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Dead Nation Review

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If you’ve wanted a Zombie fix, you haven’t had to look too far this year. Dead Rising 2, a zombie mode for Call of Duty: Black Ops. DLC for Burn Zombie Burn! with “In Space”, DLC for Red Dead Redemption with “Undead Nightmare”. And if you’ve just gotten your hands on Borderlands’ GOTY Edition, “The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned”.

Housemarque (creators of that gem, Super Stardust HD) have tried their hand at a Zombie game. Dead Nation, the latest – and last Zombie game scheduled for 2010. Much hyped, much delayed, it’s finally here. Has it been worth the wait?

Story

A deadly virus has swept the globe, killing off most of the Human race and turning them into Zombies. A tiny fraction of people survive, either by locking themselves down in secure facilities – or like our protagonists, by having a unique blood code that allows immunity to the virus.

Making contact with a researcher, you are forced on a path of recovery. Search for ‘Patient Zero’, the source of the Zombie virus – and bring a sample to the doctor in the hopes of finding a cure. This will be Humanity’s last chance for redemption.

Game Play

From the outset, Dead Nation feels a little like 2009′s Zombie Apocalypse, with its isometric perspective, dark environments and crowd-control game play. That is where the similarities end though, as Dead Nation builds upon this classic zombie foundation with an almost retail-like feel and quality.

Controls are managed with a dual analog scheme, identical to the function found in Super Stardust HD. Weapon selection is controlled via left/right on the D-pad, item selection is mapped to up/down.

Early in the game, this setup works very well, but particularly later on, when you’re managing a multitude of zombies each with their own separate characteristics and attacks, finding the right weapon at exactly the right moment can be troublesome. You have to scroll through a bunch to find the one you want. This is a minor annoyance though. For the most part, the controls work nicely.

Immediately, the environments grab you. There’s plenty of darkness, loads of shadow. Your torch casts a narrow beam of light through the environment, often startling you with zombie shadows – or twisted scrap metal that just looked like zombie shadows. Lighting is superb, muzzle flashes illuminate a small area around you (often revealing a hidden zombie to your back), fire casts the levels in an flickering, eerie, orange glow.

The zombies themselves are varied and many have their own unique traits and abilities. There’s an extremely fast zombie that has the tendency to pop up from man-hole covers, racing in to melee you. Sometimes though, they also hide in the shadows, pinning themselves to a wall hoping you don’t notice. And sometimes you actually don’t – even when your torch light passes over them – until all of a sudden they’re bolting towards you with a blood-curdling zombie scream.

Some zombies are bloated, mutated beasts, exploding in a kamikaze attack. Others were created by the military in an attempt to fight back against the zombie threat, but ended up becoming taken themselves. Military, Police, Firemen, Doctors, patients have all been taken.

Military zombies are still fitted with bullet-proof vests, Police often converge around the nearest Doughnut shop – now unsure why. Firemen are resilient to fire and flame related weapons.

There’s an incredible variation in zombie foes in Dead Nation.

Impressively, there are often huge numbers of zombies on screen at a time. I’ve not done a count, but I’d guess that sometimes, in major set-pieces, you could see a hundred zombies around you. Varying classes, numerous waves. And the slain bodies remain on the ground, squelching under your feet as you move.

Crowd control is paramount. Judging when to use a ‘spray and pray’ weapon over a more precise single shot weapon makes all the difference. There’s tremendous strategy involved. You don’t want to use the flame-thrower against a pack of fast-charging enemies for example, as they’ll just swarm you, setting you alight as well.

Careful progress is awarded with successful defences. Run in like Rambo though and you could quickly find yourself surrounded on all sides, by lots of different zombie classes.

You have a bunch of weapons at your disposal, from your basic rifle – a single shot gun (with a super-powered ‘alternate fire’ that’s guaranteed to pop a zombie’s head clean off), to all your favourite Zombie-killing favourites like the flame-thrower and rocket launcher. There’s a melee ‘swipe’ for up close and personal combat and a rush attack which doubles as a useful quick dash/evade.

Additionally, you have access to some higher powered items. Grenades, Mines and Molotov Cocktails are reserved for getting you out of a really tricky situation with a bang – and you also have Flares, attracting Zombies to the light and giving you a few critical seconds of free shots.

You see, zombies in Dead Nation are attracted to light and sound. Like moths to the flame. Setting off a car alarm attracts zombies. Proceed to blow up the car and you can be awarded a huge multiplier for just a handful of ammunition and little stress. Multiplier contributes to an overall mission (and campaign) score and is earned by killing zombies – and reduced when you’re hit by them. Environmental hazards are undoubtedly the best defence against larger hordes, with diesel barrels and fire for example, your biggest assistance.

Enemies drop gold currency (though it can be found in abandoned cars and crates scattered around levels too), which can be used to upgrade your weapons at any checkpoint with a “weapons shop”. Checkpoints are safe, gated zones that refresh your health and allow you to mix and modify your weapons and armour. Armour itself is found throughout the game worlds, usually well hidden in special crates in dark alleys or out of screen in special areas.

Playing solo is a nerve-wracking experience. Especially on later difficulties. My first play-through on Braindead (think ‘Very Easy’) was challenging, but really lacked the urgency and caution of my second co-op play-through on Grim (a ‘Normal’ or middle difficulty). There are a further two unlockable difficulties.

Co-op is truly where the fun is at though. Bump the difficulty up a notch and partner up with a friend for offline or online co-op and you’re in for an absolute blast. Even on Grim difficulty, most enemies would take more than a couple shots to down – and some took an absolute beating to reduce to bloody zombie pulp. When you consider the volume of enemies on screen is the same as the very easy difficulty, you can imagine the chaos and carnage experienced.

I’ve done a few play-throughs now, with the shortest being a local co-op run on Brandead/Very Easy – which clocked in at about 4.5 hours. My current solo Grim difficulty play-through is looking to be in the region of 9-10 hours. So there’s plenty of play time to be had as well. The Trophy collectors will also be happy to find there’s a Platinum to be had in Dead Nation completion.

Statistics are tracked across all play-throughs and as part of a Global Leaderboard. Each Country has a “purification progress” in relation to other countries as well as local and Friends leaderboard selection.

As far as zombie games go, Dead Nation is easily 2010′s most complete, enjoyable and polished of what’s on offer. There’s loads to do, you can play solo, co-op online or offline and compete for score amongst Friends or the world. Game play is addictive and there’s plenty of strategy involved, something often missing in typical zombie shooters.

Graphics & Sound

The intense lighting really sets this title apart from its competition. The levels take place in late evening – or at night – and generally, your only ‘abundant’ light sources are dim street lamps, old warning lights and search lights. Sometimes, you’re in complete darkness, wandering through a park – and the only light source is your trusty gun-mounted flash light.

Scan around to chase a noise and the shadow of a zombie fills your view, only when you scan back – it’s gone. “Where the hell did it go??”.

What truly makes Dead Nation stand out amongst the competition is this amazing sense of urgency and anxious anticipation brought about by clever lighting and gorgeous level design. You travel through city streets, hospitals, graveyards, parks, highways and more – each area more dangerous, shadow-filled and zombie-packed than the last. Areas hidden by darkness often provide cover for hundreds of lurking zombies – but sometimes don’t when you expect them to as well. Unpredictability is it’s excitement.

Audio complements the scene, further deepening the experience with surround-sound systems, as a zombie moan can be heard from behind, from in front. To your left. You scan around chasing shadows, then you’re ambushed from a shipping container three-inches to your side that you somehow failed to notice.

It’s slick, it’s polished, silky smooth – and it’s brilliantly captivating.

Conclusion

So, the last zombie title of 2010 is up there with the best of ‘em. I’ve had an absolute blast playing Dead Nation, both in co-op and solo – and will continue to do so. Difficulties promote additional and more intense play-throughs, global leaderboards encourage competition.

In the same way Super Stardust HD remained in my gaming cycle for a long time, I’m sure Dead Nation will continue to be a game I play and replay with friends throughout the holiday season and well into 2011.

It’s definitely been worth the wait. Housemarque have delivered another thoroughly enjoyable hit game for PSN with all the hallmarks of a top-of-the-line retail title.

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