Dead Nation (PlayStation 3) review
"Dead Nation did something that I didn't think could be done anymore: it scared me with zombies."
I run for my life away from a tsunami of sprinting, slavering undead, frantically trying to reload my shotgun only to realise I don't have enough shells left. I'm screwed. But then I see a sight that has become a welcome boon in these dark and threatening streets: a car with a flashing light. It has an alarm! A couple of shots into its passenger door as I pass are all it takes to set the alarm wailing, and the horde descends upon it and savages it until it blows up in their blood-caked(and suddenly disembodied) faces. Leaving a heap of mangled bodies and a blazing wreck behind me, I dash off into the night. I don't get far.
Dead Nation did something that I didn't think could be done anymore: it scared me with zombies.
A few years back, zombie games had become a bit passť. By 2005, even the famed Resident Evil franchise had begun to abandon the familiar grey-faced shamblers, at least in its game incarnations. In 2006 we got Dead Rising, which bypassed the problem of the unintentional comedy inherent to inept, shuffling monsters by being intentionally humorous. It had worked for movies in the form of Shaun of the Dead, why not in games too? Zombies that are meant to be funny aren't quite so eye-rollingly stupid.
Then, in 2008, came Left 4 Dead and suddenly...zombies were scary again. I remember my first experience with Valve's defiantly straight-faced zombie shooter. I'd been wandering along ruined streets, cheerfully pinging bullets into the faces of hapless undead. I was wondering why people made so much fuss about this. Suddenly, out of nowhere, dozens of flesh-gnawing carcasses ran at me full-tilt, leaping off rooftops and scrambling over fences. I swore embarrassingly loudly, and panicked. My relief at surviving this ordeal was brutally cut short when I ran into the aptly-named Tank zombie in a train carriage. And let's not even mention the Witch, equal parts creepy and deadly.
Left 4 Dead made zombies in games frightening. It was the 28 Days Later of games. 'These ain't your daddy's zombies,' it seemed to say. 'These zombies will MESS. YOU. UP.'
But time has dulled that effect. When you've seen a hundred Witches and Tanks, and you've pipe-bombed a hundred stampeding hordes, it just doesn't get the heart racing anymore. The brief flash-in-the-pan of zombie terror inspired by Valve's unexpected interpretation of the walking dead subsided, and zombies were well and truly Not Scary Anymore.
So it was with leisurely calm that I started my campaign in Dead Nation. My complacency lasted maybe an hour. By that time, nightmare creatures were descending upon me from every direction and I was despairingly trying to hold them off with my slow-firing default rifle, looking around frantically for ammo, or a car alarm, or...anything.
The comparison to Left 4 Dead is very apt. Either Housemarque was strongly inspired by Valve's work, or someone gave both developers the same brief and told them to bring it to life in their own way. The streets are full of milling zombies that become faster and more vicious if you attract their attention (by making noise, moving, or otherwise doing things that living creatures do). There are grenades that attract the undead and then explode. There are a few types of 'special' zombie that have unusual abilities, such as bursting (the Bombie), spitting acid (the Leech) or being large and insanely strong (the Jumper). Even the life-saving car alarms are borrowed from Left 4 Dead, though Valve made them a woeful hindrance rather than a useful tool.
Still, if you think experience with Left 4 Dead makes Dead Nation a waste of time, you're wrong. The two play quite differently thanks to their fundamentally different game mechanics. Where Left 4 Dead is first person, Dead Nation is top-down. I expected this to make the game feel dated, or at least cheap, but it doesn't. This may be due to the careful thought that is evident in every tense moment of peace and every sudden panic. Weapon acquisition and upgrades are handled completely differently too. In Dead Nation these are purchased at occasional (highly fortified) weapon stalls, and can be customised to an extent.
Fortunately, Dead Nation keeps one very important feature from Left 4 Dead: artful use of suspense and surprise. If you play Dead Nation to death (forgive the pun), the suspense might vanish. Once you've mastered dealing with all possible undead crisis situations, maybe zombies will again be Not Scary Anymore. But for quite a while, Housemarque wrings impressive new life from Valve's established book of tricks. Light and shadow, silhouettes, grotesque sounds, disorientation and surprise are all employed deftly to once again scare you with zombies.
These ain't Left 4 Dead's zombies. These zombies will MESS. YOU. UP.
And you'll like it.
Community review by SamildanachEmrys (August 14, 2011)
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