Dead Nation [Review]
It seems that you can’t throw a rock without hitting a zombie these days. They’re everywhere, in comics and movies, and games especially. Even games that aren’t necessarily about zombies have modes with zombies, guest appearances by zombies, or a zombie Shiatsu massage thrown in. It’s not a horrible thing though (unless you hate zombies), as the quality of most games involving zombies has remained high.
What we have in Dead Nation is a new zombie game; a 3/4ths top down shooter from developer Housemarque, also responsible for the Super Stardust games (both earlier on Amiga and later on PS3 and PSP). Dead Nation follows a pretty simple plot: you play as one of two survivors (or both in co-op) that have an immunity to the infection that has turned most of the populace into hordes of flesh eating zombies. But, with food and ammo running low, you have to take your chances outside your safe zone to try and find a new place of safety. This eventually leads you to seek other survivors and a cure to the zombie infection. It’s not going to win any awards, but the plot is enough to give you a reason to put some zombies in your sights.
There’s a multitude of weapons and items that you have access to, and frankly, you’ll eventually need them all to survive at anything but the lowest difficulty. You start out with a standard assault rifle which has unlimited ammo and a powershot function (you hold down the fire button to charge it) that lets a round penetrate multiple zombies, but lacks stopping power and rate of fire. You quickly gain access to sub-machine guns and shotguns, as well as more devilishly fun weapons like the blade cutter and flamethrower, plus many more. Some of the items you’ll get your hands on are flares (which serve as a distraction), grenades, TNT, and others.
Controls are tight but simple: movement is mapped to the left stick and aiming is done with the right stick. R1 fires your weapon while L1 uses items. Swapping between different weapons or items is done with the left/right directional pad or up/down, respectively. R2 is a melee function, which is pretty self-explanatory, but also gives you a useful curb stomp on zombies that are knocked down or have lost their legs. L2 gives you a dash that can get you out of a tight spot quickly, and also makes you temporarily invulnerable during the dash. You’ll never feel left out to dry by the controls when fighting for your life.
For the most part Dead Nation is a joy to play. I think by this point it’s a proven idea that gamers love killing zombies for pretty much any reason at all, and Dead Nation delivers plenty of zombies for that purpose. There are multiple types of zombies, from the standard shambling hordes to more ‘special’ zombie types that aren’t direct knock-offs, but were definitely inspired by Left 4 Dead.
Every situation will leave you with your finger hovering on the trigger, as at any point zombies can come bursting out of doorways and the backs of trucks, and other more unexpected places. There are some points in each level that act as gauntlets where you have to dispose of all the zombies in an area before being able to continue. These are true tests of tactics when literally hundreds of zombies of different types can appear on screen at a time to try and devour you. It’s a plain old, white-knuckle shoot-em-up.
There were only two problems I could find with Dead Nation, and they both concern the visual effects the team at Housemarque chose to use. One takes place during co-op gameplay, specifically when you and your partner move ‘too far’ from one another. The game will show a giant, bright green oval on screen to imply that you’ve hit the limit you can move apart from each other. This is not a bad idea, but the problem in execution is the color choice against the prevading visual look of the game, which has a bleak, run-down, apocalyptic tone. Put a neon halo around the screen and it makes it very easy to miss some zombies, especially in the heat of battle.
The other problem is the atmospheric changes that occur when zombies are attacking. For some reason Housemarque thought it was necessary to signal the fact that ZOMBIES ARE COMING FOR YOUR BRAINS! by both making the screen much darker and adding fog to the mix (even in environments where fog makes no sense). This ultimately feels like a cheap trick, to the point where I had to turn the gamma up in the game to the max to be able to see when being attacked. The game is difficult on its own without trying to artificially raise that difficulty.
Despite those two flaws I’d fully recommend Dead Nation to anyone looking for a good shoot-em-up. It’s a highly enjoyable game, especially when you grab a friend for the co-op mode. Even with the very current trend of zombies present in the game it hearkens back to games like Smash TV, where the fun and action are of the highest importance. At $14.99 it’s a great value.