Wednesday, April 30, 2014

REVIEW - Dead Nation.

Dead Nation is a twin-stick zombie shooter with some serious pedigree.  Developed by Housemarque, the arcade shooter-centric studio behind PlayStation standard Super Stardust HD and recent PS4 launch standout Resogun.

Dead Nation launched on PS3 in 2010, back before Velocity Ultra reminded me I could love a top-down shooter.  I tried it, spent an hour or two with it, and left it alone.

On March 4th, 2014, Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition launched on PlayStation 4.  I tried it, spent an hour with it, and left it alone.

On April 15th, 2014, it landed on Vita.

Now we're talkin'.


I'm not sure why it works for me so much better on the Vita's little OLED screen than on my big plasma, but after a half-day of having it on the handheld, I'd far outpaced my progress in the console versions - and my experience with Resogun seemed to inform an additional layer of comfort with the game's nuances.

Like any Housemarque title, it is entirely a score affair.  The longer  you can go without dying, the higher your multiplier will climb - it stays with you across levels as you move from city streets to a park to a train yard to rooftops, building ever-higher until you give too little respect to a Cutter-type zombie and end up on your back - the shambling dead descending on your corpse to feed as the screen fades to black.

It conveniently drops you at the last checkpoint to continue, but that part in me that clawed madly after ever-higher scores in Resogun feels the sting of that dropped multiplier.


An eccentric blend of the studio's wheelhouse swarm-obliterating shooting and the gamer's familiarity with the zombie genre, Dead Nation is unique among Housemarque's offering in that is possesses a "shoot" button - R1 - while in Super Stardust HD and Resogun, shooting is simply accomplished by pushing the analog stick in one direction or another.  This has the consequence of providing any tap-to-shoot weapon - the rifle, the shotgun - with a bit of "kick" as your aiming laser hops a bit with the movement of your hand until you become more intimate with the game.

It makes things feel a bit more nervous, a bit more desperate, and drives the player to keep cool as they line up an all-important charged shot on a distant enemy before drawing the horde beyond.


As a marriage of the twin-stick and horror genres, it works beautifully, thanks to some simple and effective choices.  Most of the environments are oppressively dark, lit only by a shoulder-mounted flashlight that swings around in concert with the right stick.  You'll swoop the light (and your laser sight) up to greet a pack of shamblers ahead, and anything outside of that cone of light is effectively hidden in the not-quite-pitch black of the night.  You can kinda' see stuff in the shadows - perhaps note movement - but only when you force your attention away from the action in the light.

You're calmly jamming the trigger, takin' em down with measured accuracy and things are going just fine but oh my God something's moving like three feet from you run!

They sneak up from all angles.  Sometimes just a lone straggler, but sometimes you'll sweep your flashlight around to reveal a dozen of the things, and your whole game plan for the current area smashes out the window as you try to figure out the best position to put yourself in, backpedalling frantically for space and - oop - finding your escape rout momentarily blocked by a light standard you couldn't see in the dark.


There's depth here that belies its campy style and setting, and makes it feel distinctly Housemarque.  You run faster when you're not shooting, for example - an important thing to note. The zombies shamble right up until you put a single round into them.  Then, the zed you've shot will break from the pack into a raging dash, making it a significant threat, which asks but doesn't demand that you take one down completely before moving on to the next.

All intact cars will have something good in their trunks - money, score multipliers, et cetera - but some cars have alarms you can activate by putting a few bullets into them.  The zombies will become attracted to the noise, swarming the car and beating on it until it explodes, taking them all down - an effective tactic, which denies you whatever goodies were inside.

You may be able to get to the trunk and open it before the nearby zeds notice you and then try to set off its alarm... but that's a risky maneuver.


Flares - though short-lived - work just as well at attracting the hordes, and can be used to gather up a group for any number of possible strategies.  Shoot a car to near-destruction, then flare it for a makeshift alarm.  Toss a flare and follow it up with a grenade, or - if you're feeling saucy - a rocket.

Beneath the health bar you'll notice in these screenshots is a gray one - it's your energy meter, stamina, whathaveyou - but it would perhaps be more accurate to describe it as your boost gauge.  By tapping X, your hero will perform a short sprinting rush of about fifteen meters - it's the dodge button, the block button, the escape button that will send you barreling through even the densest zombie hordes, and makes your briefly invincible to boot.

If a mighty Jumper is about to slam into the ground on top of you, a perfectly-timed rush will save your life.  When a bombier is about to explode next to you, when a screamer calls in a swarm, a rush will see you out of harm's way - but it takes a good five seconds for your stamina to recharge, leaving you entirely vulnerable if you've just dashed your way in to a bunch of zombies, and each swing of their bony hands as they swarm you knocks huge chunks off your multiplier.  Perhaps the shotgun would help you cut your way out..?


It's a seriously successful marriage of the horror game to a top-down shooter, with mechanics that both grant it the satisfying depth and degree of mastery of a great shooter and compliment and inform the horror aesthetic Dead Nation pursues.  It's wonderful.

There's co-op, there's a DLC horde mode if you need it, but I loved the campaign - tooling through a nice variety of environments, strategically picking what weapons are ideal for my expanded arsenal and upgrading them, searching for hidden chests that contain cool new armor pieces... and mowin' down zombies.

And I don't care what anyone says, zombies are still cool.  We will never reach zombie saturation, because the zombie satisfies something primal within us, and within its curated, supple venue for nervously stalking ruined streets and mowing through swarms of the undead, so does Dead Nation.

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