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Dead Nation (PlayStation 3) artwork

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.

Rating: 8/10

SamildanachEmrys's avatar
Community review by SamildanachEmrys (August 14, 2011)

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Masters posted August 15, 2011:

Nice work. And you're right: the L4D comparison is dead-on. I was about to review this, and you beat me to it. But since your piece takes such a unique approach, so I won't feel bad releasing mine. Someday.
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SamildanachEmrys posted August 15, 2011:

Thanks!

There's a lot I didn't cover in my review. There's nothing at all about how it plays, how long it lasts, different characters - basically anything mechanical. I decided to focus on the impression it left on me, and hopefully that leaves plenty of room for other reviews to cover the plentiful ground that I completely ignored.
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Masters posted August 15, 2011:

As you say, there are plenty of reviews that break down the fundamentals where you have opted not to. But I like the impression-based approach for smaller games like this.
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fleinn posted August 17, 2011:

I kind of like the approach in the review too. And if it was a film, say, like Land of the Dead comes to mind, you really would have to review it that way. Or.. you /could/ review it that way, because it'd be designed deliberately to cause that experience. And, well, the funny thing about Dead Nation is that it actually achieves that baseline of the horror-film.. somehow. Instead of being "this mechanic happens, then the set piece takes place".

So.. it's just a top-down shooter. And it has a gunshop, and checkpoints, etc.

But the scenes in between (not the cutscenes, which are pretty freaking bad), thanks to the lighting treatment and real-time shadows - are going to freak you out.

Example. There are several times in the game where you can walk up an alley, and then see the shadows on the wall, etc (this is obviously set up). And then it reacts to something you do, and you see the character's shadow as well, right - and the muzzle-flare and the flash-light creates this macabre shadow-theater on the wall.. And this is well done. It's a small part of the game, and most of it really is a glorified (if awesome) shooter. Like Housemarque's Super Stardust HD.

But just wanted to point out that - that they've really managed to... cross over into cheezy zombie-film territory, and actually made something that can pass as a professional horror-flick.. at times, at least.

That it's not like, say, Resident Evil 4, where you have the house that keeps being invaded - and it's a great setup, because you know that scene from great zombie movies. But the mechanics are just terrible, and they don't actually show you or immerse you in the experience on their own.

So Dead Nation does that because of the level-design and the use of scene-dependent shadow and lighting effects. And that's an achievement :D You know... interactive action scene from a zombie movie.

Technology and artistic merit combined to make something unique, etc. Doesn't a review like this prove they've succeeded at that?
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SamildanachEmrys posted August 17, 2011:

Thanks, that's kind of what I was trying to get across, though I don't think I did it very well. There's an artistry to the way Dead Nation uses its tools. Though there are many times when hordes of zombies will run at you, there's more to it than that.
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fleinn posted August 17, 2011:

*nods* No.. it did come across.. I mean, the style maybe could sound a bit pretentious for video-games -- in general. You know, like people reviewing Peggle and droning on about the mathematical perfection of systematic object-placement. Before drawing a parallel between love and the colours on the knobs in the right directions, and so on.

So choosing that approach.. really neat in this case, because it's genuine. That the review doesn't come from dreamt up features. And the thing is, like you say, that there's another bunch of approaches to the review.

And they don't mix well either -- if you write a review for Land of the Dead, you can't suddenly start to talk about ketchup effects, and how cool the splats are. And then suddenly switch to talk about scary and emotional.

So.. yeah. Really neat review. I'm not the best guy to give you feedback on structuring the text and phrasing, and so on :D but concept is awesome.

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