Dead Nation Reader Review
In a way, zombie-based entertainment and twin-stick shooters share a common problem: you already know pretty much what to expect. While I enjoyed the first 6 episodes of The Walking Dead, none of it surprised me. At the same time, the Alien Breed reboot’s hold on my attention was short-lived, despite looking rather nice and playing generally how you’d expect.
Following this theory, Dead Nation’s uninspiring name, setting and gameplay should have been a bit of a turn-off, but there are nuances in the design that shine through and hold your attention for longer than I thought it would.
It helps most of all to have at least two friends sat alongside you. Pass the pad when you die, reach a check-point, or when it’s your turn for the off-license. I played through the first four levels alone, and while I enjoyed it, I knew I wasn’t going to play again once I switched it off. Two days and two friends later and we’d ditched my original save due to poor weapon decisions, and were scouring each corner of the maps for hidden loot. We were acting as each other’s wingmen whilst still retaining a small bit of competition: who could get the furthest? And we finally understood the many little sub-systems that allow for enjoyable and lightly tactical play.
Case in point: loot boxes flash between red and gold. Popping them open will give you either score multipliers or money respectively. You have a choice – albeit simple – in which reward you value the most.
Stomping on health packs that you don’t need gives an extra burst of cash if you want to risk using them this way. Stray shots will break the vending machines that drop health. Wandering too far from the red and gold orbs diminishes their value, encouraging you to rush into the zombie horde when all you want to do is run.
Flares can keep the undead centred around one position where you can deal with them as you like (Shotgun is quite effective), but bigger species generally ignore them, meaning in later levels you’ll find yourself throwing down a flare to avoid the fodder zombies, then furiously dashing away to line up shots for the big ones.
Grenades attract in the same way as flares, but they also explode afterwards. Mines, spectacularly, explode up to 4 times with a proximity sensor. Cars with alarms are basically free grenades in a fixed and often strategic location, but make sure you retrieve the gold from their boot first or it’s gone forever.
Every big zombie provides a different problem to layer on top of the hordes of other problems you’re frantically backing away from: Squealers attract waves of Smack-heads (penniless zombies that closely mimic the look, sound and actions of the Ravenholm ones) forever until they are killed. Fat Bastards will run up and explode in your face unless you kill them from outside their blast radius. Jumpers can squash you in one go if you don’t dash away at the right moment. Johnny Big Hands will smash you to bits within seconds of arrival unless you pile money into the SMG upgrades and pray for good aim.
Survival horror still has a fleshless foothold, as health and ammo drops are pretty rare meaning you can find yourself high and dry in fairly impossible situations. This encourages you to time your knife attacks and dash-aways appropriately when They get too close, and limit your better weapons to places where you’re going to absolutely need them. The default rifle has infinite ammo and is quite effective for general play, but having to fire off each round with an individual trigger-press can soon wear your finger down, and in the swarming later levels you’ve got no chance.
Some levels contain a wave attack where you must wait for a piece of scenery (a bridge or lift) while several waves of increasing difficulty are thrown at you. These parts are frantic, and we found that by not buying the more useless weapons (Flamethrower, Shock Gun), your weapons inventory was less cluttered and it was easier to switch to the one you actually wanted.
In a neat twist, one level sees four Squealers amassing a huge horde of Smack-heads, and you must kill all four before the game will let you past. Each of the four has another surprise – upon death it throws a few different Big zombies into the mix. We hadn’t bought the Grenade Launcher on our first run through, and after getting stuck on this part for no less than two hours, we eventually decided to start from scratch.
Sure the levels are uninspired and faintly similar visually. But their layouts and scripted pace are brilliant. One minute you’re in open park-land with swarms coming from every angle, the next you’re being funnelled across a burning roof or through a train-yard in narrow corridors with no escape. They also look spectacular.
Sure the zombies are all based on archetypes that better games have already used, but that makes them no less effective here in a top-down format, and if you’ve got time to waste contemplating the poor copy/paste zombie design then you must be staring at the Pause menu. Within seconds of noticing the similarities between Smack-heads and the howling residents of Ravenholm, there will be hundreds of the buggers pulling your lungs through your mouth. Now there’s a sentence that looks odd without any context…
Sure the story is completely throw-away guff. Name a zombie story that isn’t. Zombieland not included. If you’re playing this game for the narrative, you’ve missed the point entirely. It’s the setting that holds the value here. Everybody loves shooting zombies.
Sure some of the weapons are almost useless (Flamethrower). Just spend your money on the ones that aren’t. A fully upgraded SMG or Shotgun is a great help in the wave attacks, the Blade Cannon is just superb, and upgrading your capacity for flares, mines and grenades is essential. Eventually you’ll reach a point where there’s nothing to spend money on, but it’s not the reason you’re playing the game anyway.
Sure the online leaderboards are annoyingly biased towards bigger countries, but… well… actually I can’t defend that decision. Weight of numbers means they’re going to win out every time (USA’s current win margin at time of writing was ridiculous – several times the score of 2nd place). It is compelling to think that your score is contributing to the UK standing (we were 11th if you’re interested), and if the numbers were handled differently it would be another great reason to carry on playing. But soon you realise that your one measly addition is never going to make a difference.
There are a few other niggles too. Health packs have a habbit of dropping when you don’t need them, and are uncannily absent when you do. The armour upgrades don’t seem to make a great deal of difference no matter what configuration you opt for, and it would have been nice to be able to configure a fast-but-weak player or a slow-but-deadly one. The tiny zombie sprites and dark graphics make it a strain on the eyes. Sometimes, most notably with the SMG, it feels like the gun has jammed and you’re not firing – strange, but 3 different people noticed it and that makes it an issue in my eyes, especially with a Johnny Big Hands or two to deal with. And finally, yes, the story is embarrassingly bad.
But all in all this is a great little title for pass-the-pad play. We haven’t tried online or on-screen co-op simply because we’re not the sort of people to give a crap about that kinda thing, but I can certainly imagine the on-screen co-op being a lot of fun. The key really is to be sat with a few zombie-loving mates, making up one-liners, sharing each heroic dash to victory, and each desperate is-he-gonna-make-it-oh-shit-there’s-a-Big-Hands struggle. It ends pretty abruptly, but by then you’ll have a few in-jokes to tell and it will be time for the pub.