Review by horror_spooky

Reviewed: 02/28/11

Death, rotting, and the pursuit of brains

The seventh generation of gaming is unique in the sense that it more or less introduced consoles and handhelds to the idea of smaller, downloadable offerings. The Wii has its WiiWare service, the Xbox 360 has Xbox Live Arcade, and Sony’s systems use the PlayStation Network. I’ve played a decent amount of games from the PSN, but not many have been very worthy of the cash spent to purchase them. With Dead Nation, a PS3-exclusive isometric, twin-stick shooter, does the PSN finally have something worth raving about?

Dead Nation, as the title suggests, is yet another game with zombies. As a personal zombie-lover, I don’t mind the influx of zombies in our culture nowadays, with television adopting the brain-eating masses with The Walking Dead, and film after film churned out surrounding the concept of a zombie apocalypse. As an avid gamer, I certainly don’t mind zombies invading practically every genre and video game imaginable. I didn’t mind battling zombies in Saints Row 2, I didn’t mind fighting off the hordes of Nazi Zombies in the Call of Duty games, and I sure as hell didn’t mind building an army of plants to fight zombies either. It looks like zombies are here to stay, and that’s the main thing with these kinds of games. With all this media revolving around zombies, it’s important that each work (whether it be a film, video game, literature, television show, whatever) makes itself unique and desirable by the masses.

To decide that, it’s important to figure out what Dead Nation is exactly. Well, like I said in the opening paragraph, Dead Nation is a twin-stick shooter with an isometric camera angle. It’s created by the lauded developers that brought one of the more popular PSN games to fruition, Super Stardust HD, which was also a twin-stick shooter.

A twin-stick shooter is a sub-genre of shooters that, as the name suggests, uses two analog sticks for gameplay. Many twin-stick shooters use only the analog sticks, without the need to press any buttons at all, and with whatever the player is controlling firing ammunition at a constant rate. Dead Nation is unique from other twin-stick shooters in the sense that it is more complicated than that. Players take control of one of two characters, either a male or a female (though the story is hardly discernable between choices), and have to make it through ten levels of vicious zombie hordes trying to rip them apart. Instead of just aiming with the sticks like in many twin-stick shooters, players have to use both sticks for aiming and movement, and also tap the R1 button to fire. This can become quite tedious during longer playing sessions. Another way that Dead Nation sets itself apart from the typical twin-stick shooter is that it also incorporates projectile weapons like grenades, there are tossed with L1 and selected using the d-pad.

With a little bit of practice, the controls are fine. However, there is definitely a learning curve here. It takes a while to get used to switching between weapons using the d-pad. With most twin-stick shooters, players never have to leave the comfort of the analog sticks, and since many games in this genre tend to increase the difficulty by having absurd amounts of enemies, taking time to not-shoot can be deadly. The system is awkward, and Dead Nation absolutely overwhelms players with the amount of zombies, meaning that taking the time to switch between weapons and equip the correct weapon is a hassle that can very certainly lead to death.

These control issues can be overcome, but it takes time. Unfortunately, Dead Nation isn’t a game geared for long playing sessions. Like I said, constantly tapping the R1 button to take out hordes of zombies can become tedious, and couple that with the repetitive level design and the intimidating difficulty, and Dead Nation becomes a game to pick up every once in a while for a level or two and then return to something a lot less taxing.

The levels are very long for a game of its type, with some levels on harder difficulties going for about an hour at a time. This wouldn’t be so bad, except Dead Nation’s level design is very repetitive. Many of the areas look exactly the same, and players are confined outdoors, if that makes sense. Almost every level involves walking around same-looking city streets, walking past all-too familiar vehicles, with the odd steel-enforced barricade and gas fire to spice things up a bit. It almost feels like being lost in the woods and walking by the same tree over and over again, thinking that progress is being made. Thank God Dead Nation is linear in nature, or else this repetitive design would kill the game entirely.

Making the repetitive level design all the more frustrating is the high level of difficulty that Dead Nation brings to the table. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, Dead Nation will try the patience of gamers, even the most hardcore ones. I usually don’t mind a high difficulty level, and even welcome it. I find games that are more challenging are more fun, and rewarding in the end. Unfortunately, Dead Nation takes the low road when it comes to difficulty, as the reason it is difficult is because of cheap deaths. It’s hard to keep track of the enemies on screen because the game is so dark and the camera is pulled so far back that the zombies are small to begin with. When a zombie gets close enough to attack, that one zombie can easily bring your health from full to zero in a manner of seconds if you aren’t quick enough. During the later stages of the game, more powerful zombies come into play that can absolutely demolish you before you even have time to think, at times jumping from off-screen and landing directly on you, effectively killing you with one-shot and sending you back to a checkpoint that is probably fifteen to twenty minutes earlier in the stage.

In order to counteract this difficulty, it’s practically a necessity to play this game in co-op. Games like these are built for co-op play, and Dead Nation becomes substantially more entertaining when playing in co-op. Playing these kinds of games in co-op is just natural, and Dead Nation uses co-op well.

The game supports local co-op as well as online co-op, but there are downsides to both of these modes. Playing in local co-op is a blast, but there is a major flaw with the PlayStation 3 when it comes to local co-op. Since the PS3 doesn’t allow two PSN profiles to be signed in at once, practically every single game on the PS3 that features a co-op function suffers from a pretty big issue. Players that have the second controller can’t earn trophies. I imagine a lot of people read that line and thought to themselves, “Big deal, trophies and achievements are pointless.” But the thing is, they are pointless. The ambition for someone else to play these games is driven way down when they realize their efforts aren’t going to be recognized and trying to get a completionist to play is a major headache.

Obviously, a way to get past this and still play the game in co-op is to play the game online. That’s all fine and good, but the online is rather bad. As of the time of this writing, there is no voice chat support, and I have my doubts that it will ever be added. While Dead Nation isn’t a game that requires much communication, it’s still very strange. Not only that, but I’m not entirely sure that Dead Nation has matchmaking for its co-op mode. The reason I say this is because whenever I have attempted to start an online game, I have had no success. I have read conflicting reports about whether or not the game supports matchmaking online, so it’s all very confusing. I know that people are playing the game because of the ever-increasing global leaderboard stats, but there either isn’t any matchmaking, the game’s matchmaking is poor, or no one that plays the game uses the matchmaking function. Regardless, the fact remains that I couldn’t get a game started.

That global leaderboard I mentioned brings me to a positive way that Dead Nation separates itself from the rest of the undead masses. Dead Nation uses a unique statistical system, placing the members of different countries up against one another to see who can kill the most zombies. The USA is in first place with about twice as many points as the second-place nation, so it’s not really a contest anymore, but it’s still a very unique and original way to implement leaderboards. It’s actually kind of interesting to watch the number of zombies killed keep rising up, and it’s funny to see that countries like New Zealand only have about 200 people playing the game at any given time. I believe there was another country that had even less people playing, and I find these kinds of stats intriguing. It puts things into perspective.

Dead Nation is absolutely full of flaws. It’s not a good game. That’s just the truth. Despite this, it does do some things well. For example, the loot system and the RPG elements injected into the game work nicely with the twin-stick shooter gameplay. It’s fun to collect loot and level up weapons and find new armor. It brings a certain Diablo flair to the mix, but only if these mechanics were expanded upon, and Dead Nation could have had far more redeeming value in terms of gameplay. It’s a bit disappointing that it’s not possible to use the upgraded weapons and such on higher difficulties. While a few people may think that this would cheapen the experience, Dead Nation is already excruciatingly difficult, and if anything, this would only encourage replayability.

From my remarks about the gameplay, it may seem like I hate Dead Nation. I don’t. Despite the fact that it has a flaw for every game mechanic that it has, it remains true that Dead Nation is good for short bursts. The game is simple, mindless fun at its best. There’s no denying the pure pleasure in mowing down hordes of zombies with a buddy, and while there certainly could have been steps taken to make Dead Nation one of the biggest exclusive assets on the PSN, it’s still entertaining, if not a giant missed opportunity.

Moving on from the gameplay, it’s time to examine how the storyline in Dead Nation sets itself apart from other zombie media. In Dead Nation, the protagonists are, for an unknown reason, immune to the virus that turns people in zombies. Even though they are immune to the virus, they aren’t immune to having their throats ripped out, so obviously, they are taking measures to survive this zombie apocalypse. Throw in a few sci-fi elements down the line and what you have is a pretty basic and boring storyline. The plot is presented in comic book-style stills, in a vein similar to the Sly Cooper games, and it clashes with the game’s otherwise realistic style. The opening cut-scene before pressing the start button is done with live-action, and it’s done very well. It reminds me of the opening sequences in the Dawn of the Dead remake or Shaun of the Dead. I wouldn’t have minded if all the cut-scenes in the game were presented with live-action. If Resident Evil is anything to go by, cheesy acting can actually help out horror games in many cases.

Let’s face it, though, the storyline in a twin-stick shooter is about as important as the storyline in a baseball game. It’s irrelevant. What does matter a lot for this kind of game besides the gameplay is the graphics. Many games that are basically copy-and-paste formula games take great pains to distinguish themselves visually. In this sense, Dead Nation had to strive to be unique not only compared to all the other zombie media it is competing with, but also in comparison to other twin-stick shooters.

I’m happy to report that Dead Nation does a fantastic job at doing this. It’s quite possibly one of the best-looking games I have ever downloaded. The amount of detail on the streets is really astonishing, as is the detail in the buildings, and basically everything else. It’s not often that the true power of the PS3 is shown off, but Dead Nation manages to do it. To put it simply, the game is gorgeous. While design issues and camera problems may detract from the overall presentation quality of the title, Dead Nation still manages to be a beautiful game, with no lag or slowdown, tons of zombies on the screen at once, incredible detail and lighting effects, plus cool monster designs. Instead of just fighting regular zombies the entire game, players are also tasked with defeating more unique monsters, like giant, muscled beasts with machetes for arms. If that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.

Sound design in Dead Nation is solid. The background music is okay, and the voice acting gets the job done. The moans of the zombies work, and the explosions are nice and loud. For the overall presentation, Dead Nation is quite impressive.

But how does it hold up over time? A big deal for video games is the amount of time one will spend playing a game. The best games keep players busy for hours upon hours, and provide plenty of great memories and deep, rewarding experiences. Dead Nation isn’t particularly deep, but it does have a decent amount of replayability, and the fifteen bucks it costs to download the game can be justified, assuming you like the game enough to play it that much. There is local and online co-op as already mentioned, not to mention a slew of difficulty options available. The RPG elements also add depth to the game.

On top of all this, Dead Nation is one of those rare PSN titles that have a lot of trophies, leading up to a Platinum Trophy for the extra-skilled gamers out there. This is a big advantage that PlayStation 3 games have over 360 games, I believe, is that the developers aren’t limited in the amount of trophies they want to have for their games. This adds a lot of replayability to downloadable games that may not entice other players due to the measly 200 gamerscore they are allotted on the 360. The trophies in this game are actually fun to go after, so it’s a shame that the core gameplay experience doesn’t play off all this replayability. Dead Nation isn’t a particular good game, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a meaty one.

Is it just another zombie game? Dead Nation does a lot to make itself unique and stand out from the pack. The game has more flaws than a Justin Bieber song, but it still manages to provide a lot of fun—in short bursts, that is. Dead Nation could have been, and should have been, a major game for the PSN, but in the end, its flaws overshadow a lot of the aspects of gaming it does well. In the end, Dead Nation is only going to appeal to a certain type of demographic, and based on this review, do you think it’s you?

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: Dead Nation (US, 11/30/10)

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