I never got around to playing Dead Nation when it first game out last November, but because of Sony’s offering of two free games in an attempt to make amends for the PSN network outage, I finally got my chance to play a game I might otherwise have missed. Now that I’ve beaten the game, and I never thought I’d say this, but the PSN outage isn’t looking that bad.
For the uninitiated, Dead Nation is a top-down shooter that takes place during a zombie apocalypse. You can play it alone or take on the hordes with up to three friends, and throw on top of all that a fairly limited character/weapon customization system, some gorgeous visuals, and a clever metagame, and Dead Nation might just be the zombie arcade game of my dreams. The Baby Factor: If the brilliantly simple controls of Geometry Wars got together with the frenetic cooperative zombie-fighting kickassery of Left 4 Dead, Dead Nation would be their bloodied, flesh-hungry offspring.
Despite its arcade limitations, the game actually looks pretty great. There’s a fat zombie that you have to pump a whole lot of lead into to make it explode, and when it does all of the debris that were surrounding it before its eruption goes flying when it bursts, sending broken bottles, paper, and other miscellaneous trash everywhere. It looks really cool.
Wherever you aim your flashlight follows (as does the laser sight on your weapon, assuming you have one attached), and during some of the later levels this light will become your very best friend. With all of the garbage strewn about it’s sometimes difficult, especially when you have multiple foes surrounding you, to distinguish the trash from an incoming zombie, but this issue is quickly remedied with the flashlight’s beam. It also helps to show off the fantastic lighting in the game, since there’s so little (this is a zombie apocalypse after all), everything is dark, broken and abandoned. The only sources of light end up being sort of safe havens, if only because they can help make it easier to spot the oncoming infected.
Thankfully, there are several different types of infected that require specific approaches to vanquish them. Smaller foes usually aren’t much of a threat unless there’s a lot of them, than there are the larger creatures who can easily take your ass out if you don’t keep your distance. Fighting a combination of the two will give even the most battle-hardened soldiers a run for their money.
Dead Nation has a very limited customization and upgrading system that could’ve been improved. At the end of each round you reach a sort of safe zone, and each of these zones are equipped with a store that you can use to choose your character’s armor configuration (each piece of armor offers bonuses to your strength, agility and endurance), as well as choose and upgrade your weapon loadout. As you progress through the campaign you’ll unlock new weapons, like the shotgun (a must for any zombie game), flamethrower, and rocket launcher, and a handful of new secondary weapons like flares and proximity mines.
Every weapon in the game can be upgraded multiple times: weapons can be improved to augment their damage, clip size or reload speed, and the secondary weapons can be enhanced to boost their damage radius, duration (great for flares), etc. The upgrading is great, but the armor customization leaves a lot to be desired – especially since you can only improve your character’s armor by finding the better pieces strewn about the environments.
There’s also a metagame, for those who are interested in it. For the more patriotic among us, each country where the game’s been released is ranked in the world leaderboards, and it’s all updated in real time so you can see how your country stacks up to the rest. Currently, Japan is kicking everyone’s ass with America in a close second (go us!), and while there’s not much to take from this other than a little extra patriotic pride (or shame, depending on your country’s place on the list), it’s still a nice addition to an otherwise meaty game.
Overall, Dead Nation is a fantastic game. It has a few issues and its potential wasn’t fully reached, but that only leaves a wish list of features and tweaks for its inevitable sequel. I only hope Dead Nation 2 is multiplatform, so everyone can experience it.
The Final Word: For zombie fans, this is a must. For everyone else, I recommend giving it a go, if only to have am incredibly fun and gory distraction that can be experience with friends.
This review is based on the PS3 version of Dead Nation.