Reviewed on PS3
I know, hardly fresh off the press. But as Taste My Game Face now has a website, it seemed sensible to collate some old work here for posterity. At least Dead Nation has a PS4 release to add some semblance of relevance to this 6 year old review.
The return of the PlayStation Network has brought with it the grovelling ‘please love us’ compensation of the ‘Welcome Back’ scheme. I was initially sceptical when it was announced that free games would be included, expecting low-budget, low quality games to be on offer. My expectations were confounded when recent Housemarque offering, the highly rated Dead Nation, was there for selection. Being a fan of the zombie genre in general, and noting the similarity to the mid 90’s top-down shooter Reloaded, I eagerly claimed my prize for being a potential fraud victim.
On loading, you are greeted with a mockumentary telling of the outbreak that forms the game’s plot, complete with newsreel tickers. It’s completely in keeping with the modern cinematic approach to zombie movies, and while not exactly to that standard, raises your expectations of the plot contained inside.
Don’t let it. As will be elaborated on later, there is a lot to enjoy in Dead Nation, but the story doesn’t fit that category. The plot that threads the levels together could be well described as ropy, and the cut-scenes take the form of drawn stills with passable voice acting over the top. I would say it’s a better attempt than the XBLA licence of Battle LA, but that would be to damn with very faint praise indeed. The saddest thing about the whole affair is that around the mid-point of the game a fair attempt at a plot twist is dreamt up, but isn’t developed until the underwhelming ending.
Thankfully, you are unlikely to be playing Dead Nation hoping for a BAFTA threatening plot. Instead interested in the many wonderful ways you can mow down endless hordes of zombies. Here Dead Nation delivers in spades. Despite its ‘on foot’ mechanic, the controls somewhat echo Housemarque’s Super Stardust HD. Move with the left stick and aim with the right. Although this does require you ignore what your mother taught you about watching where you’re walking, it gives combat a fluidity deserving of it’s arcadey ilk. It also means you can be constantly scanning areas with your torch as you press on in your intended direction. This torch, which comes as standard issue with any weapon, can certainly prove a life-saver. The environments in which Dead Nation is set are often dark and ominous. Flickering shadows cast doubt in your mind as to whether you truly have cleared the most recent wave of enemies.
While the atmosphere is pitched perfectly, the areas themselves are disappointingly unvaried. The gritty urban desolation that provides the setting for the game occurs either on abandoned streets, in poorly lit parks or on rooftops. Dead Nation is no less playable for this, but it would have been nice to experience the cramped indoor frenzy implied by the hospital and skyscraper levels. I had exciting visions of being stuck in a stairwell with hordes approaching from either side, emergency lighting flashing threateningly, when the cut scene panned to two heavily damaged high-rises. Instead, the task was to run through another cracked and pitted street until boarding a convenient and improbable freight elevator pinned to the side of a building.
So with a barely acceptable story housing a repetitive mechanic in a tedious world, you would imagine that Dead Nation would land as far as possible from the target marked ‘engrossing,’ but here you would be very very wrong indeed. As noted earlier Housemarque have form for intense arcade shooters, and somehow it all just works.
Most of the enemies provide cash, with which you can upgrade your weapons at one of the many fortuitously located weapons stores. These weapons are made available at a slightly quicker rate than you can reasonably acquire them, and each have their own strengths and weaknesses. They are also upgradable to varying degrees, which can leave you grimly considering your dwindling gold. Wondering whether to soup up the SMG’s firing rate, or save some cash to buy the Shotgun next time around (Always the SMG). These are accompanied by a range of booby-trapped lures, all of which start off as a pathetic whimper, but can be upgraded to a level more than fitting of the circumstance. That is, an explosive volume where the disembodied limbs take seconds to return back to earth.
As the weapons grow in their ferocity, so do the enemies they are fended off with. The, literally, thousands of zombies you will encounter are supplemented by a contingent of ever more terrifying assailants, named in a similar manner to those in Left 4 Dead. The appearance of these can be the cause of some genuine ‘Oh Shit’ moments. The thudding footsteps of a ‘cutter’ only serving to heighten the panic of having nearly a hundred zombies dive from the rear of a lorry mere feet away.
Every time these ‘surprises’ occur, the fear is just as palpable as the time before, and the time before that, and the time before that. Despite the fact that you can lose no more than five minutes of playtime for each death and have more lives than a heavily cloned cat, dying in Dead Nation is a genuinely frustrating experience. This is due to the ingenious scoring system on offer. Along with the money, the dispatch of enemies adds value to the score multiplier. This continues to increase for as long as you progress unscathed, but get injured and the punishment is not only via the health bar but also the multiplier. Die entirely and the section is restarted with said multiplier reset to zero. Add to this the fact there is a global leader board and it means every time a zombie connects with a lunge from the shadows, it is met with a cry to the heavens and a gnashing of teeth. There is also an international leaderboard where each country is graded by their ability to render the undead dead, though the ranking is done via a near impenetrable algorithm that even the administrators have made a hash of.
Dead Nation can be played cooperatively, but aside from continuing the pleasing trend back towards ‘sofa gaming’ by allowing co-op locally there is little to be said about it. The only truly discernible differences are the increased longevity of the enemies and the telling of the same story in the first person plural. It’s certainly a welcome way of passing the time with a mate, and a nice addition to the overall package, but there is nothing to miss out on by not partaking.
All in all Dead Nation is certainly worthy of either the few pounds it costs to download or half of your Welcome Back free game credits. For all of it’s flaws, here is a game that I have been replaying in the time I should be using to finish Ocarina of Time 3D and Child of Eden, which is high praise indeed.