The world as we know it has ended, decimated by an undeadly virus. Flooding the streets, the dead roam hungry in search of the few survivors remaining, a pair of which, Jack McReady and Scarlett Blake, have discovered they’re both immune to the infection. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe. It just means they won’t come back; they’ll never join the other side of the Dead Nation.
Building on the twin-stick foundation laid with PSN favorite Super Stardust HD, developers Housemarque have created yet another essential PSN title. Despite the wildly different themes of the two titles, both game’s fundamentally subscribe to the same mantra: survival; in one game you’re navigating a myriad of space debris and rubble, while in the other you’re eluding the clutches of an undead horde.
Unlike most of the twin-stick shooters available, Dead Nation follows a story based linear progression. Stages are broken up by fences and other barricades that lock you into arenas of various size and shape, where you’re left to fend off waves of the dead. In between the arenas there are safe zones, which restore your health, allow you to purchase and upgrade your weapons/armor – at an ice cream truck! – and take a much needed breather between all the dismembering. The station to station mentality of Dead Nation works in its favor because of the titles difficulty, and the challenges of managing each unique horde in every new arena.
Before starting up your first campaign in Dead Nation you’ll have to choose a difficulty level, of which there are five. Even at the default, normal difficulty setting, the game is a real challenge that pushes you to learn tactics a bit more advanced than spray and pray. Most of the campaign takes place in and around an unnamed city, where abandoned cars litter the streets and are your next best friend, after the loaded weapon in hand. In Dead Nation a parked car is akin to an exploding barrel, an exploding barrel that can occasionally draw enemies directly to it. Some of the vehicles have car alarms that can be triggered easily with a couple of shots from your gun, which causes a mess of noise and lights that send the dead running, allowing you to draw the horde in before exploding the car.
Vehicles and other obstacles are also strewn about in a manner that allows you to control the flow of the zombie faucet. Constraining the undead to narrow alleys and pathways is often an invaluable tactic to managing the crowd, and in order to do that learning the layouts of each arena is a definite must. Dead Nation constantly asks the player what they should be doing next to survive. Should you move to the nearest choke point, engage head-on, or retreat to the next car still left intact? Combined with the arenas themselves the various weapon types are designed with specific uses in mind that can complement an intimate knowledge of your surroundings: flares can be thrown to distract, malitovs can be ignited to separate, SMGs can be used to thin out and the blade launcher can kill everything in its damn path.
Like Stardust before it, Dead Nation is a gorgeous looking title; it’s obvious Housemarque takes pride in both particle effects and lighting. The entire campaign plays out at night and is shrouded in various levels of fog, creating an atmosphere ripe with tension. The protagonists wield flashlights to illuminate their way and double as your aiming reticules. Light is cast realistically from the beams and any other light sources you see, including busted street lamps and several blazes still raging throughout the city. The animations and rag doll physics tied to the undead also create a palpable feeling of believability to the title, especially when an explosion sends a few unsuspecting corpses hurtling towards the screen itself.
Beyond the technical wizardry of Dead Nation, there is an elegant, subtle attention to detail that may go unnoticed. Things like a zombified team of high school football players pouring out of a wrecked school bus, in uniform, really help define Dead Nation’s identity. The aesthetic of the entire world is gritty and oppressive, but it’s the little touches, such as the donut shop situated directly across from the police barracks, that ensure Dead Nation’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek. Housemarque is fully aware of how overplayed the zombie genre has become and how long it’s been taking itself far too seriously.
As there are two survivors, Dead Nation aptly allows for two player cooperative play both online and off. The campaign plays out in much the same manner with the exception of enemy scaling and both protagonists showing up in the concept art based cut-scenes that book end each level. Having a second player opens Dead Nation up to different tactics allowing players to decide who should get which load out and how to use it. It is disappointing that there’s no option to revive downed teammates and there’s no support for drop-in play, but it’s hard to deny co-op is a fun alternative to solo play and likely the manner most people will enjoy the title.
It’s impossible not to mention Dead Nation’s ingenious leaderboard integration as well. In addition to having traditional high score based leaderboards, the game tallies all of the kills from each respective country in the world together. As each nation kills more and more of the undead they slowly eliminate a percentage of the virus. Once the virus has been eliminated completely a new cycle begins, which among other things allows players to unlock concept art that is tied to specific virus cycles.
Dead Nation for all intents and purposes is a top-down Left 4 Dead: it’s taut, it’s atmospheric and it will certainly get your blood pumping. It seamlessly evolves the best aspects of Super Stardust HD into a completely new, but familiar game type. Really, there’s very little negative to say against Dead Nation. It’s a tense ride from start to finish, and your country needs you.