Who’d be dead, eh? It seems these days you’re likely to get more exercise as a corpse than while you were alive. One of the world’s longest standing memes once again rears its decomposing head. But Dead Nation is zombie death dealing, old school style.
I had brief blast of an early build of Dead Nation back in September at the Eurogamer Expo. Discreetly slotted in between Crysis 2 and Gears of War 3. A lone warrior; no signposting, no PR reception. Just a TV, a PS3 and controller. But this understated nature is one of the most endearing aspects of Housemarque’s PSN download-only blaster, versus the swathes of AAA titles punted out this time of year. A 20-minute blast immediately evoked fond memories of underrated 90s PC game Take No Prisoners, with added traipsing through decomposing bodies. But on close inspection, Dead Nation’s heart and soul can be traced far back into the annals of videogaming history.
Just like any good zombie epic, Dead Nation constantly reminds you whose favour the odds are stacked in. Single player or simultaneous co-op two player (online or in your living room), lead characters Jack McReady and Scarlett Black
are constantly on the back-foot. The fresh isometric top-down perspective shows the scale of the undead horde wobbling towards you. We’re talking hundreds here – this is zombie bloodletting on an epic scale. Left stick to move, right stick to aim (aided by your torch or a laser sight). Shoulder buttons for fire, explosives, dash and melee. Click to reload, directional pad to change weapons. Simple as.
Taking more than a few tips from Valve’s FPS game-changer Left 4 Dead, the FPS control system maps surprising well to the change in perspective. It’s responsive and precise with a rewarding adoption curve – but crucially, familiar. Which is
lucky; while these zombies are inconsistent, they certainly ain’t no pushovers. True to George Romero’s legacy, it’s all about strength in numbers. Weaponry above the standard rifle has limited ammunition, so get used to spending the
majority of your time running away. Heroes in Dead Nation are nothing more than hors d'oeuvres.
The odds are evened slightly by explosives – grenades, mines, parked cars. The games most satisfying moments can be found in mercilessly exploiting the zombie AI. Once spotted, zombies will pursue you relentlessly. Prime a parked car with a few gunshots, rush past and lead a legion of crispy monsters into a fiery ball of death.
Resource management and the simple risk and reward system permeates Dead Nation. The configuration of armour at shops can aid in optimising your character for agility or protection, depending on how you wish to power up your weapons based on credits collected en route. Cars can be plundered for credits or detonated. Shooting vending machines provides zombie bait, but sacrifices the health kit inside. Credits dropped by each enemy devalue the longer they remain uncollected, making close quarter melee attacks the most valuable – but the most risky – way to punch a zombie’s clock.
Visually, it’s a graphic designers wet dream. Effective atmospheric elemental effects like mist and rain coupled with neat character animation. The city is a blistered maze of rubbish and rubble caked in perpetual darkness – only punctuated by so nifty incidental lighting and projected shadows from your torch.
But underneath Dead Nation’s stylish exterior is a pensioner of the shooting genre. The multidirectional shoot ‘em up can be traced back Williams’ 1982 shooter Robotron. Bonus collection elements echo Midway’s 1991 arcade classic Smash TV. The utilisation of environment to divide and conquer echoes 1985’s maze shooter Gauntlet. But developers Housemarque know where their bread’s
buttered. This acknowledgement is nowhere more obvious than the prominence of an international global leader-board on the title screen, aka the modern pub coin-op highscore table. Just like back in the day, getting your initials to the number one slot is just one of the ways Dead Nation keeps you coming back for
more. Being remorselessly addictive also helps.
Super Stardust HD was an eminently effective repackaging of the Asteroids for the modern generation. Similarly, Dead Nation is an accomplished reinvigoration – this time, of an overlooked sub-genre, perfectly pitched as a download-only title. It’s chock full of personality, marking it out in an increasing homogenous shoot ‘em up market. It’s also a sensible use of contemporary cultural attachment off the back of The Walking Dead and Capcom’s equally-fantastic Dead Rising 2, to hopefully introduce a new generation of gamers to the frantic multidirectional shooter. Dead Nation is a fun, immediate and addictive timewaster – and that’s a classic combination, that never goes out of fashion.
Dead Nation is available to download on the Playstation Network from December