Despite having a strong feeling that the zombie video game had already been more or less perfected over a year ago, I was ready to jump into and enjoy Housemarque's new dual-joystick PSN zombie shooter Dead Nation. After all, these are the guys behind Super Stardust HD. If anyone knows dual-joystick shooting, it's them, right? But Dead Nation's awkward mechanics and dim visual style feel at odds with the twitchy, fast-paced gameplay inherent to the genre, and the lackluster online mode leaves an awful lot to be desired too.
The disappointing part is that Dead Nation sounded like it should have been great. Your 15 bucks gets you 10 mildly story-driven levels full of monsters to shoot, and there's a light progression mechanic where your performance earns you gold that you can cash in to upgrade weapons ranging from a shotgun and rocket launcher to a flamethrower, blade-hurler, and electro-zap something or other. You can play those 10 levels by yourself, or with a friend in local or online co-op. Everyone with me so far?
The core problem is the way the game plays. From the get-go, Dead Nation's shooting felt off to me, and even as I upgraded my gear, it never got more enjoyable as the overly long campaign wore on. The camera is pulled further out from the action than I would have liked, making your targets small and relatively hard to aim at (especially since only the default rifle gets a laser sight). The aiming is a little squirrelly anyway, combining with the small targets to make the game feel less precise than the great dual-joystick shooters of the last few years. And that default rifle is the only gun with unlimited ammo, so you tend to rely on it a lot--but it's a single-shot-single-button-press weapon, so my index finger felt like it was just about ready to fall off by the end of the game.
Worse, none of the levels are what I would call "well-lit," and some areas are downright pitch black. You've got a flashlight that lets you see what's directly in front of you, but even in the best cases, there are often enemies coming right at you that you can barely see. Hiding the monsters and the scenery from you is a central tenet of the game's design, but dual-joystick shooters are all about brightly colored entities moving in obvious contrast to the background. That contrast is necessary so you can subconsciously track the objects moving around your peripheral vision, because everything is moving too fast for you to stop and scrutinize every entity directly. The action doesn't move any slower in Dead Nation than in other shooters; it's just harder to see.
If the core shooting was more fun to play, the relative lack of variety in Dead Nation's campaign levels would be easier to cope with. The vast majority of the game is composed of same-looking city streets and generic urban areas, with cars strewn all over the place. Admittedly, the cars have real strategic value since you can shoot them to set off their alarms, which attracts the horde until the car explodes, just like in Left 4 Dead. Actually, most of this game feels... just like Left 4 Dead. Among the zombie lineup there are direct equivalents of the boomer, spitter, and tank, and you'll find yourself in familiar locations like a hospital and a carnival, in the latter shooting zombie clowns. This stuff has been done before.
The game is more fun in two-player co-op than it is by yourself, largely because the level design and monster distribution make it really hard while you're playing solo to put your back against a wall and defend yourself without getting surrounded. With a friend onboard you can naturally watch each other's backs, making this a much less frequent occurrence. But you'd be best off playing with that friend on the couch with you. Getting into an online game isn't a problem, but when I played online, there was enough lag even as the host to make the game feel noticeably less responsive than it does offline. Also, when you're playing online, you can't talk to your partner because the game currently has no voice chat. Housemarque promises the feature will be along shortly in an upcoming patch, but for an online action game to ship without voice chat one month shy of 2011 is damn near unforgivable at this point.
At least Dead Nation looks great. That lighting that impacted the quality of the action for me does look nice and moody, and there are some great physics that send zombie bodies flying right at the camera when you set off a big explosion. But it doesn't matter how slick a game like this looks if the action isn't on point. Housemarque has proven in the past it clearly has the chops to make great shooters, but it doesn't feel like that skill was fully brought to bear on this one.