Zombies have been quite the staple of gaming lately, what with DLC that puts zombies in a Western, Yakuza taking to the streets to destroy zombies, and a number of other retail and downloadable zombie-based titles. Housemarque, the developer of Super Stardust HD, has decided to throw its hat into the ring with its own version of a top-down zombie based shooter. Can it stand tall amongst heavy hitters such as Red Dead Redemption and Left 4 Dead?
If there’s one thing that could probably use some work in Dead Nation it would have to be the story. You are given the choice between playing as a female or male character whose only difference is anatomy and that one says the same lines several octaves above the other. The choice is largely meaningless and really only serves as a set up to allow 2 player cooperative gameplay. Overly dramatic voice acting, along with poorly defined plot lines in the second half of the game, makes for a story which is more detrimental than beneficial to the action it accompanies. On the plus side, I did enjoy the live action introduction, which does a much better job of giving you a feel for the game than the story that follows it.
Luckily, once you get to the meat of the game everything is right with the world. Dead Nation is a top down shooter and the controls are largely as you would expect; walk with the left stick, aim with the right stick, and then shoot your weapon, throw an item, use a melee attack, or dash to get out of sticky situations. The weapon choices aren’t fantastic or particularly inspired as they include the standard rifle, SMG, rocket launcher, and flame thrower, but there were two standouts in the blade launcher, which shoots out what appears to be a spinning lawn mower blade that fittingly mows through any smaller enemies, and the Shocker, which sends out electricity that can bounce from target to target. Items include flares, which attract zombies, grenades that blow them up, and strange mines that can be upgraded to explode multiple times.
All of the weapons and items in the game can be upgraded at stores which are located at checkpoints throughout the levels. Here you can use the gold that drops from zombies and is found hidden in chests. Some special chests also contain armor pieces which you can use to upgrade your character’s stamina, strength, and speed. Unlike the weapons, armor transfers from one playthrough to another. Along with gold, every zombie you kill also adds points to your high score and is based on your current multiplier, which increases with zombie kills and chests located. Unlike a lot of top down shooters I play, which are all about fast arcade fun, Dead Nation is more about taking careful aim, being cautious, and playing strategically. This is especially apparent when you learn that the rifle (your primary, limitless ammo weapon) has a charged shot which does far more damage and can go through multiple standard zombies in a single shot, and also when you start trying to max out your high score and therefore your multiplier.
Leaderboards are a common feature in score based games, but rarely do I feel as compelled to work towards a high score as I do in Dead Nation. This might be because the online leaderboards are so prominently displayed after each level, or because the metagame pitting each country against the others gives me a sense of patriotic pride in my zombie killing. Whatever the reason, once you decide to go for a high score the game changes considerably; every hit you take now takes away not only your health but also a large chunk of your multiplier. A 400x multiplier can be whittled down to nothing if you take too much damage, so you start to play much more cautiously, slowly moving through each level in an effort to not get jumped on by the plethora of zombies out to eat your brains and take away your high score. It adds a sense of tension to the entire game, a feeling that was only present during the most difficult and crazy portions of my first play through.
Strategy is also important because of the different zombies you have to face. I was glad to see this doesn’t just extend to the “special” zombies, but also different variants of the standard zombie, which forces you to change up your killing methods. Special zombies include Fatties that explode when they run up to you (more commonly known as Boomers), Screamers that call down hoards of regular zombies whenever they get the chance, and large Jumpers which take a lot more bullets to kill and will periodically jump at you and smash the ground. None of these zombies were named during the game as far as I could tell, so these are just the names I came up with on the spot.
Dead Nation really hits its stride during the survival arenas that cap almost every mission. These aren’t as well presented as the ones in Left 4 Dead, but it really gets my heart pumping when I have to deal with a crazy situation with scores of zombies sprinting towards me with 6 Boomers, 2 Screamers, and a couple of machete handed monstrosities for good measure.
While I enjoyed the gameplay in Dead Nation, it isn’t without some faults. Most annoyingly, the new weapon selection dies out sooner than I would like, so during the final three missions I didn’t have the same impetus to explore every nook and cranny that I did at the start of the game. A similar problem occurs with the enemy selection, since after a while you’ve seen everything that can be thrown against you and, regardless of the different locales, the lack of legitimate boss enemies can make killing thousands of zombies feel kind of repetitive. Finally, cooperative gameplay forces the two of you to play on the same screen, which requires a level of communication not really possible without voice support online, but thankfully this will reportedly be fixed in a later patch.
I don’t think Dead Nation is going to win any awards for its presentation, but the way it uses light and shadow to affect the gameplay and encourage a foreboding mood, along with the music, is something to be commended. Quite often the arenas I mentioned before are punctuated by all the lights in the area inexplicably going out at the same time as the zombies start to pile in and it’s these times where you can barely see the oncoming enemies that the tension really ramps up and the music starts to kick in full force. The engine noticeably stutters during more intense scenarios, like plowing through 40 or 50 zombies with a single shot of a blade launcher, but overall the presentation works well.
My first play through on normal difficulty took six hours. The campaign is divided up into 10 missions that - after unlocking - you can play individually. Missions and the campaign can be played in five different difficulty levels by yourself, or with an online or in-person friend. Different difficulty levels drastically change the number and toughness of enemies, but once you get through all ten story missions there isn’t anything new to do, so you are forced to just replay them keeping the armor you have collected (but not the weapon upgrades).
As mentioned, there is an interesting meta game which pits the countries of the world against each other in a contest of zombie genocide. It is interesting to keep track of, but it will only give you a few minutes of new stats to look at every day or so. I personally like watching how surprisingly well Finland is doing, coming in 2nd only behind the US. Since the US got the game one day early, Finland could take the top spot within a week or so. I’m still trying to figure out how the virus cycle for each country is calculated though, since it doesn’t appear to be based on the population or number of players from the country, but it obviously isn’t just comparing the straight number of zombies killed in each region either (if anyone has a theory or if any of the Housemarque guys are feeling benevolent and want to end my confusion, please let me know).
To answer the question I posed in the introduction, I would say that Dead Nation is a great game, but doesn’t quite make it up there with the DLC for Red Dead Redemption or Left 4 Dead in the zombie killing genre. The use of light and shadow makes for some incredibly tense moments, and the gameplay has a strategic nature to it that I enjoyed. On the other hand the presentation is lacking, from both a narrative and technical perspective, and the gameplay can get repetitive after you’ve seen each different type of zombie and lost the will to explore. Dead Nation may not be the top of its class, but it’s still great fun. Any fan of the genre should give a go, especially if you have a buddy to play with you.