You could be forgiven for rolling your eyes when you hear that another zombie apocalypse survival game has arrived, and you should know right now that Dead Nation doesn’t develop the concept in any meaningful way.
You’ll know the premise already: A global pandemic has swept the world, reanimating cadavers and giving them a taste for fresh human flesh. You play as one of a handful of survivors – in this instance either Scarlett or Jake – and must shoot your way towards a cure.
Dead Nation is a hard game. Clearly designed to play played cooperatively online, when playing solo, it’s harder still. When players get twice as much firepower and earn twice as much money, you'd expect double the challenge, but that's not the case. Normal difficulty feels harsh-but-fair all the way through the co-op story, but a couple of the later levels are extremely difficult even on "Braindead" when you're playing by yourself.
Adding to this problem is the matchmaking system. With a larger player base, this should improve, but at present, there's nobody for the game to make a match with. It's restricted by country, with no regional or worldwide matchmaking options, so you're only going to be paired with other Kiwis.
This is probably because of the game's "Global Status" menu, which comes up between missions even when you're playing offline. If you're signed into the PlayStation Network (it prompts you to sign in after each mission if you're not already), your latest stats are uploaded, and your country's condition will be shown in relation to the rest of the world. Individual stats can be looked up as well, by country or worldwide.
Very little has changed in the handling of the game, but everything feels that little bit more polished than it did a month ago. The zombies are possibly even more numerous than before, charging recklessly at their intended victim and getting maimed in a variety of gruesome-but-fun ways. The re-slaughtered bodies eventually pile up through the street, park, or whatever you're fighting over this time.
The sound of a can rolling on concrete will have you frantically spinning your flashlight to find the source, before realising you were the one who stepped on it. And when you're crossing the aforementioned pile of bodies, the squishing sounds are as disturbing as they are satisfying.
The lighting effects are incredible. Because of the top-down view, the graphics don't stand out, but they're up to the standard expected of the hardware, and the way shadows react to every light source is particularly impressive. The red flashing light on your grenade creates zombie-shadows around it before the blast, which spreads shadows of body parts as they scatter. The red light from a flare is brighter than the grenade flash, but flickers in the breeze, making the shadows less steady, and blurring the outlines slightly. A similar effect occurs with larger flames, like those spread by a Molotov cocktail, or a burning horde of zombies.
Character selection has no bearing on the story, both characters follow an identical arc, right down to what they say. You're the only person immune to infection, so while zombie bites will hurt you, they don't infect you. This makes you a valuable part of the cure, but instead of staying safe and finding out what it is about you that makes you special, you're sent to the most dangerous parts of town looking for the source of the infection.
Plot quirks aside, the game is great fun. You’ll amass grenades, shotguns, flamethrowers and other tools with which to eliminate the undead. Flares are surprisingly useful in their ability to distract the creatures, letting you lure them away from yourself or towards something explosive. Grenades and mines have flashing lights on them with a similar effect. Shoot a car, or a barrel of fuel, and a few seconds later, an impressive display of fire and lighting effects scatters zombie parts far and wide. Shooting a car with an alarm, indicated by a flashing red light in the dashboard, will set the alarm off, drawing the zombies into the impending detonation. The game superimposes a flashing ring to mark the blast radius of anything that's ready to explode, warning the player to get away before it goes off.
The armour pieces you collect are persistent across campaign and single mission modes, with high-level armour usable even when you restart your campaign, but weapons have to be bought and upgraded as you play. This increases the importance of exploration, as most extras are well off the beaten track, and side areas often have caches of money and ammo. Even though they're huge and have bright orange lights on them, armour crates are sometimes easy to miss, if only because running down a dark alley when you're low on ammo can seem a little too risky. This feeling is usually justified, as they're not only defended by zombies, but opening the crate will usually spawn another wave you have to fight through to get back where you came from.
Housemarque has shown their sense of humour as well, mostly in the loading screens, and with the occasional tongue-in-cheek comments on the news ticker. The zombies also have their moments, trying to eat flares, or getting their arms caught in a fence when you blast their heads off. All the way through, the humour just enough to balance the tension, avoiding the trap of "taking itself too seriously" that so many horror games fall into, without tipping too far into silliness.
While the game only has ten missions, most of these are good for at least 20 minutes of playtime, more if you search everywhere for extras. The co-op mode and the large variety of weapons and upgrades on offer give plenty of incentive to play the game multiple times, and completionists will almost certainly have to replay some missions multiple times to unlock everything.
Those not yet completely jaded by zombie movies and games will find Dead Nation a very agreeable game, especially those looking for a reasonably challenging top-down shooter.