The zombie craze / infatuation is one genre that just will not go away. Sure, “zombies” have been around for a long, long time, but the past 10 years or so has resulted in an unprecedented flood of zombie-based media including comics, movies, and games. It is a rare occasion when a zombie-themed title (of any sort) stands out from the pack and sets a standard for the genre. Few titles come to mind in the past decade, aside from Shaun of the Dead, the Left 4 Dead series, and AMC’s recent Walking Dead that stand out as stellar additions to the genre. After spending quite a bit of time with Dead Nation, I think that it is safe to add Housemarque’s latest creation to that short list.
Dead Nation may look like a typical top down, twin stick shooter on the surface, but the game packs quite a punch with all that the developers have packed under the hood. While the story itself may leave a lot to be desired, everything else is truly top notch. The game puts players in the role of one of two characters, both of who are “miraculously” immune to the zombie virus that has devastated the world. The players venture through ten successive missions, following a tale of intrigue and survival in search of an explanation for the curse that has taken down society. Your adventure will take you through beautifully crafted alleys, streets, parks, hospitals, and cemeteries, as well as a few other settings, all of which are completely overrun with the undead. You will be armed with a personal arsenal of guns and a flashlight. Though it sounds simple enough, it is the technical content of the game that makes it truly impressive.
The foundation of the game is rooted in the now traditional dual-stick shooter genre, but Dead Nation incorporates a couple of RPG-style elements. As players destroy zombies and explore the environments, they gold coins, (and score multiplayers) which can be spent at each checkpoint to expand and upgrade their arsenal. Gold is collected by simply mowing down zombies as well as by being found in car trunks and locked chests scattered throughout all of the stages. It pays off for you to take you time in each level and not simply run for the end, even though that will be your first instinct when a mob of about a hundred zombies chases you down the alley. Players will be rewarded for standing their ground and exploring the world of Dead Nation with large stashes of gold that make leveling and increasing your arsenal easy, though you will still want to put some thought into the progression of your equipment. The game starts you off with a simple, yet extremely effective hunting rifle but you will soon gain access to other traditional guns such as an SMG and a shotgun. You can upgrade your weapons in a variety of ways including clip size, power / effectiveness, rate of fire, and even the maximum amount of ammunition that you can carry at any given time. As you progress through the game you weapon shops will begin to offer additional tools and non-traditional guns that can be purchased as well, including flamethrowers and lightning bolt guns, though the entrance fee for these new, exotic weapon is usually pretty steep.
There are also a variety of secondary or support weapons / tools for you to collect as well, all of which can be upgraded just like your firearms. These secondary tools aren’t just for show either, and will be vital to your survival and success in the game. These include items such as land mines, grenades, and flares that attract the attention of the walking undead and give you a chance to “breathe”. Part of the joy in the game is fine-tuning your arsenal to fit your playing style. Do you pour all of your money into raw firepower or broaden your selection with well-rounded selection of weapons? The choice is yours and depending on how you choose to progress and the tactics required to survive can vary along the way based on what you choose to do. Throughout the game you will also uncover armor pieces which can be equipped at no additional charge as well; not all armor is created equal though as players will need to pay attention to how the various pieces affect their character in different stat categories. Each piece of armor will affect their agility and the amount of damage they can sustain, changing the overall feel of your character. Players will also have access to an “endurance” meter which can be spent on burst of energy / speed to escape from the swarm; the various armor pieces have a huge effect on this maneuver and can make or break its effectiveness. Finding the correct balance in one’s armor can be just as important as balancing your weapons and will likely vary from player to player.An experienced Dead Nation player will also want to use the environment to their advantage throughout the game as well. Car alarms can be set off to attract the hordes as well as vending machines which can be forced to malfunction and create a diversion; unburned cars can be shot up in order to trigger and explosion which will cause massive damage to anything moving around them. Your firepower will not get you through the quest alone; you will need to make the best of your surroundings and the tools it provides as well. Gamers will also find it important to use the physical layout of the levels in their best interest; debris and bodies scattered throughout the levels will slow not only the player but also the undead. Whether or not it is scattered shopping carts, piles of dead bodies, or half-opened gates, gamers need to be cognizant of the effect the environment will have on them and their enemies. If you are not careful, these sorts of things can put you in a serious bind but smart players will find ways to use them to their advantage such as creating choke points for the mobs which will allow you to manage then in an “orderly” fashion.
All of these factors create an incredibly fun and fast paced gameplay experience that can get become incredibly difficult over time, even at the standard / normal difficulty level. Once you complete the game, you will gain access to additional difficulty settings that will up the challenge exponentially. You will also unlock various artworks throughout your adventure as well which is viewable from within the game’s option menus. The Dead Nation experience is playable both online and off with one other player; in addition to the standard game experience, Housemarque has also included a pseudo “metagame” that places the different regions of the world against one another in a competition to clear “cycles” of zombies that will be reset from time to time. As cycles are completed and the rankings come in, additional challenges may be made available by the dev. If nothing else, it provides a nice little bit of competition for you and your international friends.
Technically speaking, the game looks and sounds absolutely amazing. In order to truly appreciate the graphical prowess of the game in particular, you have to experience it and see it in motion; motionless screenshots just do not do the game justice. The focus that Housemarque put on the use of light (or lack thereof) and shadows in the game really creates an unmatched atmosphere that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout the game. Add that to the interactive environments including blowing trash and scattered debris and astounding weather effects... it is just a very beautiful game top to bottom. Dead Nation also uses a wide variety of enemies throughout the course of the game which never gets monotonous. The monotony of the enemy variety is something that often hampers the experience of a game like this; sure, you will notice quite a few character styles reused but never to the point where it becomes noticeable or annoying. There is a wide variety of zombies throughout each of the maps and many of them are designed in the context of the surroundings that they appear. You could see a swarm of hospital patients or perhaps even soldiers or prisoners, depending where you are in the game, which all makes sense and creates an enjoyable and natural flow for the player(s).
The soundtrack is equally as stunning with a rocking score that ramps up with the action of the game and a fantastic lineup of sound effects for all of the various weapons and explosions. All of these aspects create what could be one of the “creapiest” environments ever created in a game. It is very hard to describe the tension that the game builds up when a player is strolling down a deserted alley, only to here a door bust open and a seemingly never ending stream of zombies explode out, running at you... just like when the first time you experienced a rushing horde in Left 4 Dead. There is a polish found on Dead Nation that other games could and should study and make note of.
Dead Nation is the type of game that I could play over and over again. While the concept is simple on the surface, there are so many different ways that gamers can approach the game that allows players to go through a new experience nearly every time they boot it up. Thanks to an incredible technical foundation, a deep weapon customization system, and a quality AI system, gamers who choose to enter Housemarque’s apocalyptic adventure may find their selves occupied for quite a long time.