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Dead Nation
Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Housemarque
Media: Download/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Action/ Shooter/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
This generation has seen a renaissance of the twin-stick shooter. Love it or hate it, this niche genre has been a huge part of the downloadable scene for the past five years, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon. The same can be said about the zombie theme, which is pretty much everywhere these days. There are games centered around zombies, and there are others that find clever ways to include them. Housemarque's Dead Nation is one of the former. I've spent a good few months with this game (as well as sampled it a bit at E3), and I can say with no hesitation that it is one of the best twin-stick shooters I've ever played. It's beautiful to look at, it sounds fantastic, and it plays really well.

We may very well be past the day when the graphics of downloadable titles are held to lower expectations than those of full retail releases. Dead Nation certainly tips the scales in that direction. This game is a stunner from start to finish. It all starts with the wonderful lighting effects. When it comes to visuals, the zombie apocalypse is usually approached in one of two ways. Most of the time, it's campy and silly. We got to see that with the Dead Rising franchise. Dead Nation takes the road less traveled, instead favoring a dark and menacing aesthetic. This game indeed can be scary at times. The areas between each safe zone are blanketed in darkness, making your flashlight your best friend (next to all the zombie-killing ordnance you'll acquire). The zombies look and animate wonderfully -- especially when you kill them. When you pop their heads, they twitch erratically for a few seconds. When you kill one of the repulsively obese zombies (essentially Left 4 Dead's Boomers), they explode in a grisly display of humors and entrails. The physics hold up well, too. Blowing up a car surrounded by zombies results in a shower of re-dead bodies. Though the environments are dark, they still accurately represent the level's theme (as evidenced by the name of each stage).

Dead Nation's sound design is keenly aware of the zombie sub-genre's roots. The parts of the soundtrack that play between levels are heavy on deep synthesizing, while the main action piece perfectly captures the desperation you feel as you fight for your very life. It's fast and intense, but it's also subdued just enough to keep the emphasis on your battle for survival. Dead Nation's zombies don't shuffle and groan. Each one sounds like a legitimate threat to your safety. Bullets hit their targets with muffled wet thwacks. It's as if the sound team took a raw side of beef and actually fired rounds into it. It's disgusting.


Gameplay:
I'm not sure there's ever been a zombie story that didn't involve a horrifying pandemic and at least one survivor of said pandemic. Dead Nation's story is bare-bones (if that); however, all you need to know is that you (as either Jack McReady or Scarlett Black) are seemingly the sole survivor of a zombie apocalypse. Your job is to fight your way across several infested environments and have a blast doing it.

Dead Nation is an isometric shoot-em-up title of the Killzone: Liberation variety. You take your character into the ravaged urban wasteland and try your best not to die. The zombies of Dead Nation are not the stupid shambling dinguses of Dead Rising, though. These guys are fast, and they often attack in numbers. They've also got the darkness on their side. What seems to be a vacant lot might turn out to be anything but in a matter of seconds. Dead Nation's unpredictability is one of its greatest assets, and make no mistake: this game will surprise you often.

You won't really find yourself getting invested in Dead Nation's story, so what exactly is it that makes the game irresistable? That's an easy one: it fancies itself an arcade experience. Over the course of each level, you'll find yourself wasting hundreds (sometimes thousands) of zombies. This kind of game begs for a score multiplier system, and Housemarque was wise to include one. As you strafe and slaughter the horde, that multiplier will climb and climb until you find yourself in a gleefully murderous trance.


Difficulty:
The leaderboards for Dead Nation are currently polluted with wimps who only choose to play on Braindead, the game's lowest difficulty setting. Not that I blame them; Normal offers a potent challenge. There's a smattering of difficulty settings that aren't readily available from the outset. I haven't yet gotten the chance to put my feet to the fire yet, but I imagine it's quite hot.

Dead Nation's challenge is often brutal, but it's usually fair. Most of my deaths were the direct result of some sort of self-destructive strategy. Sometimes, I found myself refusing to flee for my life, only to paint myself into a corner. Other times, I'd run like the wind, only to draw an even bigger horde from an almost comically inconvenient angle. Sure, you'll learn the lay of the land after a while, but there are still those moments where you'll find yourself one-shotted by the brutish zombies that fall straight out of the sky. This happened every now and then, but it was frustrating each and every time. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between. As a whole, Dead Nation offers an intense but welcome challenge. If you've got Facebook friends who brag about their results for the Zombie Apocalypse quiz, give them the controller and tell them to put up or shut up. Three out of four will shut up.


Game Mechanics:
At first glance, Dead Nation is boilerplate twin-stick shooting. Move with the left, aim with the right, shoot with the triggers. Easy enough, right? Well, not quite. There's more to surviving the zombie apocalypse than that, though in Dead Nation, it isn't too much more. Running is as useful a tactic as shooting. If you find yourself overwhelmed (and you will), a button press triggers a temporary burst of speed. If you are being relentlessly pursued by a few weaklings, but don't have the time to reload, you can make use of a melee attack. Just don't go trying it on large groups.

There are environmental anomalies that can be exploited for your gain (and massive casualties on the zombie side). If you shoot a car, the alarm will trigger. Zombies don't really like noise, so when they hear that alarm go off, they will flock to the disturbance and tear away at it. Shooting the car a number of times will cause it to explode -- about five seconds after a red circle indicates the blast radius. Of course, this strategy is best implemented after you've looted the trunk.

Which brings me to my next point: money is still a commodity in this abandoned world. If you take the time to look around, you'll find storage units full of fundage. Each level's safe areas offers you the chance to purchase new weapons and upgrades. Dead Nation's weapons are impressive (if somewhat predictable), and the upgrades have meaningful effects on them. Some out-of-the-way storage units yield fancy armor pieces, which have cosmetic and statistical effects on your character. To be sure, you'll have grown into a lean, mean zombie killing machine before long.

Apparently, the United States of America is the country most adept at killing zombies. On what grounds do I make that claim? Dead Nation's most clever online feature lives up to the game's namesake. The countries of the world are pitted against each other as players strive to clear their respective infection cycles. So far, the United States and the United Kingdom are far in the lead, with France currently at a distant third. This might turn out to be an interesting idea if the game takes hold, but if things aren't in a constant state of flux, it might prove to be silly and redundant.

If you're sick of twin-stick shooters and zombies, you should still consider Dead Nation a must-play. It's got impressive production values, rock-solid gameplay, and a ton of surprises up its sleeve. That's worth more than $15, if you ask me.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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