It's another zombie apocalypse: bring a friend
There's no denying that the game industry is pretty saturated with the "living dead" right now. With the Call of Duty "Zombie Nazi" modes, Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, and Rockstar's Undead Nightmare pack for Red Dead Redemption all making a showing, Housemarque was going to have a tough time marketing yet another zombie game in a sea of the undead. Coming from the team that made Super Stardust HD, it's no surprise that Dead Nation is a success and a must have for any PS3 owner.
The graphics are no joke either. It's easily one of the best looking games available on the PlayStation Network right now. The impressive lighting effects go a long way to setting the appropriate ambiance and mood, while the game maintains an impressive level of detail even with a huge number of zombies on screen.
The game plays like Super Stardust HD or many other dual joystick shooters (i.e. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light or Alien Swarm.) You see the action from a 3/4 overhead view. While using the right analog to aim, the left analog stick moves your character. The R1 and L1 buttons are used to shoot and throw items, while R2 and L2 are used for melee attacks and a dash/bash move respectively. The controls are simple enough for anyone to pick the game up and get the basic idea down, but the precision required to kill the enemies quickly enough takes some getting used to, especially since you're using a controller.
Killing the zombies quickly is going to be pretty damn important too, especially when you realize just how many are on screen at once. The game has no problem throwing up to a hundred zombies at you at once, so it's best to get used to running backwards and strafing as soon as possible. While this could quickly become tedious, there is enough variety of enemies (think Left 4 Dead 2's special and uncommon infected) to keep you on your toes.
To help you deal with the variety of enemies, the game features some light RPG elements in the form of weapon and armor customization. Killing zombies doesn't just add to your kill count at the end of each level: it also nets you some money which can be used to upgrade your weapons at various checkpoints throughout each level. You can also find money by searching the trunks of cars or finding special crates in secret parts of the level.
The number of weapons available to you increases as you get further in the game, with things like the flamethrower or grenade launcher not being available in the earlier stages. The upgrades that you make to these weapons like clip size, power, or accuracy are persistent across your campaign. While your starting weapon has infinite ammo and can be fully upgraded fairly quickly, it's not long before you realize that you'll need to use other weapons just as often (and sparingly, as they consume ammunition.) Not only that, but your starting rifle is single shot only, so you have to hammer on the R1 button to keep shooting. It might not sound annoying at first, but it gets damn tiring when there's twenty or thirty zombies coming at you and it's all you have. The armor you wear can also be upgraded by finding special containers hidden in the level - this allows you to mix and match your armor to suit your play style, buffing things like damage resistance/health, your speed and the strength of your melee attacks.
These RPG elements are most effective when playing with a friend, and you're going to want to. The game supports both local and online two player cooperative, though it's important to note that as of this review there is no voice chat available for online sessions (also important to note is that the developers have stated that they intend to patch it in soon.) The ability to play with a friend makes the game easier and adds some more strategy, since you have the ability to upgrade your characters in ways that complement your play styles. This also lessens the difficulty of the game, which even on normal was fairly demanding. You'll die. A lot. So get used to it.
On top of all of this, Dead Nation offers a metagame of sorts via online leaderboards. Each country is ranked on how far they are in the game and how many zombies they've killed - for instance, the more zombies North American players kill, the higher North America is on the leaderboard. It doesn't add much to the overall experience, but it is a nifty addition to an already solid game.
For $15 dollars ($11.99 for PSN+ subscribers), it's near impossible not to recommend Dead Nation. With several different difficulty levels, cooperative play and over 50 trophies to unlock (for you trophy hunters out there, there's even a platinum available), the replay value is fairly high. While the lack of voice chat on launch and some minor control annoyances vaguely hamper the experience, I greatly enjoyed the 7 hours it took me to run through the campaign. Dead Nation shows that perhaps zombie games haven't jumped the shark yet.