Two things used to be quite common at one time in the industry: zombies and top-down adventures. Zombies continue to hang on thanks to their inclusion in so many multiplayer FPSs and of course, they’ll always be around in the venerable Resident Evil franchise. But we’ve mostly ditched the top-down formula and the standard zombie design for the sake of progress; i.e., true 3D experiences and even nastier creatures that make zombies appear almost family-friendly by comparison. That being said, the top-down structure needn’t disappear entirely, as Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light proved such formats can still be highly polished and significantly entertaining. And while Dead Nation doesn’t offer quite the same level of depth and polish, it too can be considered entertaining and in some ways, downright addicting.
As I’ve been saying over the past few months, the graphics in downloadable titles are just getting better and better. Developers are able to include all sorts of impressive detail and lighting effects and as time goes on, they will get closer and closer to their bigger $60 companions. Dead Nation offers an excellent visual presentation: it kicks you off with a very real and very frightening documentary-style relation of events, and then shifts to the dark, menacing environments that are now the dominion of the flesh eaters. There really is a surprising amount of clarity and sharpness in most everything your flashlight falls upon; the bloody effects are spot-on and immensely satisfying, and most all animations are super fluid. My only complaint is that it was often tough to see some of the zombies, even when they were right on top of you. But hey, that’s part of the fear factor, right?
The sound is another big plus. The voice acting, while hardly prominent, is competent, and both the effects and soundtrack add a huge amount of gory flavor to this well-designed shooter. The music will kick in hardcore during moments of extreme tension (usually during level-ending encounters or when fresh swarms come at you from all directions), and the satisfying crack of a weapon along with the sickening impact of bullets hitting rotting flesh…well, I’ll spare you any further elaboration but let’s just say it all works. There might be a slight balance problem during those aforementioned scenarios, when the music sort of overrides the effects and sometimes, I thought it was simply too quiet. But that may be Housemarque’s attempt to instill more atmosphere into a decidedly tense game. All in all, despite not boasting a full 3D presentation – and suffering from a wee bit of repetition in the levels – Dead Nation looks and sounds great, and that's a huge benefit.
The controls are about as simple as you would expect: you move around with the left analog and aim with the right analog. This is basically the same setup we had in Lara Croft and it works about the same way here; it’s smooth, accessible and usually reliable. For many years, I’ve always questioned the pinpoint accuracy of those analog sticks, especially when it comes to focusing on very small targets on a top-down screen. And throughout this game, I would frequently come across times when using the right analog to aim just felt inconsistent and difficult to master. I would actually recommend doing what I do- focus more on the left analog, in that you just keep the right analog aimed in the same general direction, and you simply strafe back and forth to take down targets. In other words, my body dictated my shots, if that makes sense.
You may be better at using the right analog than I am, though. And even if you’re not, utilizing the latter system really works quite well. But while I’m on the subject of complaints, I may as well finish ‘em off. Firstly, I don’t like the fact that if a zombie gets close enough to start mauling you, the only way to escape is to either slash with the R2 button or charge forward with L2. Thing is, no matter where you move, the zombie sort of sticks to you and keeps beating the snot out of you. It almost seems like a glitch but I’m pretty sure it’s intentional; I just find it needlessly irritating. Secondly, getting a zombie’s attention seems erratic. At first, I thought they’d only come after me if I shone the light on them or shot them but then, I’d come across zombies that are just hurtling out of the darkness at me. It sort of detracts from my plan of attack or any strategy I might have.
Again, though, it may be a design choice on the part of the developers; a way to keep the player on his toes. If so, I suppose they succeeded. Thirdly and lastly, I do think too many of the environments were a little repetitive and in general, they could’ve done more with them. It’s linear and I don’t mind that but sometimes, it feels a little too linear and the checkpoints can feel too far apart as well. Beyond that, Dead Nation is one of those games that, once it snags you, doesn’t want to let go. It’s due to the great control, consistently scary atmosphere, depth afforded by upgrading your weapons and armor, and a ceaseless onslaught of “oh sh**, here they come!” moments. I would’ve liked to be able to quick-select between my weapons (scrolling through them with the directional pad is too slow for the on-screen action), but you get the hang of it.
Zombies are attracted to just about anything that flashes or beeps. Therefore, shooting a car to set off its alarm will attract any zombies in the area and if you keep shooting the vehicle, it’ll eventually explode. Enemies will also swarm to a tossed grenade or flare, which of course is to your advantage. Your default weapon, a single-shot rifle that can be upgraded, has infinite ammo, but you have to purchase ammo for any other specialized weapon. This can range from machine guns to shotguns to flamethrowers and all of them are effective and can play a vital role in your survival. Tossing an equipped item like a grenade is as easy as hitting the L1 button, and you can try to conserve ammo by slashing at zombies with R2; advisable if there are only one or two but a terrible idea if there’s a large group. Lastly, a forceful rush with L2 is essential if you find yourself surrounded. Just remember you can't use it twice in a row.
On top of it all is the built-in metagame, where players from all over the world can see how they stack up against one another. You can see individual tallies as well as total country tallies; as it stands, the US holds the lead – about a half-million more zombies slain than the UK – and when the game launches on November 30, I expect that lead to widen. Currently in third place is France, if you’re wondering. Perhaps coolest of all is that as everyone around the world plays and works together to rid the earth of the infection, the game will progress in phases. Obviously, right now, nobody has cleared the first infection cycle although the US (at about 45%) is the closest. The game also offers co-op play if you so choose, and that’s a freakin’ blast. You can also replay missions to gain more money and locate any hidden treasures you may have missed.
The game features two main characters – Jake McReady and Scarlett Blake – but it doesn’t really matter who you choose; the story is, admittedly, secondary. It’s all about mowing down as many baddies as you can, all the while upgrading your acquired weapons and armor. At the start, you don’t move all that fast and health drains quick but with the necessary boosts – some found, some purchased – you’ll soon become much more able. Even the default rifle, which appears weak and worthless at the start, can be fully upgraded, and don’t forget that holding down the R1 can charge up a shot that flies right through multiple targets. It also boasts a helpful laser sight while most other weapons do not. You’ll face weird creatures that aren’t zombies, either (or at least, they don’t look anything like zombies), and you’re never sure what to expect… The darkness seems eternal and you always feel on edge.
In some ways, the game does feel a little on the light side, in that despite the upgrades, various enemies, and lengthy campaign, it does feel as if we keep doing the same thing, over and over. I guess the same argument could be made for most any relatively simplistic game but even so, while I was totally immersed for at least an hour or two, I’d get tired of it towards the tail end of the play session. Of course, after a brief respite, I’d find myself going back for more, and that’s what matters most. I can imagine that it gets even more engrossing when everyone around the world has access to it, and I’m accounting for this. This is a game that could cost $20 and probably still be worth it; at $15, it’s well worth your time, especially if this style is your cup of tea. Dead Nation isn’t really the epic undead-slayer some are expecting because from a bird’s-eye view, it does seem a tad bland, but it’s still loads of fun.
The fixed camera isn’t 100% perfect, the “sticky” zombies get a little annoying, and the dark environments sometimes have a been-there, done-that feel but this is overshadowed by the good points. I’ll highlight them below but for those who haven’t just skipped to the bolded part- we get reliable, solid control, a widely accessible format, sharp and satisfying visuals, great sound, a fitting atmosphere, and an internal system of competition and cooperation that really sets it apart from other games. Good stuff.
The Good: Top-notch control. Effective atmosphere. Depth afforded by upgrading is appreciated. Impressive technical achievement in the visual and audio categories. Strategic elements complement action. Internal worldwide metagame is a great idea.
The Bad: Lacking storyline. Zombies that “stick” and keep attacking. Fixed camera isn’t always reliable. Visibility can be an issue.
The Ugly: When another round of zombies descends upon you and all you’ve got left is the default rifle, which you haven’t upgraded…