If there’s one good thing about the seemingly never-ending zombie onslaught on the media domain, it’s that when the undead holocaust does happen, we’ll at least have reams of source material to reference in our vain, fretful attempts to survive. In digital PS3 exclusive Dead Nation, Finnish studio Housemarque have dug up the immortal genre once more, this time branding their own personal stamp on the timeworn premise of pesky dead folk coming back to life with the sole intention of dining on the living.
Despite the polar difference in themes from their first PSN title, the Super Stardust HD developer have rekindled their signature love of the twin shooter in Dead Nation’s novel way of dispensing with the recently departed. Much like their space-faring arcade blast-a-thon, Dead Nation’s lead characters are guided around a shattered apocalyptic world with one analogue stick while pointing an assortment of weaponry at wave after wave of shambling undead with the other. When not unloading endless lead into the former living, players have the option of momentarily dashing away from the grasping clutches of the flesh-eaters or briefly dazing them with a well-placed rifle smash into their putrid, gurning faces.
Presented in a quasi-top down isometric view (the camera position manually shifts, usually presenting the optimal angle), there’s a distinctive old-school feel to Dead Nation. Fans of erstwhile titles such as Gremlin Interactive’s Loaded on the original PlayStation, not to mention games such as Diablo that share a similar vantage point, will enjoy how the mayhem pans out. Dead Nation’s dystopian world is a cautionary tale of ruined metropolises, stricken skyscrapers and unnerving parklands, locations overrun with a relentless scourge hell-bent on munching on your meninges. It’s shamelessly arcade, the gameplay – ironically – more emotive than cerebral.
Through the use of light and, in places, its absence, Housemarque have crafted a detail-packed world, the ten levels on offer dishing up varied and always striking environs to investigate. Hiding loot in dumpsters and in the boots (or trunks, for our American readers) of cars, the game tips its hat to age-old titles it has obviously been influenced by. Such lucre is vital if you’re going to survive the zombiepocalypse, weapons in constant need of ammo that, apart from the rare time a zombie drops the odd magazine, must be replenished at the strategically placed weapon caravans peppered around the doomed city.
Here, too, you can customise your armour load-out, interchanging different defensive items in an effort to find the right balance between power, endurance and agility. It’s a nice touch, as rather than repeating the weapon’s upgrade ladder, a system founded on the principle of purchasing attack advancements such as a better rate of fire, more power or a larger clip, defence becomes a more pensive decision rather just strapping on the patently better leggings or whatnot. You’ll find better body-armour on your journey, of course, but these still must be added to an ever-growing wardrobe, with care required not to tip your armour cocktail off-kilter.
In terms of the aforementioned weapons, and consequently the controls, though suitably simple, they hide a deftly created balancing act. It’s pretty easy to pick off the walking dead, some even choosing to be moderately passive to your passing, more interested in clawing at vending machines or staring longingly into fences. Even the ones that desperately want to lick the inside of your delicious cranium can be dispensed with through long-ranged marksmanship with almost casual indifference. It’s when they attack as a swarm of driven, mindless hellspawn, like locusts swarming around the last remaining corn-stalk, does Dead Nation’s subtle, nuanced and challenging combat system truly materialise.
Armed to the teeth with an eclectic armoury of destructive delights; a weapons cache that includes the defaulted and infinitely replenishing rifle, a crowd-controlling machine-gun, a flame-thrower that must be deployed with utmost care, and an assortment of projectiles that include grenades, Molotov cocktails and flares, there’s no shortage of ways to send the dead back to their final resting places. It’s the last of these missiles that encapsulates Dead Nation’s clever game mechanics, however, temporarily replacing the zombies’ primal urge for brain matter with the equivalent of a tan-obsessed teen, unshakably fixated on the source of light like moths to a flame.
Such environmental features are scattered throughout the game. Shoot a car and its alarm will go off, hence turning the vehicle into a zom-magnet, the persistent critters surrounding the vehicle and slamming it with their fleshy fists like it was a limo outside an X-Factor audition. Fittingly, they suffer a similar level of disappointment when the vehicle ultimately explodes, satisfactorily sending their demanding, hammering appendages spiralling through the air on fire.
Likewise, the game’s health system, at times stingy, is also often linked to the environment. Though certain zombies do drop health packs, the best way to salve those nasty bite marks is to kick a vending machine and drink down some Peppy-Fizz™. You can also shoot these drink dispensers, the rolling soda cans like mesmeric balls of yarn to the now chasing zombies. It signifies the game’s core premise: sure, you can race through the levels, popping the heads of zombs when needed, the goal of each chapter usually to simply “get to the end,” (there’s even a time bonus if you can do it quicker than what is designated the normal time). However, you’ll be missing a lot, and you’ll likely come unstuck in later levels where it’s just not possible to push back the horde with weapons that would have been a lot stronger if you had taken your time to nurture multipliers into the hundreds and seek out as much coinage as possible.
If there’s any criticism on Housemarque’s presentation it’s that the world, though beautifully rendered in shadow and a level of detail that should be exalted, is not as interactive as we would have liked. You can open gates, riddle cars to explode, and influence some other environmental aspects such as shooting propane tanks and destroying walls, but it’s a little limited; an opportunity to create a deeper, more responsive world seemingly passed up.
The developer has spent more time fostering a wonderful zombie cast, however. Taking cues from real life, you’ll encounter all walks of death as your traverse Dead Nation’s forsaken levels. Fittingly, the dead are less florid versions of people who would congregate in such places. You’ll encounter zombie cops and soldiers in police stations, the once law-enforcing citizens now tough gun-totting zombs not scared to pop a few rounds in your general direction. Fat zombies will explode with a devastating gory effect, with undead clowns inhabiting a now desolated and uncanny carnival, their deaths accompanied with comical sounds of buzzers, horns and other circus noises. Just some of the more memorable.
But there’s also slow zombies, apparently blind zombies, the easy to kill but devilishly agile dead, even zombie Linford Christie makes an appearance; this particular flavour a real pest when he appears from out of nowhere and makes a dash for your jugular. It’s a varied cast of critters, each type of walker often requiring a different tactic to get passed, or over as it may be, the game’s graphic nature never shirking from rolling out an intestinal carpet at times for your to traipse on.
Admirably, Housemarque have also seen fit to pin on some semblance of a plot to the game. As one of the few – perhaps only – person immune to the zombie plague, you are entrusted by a Dr. Douglas Bane to locate the body of Patient Zero, the first victim to display signs of unnatural brain goo fixation – the theory being that the unmutated virus conjoined with your unique biochemistry is enough to fashion a cure. It’s incidental, but hey, it’s there if you really needed a reason to mow down your next door neighbours as they clamber up your footpath wanting to borrow a cup of cerebral fluid.
The game’s other salient feature is how co-op is factored into the game. Both offline and online variations feature, the game kicking into a whole new gear when played with others. You’ll need to strategise, use your buddy to suppress the horde as you plant mines etc. A simple system of cordoning off any further advancement also prevents you from straying too far from your fellow survivor of the Zombiegeddon. If you’re that stupid, of course. As co-op features go, Dead Nation’s works effortlessly.
- You get to kill a hell of a lot of zombies.
- Challenging, mindless fun.
- Well-balanced, arcade-type game-play and quality presentation.
- Co-op works a treat.
- Admittedly repetitive and samey game-play at times.
- World is not as involving as it could have been.
Dead Nation is a polished, enjoyable, undead romp through a world laid waste by an outbreak of nightmarish automatons. With its simple yet effective control system, not to mention a colourful class of foes that can override the screen – and your senses – in their hundreds at any one time, it’s a triumphant if admittedly somewhat repetitive jaunt. Some will find the gameplay tedious at times, and it can be frustrating when you have to repeat a whole section after succumbing to the inexorable tide of death. Such is the nature of an arcade shooter, however, so man up, grab a fellow unbitten comrade, and go kill a shed-load of zombies.