The game's dark, zombie-laden world is enhanced by an incredible lighting engine, but is hindered by a distant camera and an imprecise aiming mechanic. What's more, for as much tension as the game's sporadic checkpoints create, their limited nature concludes in frustration and repetition. Dead Nation's design choices make sense for the context, but they don't always result in an entertaining experience.
It's an age-old adage that asks, "Can horror games maintain tension without being frustrating?" People questioned Capcom's decision to limit movement while aiming in Resident Evil 5, just like they questioned Konami's horrible control layout in Silent Hill. Both publishers would argue that they inhibited control in order to create a sense of tension. Housemarque would probably field similar arguments with Dead Nation — a pulp-horror game developed exclusively for the Playstation Network.
In concept, Dead Nation could not be more generic. It's a downloadable top-down shooter involving hordes of zombies. It's, in many ways, predictable and obvious. But Dead Nation has one contributing factor which makes it identifiable from the crowd — it has ridiculous production values. Dead Nation is a beautiful game, and presumably developed as a tech demonstration for a lighting model Housemarque's concocted. If the Silent Hill team are reading, they should probably contact Housemarque and license their lighting tech right now. The believable way the game casts shadows and lights up the environments with every bullet and grenade is fantastic, and it almost makes up for the game being far too dark in some areas.
Like much of Dead Nation though, the game's positive points end up turning into negatives purely because of the way the game's been designed. Dead Nation's lighting engine actually affects the gameplay. The game is dark, and conscious decision or not, it makes shoot outs incredibly frustrating. Tense yes, but irritating all the same. While the game's protagonists cast a torch beam in front of them at all times (this also demonstrates the shot direction, and like other top-down shooters is controlled with the right-analogue stick) it's often not enough. Zombies will flank you without you even being aware of their presence. That would be fine, and a good opportunity for jump-scares, if the game wasn't so punishing on death. In order to up the tension once more, Housemarque's implemented a very limited checkpoint system. Each level (of which there are ten in the game) has roughly two or three checkpoints, causing mass repetition on death. It makes every moment of gameplay matter, but the tension quickly leads to frustration as the game forces you to replay huge sections of gameplay over and over again. It's worth noting that some levels can last upwards of 30 minutes if they are played perfectly. The repetition would be fine, but Dead Nation just doesn't have the variety to keep the gameplay compelling.
Ultimately it's a shame because what's bubbling underneath Dead Nation's top-tier frustrations are some solid, if familiar, ideas. The game's plot, while inanely predictable, is told through a series of graphic-novel like cut-scenes which adds to the polish of the experience.
Dead Nation may well be a downloadable title, but it does so much more than any of its tiers. That's highlighted by the game's RPG-like weapon upgrade system. Each zombie kill rewards you with a monetary reward which can be spent in the game's oh-so-rare checkpoint areas. There are a good variety of weapons on offer ranging from the standard issue assault rifle, to the devastating flame-thrower. Each weapon has individual components which can be upgraded, but the whole system is undermined by ammunition. Yes, you can increase the amount of ammo available within each gun, but the Assault Rifle is the only one with an infinite amount, making it the most used weapon in the game. It would be fine if the assault rifle wasn't so repetitive to fire, but the fact that you have to smash the R1 trigger everytime you want to offload a bullet is an annoyance. It just not the slick gun-play you'd expect from the developer behind Super Stardust HD. The guns are generally imprecise too. The Assault Rifle has a Resident Evil-style beam attached to it at all times, but other weapons are much more hit and miss without the feature attached.
Perhaps the coolest feature in Dead Nation runs under the game's surface. A consistent online leaderboard system tracks the zombie threat across the world by using some magic calculations based on the population and number of in-game kills. This allows the game to variably track the zombie-threat based on nation and rank you against your countrymen, as well as appreciate the impact you've had in weakening the zombie threat within your country. It's a cool feature, and a welcome alternative to the dry, static leaderboards typically attributed to games of this kind.
Also welcoming is Dead Nation's online and local co-operative mode. Games of this kin are always much more enjoyable when coupled with unpredictability of a human companion, and it's definitely the primary way to experience the game. The online co-op is sadly without voice chat, but at the time of writing Housemarque has pledged a post-relase update that will implement the feature. Nice.
Despite the game's lavish helpings of polish, and genuinely tense gameplay, Dead Nation is too frustrating to be considered an essential purchase. Though a familiar concept, the game's production values help it stand out from the crowd, and, when played in online or local co-op, it's able to really shine. Sadly, the repetitive nature of the genre, and inhibiting design choices make Dead Nation less fun than it should have been.