The mall in Dead Rising is pretty much like any other you've visited. There's a bunch of women's clothing stores, a movie theater, and of course the obligatory food court.
The only real difference is that it's teeming with enough zombies to fill a stadium.
Dead Rising opens with freelance photojournalist Frank West being flown over military blockades by chopper, acting on a tip that “something big” is going down in the small fictional town of Willamette, Colorado.
Big, indeed: Apparently damn near every one of the town's 50,000-plus residents has been turned into a shambling, stinking corpse with a taste for brains. Seeing the story of a lifetime, Frank tells the pilot to drop him off on the roof of the town's shopping mall and return to pick him up in exactly 72 hours.
You're free to pass the time however you like — theoretically, you could have Frank wait out the three days on the zombie-free rooftop. But that isn't going to win you any Pulitzers, so you might as well go downstairs to check things out.
Much as in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead — from which this game cribs shamelessly — it seems that the entire town has converged on the mall. Hordes of zombies are lurching about, shoulder to shoulder, as far as the eye can see.
Your goal is to guide Frank through the mob of undead, snap a few pictures, and unravel exactly what happened to cause this mess. A handful of humans have survived to tell the tale: Some are victims in need of saving, while others are Department of Homeland Security personnel who will advance the main story.
Naturally, Frank starts out totally unarmed. But with a little imagination, you'll find plenty of improvised weapons in the mall's stores. Like that chair, for example. Or that baseball bat. Come to think of it, didn't I see a sledgehammer in the hardware store? And certainly there's a gun shop around here somewhere . . .
Indeed, one of Dead Rising's greatest joys is having a whole mall's worth of stuff at your disposal. Whether you're pummeling the undead with a teddy bear or plowing through a crowd with a lawnmower, the results are as hilarious as they are sadistic. After a few hours, players will have spilled enough blood to fill an Olympic-sized pool.
While there are a few hiccups, they're all relatively minor. Some of the game's small text is difficult to read on non-HDTVs. And players are forced to save their game in the mall's restrooms, which — as in real-life shopping malls — never seem close enough when you need them.
But the little issues are overshadowed by Dead Rising's true strength: replayability. You'd be forgiven for thinking a game set within the confines of a mall would have limited scope. In actuality, the strict time limit makes it impossible to do everything the first time out. So the game is just as fresh the second (or third) time through, as you follow new scoops and invent new ways to kill zombies.
Dead Rising is also a great way to show off the “next-gen” prowess of the Xbox 360. Being surrounded by up to 1,000 enemies at once is something that just couldn't have been accomplished without advances in processing power. It's a great example of next-gen hardware creating new ways to play, which may make this the 360's first must-have game.