Dead Rising was an early example of what the then-new Xbox 360 hardware could do. Running through vast crowds of zombies in a mall was wish fulfillment for a generation of people raised on George Romero movies, and slaughtering them wholesale with improvised weaponry was blood-red icing on the cake. A finicky save-game system and terrible AI created two outspoken camps – those who couldn’t stand the game, and an equally vocal group of apologists. For the sequel, Blue Castle Games and Capcom took a long, hard look at the first game and addressed nearly all of its major annoyances. The end result is one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played this year.

Former motocross champ Chuck Greene is a likable guy, which makes his plight all the more engaging. His wife was killed in a zombie attack in Las Vegas – the same attack that left his daughter Katey infected with the deadly virus. To get doses of the expensive Zombrex drug, which keeps her infection in check, Chuck has had to do some unsavory things. That path has led him to Fortune City, Nevada, where he hopes to cash in on the gruesome show Terror is Reality.

The most dramatic improvement Blue Castle Games made is in the way that players interact with other survivors. Let’s face it – escort missions are rarely fun. When the people you’re escorting have no regard for their safety and a complete indifference for avoiding obstacles, it can make you want to throw a controller. Guiding survivors to the safe house in Fortune City is a big part of the game, though it’s much less annoying than it was in the first one. Maybe there was a carbon monoxide leak in the Willamette Mall.

NPCs follow Chuck at the press of a button, and they can be guided to a specific place by adding a trigger pull. This second option, which was critical in the first game, isn’t nearly as important this time around. I never had a problem with survivor AI, even during points when I had a train of six followers. They kept pace with me wherever I went, navigating stairs and other potential obstructions with ease. I never felt comfortable having the AI shadowing me in the first game, but there were points in Dead Rising 2 when I was bummed to say goodbye to them.

Chuck can combine specific objects at special stations to create super weapons. If you think a fire axe and sledgehammer are effective against zombie skulls, you’ll be impressed with what they can do when they’re duct-taped together. Chuck’s not a photojournalist like Frank West was, so using these items replaces snapping pictures as his way of earning experience. Items that can be combined are marked with a wrench icon, and building new weapons is addicting. Players can use trial and error to discover new combinations, but more obscure ones – such as combining a wheelchair with a car battery to make the “electric chair” – are more likely to be discovered through combo cards. Players receive these for helping certain survivors or completing battles against Fortune City’s psychopaths.

Even though Blue Castle Games is based in Vancouver, the team nailed the first game’s goofy interpretation of American culture. This is probably most noticeable in the psychopaths. As in the first Dead Rising, the zombie attacks completely derail some folks who were probably a bit unhinged to begin with. They’re not undead, but they’re no less deadly. Some are gross and silly, like a memorable run-in with a cannibal chef, though other encounters have a poignancy one might not expect from a game about killing zombies. I felt guilty fighting more than a couple of these sad sacks.

Certain aspects of Dead Rising 2 are bound to be deal-breakers to some, but they shouldn’t be as polarizing as the problems in the first game. The sequel features save-game slots, so it’s not as easy to paint yourself into a zombie-infested corner. Even though I usually had half a dozen or so missions going on around me at once, I rarely felt overwhelmed. Time is still the ultimate enemy in Dead Rising 2, though it seems to have relaxed its hold a bit.

It’s still possible to claw your way into an exceptionally difficult position, though. The game is designed with replayability in mind, as character progression carries over between playthroughs. If you try to beat the game straight from beginning to end, it’s going to be tough, even with a co-op buddy. Instead, I found the optimal way is to join a friend’s game and help them progress a while before starting your own game. That way, you’ll begin with a more experienced Chuck who can carry more items, has more health, and knows a few fighting moves. Earning cash by playing the excellent Terror is Reality online multiplayer mode – which features an entire game’s worth of silly zombie-themed minigames – is easy and enjoyable, too.

Even after playing for dozens of hours, you’ll still find new things in Dead Rising 2. I won’t spoil anything, but there’s a lot of variety to be found in the game beyond obvious things like the number of objects that can be used as bludgeons. This game is designed for multiple playthroughs, and I’m looking forward to each and every one of them.