From the developers of Super Stardust HD comes Dead Nation, a top-down zombie “shoot ’em up” PSN-exclusive title. Video game releases this year haven’t been a stranger to zombies and, to be honest, the market has become over-saturated with the living dead. Housemarque has chosen a very competitive time to introduce their first attempt at a zombie game with other AAA titles on the market already incorporating zombies such as Dead Rising 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops and Red Dead Redemption just to name a few. Also consider that Dead Nation is this year’s final zombie game slated for release. That being said the bar has been set for them to either reach or raise. Can Housemarque liven up the undead scene and give gamers a fresh and exciting survival horror experience to end this genre on a good note for 2010?
At its core, Dead Nation is a top down shooter with controls almost drawn directly from Super Stardust HD. Here’s a quick layout: the left analog stick controls character movement, the right analog stick aims the weapons in a 360 degree fashion, R1 fires, L1 throws equipped items, R2 is close quarters melee used for both dispatching enemies and opening/activating objects, L2 is a dash attack (much like SSDHD), clicking R3 reloads, and the arrow buttons switch weapons and equipment. Be sure to note that controller configuration can be altered to fit any player’s style. The layout feels in depth enough while remaining simplistic enough to get the player out of hectic moments, of which there will be plenty of. A solid grasp of the controls allows players to truly appreciate the tactics involved and is necessary in order to see your character reach the end mostly unscathed.
Knowing what weapon to use is something you’ll learn early on either through on screen tips or trial and error. The primary rifle provides precise single shot fire to pick off small groups at a medium to long distance. Being your primary weapon it has been given the gift of infinite ammo. Holding the fire button with the rifle causes the bullet to pass through numerous zombie heads in one shot or provide increased damage to larger foes. The game gives visual and audio cues for the power shot by making the laser thicken a little accompanied by a unique sound. The SMG can be purchased early on and is best used on large clusters of enemies that re relatively close. Equipment such as grenades and flares can attract nearby zombies in case you need a breather or if you just want to thin out their ranks quickly.
Equipment and weapons can all be upgraded at checkpoints that contain the Weapon Shops. Here guns’ damage, fire rate and clip size can be increased or new weaponry can be bought which includes the ever brutal Blade Cannon. Equipment usually gains the ability to carry more and increased blast radius if applicable. Being able to plan accordingly with your weapons helps give them real purpose instead of feeling like they were just their to add visual variety.
It is vital that the player collect currency to be able to purchase upgrades and new items to max out their arsenal. Gold can be obtained in one of two ways. Zombies drop some and the rest can be found hidden in chests and the trunks of cars. That is easily one of the greatest aspects of the game. Treasure hunting adds some light RPG elements as you knock open trunks. This is assuming you can still access the trunks since the cars will blow up if enough shots hit them. When you’re surrounded by hoards of undead it is not uncommon for stray rounds to set off a car before you’ve had the chance to loot the vehicle. Along with currency new armor upgrades can be found inside some chests which alter attributes such as strength, endurance and agility.
The game’s atmosphere, dare I say, rivals that of Dead Space at certain points. The player will get used to walking down open and narrow passages all of which are dimly lit, a reminder that the shadows hide the unknown and the unknown is your enemy. This mechanic can cause gamers to spin around randomly catching the glimpses of passing shadows or overreacting to the sound of a kicked soda can. There are times when the flashlight strapped to your gun will give a quick view to hiding enemies as the light passes over them. For example, while exploring areas for loot I ventured into a far corner only to have my light briefly reveal a tall, lanky and, as I found out very quick, creature pressing itself up against the wall. As I returned the flashlight to the stealthy attacker he bolted full speed at me causing me to spray sporadically in his direction hoping to end his life before he ended mine. Moments of this tense magnitude are abundant in many different ways making the player constantly update his surroundings.
Dead Nation includes a unique feature in order to make your zombie slaughter retain meaning. All of your kills add to your country’s infected eradication percentage. So far the USA is in the lead with 45% of its infection cleansed. The UK is in second with 42% and, last I checked, the last one with an actual score was Greece with .002%. This really makes players feel like they are making an impact and it provides some fun competition.
Aiding the addictive gameplay are detailed visuals and crisp audio. Not many would expect such detail in a top down shooter. Most developers keep environments and included objects fairly simplistic due to the fact that the player can’t really swing the camera around to observe every nook and cranny. Luckily, Housemarque took it upon themselves to bring us one of the most detailed downloadable titles we have ever seen. Upon killing the waves of undead the ragdoll physics kick in and they are still affected by the environment. If the character runs through the bodies, then they will move as they are pushed around and stepped on. Also, if explosions from nearby cars or other combustible objects go off near the bodies they will fly in every direction. It is a subtle detail, but it makes all the difference when body after body piles around you and actually stays there instead of disappearing or becoming immovable objects as if they have become one with the ground. The detail is also heavily present not only in the environment has bits of light are cast upon it, but in each individual zombie. It truly is breathtaking to be able to make out each type of living dead creature even though the view is from above. Clowns, scientists, fireman, military personnel you name it and its not only there, but each is easily distinguishable in the dim surroundings even when in large groups. It definitely helps you prioritize targets since their appearance also reveals their ability/attack pattern.
The audio isn’t about to be outdone. Walking over corpses provides a squishy sound effect, distant groans of approaching undead can be heard closing in and the music changes with the current mood. Actually every single thing present in the levels has its own distinct sound. As stated before this level of detail is almost unprecedented in downloadable titles and I’d even go as far to say that there are numerous full retail titles that don’t bother going as in depth with the variety in audio clips.
All of this game’s glory can be experienced with two players either locally or online. Actually, the inclusion of online multiplayer was the reason Housemarque delayed the game in order to bring this feature to gamers. It was definitely worth the wait since the tension and teamwork combine into a wonderful mix. The difficulty seemed to be slightly amped up to accompany two shooters in order to keep the game from being too easy. There isn’t much new to say about the cooperative experience except that all the aspects of the game that shined in single player are only further greatened with the addition of a friend.
This is honestly the only downside I could really find and that was after really trying to find a flaw. The story is your generic zombie apocalypse where your character is immune to the infection due to a special blood type. From here the journey begins as you venture for patient zero to find the cure. So yeah the story won’t be winning any awards or won’t be full of twists, but that’s not what this game should be played for in the first place.
Dead Nation is a must buy hands down. In a market where the zombie genre is slowly taking over this game stands above most of them to provide a superior experience. Housemarque did everything right and it comes as no surprise due to the quality of their past hit PSN-exclusive. The gameplay is tense and hectic as one would hope from survival their survival horror game and competes with the deep atmosphere from other disc based titles. Accompanying the atmosphere are extremely addictive gameplay mechanics that are sure to have people coming back to replay it time after time with or without a friend. Do yourself a favor and add this treasure to your PSN collection.
[Editor’s Note: Dead Nation was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 hardware. The game was provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]Dead Nation Review,