Review – Dead Nation

Dead Nation
Last week Sony delivered unto us Dead Nation, the latest entry in the increasingly swamped “Kill a crapload of zombies” market. When we talk about the popularity of zombie games (and movies, TV shows, and probably Halloween prosthetics), there’s a joke in there somewhere about a spreading infection, but I’ll save you a groan and not make it.

Dead Nation takes the form of a top-down shoot-‘em-up, as appears to be the pattern for a number of recent small digital releases. You’ll choose a male or female character to fight through the zombie ravaged city in an effort to retrieve the apparently important body of Patient Zero and hopefully formulate a cure. There’s a story to be had here, though the product may have been better off without it. Rarely would I champion the cause for less narrative, but this story is a strange half-measure that seems to exist only to showcase some (admittedly sharp) artwork. Told through brief interludes between missions, it describes the journey of your character through the zombie wasteland in such thin detail that it may as well not bother at all. Your character has lines, but they exist only to tell you what your objective is, not because you’re actually a person with thoughts—and since the objective is always the same (get from point A to point B), this is entirely superfluous.


Dead Nation

The number of zombies you’ll face is absolutely ridiculous.

I think perhaps the objective here was to be deliberately hokey and over the top (Grindhouse, Sin City, but with zombies?), but the execution isn’t up to the task, and the result is a narrative that seems mostly lazy and irrelevant. Fortunately, the game doesn’t waste your time with lengthy story sequences; when your thirty seconds of story time are over, you’re to be dropped straight into the world without delay.

Initially armed with a semi-automatic rifle, you must fight your way through the zombie hordes to the next gated-off safe area, and repeat this process until the mission ends—at which point you advance to the next mission and do it all over again. Your left analog stick will control movement, while the right will aim your weapon. Aiming while moving causes your movement to slow, and the result is that combat is largely about managing the horde of enemies. Depending on where and how you move, and your use of environmental choke points and interactive elements (like zombie-attracting car alarms and explosive barrels), you can funnel hapless zombies right into your line of fire without taking a scratch.

You’re also equipped with a melee attack for moments when the horde overwhelms you, and the infinitely more useful dash technique, which becomes critical for tactically repositioning yourself and escaping large groups of the undead. Supplementing your point-and-shoot weaponry are a number of throwable items, each with separate uses. Flares, for example, can distract the horde in a crucial moment, while molotovs create a wall of fire to hold them back. These go a long way toward emphasizing a sense of careful tactics in how one approaches combat.

There’s a reasonably robust arsenal to take advantage of, and the weapons are characterized by distinct traits for specific situations. You’ll begin with the basic semi-automatic rifle, which can be significantly upgraded in terms of power, clip size, and rate of fire. Ammo for the rifle is infinite, and the upgradability means it quickly becomes your most useful and reliable weapon. The other weapons—including such mainstays as the shotgun and SMG, as well as a few more eclectic offerings, like a bizarre electric cannon—have limited ammunition. The unfortunate reality, though, is that you’ll often feel that you should save your more powerful weapons for dire situations, and use your basic rifle in the meantime—and it’s only after surmounting those same dire situations that you realize you could have employed one of your special weapons to greater effect.

Dead Nation

Co-op. ‘Nuff said.

Equally problematic is that there’s no real opportunity to experiment and understand the usefulness of your new toys. You’ll be hesitant to test out these weapons on smaller hordes for fear of wasting ammo—and, indeed, many weapons are only useful for larger groups—and when you’re fighting such a larger group, it’s clumsy and potentially fatal to navigate to your weapon, fire it, and hope that it does the job you need it to. You’re likely to die more than a few times as you determine via trial and error when a weapon will be useful and how to use it. The inability to switch quickly to a specific weapon is also a real problem in dangerous situations.

When you do finally grasp the use of these weapons, though, they become indispensable. Especially in the games later missions, players will find situations that seem downright unfair until the proper application of firepower is employed. Special weapons can turn defeat into victory in seconds.

For a relatively simplistic game, there’s a comfortable number of ways to alter your experience. Your character has three distinct statistics for health, melee strength, and movement speed that can be modified via various armor pieces discoverable throughout the gameworld. You may choose to max out your health in an effort to protect yourself as you scrounge endlessly for loot and ensure that every last money-yielding zombie is extinguished, or you may emphasize speed and simply sprint right on by entire hordes in an effort to secure time bonuses and improve your spots on the leaderboard.

On that note, many of the loot containers to be found blink between red (containing orbs that increase your points multiplier) and gold (containing money), so that players looking to improve their character can get what they need, while those who’ve already maxed out their weapons can focus on increasing their score. It’s a simple but fairly elegant solution for catering to differing players and, more importantly, the way the player goals may change as one continues to play.

Dead Nation

Graphics are somewhat simplistic, but capably render a grim, dangerous world.

The campaign will run about five hours on normal difficulty. In theory, the search for hidden loot and the desire to increase your stats (leaderboards track individual stats, as well as stats by region—so you can see how your country stacks up against the Great White North) increase replayability, though it’s far more likely that if you’re coming back, it’s for the 2-player co-op mode. Supporting both online and offline play, co-op makes the zombie apocalypse a little less grim, a little faster paced, and a lot more entertaining. Horde management becomes frantic with two players for zombies to focus on, and with both players receiving whatever loot one finds, you’ll be able to afford critical upgrades much sooner.

It’s fair to say that Dead Nation is more than a little derivative; the top-down shooter is hardly new ground, and there are obvious analogues for Left 4 Dead’s tank, boomer, charger, and spitter. Even the mission layouts, split into distinct sections bookended by safe areas, are reminiscent of that definitive zombie shooter. I also wonder how motivated players may be to purchase this game when a similar—though certainly less robust—top-down zombie-shooter exists in the copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops that they surely already own. Then, of course, Steam offers Alien Swarm—a far shorter experience, but with admirable character progression and customization—for free.

Still, for a game that offers nearly as much campaign time as Modern Warfare 2, the price point is more than reasonable. Dead Nation may not offer much in the way of innovation, but the careful and clever design of the core gameplay makes it extremely satisfying to play, and with co-op available online and also in the increasingly rare local variety, you’re sure to find somebody to play with.


Developer
Housemarque

Publisher
Sony Computer Entertainment

System
PlayStation 3 (PSN)

Modes
Singleplayer, 2-player Co-op

Release Date
November 30, 2010

Price
$14.99

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review

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  • EdEN

    Thanks for the review Brad. I’ll have to wait a while to get the game since right now I have a lot of PSN games that I’ve yet to start.