Looks like I picked the wrong day to stop killing zombies…
At some point in the last few years the video game industry seemingly adopted the mantra, “When in doubt, add zombies.” The hapless undead have played the foil in countless titles — covering high budget serious takes (Left 4 Dead), downloadable kill fests (Zombie Apocalypse) and cutesy spinoffs (Plants vs. Zombies). Even in such an oversaturated market, developer Housemarque has managed to make its own mark with Dead Nation, a gore-filled romp that ranks among the top PSN exclusives of 2011.
Like many fast-paced top-down shooters, Dead Nation has you control movement with the left analog stick and aim with the right. Aiming your weapons feels crisp and accurate, even though only the default rifle comes equipped with laser sighting. Firing, dashing and melee attack are mapped to the shoulders while reloading is done by clicking down the right stick. The face buttons are unused.
My only complaints about the control scheme relate to the implementation of the d-pad to cycle through your weapons (right-left) and items (up-down). Given the d-pad’s location, it’s essentially impossible to switch guns/items on the fly unless you stop moving or firing, neither of which you’ll want to do in the heat of battle. It also would’ve been nice to have an option to jump back and forth between two weapons rather than always cycling through them.
Dead Nation spans ten consistently dark and foreboding levels. There’s a ton of detail worked into the game, from the wide variety of zombies, which range from gruesome to humourous, to the environments themselves. With locations ripe for undead activity like a hospital and a graveyard, Housemarque rarely misses a chance to drive home just how hellish the world of the living has become.
As good as the backgrounds are, it’s the game’s use of lighting and shadow that really sets the mood. I still remember vividly the first time I set foot into a well lit section of town only to watch the power die and the screech of zombies ring out. It’s just one of the many “oh shit” moments that Dead Nation does so well throughout. The handful of sections where it’s nearly pitch black and you’re constantly swiveling your flashlight around are handled fantastically, making you legitimately glad to see lights.
Everything moves along at a crisp rate even as you unload upon dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of living dead as they swarm onto the screen from all angles. With so many enemies to deal with at once, however, the game pulls the camera back a fair amount to show more square footage. While I think it’s a necessary step, it does create the side effect of making it difficult to see stragglers, which can lead to some cheap and frustrating hits.
There’s not a ton of music here, and what is present primarily blends into the background. While it does serve to heighten the anxiety, at times it’s clear that ambient sound is more important as listening for approaching zombies is critical given your limited vision. Sound effects and cut scene voice acting are passable, but the female voice that announces every single weapon change is grating. When cycling through them quickly it becomes an unintelligible blur.
You play as either Jack McReady or Scarlett Blake, both of whom are immune to the disease turning the rest of the Earth’s population into walking corpses. Early on a scientist contacts you and indicates that if you’re able to locate the body of “Patient Zero,” the combination of your DNA and his can produce a vaccine. As luck would have it, you’re wandering the same town where the body resides; leaving it up to you fight through the undead to give humanity a chance.
If that set up sounds familiar, it’s because there’s nothing fresh about the story in Dead Nation. It’s told with voiceovers of stationary drawings and does little more than give your fingers a break in between the levels. Of course, no one is downloading a zombie shoot ’em up expecting an intricate plotline that breaks new ground on the clichéd tale of a worldwide pandemic.
What gamers are looking for is intense zombie killing action — something that is delivered in excess here. Viewed from a top-down perspective, Dead Nation challenges you to battle through ten stages of increasingly nasty zombies to reach your goal. If you’re the type that likes to explore and hates leaving anything standing, the game can take more than five hours to complete on normal difficulty with a body count comfortably exceeding 10,000.
Despite throwing so many enemies at you, the game remains interesting by introducing different enemy types. Even after you’ve met them all you’ll still run into a different combination that requires a tactical approach. At first, most fights can be handled by moving backward with machine guns blazing. However, as you progress and the zombies get tougher you’ll need weapons that pack more of a punch. To that end you’ll gain access to a bevy of different guns, all of which cost money to require and then upgrade.
The game offers an impressive arsenal of weapons with which to do battle, ranging from the basic (rifle, shotgun, SMG) to the exotic (blade cannon, shocker). Each gun has a base cost to acquire and then several factors — such as range, power, clip size and max ammo — that can be augmented for additional dollars. There’s only so much cash to be found, though, so maxing out every weapon is a dicey proposition at best. Instead, most will gravitate toward upgrading the guns they use the most, which gives the game a personalized feel to it.
Whatever guns you take into combat the act of fighting off zombies gets intense, particularly because Dead Nation spaces the checkpoints pretty liberally. There were plenty of times where I’d battled through hundreds of enemies without reaching the next checkpoint and found myself low on health. The mere threat of having to fight through them all over again created some serious anxiety.
Unfortunately, the checkpoint system accentuates one of the game’s biggest shortcomings: ridiculous jumps in difficultly that pop up during the campaign. The end of one level in particular had me unleashing a stream of profanity that later caused me to consider apologizing to the neighbors just in case they heard me. Quite frankly, nothing I had encountered to that point had me the least bit prepared to handle that fight, and it was really blind luck that got me through. While so many sections feel like they’ve got legitimate tactics to overcome the odds, there are some where it’s so chaotic that I was left to hold down the trigger and toss grenades in the hope of making it out alive. Those aren’t very fun.
Other annoyances include the aforementioned cheap hit issue, where sometimes stray zombies will start pummeling you even though you didn’t see them. The more annoying cousin of that is when enemies somehow get closer than your gunfire, leaving them to pound on you even as you fire your shotgun. I also don’t understand the thought process behind turning the screen a reddish hue when you take too much damage. It’s difficult enough to see without having a haze further obscure the enemies chasing you at the most critical of moments.
Beyond the single player there’s also local and online co-operative play. The campaign is identical in all three modes, but adding a wingman certainly helps you survive. It is worth noting that Dead Nation does not currently support online voice chat. It’s unfortunate because in a game with enemies attacking on multiple fronts simultaneously, it’d be nice to coordinate your counter attacks.
Dead Nation may not win any awards for originality, but Housemarque’s take on the genre is well executed and usually a lot of fun — just be ready to accept that the game requires a trial-and-error approach that’ll result in some rage-inducing deaths along the way.