Review: Citizenship has benefits in Dead Nation
Dead Nation has fast become the go-to zombie shooter on the PlayStation Network. A top-down action game, it makes the apocalypse into the ultimate shooting gallery. While developer Housemarque scores no points for originality, they execute this genre staple with flair, and a $15 price tag ($12 for PlayStation Plus subscribers). These Finnish devs are no strangers to mixing pick-up-and-play action with old school intensity. Their last game, Super Stardust HD, is proof. Dead Nation continues the trend; it's as much reminiscent of old schoolers like Metal Slug and Contra as it is a modern, high-res casual shooter.
Addictive gameplay aside, Dead Nation's otherwise most defining feature is its stat tracking - leaderboards with a per-country zombie kill count. Nations race to complete challenges, and top zombie slayers have their names displayed on a scrolling ticker. The global info and newsroom-type displays makes Dead Nation's apocalypse appropriately pandemic.
For a $15 game, Dead Nation has a real production value: an opening cinematic, voiceover narration, and flashy but simple menus. Dead Nation's rock soundtrack, while typical fare, is still exciting and manages to dodge the over-the-top camp present in some titles.
Dead Nation also has a highly intuitive control scheme. Set up like an FPS, analog sticks are used to aim and move, and the shoulder buttons control attacks. It's a great, intuitive set up that quickly becomes second nature.
As a survivor, your primary weapon is a rifle equipped with a laser sight. It has unlimited ammo, but charging up a precise Powershot (which rips through herds of undead) is usually better than going Rambo. The rifle's laser sight, combined with the analog stick aiming, gives zombie killing a surgical precision.
Only the rifle has this pinpoint accuracy, but the other weapons are just as satisfying. There's the submachine gun, perfect for putting down crowds of shriveled, scuttling corpses. There's also the requisite shotgun for blasting through bigger baddies. My personal favorite was the flamethrower; upgrade its range enough and it becomes a whip of fire. Just be careful not to torch yourself too.
All guns and consumables (grenades, mines, flares, etc.) can be upgraded, and different sets of armor can be unlocked. Hunting for the items and trying different builds through upgrade choices gives the game a high replay value. All the upgrades are purchased in an in-game shop with glowing orbs you collect from slain zombies. In an interesting touch, these power ups are worth more when ?fresh?. Grab them quickly for a substantial bonus. It's a unique way Dead Nation rewards gutsy players, and a fun variation on familiar gameplay.
Dead Nation is also aesthetically ahead of other $15 titles. It has a very nice resolution supporting a high level of detail. Even from the top down perspective you can tell a zombie businessman from a reanimated soldier. The game throws many types of zombies at you, which are all best dispatched in their own fashion. As in the best action games, being quick on the draw with the right weapon is half the battle.
Dead Nation uses its dark environment extremely well. The game world is one of perpetual night, lit by pale moonlight, burning dumpsters, and sometimes just your flashlight. Games with extreme darkness walk a fine line. We all know how the whole flashlight debacle divided players of Doom III. I'm pleased to say Dead Nation balances dark and light perfectly. The darkness makes Dead Nation a true horror title, full of elongated shadows and desperate sprints through the night, yet it never strains the eye.
The only place where Dead Nation falters is in online matchmaking. Even during peak play hours the game has trouble finding you a teammate with a decent ping. Expect to idle in a lobby for long stretches, especially if you want to play a specific mission and not a new campaign. Also, if your partner bails on you mid-game, say goodbye to all your progress. You'll be starting over from the beginning of the mission.
For a title with such solid co-op gameplay, the poor matchmaking is heartbreaking. It's especially surprising for a digitally distributed game so obsessed with online stats and leaderboards. Dead Nation is still a blast if you have a friend to play with, either on your friends list or next to you on the couch. Just don't expect the game to find one for you.