Version tested: PlayStation 3
A top-down twin stick shooter filled with zombies, the only way Dead Nation could be less original is if developer Housemarque found a way to squeeze some space marines and a dropship in there. It's the definition of a Ronseal game, offering exactly what you expect and not a pixel more.
Do you like shooting zombies? Lots of zombies? Have you not had your zombie-shooting itch scratched by Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare and every other game with "dead" in the title? Or by The Walking Dead on TV? Or by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was a book and is now being made into a film? Zombies, rather appropriately, are bloody everywhere and it's sadly inevitable that Dead Nation's no-frills approach leaves it suffering from a severe case of over-familiarity. That's a pity, since there's a solid and satisfying shooter engine under the tired memes, and it's delivered with admirable attention to detail.
It seems redundant to explain the plot but in the interests of review etiquette: zombie outbreak, you survivor, reach safety. What matters is what happens next, as you advance through 10 levels of undead mayhem, exploding thousands of heads along the way. Starting out with basic armour, an assault rifle (with infinite ammo) and a linear path ahead of you, the action quickly establishes a rhythm of cautious progress punctuated by sudden influxes of zombie hordes that send you back-pedalling down the street, firing into their scrabbling mass. Every now and again you'll be sealed into a small area, and only allowed to leave when every zombie is splattered.
There are two currencies at work in the game's economy. One is plain old cash money. This can be found in the boots of undamaged cars, or in crates tucked away in the margins of the level. At each checkpoint you find a weapon shop where you can spend your loot on new weapons or upgraded stats for your existing arsenal.
The other currency takes the form of floating red blobs, left behind by every enemy killed. These raise your multiplier, and since Dead Nation is very much a high score game it's in your interests to keep that number high. International leaderboards track not only personal performance, but also which nations are doing best in the fight against the zombie epidemic. It's a witty concept, even if it's immediately clear that by using simple "most kills" criteria the US is going to dominate the top spot through sheer weight of numbers.
These two driving needs allow for the game's most interesting strategic twists. Cars not only contain gold, they double as useful smart bombs, detonating after a few shots and wiping out any zombies in the blast radius. Some have car alarms, and once triggered will attract every ghoul in range to come and hammer on its soon-to-explode chassis. Of course, doing so before you've cleaned out the money within means the cash is lost forever. Wade into the undead for monetary gain, or take the opportunity to clear some space quickly and easily? It's a trade-off that tugs at you throughout the game.
The same is true of the multiplier. During quieter stretches, you'll come across lone zombies, or small groups that pose little real threat. Do you take them out, perhaps by using the charged-up power shot that decapitates zombies in a line, and stop that multiplier from drooping? Doing so may result in a rush of enemies though, so there's yet another balance to be struck.
You'd expect nothing less from the developer of the superb Super Stardust HD, and Dead Nation's construction is suitably confident and robust. It's noticeable in the little things as well, like the handy circle indicator that shows you exactly how much terrain an explosion will damage, and the slick blue silhouette that keeps you in view, even when behind scenery items.
Having built such impressive foundations, Dead Nation's biggest disappointment is that it then builds a rather ordinary construction on top. This is a game that varies very little over its play time. Whether you're battling to a police station, a skyscraper, through a graveyard or up an abandoned highway, only minor changes to the scenery tip you off that you've moved on from the previous level.
The zombie threat never really challenges you in different ways (admittedly difficult with such literally mindless enemies) but nor does the level design take you far from your comfort zone. You came for excessive zombie slaughter and that's exactly what you get, over and over and over.
There are some different zombie types to break up the tide of rotting flesh, but they're so beholden to Left 4 Dead's cast of mutated ghouls that Valve should probably get royalties. Big fat zombies that explode in a shower of guts? Big tank zombies that pound the floor and attack with crushing jumps? There's even a carnival section with clown zombies who honk their noses after a melee attack. It's hard to be scared when you're rolling your eyes at the rather craven imitation on display.
The expanding selection of weapons should help foster variety, but it rarely proves essential. You'll be able to fully max out the stats on the assault rifle within the first few levels, after which point the infinite ammo and considerable stopping power make it the default choice for pretty much every encounter. Toss in some grenades, modelled after (yes) Left 4 Dead's zombie-distracting pipe bomb, and you'll never really need to play around with mines, flamethrowers and contraptions that shoot sawblades.
With such limited scope, 10 levels starts to feel like a long haul. There are few moments when there's more than one way to progress, and even when the boundaries do retreat and offer the chance to roam more freely, you're only really choosing between several paths offering practically identical experiences.
What the environments lack in inspiration, however, they gain in detail. These are phenomenally detailed apocalyptic tableaux, with some fantastic lighting and sound to enhance the mood. It would be a gruesome joy to explore them, if only there were more of interest along the route.
Dead Nation's secret weapon is online and offline co-op play, which helps to mitigate the numbing repetition with some old-fashioned human unpredictability. It's a pity the levels never really stretch the co-op concept to more than just two players blasting away in the same space, but these things are always more fun with a friend, and so it proves here. With limited room to improvise, and scripted enemy encounters rather than the terrifying chaos unleashed by the AI Director, it never comes close to the one-for-all intensity of Left 4 Dead (yes, that comparison again) but then Dead Nation feels very much like it's intended as merely an impulsive snack for people who gorged on Valve's more nourishing meal of red meat.
Dead Nation is guilty only of being a decent game with few pretensions and even fewer ambitions, never attempting to improve or advance the clichés it so readily deploys. Played a few levels at a time, that approach is just enough to satisfy the instinctive need to lay waste to zombie throngs. It's just a pity that a developer with the unmistakable talent of Housemarque hasn't seized the opportunity to tweak, twist or otherwise refresh an overused formula.
6 / 10