A few years ago I never thought I’d see the day when a zombie game would be a “tough sell.” But zombie games are the new WWII, and in a market increasingly saturated by these titles, standing out from the competition isn’t something easily accomplished. Enter Dead Nation from developer Housemarque, makers of Super Stardust HD. Not venturing far from what they know best in the twin stick shooter genre, Dead Nation brings us into a dark, violent, and zombie filled future where surviving the horde is as much an exercise in dexterity as it is strategy and patience.
The story of Dead Nation is all too familiar - the world has been stricken by some strange virus that has mutated and is turning everyone into the undead. The twist comes from our heroes - Jack McReady and Scarlett Blake who seem to be immune to the virus. This makes them very valuable and so they must make their way through the zombie menace to a science lab for research purposes.
Gameplay is straightforward, you’ll move with the left stick, aim with the right stick, and shoot with the trigger. While you start off with a rifle - you’ll earn and unlock weapons along the way like a shotgun, SMG, flamethrower and even an electric gun. Secondary items are also at your disposal, including the likes of trip mines, grenades, flares and molotov cocktails. These weapons and items unlock as you progress through the story - and they both can be upgraded in numerous areas like power, clip size, and speed.
The gold to upgrade these weapons and items come from killing the zombies themselves or by finding it hidden in cars, crates, and other locales throughout the game. This pseudo RPG type element really comes into play for two players as one player can focus on a certain set of weapons while another player focuses on the other bringing good balance to your attack. For instance we found having one person use the SMG to slow the horde down while the other uses the shotgun to clear them away works quite well. On top of the gold you'll collect a multiplier token, which is shared between players, and is used to increase your score. Take a hit, the multiplier ticks down.
I think what will be surprising to a lot of people in Dead Nation is the depth of the game. Most twin stick shooters can be played through in a single sitting, but Dead Nation features a solid six or seven hours of content - and that’s not counting all the times you are going to die. While the most impressive feature of Dead Nation is its graphics and lighting, bringing a eerily dark and realistic world to life with some fantastic level design and little details, its also its greatest problem. Through all that chaos its sometimes impossible to see your character or the zombies attacking them and because most zombies aren’t a single shot kill you canl be quickly over run. Thankfully there are methods to break out of this - a melee attack and a limited dash move where you become invulnerable for a few seconds help, though you’ll still find yourself frustrated.
The co-op in Dead Nation is identical to the single player - each player chooses one of our characters and progresses through the story. A nice touch in co-op is the addition of that player in the comic book style cutscenes, something we rarely see in a co-op game. The co-op mode also adds in extra zombies as well as makes the zombies more powerful, making it increasingly difficult over the single player game. If and when someone dies, there’s no reviving them on the spot, instead you must make your way to one of the levels checkpoints where you can respawn, resupply, and head back into the mix.
When playing locally, your partner can spawn with identical upgrades to you - so they won’t be left behind if you decide to take on the later levels you’ve unlocked while playing single player. In online each person has their own profile, so you’ll be bringing your own respective upgrades into the mix. It should be noted that at this time, there is no voice chat for online co-op, but its coming in a patch. Besides this little snafu we found the online play smooth, with only a few hiccups of lag.
As I said earlier, Dead Nation is incredibly detailed. The environments are littered with corpses, garbage, wrecked vehicles, and other items you’d expect to find in a dilapidated city. Certain items - like the cars - art particularly useful as you can use them as weapons. Shooting some will set off an alarm which draws the zombies away from you, and in turn, they attack the car until it explodes in glorious fashion. Seriously, seeing a mushroom like cloud of zombie parts never gets old. You will need to use everything at your disposal, and you will need to communicate with your teammate as to what’s happening and who’s responsible for what. This becomes apparent doing the set piece moments.
Set pieces should be familiar to anyone who has played Left 4 Dead - hit a switch, trigger the horde, and survive until a bridge moves/door opens/lights come on. It’s identical in Dead Nation, though the addition of the mines and other explosive items allows some strategic planning to what’s going to happen next.
When I said this was a “tough sell” - it wasn’t just because it was another zombie game. While Dead Nation does offer difficulty settings, we still found it a bit too difficult at times - mostly due issues with gameplay mechanics. Compared to the competition of other twin stick zombie shooters - Dead Nation stands a severed zombied head above them. The production values are incredibly high for a downloadable title, the graphics are gorgeous, and there’s a ton of gameplay to be had if you are willing to take it on.