While some gamers claim that the market is fully saturated with games in which you kill zombies, the industry does not appear to see it that way. As such, Dead Nation offers yet another opportunity for players to mow down legions of the undead in a world overrun.
Light on story, the game revolves around two survivors of a zombie apocalypse, Jack McReady and Scarlett Blake, who find themselves inexplicably immune to whatever pathogen created the plague. Low on ammo and supplies, they venture out of their hidey-hole to stock up and discover that they may not be the only people left alive.
Dead Nation (PlayStation 3)
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Released: November 30, 2010
Dead Nation allows for one or two players (either on the couch or over PlayStation Network) to control either Jack or Scarlett in dual-stick shooting zombie mayhem. It doesn't matter which you choose, as they're exactly the same in terms of gameplay and barely distinguishable from one another while in the game. The only impact your choice of character has is how the graphic novel-style interludes between chapters are presented and even those are identical apart from the voice-over and any gender-specific pronouns.
One of the first things to notice when playing Dead Nation is how dark it is. Even with the gamma settings for the game cranked all the way to the top, it is still difficult to make out terrain at times, let alone one or two stray zombies coming up behind while you're holding a position against an oncoming swarm. It certainly raises the tensity and keeps you on your toes, but there's few things more frustrating than having to repeat a particularly difficult section of the game because you just can't see anything around you.
Another quickly-noticed fact is how awful some of the sound effects are. While the atmospheric shambling of the zombies works to great effect, your character's injury noises are ridiculously over-the-top. Not so much as the noise they make upon being healed, though, which sounds still more painful than any wound they've taken. What really blows them all away is the computerized female voice that speaks whenever you change weapons or pick up an object such as health or ammo. It's totally unintelligible most of the time, to the point where her announcement of an acquired health power-up sounds like "small wetback." Just terrible.
The game takes the form of ten chapters, each with its own unique environment to traverse. Pretty much every zombie setting staple exists, including a hospital, police station, gas station and so on. The levels are generally well-designed with all sorts of nooks and crannies hiding precious loot and mobs of foes.
Exploring the levels can give you a huge advantage by finding chests with money and armor upgrades. Cars often have cash in their trunks or, if you're lucky, a car alarm you can use to attract zombies. And peppered along the way are checkpoints where you'll resume progress from when you inevitably die. These checkpoints usually have a weapons shop as well, where you can buy new weapons, upgrade ones you have and restock on ammunition.
The levels also feel very long. The par time for most of the chapters is around twenty minutes, a length which is not unreasonable, and even on my worst tries none of them took more than about forty-five. But the constant onslaught of enemies results in taking a step backward for every two you take forward and things can begin to feel a bit sluggish.
For the first half of the game, the weapons are garden variety, with a new weapon appearing in the shops with each successive chapter. In addition to the starting rifle, there's an SMG, shotgun and grenade launcher. Later weapons become more exotic, including a cannon which fires a huge blade and a gun called a Shocker which is what you would get if you combined a flame thrower and a Taser.
Each of the weapons are useful in their own way and all can be upgraded to have improved rate of fire, damage, clip size and maximum ammo capacity. Ultimately, I wound up mostly relying on the beginning rifle, which winds up being a strong all-rounder when fully upgraded and for which you have a limitless supply of ammo. Along with guns are thrown weapons, including grenades, mines and molotov cocktails. These often wind up being more useful than the guns, as they can attract zombies away from you as well as deal out serious damage.
The trick to fighting zombies is to not let them get close to you. Once they do, they can't just be walked away from. Which is why the survivors have two other crucial maneuvers at their disposal: a melee attack and a dash. The melee attack will push all zombies away from the character and deal some light damage. The dash lets the survivor plow through anything in its path for a brief distance, but takes some time to recharge before the move can be performed again.
When killed, zombies leave behind yellow and red orbs. The yellow orbs are money, while the red orbs add to your score multiplier. Where this gets tricky is that while orbs will drift towards the nearest player for collection, they lose half their value after a second. Taking damage from zombies not only decreases a player's health, but also the score multiplier, forcing players to balance when to take that risk of rushing into a crowd of recently re-deceased against playing it safe. Meanwhile, higher difficulty settings mean stronger zombies but a higher base value for kills.
The zombies get their share of variety as well. Undead come from all walks of life and you'll see a pretty broad range of basic zombie types, including hard-to-kill military zombies in flak jackets and helmets as well as fire-resistant firefighter zombies. Specialty zombies are less original, however, with half of which seeming cribbed from Left 4 Dead. There's a "Tank" and they have a fat exploding zombie, but they decided to give his vomiting powers to little baby zombies. Oh, and there's a creature that looks (in the murky darkness of the game) something like giant, prolapsed female genitalia with legs and arms that screams to summon swarms of undead, so there's at least something unusual.
It's both a shame and a triumph, really. There is nothing interesting about the special undead foes, apart from how quickly most of them can tear you to shreds. Meanwhile, the horde itself actually has a surprising amount of character, outshining the lack of creativity elsewhere, meaning that the enemies you spend the most time fighting are the ones best designed.
The game is challenging solely on the basis of how much it throws at you. It's just wave upon wave of things to kill coming from all directions. This is not a bad thing in and of itself and it's certainly satisfying to grind your way through hundreds of enemies and escape alive. But playing the game as an exercise in completion likely won't be very enjoyable a second time around, as surviving only requires patience, awareness and persistence to be successful.
The impetus to return to Dead Nation for an additional playthrough lies within its leaderboards, a global metagame where the nations of the world will compete to clear themselves of zombies first. Each country has its own leaderboards, along with global leaderboards that show how individual players are scoring worldwide and in their respective regions. And each nation is compared by how many zombies have been killed overall.
From the perspective of someone who enjoys attempting to best a high score for the sake of doing so, this was enough to make me want to give the game a few more attempts and try some higher difficulties. But the slow and repetitive nature of the game, coupled with the frustration of having to repeat sections as many as a dozen times quickly drove any such desire from my head. While entertaining once, only the most persistent will have the motivation necessary to keep playing.
If you need another zombie game to play, Dead Nation certainly is one. It's not an exceptional entry into the genre but a decent play. Fans of arcade-style top-down shooters will likely have fun, particularly if they have an itching to prove themselves on the leaderboards, but most others can probably find better ways to slate their lust for undead slaughter.
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