Housemarque, of Super Stardust HD fame, have decided the world needs another zombie apocalypse.
This top-down arcade shooter allows for a measure of 3D movement, with ramps and stairways as well as the ability to drop either yourself or items from ledges. Mostly, though, you're operating on a single plane, using the left stick to move, and aiming with the right. Your shoulder buttons let you fire the selected weapon, throw an item, melee, and dash.
Unlike most zombie games, the "intelligence" of zombies is a major feature, although "better designed stupidity" would be more accurate. The zombies stagger mindlessly towards you in exactly the manner you'd expect, and can fall further than you. However, large drops sometimes leave them stunned for a few seconds. When blocked by an obstacle, the zombies will try to reach through and grab you when you're close enough, which can be unexpected at times.
Adding to this stupidity, the zombies are easily distracted by noises and bright lights. Throw a flare, and the zombies will chase it, then try to eat it, which can be fun to watch if you're not too busy blowing their brains out. Throw a grenade, and they'll swarm that too, until it explodes. Said explosion will draw zombie attention from a long distance. And like all good zombies, they don't like fire, so molotovs work wonders. Be careful not to get too close to the flames though, burning zombies can set you on fire too.
These touches make crowd control a little easier, but you'll need it. The undead swarm from all directions, dozens at a time, and it always feels like there's more of them than there really is. Massive numbers, combined with their behaviour, makes for a tense zombie movie atmosphere, which is helped by the darkness of the environments. There are often lamps and other light sources around, but they rarely provide a wide area of illumination, so you'll rely a lot on the flashlight you have strapped to your weapon. Also, hordes often come straight after a loss of power in an area, leaving you mostly blind as the mob pours forth.
Normal difficulty is probably a good fit for most players, but being terrible at these games, I had to drop back to Braindead (the game's easy mode) at first. There are checkpoints during a level, most of which restore full health. These aren't spaced too far apart, but neither are they close enough to make the game feel easy.
The shops you find at most checkpoints let you buy weapons, items, ammo and upgrades. Basically everything can be upgraded, with even flares getting a duration increase. While weapons have varying ammo levels, all thrown items start out with only one available, and upgrading is necessary to carry extra (most with a maximum of four). There's also a section in the shop for equipping armour. You don't buy armour, instead finding different arm, leg and torso pieces in crates hidden around the map. Higher level armour pieces provide better bonuses, and the right combination is important. These armour pieces, as well as the score multipliers and extra money, give good incentives for exploration during a mission.
Weapons are varied, with some more powerful and outlandish devices becoming available as the game progresses. All the weapons have multiple levels of upgrades to several aspects of their use, usually including power, clip size, and reserve ammo. The rifle is your starting weapon, and the only one you can't run out of ammo for. It has a laser sight, and pressing and holding the fire button allows you to charge a power shot. This does massive damage, and will frequently fire through multiple targets. You also get a rocket launcher, shotgun, SMG and other interesting weapons with unique effects and upgrades.
To counter your arsenal, the zombies have some variety themselves. You meet the most numerous enemies immediately, easily killed undead, whose slow pace is helped only by sheer weight of numbers. Some carry objects; usually just junk, but there are the occasional SMG-wielding zombies who let loose a randomly-aimed burst of fire as they go down. The next enemy type you encounter are fast-moving zombies that usually take a few shots to put down. These like to jump out at you from hiding, often bursting up from sewers or bashing open a door you thought was just scenery.
There is a story, but mostly it's just an excuse to charge through hordes of zombies, fighting from one end of a level to the other. A core point to the story is that your character is immune to infection for some unknown reason, which helps to explain why you can fight off the zombie horde so effectively. Of course, it doesn't explain why you, the most valuable person on the planet, should be sent out on dangerous missions instead of being locked away somewhere safe while other, less important people do the dangerous work.
One big feature of Dead Nation is the co-op mode. Solo mode gives you Jack McReady or Scarlett Blake to choose from as characters. In co-op, one player picks their character and the other player has to settle for the alternative. online co-op currently has no matchmaking system, only allowing players to join games when invited. If this doesn't change, those with small friend lists on PSN may be missing out on a good chunk of the game's potential.
There's another online feature in addition to the co-op, which anyone with access to PSN can enjoy. Players around the world have their stats uploaded to game servers which track the achievements of individual players and countries. Also, there's a news ticker along the bottom of all the menu screens with important or entertaining reports. The top scorer for each country gets an occasional mention, such as "New Zealand celebrates its greatest zombie killer, P1nkM15t".
The game is well-presented, with translucent blood splatters on the screen when injured, and impressive explosion, fire and lighting effects. I'm yet to see any slowdown or lag, even with massive hordes and multiple explosions during online play. The sound, too, is very atmospheric, whether it's you or the zombies causing it. When a can rattles across the ground during a quiet moment, it keeps your adrenaline up, often making you wonder if it was you or them kicking it. The weapons all sound solid and deadly, just the way you'd expect, and the volume defaults to very loud, amplifying the shock of an enemy bursting from that sewer grate next to you.
If you're looking for fast-paced and challenging action, or if you think games have yet to do zombies justice, keep an eye out for Dead Nation this December.