Monday, March 21, 2011

Dead Nation

I quite enjoy twin stick shooters. It’s a genre that’s never failed to entertain me. I picked up Super Stardust HD as soon as a heard about it, and have enjoyed it ever since. It makes sense, then, that I would be interested to know what Housemarque, the creators of SSHD would be up to in their next endeavor. It turned out to be a nice little game called Dead Nation.


Dead Nation is a twin stick shooter as well. Except you’re not shooting rocks in this game; you’re shooting zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. You have the option of playing either a male or female survivor, in yet another world plagued by the zombie apocalypse. Instead of simply being dropped into an area and being basically trying to survive for a set amount of time before being whisked away to another level (like in SSHD or Zombie Apocalypse, a conceptually similar game), Dead Nation features a full campaign and plot. Housemarque doesn’t try to put any spin on the classic zombie formula, though; the story and setting aren’t anything you haven’t seen a few times before.


As in any game of this nature, you have a lot of weapons at your disposal. At the beginning of the game you start with a basic assault rifle. Though you still have to reload, you have unlimited ammo with this weapon, and you can charge it up for a power shot that will score automatic headshots on zombies and also scythe through and hit any ones directly behind them. As you progress through each level, you’ll encounter a number of rest stops along the way, which each hold shops where you can buy additional weapons and ammo. Such additonal weapons include standard fare like the SMG, shotgun and flamethrower, and less-than-standard fare like the blade gun, which shoots saw blades that rip through zombies (think the Ripper from Unreal Tournament). Shops are also where you’ll go to buy upgrades for your weapons. Each weapon can be upgraded in a number of categories, such as clip size, damage, and fire rate.


Scattered around the various levels are various chests. Some are easier to find than others, but all of them hold either ammo, money, or points for your score multiplier. Most importantly however, some of them hold armor pieces. Different armor pieces can give different stat boosts; endurance is for HP, strength for melee damage, agility for running speed, etc. You can choose your armor loadout in shops.


Like I said before, Dead Nation will throw a veritable horde of zombies at you, on a fairly regular basis. And sometimes they don’t always just come from the front. Sometimes they come from the back simultaneously; sometimes they drop down on you from above. There will be times when you fumble switching weapons or reloading, and that’s all it takes for them to bear down on you. For those times, you have the Rush technique and melee. Rushing is a technique carried over from Super Stardust HD. Basically, it’s a brief, headlong charge where you quickly sprint in one direction. You’re invincible during a Rush, so it’s a great way to evade attacks and escape being cornered. It takes several seconds to recharge a Rush though, so it’s not something to be used lightly. Melee is for those times when you can’t Rush, and you don’t have time to reload or switch weapons. It does enough damage to incapacitate most zombies in a single hit, so meleeing is often an effective way to take care of any strays that manage to get past your hail of gunfire.


You’re also able to carry a number of consumable weapons and items. Flares emit a pillar of light and smoke, attracting nearly every zombie in the vicinity, and in turn taking a lot of heat off of you. Grenades work similar to pipe bombs in Left 4 Dead, beeping to attract attention before exploding. You also have access to mines and molotov cocktails.


The levels in Dead Nation are pretty giant. It usually takes me 30-45 minutes to complete each one, and they’re filled with side paths and various nooks and crannies. A couple times each level you’ll come across a set piece, usually in the form of something that needs to be activated, and of course, will attract a lot of zombies in the process. One instance had me fending off a legion of the undead as I activated a switch to extend a bridge across an otherwise uncrossable gap. Another showdown occurred in a construction area as I warmed up an exterior elevator to get to the top of a sky scraper. Conveniently, it was filled with volatile gas tanks. The game was released with no loading checkpoints between levels, which meant that if you quit before finishing, you’d have to start that entire level over. That has been changed, recently with a patch, however.


While Dead Nation’s gameplay is definitely fun, what I found to be its greatest aspect is its visuals. For a top down game, it features some surprising production values. Explosions send debris flying every which way (including upward; I’ve had a chunk of zombie flesh fly directly into the camera from a grenade explosion), and the game really plays well with light and shadows. You’re constantly equipped with a flashlight, which is beamed in the direction that you aim. That flashlight is a lot more important to your survival than you might think. Most areas are very darkly lit, requiring you to constantly shine your light in every corner to check for danger. One area, for example, was flooded with a thick fog, making any lurking enemies appear as little more than shadows. Another area, which served as a set piece, gloomily lit and had zombies flooding out of buildings from nearly every angle. The orange glow provided by flares and frequent explosions served as my primary source of light as I frantically checked each direction. The result of all this is a remarkably immersive game, despite being a top down shooter.


But..this is a top down shooter, with arcade elements to prove it. Dead Nation provides for you score junkies out there with leaderboards and plenty of ways to multiply your score at the end of each level. Chief among this is the score multiplier. As you kill zombies and loot cars and chests, you’ll find two things: money and score points. Score points add to your multiplier, which, if you can sustain it until the end of the level, can accumulate a handsome bonus at the results screen. Every time you get hit though, your multiplier decreases, so the challenge is on! You can also tackle the game with a friend in local and online coop (voice chat has recently been patched in). The only quirk with this is that the co-op isn’t drop in/drop out. Co-op play has it’s own campaign, meaning you can’t have a friend join you in a level in your singleplayer campaign, and you can’t take a solo stab at levels unlocked in in co-op campaign. But the campaigns are exactly the same, in terms of plot and content.


Dead Nation’s name comes from its metagame. Each nation is plagued by a virus cycle, and to defeat it will require the death of many, many zombies. More than one person (or even a few dozen of people) could typically slay in a reasonable amount of time. So every time you finish a level, your performance is uploaded to the game’s servers, joining your efforts with that of everyone else in the country who’s playing the game. You can view each nation’s ranking and progress in realtime; right now the US is in the lead, followed by Japan.


Dead Nation is not a unique game. The setting has been done over and over again, sometimes better. The weapons, the items, the score system--aside from the metagame, there’s almost nothing about this game that is innovative. Instead, Housemarque took a tried and true concept and polished it to a sheen. They gave it a full campaign and story, graphical fidelity suitable for a full retail game, and an engine that runs smooth as butter. It’s an old, almost tired concept, polished to a bright sheen. What does this mean? It means Dead Nation is fun, that’s what it means. And really, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? 8.5/10

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