If there’s one thing that videogames have most definitely taught us over the years, it’s how to kill zombies. If hordes of the undead ever do rise from their graves and flood our city streets, you can guarantee we’ll be among the first in line at our local sports shop to pick up a baseball bat, before heading to the hardware store to buy a torch and a chainsaw. All we’re left with then is how to figure out a way to get our hands on an SMG, some hand grenades and a flamethrower.
However, zombie games have also taught us that it’s not just about having plenty of weapons at your disposal, but it’s just as much about making sure you choose the right weapons at the right time and conserve your ammo for when you really need it. Dead Nation, a multi-directional, twin-stick shooter demonstrates that principle perfectly, by throwing into the zombie melting pot a range of enemies that differ in strength and skill.
From a top-down perspective, gameplay involves moving through the city streets and parks of a fictional town which has been taken over by zombies, mowing them down with a range of upgradeable weapons in what surmounts to a meaty campaign lasting around 8-10 hours on the hardest difficulty setting. You control your character with the left analog stick and aim with the right stick, which controls a torch beam that can also be used as a pointer to light up some of the more gloomier areas where zombies inevitably lurk waiting to pounce. As well as slaughtering zombies, you can search the boots of cars for loot that you can spend at weapon stores to upgrade your arsenal, and there’s an array of armour upgrades to collect to beef up your character.
Combat is basic, but slick and intuitive. You can spin 360 degrees swiftly, switch between weapons smoothly and the torch beam acts as an impressive pointer allowing you to get a pin-point aim on your targets who descend on you rapidly from all four corners of the map. As you kill zombies, you gain multipliers and rack up obscenely high scores that are then paraded on the online global leaderboards for all to see and compare. The bulk of the gameplay involves shooting down zombies, but the feeling of repetition doesn’t surface too often thanks to the fact Housemarque has provided plenty of variety in terms of locations and enemy types.
There’s an incredible amount of zombies you need to kill, and many of them differ in look and attack style. There are policeman armed with pistols, tall zombies, short ones, fast ones armed with weapons, and slower ones that you can pick off from a distance. There are clowns, prisoners and a team of American football players. And there are other non-human entities, such as Jumpers, Bombies and Hordes, who behave differently – some running at you arms akimbo, others hopping on top of a coach, leaping off and pounding the floor to send you sprawling on your back. The design of the character models is impeccable and there’s enough variation to keep the action feeling fresh.
The levelling up system could certainly have been more in-depth, but you do feel your character getting stronger as you spend money on certain attributes, such as increasing the size of ammo clips, or opting for a faster rate of fire. And as you progress, you’ll see that despite the weapon-set containing a familiar arsenal of shotguns, sub-machine guns and flamethrowers, each weapon does have its merit in certain situations and cements the fact that Dead Nation is much more than just a button-masher.
The shotgun, for example, is perfect for close quarters combat, but you don’t want to use it when there’s dozens of zombies heading your way. The sub-machine gun, on the other hand, is perfect for spraying into crowds of zombies from a distance – particularly when you’ve maxed out its rate of fire And then you’ve got grenades to throw, or mines to place, and even flares which are great for creating diversions. Things get incredibly tough as you progress, and Housemarque ramps up the tension by ensuring that ammo is scarce, thus making you think before you fire. Despite the basic upgrade system, Dead Nation is a lot of fun to play and ploughing through the lengthy campaign rarely feels like a chore.
One of the most impressive things about Dead Nation is the high quality production values and the superb lighting system that casts shadows over the gloomy environment, creating a moody atmosphere that’s befitting of a zombie game. Street lamps, car-headlights and the beams from your torch light up otherwise dark areas, but there’s also a great amount of detail in the locations, which are littered with everyday objects and full of the corpses of undead that you slaughter on your journey.
The environment plays a significant part in the gameplay too. You can create diversions by perhaps targeting a fuel tanker and causing it to explode, or you might set a car alarm off to divert the attention of a group of zombies so you can sneak past. In two player, offline and online co-op mode, the scope for being creative comes even more in to play. You can team up to perhaps to throw a flare and send zombies scuttling down an alleyway where your colleague might have placed a mine that will instantly kill the masses. After playing the campaign through fully in single player mode, right up to the tense and quite incredible, final run-in with zombies, it’s clear that co-op mode is the best way to play Dead Nation. You’ll get through the single player campaign alone, but not without a lot of effort and tactical know-how. In co-op mode, you can see how the locations and the difficulty of some of the levels are designed specifically with this feature in mind.
Animation also plays a part in making Dead Nation stand out from the crowd among the many other zombie shooters out there. You’ll shoot heads clean off their shoulders and see torsos dragging themselves across the floor, or you might toss a grenade and see the knock-on effect on the environment as you catch a few zombies in the blast radius and watch them fly across the street into another group of undead. Lara Croft And The Guardian Of Light really set the benchmark of what can be achieved on PSN, and Dead Nation is yet another title that oozes quality for such a low price.
The repetitive nature of moving through gloomy environments and slaughtering undead – the kind of which we’ve seen in so many zombie games over the years – hasn’t changed that much in Dead Nation, Housemarque’s first PSN title since the brilliant Super Stardust HD. However, after racking up an insane body count and enjoying the wonderful array of zombie types and the ways in which you can get creative to kill them, we’re under no illusions that zombie games, when done properly, are brilliant. Quite simply: Dead Nation is one of the finest arcade style shoot ’em ups on PSN.