Zombies have lumbered their way into every corner of our cosy little industry, saturating countless genres and franchises with their foul presence. What with Left 4 Dead 2, Dead Rising 2, Plants vs Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, zombies in Red Dead and Black Ops, I found the animated cadavers were really starting to grind my gears. Then I started watching The Walking Dead, a new TV series based on a graphic novel of the same name, and my love was instantly rekindled. The timing was fortuitous, because PSN’s Dead Nation is as generic as zombie outings get.
The intro is a quick-cut montage of screaming, suffering and sirens, painting a familiar picture of the zombie apocalypse. Depending on your gender preferences, you’ll be fighting the good fight as either Jake McReady or Scarlett Blake, both of whom star in stylish animated cutscenes dissecting each level. The story isn’t much to speak of, simply following our two heroes as they try to make it out of town in one piece. The city is teeming with the undead, with hundreds of zombies around every corner. Crowd control is the key to survival, and given the game’s disposition as a twin-stick shooter, it boasts the mechanics to make this possible.
The controls need little in the way of an explanation: the left stick moves, the right aims, and a tap of the R1 button fires your gun. It’s simple, but incredibly tight. Holding down the fire button will charge your rifle up for a power shot, which can shoot through multiple enemies, blowing off heads and limbs in the process. A laser sight shows where your gun is pointed at all times, accompanied by a torch beam to illuminate the area. Dead Nation is a dark game, and generally speaking you’ll only be able to see where you’re aiming. This creates a fantastic air of tension, forcing players to be aware of their surroundings at all times.
Building on its success with Super Stardust HD, it’s fair to say Housemarque knows a thing or two about the genre. Dead Nation is barely comparable on the surface, however, with detailed city environments and a structure built loosely around narrative. The game brings some interesting new mechanics to the table, too, with loot, shops, armour and weapon upgrades all contributing to a slightly Diablo-esque feel. It’s less innovative in other areas, though. Dead Nation takes some obvious cues from existing zombie games, most notably Left 4 Dead: One enemy is an exact replica of the Boomer, running at you with the sole intention of blowing himself to smithereens all over you.
Despite a lack of originality, the enemy AI is commendable. Like bees to honey, zombies are attracted to noise and light, a fact that Dead Nation cleverly uses to its advantage. Shooting a car will set off its alarm, attracting any of the blighters that happen to be in the vicinity. They’ll claw, bash and bite the vehicle, eventually causing it to explode, sending chunks of rotting flesh all over the screen.
The most interesting thing about Dead Nation is its metagame; a competition between countries to see who can rid the city of the most zombies. Unsurprisingly the US is at the top of this leader-board at the moment, with the UK nestled happily beneath it. This isn’t likely to change any time soon, either. Perhaps a ranking based on kill ratio or percentage would have been fairer to countries with smaller populations. The board is cleverly entangled in the world of the game, presented like a 24-hour news channel, with ‘breaking stories’ scrolling across a red banner at the bottom of the screen. This feed honours players who’ve killed the most zombies for their country, as well as highlighting other notable achievements.
The experience lends itself perfectly to two-player co-operative play, too, and storming through the city with a friend is great fun. I must point out that the frame-rate dropped considerably whilst playing co-op online (not so when joining a friend on the same system), but this could have been due to the less than stellar internet connection we were rocking at the office that day.
Dead Nation adds a lot to the standard twin-stick shooting affair, with welcome dungeon crawler mechanics, co-op play and social features that are likely to attract a solid little community. For anybody whose patience hasn’t been gnawed to pieces by zombies this past year or so, Dead Nation is easy to recommend.