Zombies are everywhere, and I don’t just mean the ravenous hordes of Christmas shoppers gnawing on your jugular to snag that last on-sale pair of size eights. Between movies, TV shows, comics and seemingly every new game coming complete with its own zombie re-kill-’em-up mode, the natural reaction might be to sigh and ask, “Another one?” but the quality of those games unceasingly make it tough to complain after sitting down to play them. Red Dead Redemption’s zombie spin-off Undead Nightmare was a shining example of what downloadable content should be, Black Ops’ co-op zombie mode almost got more playtime than the main game in my household and Dead Rising 2 is simply one of the best games of the year. Dead Nation suffers from an unhealthy case of overfamiliarity, especially in the wake of so many similar games, but developer Housemarque have still crafted a solid, fun arcade shooter despite it.
The plot is simple: The world has become overrun by the undead and you’re a gruff gun-toting guy or gal immune to the virus who needs to get to safety and hopefully save the world. The gameplay is equally easy to grasp: A top-down, twin stick shooter, you’ll move with the left analog and aim with the right, rapidly blasting the swarms of rotting corpses looking to pull you apart like a Mr. Potato Head doll. With a rifle and unlimited ammo for your primary weapon, you’ll gain cash and increase your multiplier with every kill, beefing up your final high score and leaving you with plenty of money to spend on progressively more destructive artillery at the gun shops found at checkpoints.
While the look and feel of the game certainly owe a lot to the current resurgence of Smash TV-style top-down shooters, most notably Zombie Apocalypse, Burn, Zombie, Burn and Dead Ops Arcade, the scope of Dead Nation certainly outweighs those titles, with incredibly expansive linear levels to fight through. For a PSN title, there’s a huge amount of playtime in the ten-level campaign, but while the levels are incredible lengthy, they’re hampered by a lack of environment variety throughout the game. Though there are a few sections intended to be more distinctive – a fairground and a graveyard, for instance – they’re brief, uninspired sojourns in a game almost entirely comprised of endless familiar city streets, steel fencing and overturned cars. It’s always great when a developer strives to make downloadable games not feel like quick, disposable experiences, but sadly the lack of diversity in Dead Nation’s levels result in a game that actively feels much longer than justified.
However, the light RPG mechanics at play do separate it from the twin-stick zombie pack and give the game a dash of variety that ekes out added amounts of fun even when the overly lengthy campaign starts to drag. You can pool your collected cash into upgrading the various stats of your weapons at each gun store checkpoint, beefing up the power, rate of fire and magazine size of firearms or extending the blast radius and amount of mines and explosives you can carry. Not only that, but loot is stashed away throughout the levels, with new armour pieces, cash and multiplier points hidden away in crates and car trunks. Of course, there’s the question of whether you’ll feel brave enough to scour the level for goodies and risk getting chewed to mush.
As the levels progress, the zombies hordes get more vicious and varied, especially on harder difficulties. Borrowing a few tricks from Left 4 Dead’s playbook, boomer-esque exploding zombies, acid-spitting undead and devastating tank-like bruisers all crawl out of the woodwork, along with screamers which call in waves of swarming zombies if left unchecked and other, more monstrous enemies. The ensuing chompy chaos means that you’ll need to spend your cash wisely and employ smart tactics to survive, switching between effective weapons, using mines carefully and employing the zombie-attracting help of grenades, flares or the alarms of cars which can then be used as makeshift automobile explosives. True to the spirit of its arcade shooter roots, Dead Nation is often furious, chaotic and incredibly challenging in the best way and certainly doesn’t go easy on you once you’re past the first level or two.
Sadly, a little of that challenge results from the game being simply too dark in contrast. Cranking the gamma level in the options all the way up still results in an often pitch black view of proceedings, and though the moody flashlight beam ambience might be there to cultivate a creepy atmosphere, it sometimes results in you being unable to see what’s attacking you and from where. In cases like those, the game’s lighting shifts from moody to frustrating. Still, though the game’s dark visuals can occasionally be irksome, they do often look amazing. Memorably awesome cinematic moments pop up that put the atmosphere to great use, like creeping through a mist-filled cemetery, only to have dozens of zombies rise from the mist in unison. Combine that with a great physics system which sends zombies flying and tumbling everywhere when you toss grenades into a crowd, and Dead Nation is a generally fantastic looking game.
That Dead Nation pilfers so much from other zombie games and twin stick shooters isn’t as troublesome as the fact that it doesn’t really add much of anything to those borrowed formulas; everything found here has been done before, recently and better. A wafer-thin plot and an overly lengthy campaign free from variety in level design mean that the game often outstays its welcome, but if you’re in the mood for some prolonged arcade-style zombie destruction or you’ve burned through every other genre treat this year, there’s still a great deal of fun to be had here. Grab a friend for co-op play and ramp up the difficulty and Dead Nation is a panicked, chaotic shooter with a fun tactical edge and plenty of enjoyable destruction to unleash. Though it’s not the most original game, it’s certainly a polished, entertaining entry in the zombie shooter sub-genre.
Dead Nation is available to buy on Playstation Network now.