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Dead Nation was one hell of a roller coaster ride from start to finish. Gorgeous graphics and disgustingly detailed audio contribute heavily to the hopeless atmosphere of the game, and the constant swarms of enemies will leave you gasping for breath after each encounter. Despite the game’s excellent production values and taught pacing, I could not shake a certain feeling the entire time I played the game. At first, I could not quite put a finger on it. But as waves of zombies and special infected bombarded my co-op partner and I, and we were really pushed back against the wall, I realized why I realized that this feeling was deja-vu. To put it bluntly, Dead Nation is Left 4 Dead, only from a top down perspective.
Being a PS3-exclusive game, it is entirely possible that you will pick up Dead Nation having never experienced any of the 360 and PC exclusive Left 4 Dead games. If this is the case, and a top down zombie survival game sounds appealing to you, Dead Nation is a safe purchase. The game mechanics are largely high quality and your fifteen dollars will get you a surprisingly long and intense campaign. But anyone who has played one of Valve’s seminal zombie games will notice exactly how derivative Dead Nation really is. Perhaps this should not be a huge surprise, given that Housemarque’s last game, Super Stardust HD, was essentially Geometry Wars on a sphere. However, in the case of Super Stardust, Housemarque added power-ups and new modes of play that were not present in the competition at the time, elevating the game to classic status. In this case, innovations are few and far between. Sure, you can purchase new upgrades for your weapons in the safe rooms, but that is about the only thing aside from the perspective separating Dead Nation from Left 4 Dead. As much as I enjoyed this game, the similarities often proved too much to overlook.
While I refuse to reward blatantly derivative game design, all other aspects of the game remain quite good. The action is fast paced and intense. The game almost never lets up, and you will breathe a legitimate sigh of relief when you find yourself tucked away in one of the game’s safe rooms, no matter how temporary that solace may be. The weapons are satisfying to shoot, especially some of the crazier guns, and strategic value is added in the form of cars, which will attract zombies with their alarms before exploding and taking out a vast number of enemies. Special infected forms will explode upon being shot and charge you, among other functions, and they serve to add a nice variety to the enemies, even if you have seen them all elsewhere before. The one flaw with the core gameplay is that the camera seems to have been pulled out a little too far, making it difficult to line up shots. Further compounding this problem is the fact that your default rifle is the only gun with a laser sight. It is also the only weapon with infinite ammo, which is unfortunate because it is a one-button-press-one-shot weapon, so you will be mashing the fire button for dear life in some cases. Other weapons can be extremely difficult to get a handle on at first, but practice makes in this case not perfection, but at least competence. You will never find yourself pulling off long distance shots with ease, but it is possible to get used to the game’s wonky aiming mechanics.
Dead Nation really takes off in its cooperative mode. Playing online with a partner, however, is not the recommended way to get your co-op on. There is a slight amount of lag present in the online play, at least at the moment, and while that may sound like a trivial complaint, it is akin to having lag in a fighting game. The intense and punishing nature of the campaign, especially later on, ensures that you will want to play with the utmost accuracy. This is something that the online play cannot offer. Thankfully, splitscreen play is available and fully functional. Playing with a buddy on the couch is a lot more fun than going solo or playing online, and some of the more intense sections will definitely demand your teamwork.
As I mentioned earlier, Dead Nation is a gorgeous game. Following proudly in the footsteps of Super Stardust, which to this day remains one of the most visually compelling games on the PS3, Dead Nation shines with brilliant lighting effects and detailed character models. Sometimes it can seem that the game is perhaps a little too dark, though, and this can combine with the weird aiming to make the game feel a little harder than necessary. With such a good lighting engine, it would have been nice to see it put to better use in certain scenarios. Regardless, the graphical quality is high. The same is true of the audio. Kills sound appropriately squishy, and guns have a nice kick to them. Explosions and screams are similarly satisfying.
Your enjoyment of Dead Nation will hinge on two factors: How much you can overlook its similarities to other games, and how much you enjoy local cooperative play. If you find yourself in this target audience, you should give this game a shot. Despite the somewhat unfriendly aiming systems and occasionally dark lighting, Dead Nation offers an incredibly intense experience that goes above and beyond what I would expect from a fifteen dollar product. I will never reward derivative design, but there is a fairly high level of quality here as well that counters the unoriginal concept.