Dead Nation Review

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Dead Nation Publisher: Sony
Developer: Housemarque

Platform: PlayStation 3
Reviewed on PlayStation 3

Dead Nation is standard zombie apocalypse fare, the sort caused by a viral outbreak rather than supernatural mumbo-jumbo. You've heard it before: nearly everyone is dead, wandering the remaining wreckage of the earth in search of the few remaining edible morsels. In Dead Nation, you are one of two survivors fortunate enough to be immune to the zombifying virus. Tasked with retrieving a sample from the first virus victim, you'll wade through thousands of zombies before you can bring that putrid flesh to another survivor.

Kyle Ackerman

As a game, Dead Nation is trying to find the sweet spot between Left 4 Dead and Gauntlet. Unfortunately, the two play-styles don't mesh. Dead Nation doesn't work because it resolves the conflict by making it too dark to see anything.

Dead NationGames like Left 4 Dead succeed because they punctuate long stretches of anxious silence with moments of overwhelming terror and action. Since it's a first-person shooter and the field of vision is extremely limited, things can constantly jump out from behind, necessitating teamwork and careful planning. Gauntlet-like games work because you navigate a maze from an overhead view, facing overwhelming numbers with overpowering battle prowess. There, the challenge is to see how much you can kill.

Dead Nation should be an arcade-style experience. Players get an increasingly large and deadly arsenal and there's hidden loot everywhere. By putting down as many zombies as possible without being wounded, players earn ever-higher score multipliers to earn spectacular scores that can be used to taunt friends. So where does the horror come in?

Dead NationIf you can see the encroaching zombie horde and horribly mutated super-zombies, it may be a challenge, but it's not frightening. So Dead Nation makes sure you can't see. Usually, the game is just so dark that Housemarque would have been better off focusing on surround sound design, and making this a purely aural immersion game. As it is, the sound isn't sufficiently helpful, and since I couldn't smell the zombies, I had to rely on the tiny wedge of light provided by my character's flashlight.

That's not horrifying – it's irritating. The darkness just meant that I had to play the few difficult spots twice. The first time I learned what was coming (and from where). The second time, I killed everything. Other than the scenery, there's not much that changes throughout Dead Nation. Over time, the zombies might be a little tougher, and the game tosses in a few, bigger, "boss" zombies, but the only real change is how many zombies leap out from behind and when.

Dead NationThat actually gives the game an odd difficulty curve. Things start out easy, and by the end, it's possible to be laden with so many upgraded weapons that even the final sequence is simple (on "normal" difficulty). It's the middle that's the problem. That's when you're not upgraded to the point of immortality, but the zombies attack from behind in large enough hordes to be deadly.

Simply put, much of the fun of games is overcoming a difficult challenge. Succumbing to a "gotcha" moment and reloading isn't fun. If the perils are intentionally hidden from view, play is more a matter of poking and prodding the player. It's too bad the game is so dark, because so much effort has been put into the visuals. I'm pretty sure I saw punks wearing Mohawks, clowns, briefcase-bearing businessmen and the carefully crafted remnants of civilization. But I'm not certain I actually saw them (or the cheerleaders or bikers), because it was so dark and small.

Dead NationI could sense the fun hidden in Dead Nation, but I couldn't see it thanks to the lack of light. I entered the game late (and can't speak to problems recent patches may have corrected), playing only after receiving Dead Nation as part of the "Welcome Back" offer following the PlayStation Network outage. It was a disappointing peace offering, but I'm glad I didn't pay for it. The one thing I did enjoy was the national score boards that popped up between missions. I couldn't motivate to make my own score climb the leaderboards, but there's enough of a patriot in me that I will kill zombies for my country. Who knew Poland was so vehemently anti-zombie?

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on June 22, 2011 8:35 PM.

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