I think my biggest problem with Dead Rising is that its marketing and demo present a much different game than it actually is. It looks, from how it's being advertised, like a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox game; enter a mall, beat the hell out of zombies, maybe save some people or follow the story if you feel like it.
That's not actually how the game rolls. Dead Rising is basically one big time-trial, with the sandbox mode you're looking for as an unlockable extra. From the moment you hit the ground, you're on the clock, asked to accomplish a variety of tasks and missions. You can ignore them if you want and just focus on zombie slaughter, but the game's set up so you'll want to focus on, at the very least, most of the story. If you don't, you'll miss most of the best weapons and some of the better fights.
Dead Rising begins on September 19th, as Frank West, freelance photojournalist, is headed into the unremarkable town of Williamette, Colorado via helicopter. He's heard rumors of something worth investigating in the town, and as it turns out, he's right.
The National Guard has Williamette on lockdown. Most of the town looks deserted, except for some scattered rioting in the streets. Most of the population seems to have gathered at the town's one attraction, the enormous, three-year-old Williamette Parkview Mall. Frank has the helicopter drop him off there and heads inside.
He promptly finds out the problem: Williamette has been invaded and nearly completely depopulated by the living dead. The scant few survivors have been driven to take shelter inside the mall, including two agents of Homeland Security, an odd old man, two mysterious Spanish immigrants, and more than fifty citizens of Williamette hoping to withstand the siege.
From that point onward, you're on your own. Frank's helicopter will come back for him in seventy-two game hours, which works out to about eight hours in real time. You're free to pursue the game's plot, rescue survivors, explore the mall, and/or beat the holy hell out of hundreds of zombies at once, as you see fit.
It's possible to do everything the game has to offer in a single run, but not initially. Frank begins Dead Rising as sort of a wuss, with very little life, only four item slots, weak attack power, lousy unarmed attacks, and anemic footspeed. As you rescue survivors, defeat psychotic humans who've taken shelter inside the mall, take photos with Frank's digital camera, and defeat ever-greater numbers of zombies, you'll earn Prestige Points.
With enough PP, you'll level Frank up, unlocking various new combat moves and better stats. By the time you hit level 49 or so, Frank's a one-man wrecking machine, capable of plowing through hundreds of zombies with his bare hands. The Disembowel and Face Crusher moves are just a wonder to behold.
In the meantime, there are weapons to wield pretty much everywhere you look. Anything Frank finds that isn't actually bolted to the floor can be wielded as a weapon of some kind, whether it's actually deadly or not. Even something like a box of flour or a giant stuffed teddy bear can be used to delay or humiliate a zombie. There are also two-by-fours, lead pipes, chainsaws, shotguns, plywood boards (which are deadlier than they sound), park benches, propane tanks, mannequins, sledgehammers, fire axes, shovels, meat cleavers, and maybe two hundred other weapons just waiting to be used. If you can see it, you can use it, and quite a few weapons have alternate attacks or behave differently when thrown.
The result's one of the most interesting brawlers in years, forcing you to continually change and upgrade your tactics and weapons as Frank improves his skills and you get better at the game. Just out of the box, Dead Rising is easily one of the most challenging games in years, but every time you die or let a story mission time out, you can opt to start the game over with Frank at his current level. It makes it a lot easier to learn from your mistakes.
All that said, it's also one of the most frustrating at times. Dead Rising is great as long as you're just beating the snot out of zombies, but when you do much of anything else, the problems start. Some people would bring up the save point system right about now, but I'm not one of those people; I don't have a problem with it.
I do have a problem with the AI, though. Dead Rising is, in some ways, one big escort mission. You spend a lot of time in the game rescuing survivors from a variety of dire fates; you don't have to, of course, but rescuing survivors and bringing them back to the security room--the one safe spot in the mall--is worth more PP than anything else you can do short of winning the game.
The survivors, however, have no real vested interest in their own continued survival. Capcom touts that they behave according to their personalities, which is why some of them can be armed and others cannot, and why some are better fighters than others. (Kindell, for example, doesn't really need your help at all.) That's all well and good.
The problem is that they're all as dumb as a box of rocks. It's not just that they'll run straight into a mob of zombies; their pathfinding is completely idiotic. If there's more than one survivor in your posse, they'll crowd up around a ledge and run into each other, preventing one another from climbing that ledge to follow you; if you set a checkpoint for them to run to and there's a wall in the way, they'll often run into that wall and simply run against it, unable to get anywhere. If they were at all able to look after themselves, having a bunch of survivors with you would be a valid strategic asset. Instead, they're almost totally worthless.
That lousy AI carries over to various intelligent antagonists, such as the psychopaths, insane humans who're the "bosses" of the game. Beating a few of them actually forces you to rely upon the AI making really idiotic mistakes, like running their jeep into a tree and getting stuck there, or standing on a ledge above you and letting you beat the hell out of their knees.
That isn't quite enough to ruin Dead Rising. All its mistakes are found within parts of the game that are completely optional, after all; the rest of the time, it's pure zombie-smashing goodness, with some of the best sound design to be found in years. The 360's power is used less for flashy graphics and more to keep hundreds of zombies onscreen at once without slowdown, which is impressive enough on the face of it, but gets really good when you're driving a truck through a horde of zombies.
All in all, this is the first absolute must-have exclusive for the 360. You might not like fighting games, Chromehounds is sort of a niche title, and most of the rest of the lineup consists of PC ports. Dead Rising, though, revolves around beating zombies to death with unconventional weaponry, and I submit to you that this is something that everyone can enjoy. Everyone.