The gaming space hardly needed another zombie entry. In 2010 alone zombies have taken over post-apocalyptic Las Vegas and consumed the twilight of the Wild-West. In years past they Ate My Neighbors, posed as Nazi's, and were Dead in Space. They're even more omnipresent throughout the download space, with both Burn Zombie Burn and Zombie Apocalypse sliding through my review pile last year. Do you remember either of those games? No?
Dead Nation might have seemed similarly unremarkable had one not taken notice of the development team; Housemarque. Their previous work, Super Stardust HD, was arguably the first great title on Sony's PlayStation Network. A twin stick shooter, the beautiful presentation coupled with the enormous amount of onscreen activity made for a wildly impressive spectacle, and throwing a deep scoring system and significant downloadable content on top made Stardust even better. Dead Nation, by default, demanded interest.
The aesthetic is might suggest otherwise, but Dead Nation shares much in common with its spiritual predecessor. The twin stick shooter comparison is obvious, but it also maintains Stardust's frantic pace and constant feeling of uneasiness, only it does it one better by actually employing legitimate level design and a better theme. Dead Nation thrives on forcing the player into an escalating series of challenges and absolutely refuses any attempt at complacency, and its premise of desperation is visible through every facet of its existence.
Examine the controls. Thumbs are fixed to the twin sticks for movement and clicked for reloading, while fingers are aligned on the shoulder buttons for weapon's fire, melee attack, boost rush, and offensive items. On the default control scheme (which one would assume is the intended way to play the game) the face buttons aren't even used. Housemarque intended players to have complete control over their character and ready to tackle any challenge with an instantaneous reaction. The lone failure is the d-pad, which is used to juggle weapons. It's awkward, and, despite the cool voice-over from the Stardust chick, near impossible to accurately switch weapons in the midst of a massive hoard of zombies.
Only when engaged in battle with dozens of undead does the sense of immediacy become apparent. Stardust's free-floating rocks and malicious aliens required a Zen-like state to maneuver through with any degree of success, and Dead Nation's zombies employ the same mentality with a few extra layers. Light, for example, has as much to do with the survival gunning down zombies. With night permanent and a simple flashlight aligned with aiming your weapon, it's easy to get swallowed by darkness. Not literally, mind you, but countless times throughout Dead Nation I found myself blasting a wave of zombies only to be overwhelming by another hoard approach from behind. The sense of panic abruptly created elicits a sense of sheer terror, and working your way through and around the zombie hoards without taking damage is a skill all its own.
The tools to do so are quite efficient; a rifle with infinite ammo and a charge shot is your base weapon, with a shotgun, SMG, rocket launcher, flamethrower and a few more creative weapons arriving with time. Grenades, flares, and other items are available in limited quantities, but I found them best used in emergencies. All weapons are also upgradeable through a variety of categories (power, rate of fire, clip size, etc.) at weapons shops (that also double as checkpoints). With more than 10% of my kills through the game, perfecting the timing of the melee attack also can't be understated. It's a lively mix, for sure, and, along with three different sets of upgradeable armor pieces, makes for a good bit of play style customization.
Brain dead doesn't necessarily mean brainless, as the zombies are more than willing to beat you with something other than numbers. Every time I thought I was on top of a situation Dead Nation was quick to doubt my confidence. Backing into a corner and trying to hold out was a quick way to die, as was trying to use the environments to set up a choke point. The latter works sometimes, but is usually the exception and not the rule. Zombies also have a bit of intelligence; dead soldiers will aimlessly fire off their rifles as a melee attack, and those whose flesh has almost rotted completely away are far faster than the player character. And then there's the super powered zombies.
While they lack a clear definition, the super zombies are best categorized as an idea lifted straight from Left 4 Dead's special infected. A long, thin zombie conceals himself against walls and approaches with a rapid fire pace while another that looks suspiciously like Left 4 Dead's Boomer is grossly fat and a walking grenade. Two other Goliaths, one with blade arms and the other with an adept jumping attack, are quick to commit intense one hit kills. Their girth gives way to massive foot stomps to indicate their approach, which typically translates to ominous tones of dread and panic. Is the idea original? Hardly, but those things always made me nervous, so I can't say they weren't successful in their approach.
These tools would have been wasted on bad level design, but Dead Nation doesn't waste time with emptying the player into uninspired arenas. Though it features a predetermined start and end point, it was never short on areas to explore outside of the intended path (and often rewarded such exploration with loot). Certain clichés appear, delayed elevators and conveyor belts to name a few, but so do fairly uncommon devices. Managing fire requires an attention to detail, but real strategy is injected by the use of explosives. Almost every car seems to be rigged with explosives activated by a few shots from your gun. Setting off a car bomb results in a visible radius of the explosion, which can be cleverly used to eviscerate hoards of the undead. Alarmed cars draw their attention, but others require a good bit of strategy; setting one off on accident feels like an incredible waste of resources, and was often (or at least when I was out of grenades) the difference between life and death.
Though Dead Nation isn't a short game, goal times for levels are twenty minutes but I stretched some out to an hour, it does offer plenty of incentive to return. Five layers of difficulty are obvious, as is trying to find all the loot pickups, but the scoring system quickly takes over once the thrill of exploring the undead apocalypse fades. Every zombie slaughtered without taking damage adds to your multiplier while getting hit drops it a few points. Maxing out your score, as fans of Stardust can testify, quickly emerges as a worthwhile investment.
Global rankings are a given, but the way in which Dead Nation handles these is quite unique. Your kills are aligned with your country, which is then filtered through a complete virus cycle percentage (currently everyone is at 1 or below). It would be cool if this was a stealth method of bringing new content into the game, but even if it is just an excuse for nationalism, it's a great way to tie statistics into Dead Nation's fiction.
Dead Nation also contains some semblance of a plot, but its mercilessly brief duration is well appreciated. Clocking in at under a minute each, voice-over stills convey just enough information to get the job done. Though two characters are selectable, each shares the same dialogue and an identical story. The real purpose of including two characters was obviously for a cooperative experience, which can be carried out locally or online.
Dead Nation's visual appeal can’t go unmentioned. Though it might appear generic in still frame (honestly, these screens are terrible) watching it in motion quickly adjusts that perception. A striking amount of on-screen activity was a given with Housemarque, but what I didn't expect was the aggressive employment of a physics engine. Nearly every object in the game carries a sense of weight, and something like setting off a car bomb typically creates a magnificent explosion of carnage. Garbage flies everywhere. bodies fly up in the air, and the light blast fills the screen. There's something truly terrifying (in a Pitch Black sort of way) about the light mass temporarily revealing the surrounding hoards, and makes for a purveying sense of uneasiness throughout a level.
Equally impressive were the themes surrounding each level. Graveyards and hospitals are practically given, but infected carnivals and elevated highways were great locations too. Better yet, you'll see different zombies under each context; the carnival boasts a ton of undead clowns (complete with hilarious bonk noises) crawling out of a tent while the areas with fire seem to always spout zombie fireman. My favorite was the crashed baseball team bus, which unloaded a brief onslaught of nine baseball players. To construct its anywhere-USA world Dead Nation uses all of its assets in a rather clever manner; buildings are repeated, but usually from different angles and perspectives, giving off the illusion of genuinely different places.
The sound department is also worth mentioning. The guitar heavy music takes its cues from 28 Days Later, but the sound effects were the star of the show. Walking over a pile of slaughtered undead resulted in horrifying squishes and crunches, and kicking around junk all over the street sounded surprisingly realistic. Gunfire penetrating zombie flesh and routine explosions also hit their marks, but what surprised me was every single zombie seemed to make its own noise. Rather than cover their bases with a collective zombie moan, Housemarque went the extra mile. You'll know you're in trouble by the wall of sound slowly closing in.
A precious few areas left me disappointed. The aforementioned weapon switching system was a bummer, though I can't really think of a more intuitive implementation. Reasonable checkpoints exist if you die mid-level, but if you power-off then you’re forced to completely restart a level. I actually found that weirdly gratifying, but I can see where certain players might view clearing specific mid-level obstacles as considerable accomplishment and might get discouraged when they discover they have to repeat their performance. Lastly, while I enjoyed the stiff difficulty my first time through, I was crying foul at the final sequence. I applaud Housemarque for not creating a ridiculous super boss or something similarly stupid, but their particular approach was kind of a drag.