Ah zombies… Who doesn’t love those rotten, shambling, brain-dead fodder mobs? In today’s market, they’re as oversaturated and romanticized as vampires and werewolves.
Wether its science fiction zombies, world war zombies, cowboy zombies or infected zombies, it’s always the same old trope, and boy is it getting stale. No one ever does anything new with zombies, nothing ‘fresh’ – It’s always the same. World War Z the game for instance, it’s basically just Left 4 Dead, by way of a developer other than Valve. Literally the same gameplay, four player co-op, battling against hordes of weak zombies… How about Days Gone? Whilst open world zombie games aren’t common, it is somewhat refreshing that it’s not another first person melee-a-thon… And lords knows we will never see Dead Space again.
But what about the indie market? They always do interesting and quirky things, from Death Road to Canada, to Guns, Gore and Cannelloni. The indie market puts out some reliably fun zombie games… But what’s my favourite zombie game? Well, sit down, because I’m going to gush all over Dead Nation.
Dead Nation was developed by Housemarque and Climax studios, released way back in 2010, so yeah, this game is old. Released exclusively for the Sony Playstation family of systems, Dead Nation is the single greatest zombie game I’ve played. Falling into the genre of ‘twin stick shooter’ set from a top down perspective… But not a true top down, it’s one of those ‘slanted at an angle’ top downs. Think XCom or Wasteland, both of which are awesome games. What Dead Nation does to distinguish itself from other titles, though, is the intense attention to detail in the level design.
Dead Nation is a linear game split into ten-or-so levels, it’s been a while since I’ve played it, but my memory is pretty good – Each level progressively gets more difficult, and usually also introduces a new zombie type each level. The game takes place solely within an urban, city centre location, where the attention to detail is truly mindboggling. The locations truly look run down and apocalypse like; the streets you walk are strewn with cars, there are quarantine walls and checkpoints that have failed and been battered down… Shoddy, homemade barricades on various alleys and roads. There’s trash on the street that you can kick around, all sorts of little details like newspaper stands, phone booths, etc – Each time you play through a level you’ll find some new side area or detail that you missed previously.
I truly feel sorry for the person who had to construct the dynamic lighting for this game. Car headlights cast blinky shadows on the storefronts. Bin-fires glow ominously in the dark streets, busted street lights throw soft circles of light over the sidewalks… It’s always dark in Dead Nation, the story itself taking place over just a single night.
Gameplay-wise it’s a solid game; you have a slew of guns to mow down the hordes you face, from the standard semi auto rifle, to the smg, shotgun and the obligatory flamethrower, to crazier weaponry, like bazookas, tesla beams and the ever-fun saw launcher. You can upgrade each gun to hold extra ammunition, or have a longer effective range, or more stopping power, doing so through the checkpoint shops scattered around through the levels.
Dead Nation makes a habit of tweaking the standard zombie game subversion that we are so used to; yes it has super zombies like every damn game these days does… But there are some small things Dead Nation does different. Like the use of fire! Fire in zombie games is normally useless; throw a Molotov and it’ll do a weak little splash that takes out three zombies at best. In Dead Nation, fire spreads realistically with the zombies – Set one on fire and watch it shuffle into a horde, setting ALL the zombies it touches on fire. Watching a sea of burning zombies shuffle toward you down a narrow street is magnificent, and frightening…
The other thing Dead Nation does a little differently is zombie spawning. Zombies don’t just materialise in some green room behind the scenes. Make any noise out on the street and zombies will burst out of the storefronts nearby, or out of busses and cars nearby – They’ll shuffle out of back alleys, and dark corners. There’s one level, The Hospital, where a whole horde comes plummeting down around you from the roof. Only to pick themselves back up and swarm you. Zombies will burst out of burning buildings on fire, or out of metro stations, train cars and quarantine checkpoints.
…But, on the subject of super zombies, yes Dead Nation has them. But again, does them a little different. Each level you ‘unlock’ a new type of super to fight in the later levels, consisting of the usual subjects at first. The lanky super-fast runner zombie, the bloated fat, suicide bomber zombie; the ranged, acid spitting zombie, instead of a lanky, female looking zombie, is a horrible, crawling foetus like thing that attacks in groups. The screamer zombie is instead this huge, lopsided pustule covered thing with a huge worm like mouth that produces a truly inhuman sound. The jumper zombie is this big beefy thing that causes huge tremors when it lands, again, usually attacking in packs… And of course there’s the standard tank zombie; this huge, faceless, featureless thing that looks like clayface with Kratos’s daggers for arms that bull rushes you relentlessly. They all work rather well at throwing a wrench into the mix.
But even the normal zombies are interesting, police and military zombies have body armour and sometimes still hold guns that fire at random – Fire fighter zombies for example are immune to fire and acid and tesla. There’s one area in the uptown level where a coach bus engorges a whole team of grid iron players and their mascot. In the park level you get to pass through a circus, popping off clown zombies, each one making some funny honking noise. Zombies will carry weapons sometimes, mechanics will wield power tools, biker zombies wield chains or some such, zombies in business suits sometimes try to slap you with briefcases that explode in a shower of papers… The detail in Dead Nation is, as I said, ridiculous.
Overall Dead Nation is a game that still stands up today. The arcade-ish genre of the twin stick shooter is something that isn’t seen in video game media much – if at all – these days. I could honestly go on and on and on about Dead Nation. In summary, it’s the sort of game that I sometimes boot up and play when I just want to blow off steam and feel like a badass. It’s the sort of mindless fun that only an arcade like game can possibly achieve.
I happily give Dead Nation an: