaponry, but it’ll be up to you to seek them out.
“I don’t find a lot of stuff funny in games unless I do it myself,” Bridge confides. “We wanted to make sure that the comedy was a player option, more personal in what you chose to do and what you found funny in it.”
If anything, he says, the more serious tone makes silly moments all the more outrageous. “There’s more of a juxtaposition now. If you choose to start goofballing it up—and there are plenty of options there—it actually looks like a photobomb, which is even funnier to you because you did that.”
Call Me, Maybe
While the SmartGlass feature isn’t new to the Xbox One, Microsoft has made a concerted push toward making second-screen interactions an integral part of their next-gen offerings. Like Kinect before it, the technology has already garnered criticism as an unnecessary gimmick, but the Dead Rising 3 team thinks they’ve discovered the perfect implementation—and it’s a surprisingly obvious one.“We had this really simple idea,” Bridge explains. “What if your cellphone is a cellphone?” In other words, when Nick receives a call from one of his fellow survivors—à la Otis’ frequent messages to Frank West in the first Dead Rising—players will be able to receive it on their real-world smartphones like an actual phone call, provided they have SmartGlass enabled.
While that simple premise provides the jumping-off point, chatting with in-game characters won’t be the only way you can use your real phone as a proxy for your digital one. Bridge won’t go into too much detail, but he teases that you’ll also be able to use it to “find out more information about the world” and access exclusive missions.
Restricting portions of the game’s content to an optional feature might not go over too well with traditionalists, but Bridge is convinced that once players try it out, they’ll be hooked.
“We’re all hardcore gamers,” he says of the team. “We’re only interested in trying to take a crack at these things if we can find a way that they actually make the experience meaningfully better—not as a tack-on.”
As in the previous Dead Rising games, one of the biggest sources of that player-instigated comedy will be the sheer volume of improvised weaponry at your disposal. Because Los Perdidos represents an entire metropolitan area—not just a single shopping mall or a closed-off resort town—the team was able to let their imaginations run wild when it came to expanding upon that unlikely arsenal.
“Not only has the number increased, but there’s also definitely more variety,” Bridge explains. “The world needs grounded reality, so we pretty much put everything in that would fit in all the areas that we have to explore.”
While taking on a mob of zombies with a squirt gun or soccer ball is amusing enough on its own, madness really sets in when you start combining objects into absurd combo weapons. Since new protagonist Nick Ramos worked as a mechanic before the outbreak, the team decided the crafting system introduced in the second game should offer even more freedom this time around. For starters, Nick will be able to build combo weapons anywhere in the world, not just at predetermined benches—a change Bridge believes will encourage more experimentation.
“It’s just a lot more fluid,” he notes. “People are making combo weapons almost all the time now, which is great. It doesn’t feel like you’re swimming upstream to try to get back to that bench and craft that one weapon before it breaks.”
Another change? Nick will be able to perform these on-the-fly mashups with any vehicles you find in the world, too. “You can just weld them together into a Frankenvehicle, essentially,” says Bridge. “We have what you’d expect, like a reinforced vehicle with some guns on it, as well as really over-the-top ones, like a steamroller and a motorcycle chopped together to create what we call a ‘Roller Hawg.’ You can mow down enemies while spewing fire everywhere, which is kind of cool.” That’s a bit of an understatement.
And Then John Was a Zombie
Another Dead Rising staple that’s been overhauled is rescuing the other humans you encounter in the world. “In Dead Rising 1 and 2, there was a subset of folks—myself being one of them—who wanted to keep the survivors with them as their posse. We actually built that into the game’s design this time around. After completing side missions, they’ll join you as permanent buddies.” Being able to travel with a group of allies introduces new gameplay mechanics that Bridge describes as a “mini-RTS.”
“You can give them commands,” he says. “You can tell them to go pick up items or defend a location. You can have this little army with you and go into boss battles with them if you want.”
At the same time, this also brings a new level of danger and consequence to every encounter, since companions that succumb to the zombies will be dead—or undead, to be precise—forever. “It’s heartbreaking,” Bridge admits. “We put a lot of character into them. You really have to think about whether you want to take that risk.”
Of course, not every human you’ll encounter on the streets of Los Perdidos will be friendly. In keeping with franchise tradition, Dead Rising 3 will feature a selection of psychopaths, uninfected lunatics scattered throughout the world who pose a serious threat.
“We look at psychos as the way to go into the darkest corners of what the human psyche would be dealing with during an outbreak,” says Bridge.
He isn’t ready to go into full detail about what we can expect from the psychopaths in Dead Rising 3, but Bridge does offer an intriguing tidbit. “The theme is, they’re all built around the Seven Deadly Sins,” he teases. “That’s tied into gameplay, as well—not just the theme of the character.”
I try to pry more info out of him, but his lips are sealed.
“All I can say is, it took a while to get Sloth figured out,” he laughs.
This article originally appeared in EGM issue 261.