Zombie themed games are everywhere these days. I can rattle off a few just off the top of my head: Dead Rising, Dead Island, The Walking Dead, and Resident Evil. The zombie theme is one where games are generally hit or miss, and a lot suffer from being too generic or from using the same tropes over and over.
I’ve played a handful of zombie games in my time, and I have to say, Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition (referred to as simply Dead Nation from here on) is one of the better ones I’ve played; it doesn’t suffer from being generic. It’s definitely in my top 3 zombie games. Dead Nation has a great vibe that I’ve come to know Housemarque for due to their work on Resogun. Both games have great co-op, are replayable for many hours, feature difficulty levels for everyone, utilize tight controls and great music, and provide content in bite-sized segments that are great for short play sessions, or can be strung together for gaming marathons. Housemarque utilizes a wonderful formula that is displayed well in this top-down shooter which serves as the free game of the month for PS4 owners with a PS+ subscription.
(You’ll want to click on the pictures to see more detail. Also, please note that Housemarque developed Dead Nation, but they did not handle the Apocalypse Edition port to the PS4.)
I’ll start off by addressing my only major complaint with Dead Nation so that we can move on to all the positive aspects of the game. The storyline is the only generic portion of the experience. Really, it isn’t compelling. It isn’t exciting, and it doesn’t flesh out characters. The story simply provides a way for the game to progress so that you can have a reason to move from one environment to another. Basically, you fill the shoes of either the male or female character (you choose at the beginning of the game) who is one of the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse.
Just like it always plays out, the character is low on supplies and gets desperate. Eventually, they hear a radio transmission, and eventually they’re led to its origin. This time, the transmission is from a doctor who requires the body of Patient Zero, the first human to be infected by the virus. He hopes that through fusing Patient Zero’s DNA with your DNA, a cure or vaccine will be produced (the doctor assumes you’re immune for staying alive so long). The story is told through cutscenes in between the missions, and the cutscenes play simply like slideshows of 2D drawings with some sound effects and dialogue; they aren’t fully animated. Each cutscene serves the basic purpose of explaining where you were headed next, and the story consists of “go here” and “go there.” There isn’t much to it, and the story is the weakest link in Dead Nation.
Overall, the writing is weak, and the story is not the focal point of the game. The game is much more action oriented, and its values do not lie in the realm of character development. Mainly, we’re here to shoot zombies, and that’s what Dead Nation does well. I will say that the final cutscene after the last mission contains a bit of a plot twist. I kind of saw it coming, but it was at least an attempt to spice up the story.
The missions are, as I mentioned earlier, bite-sized. They range from 15 to 45 minutes long, with the majority falling somewhere in the middle. Each one contains multiple checkpoints that segment the level into a few sections. At each checkpoint, there is a weapons shop and your health regenerates back to its maximum capacity. The art design is very good, and most of the levels are in different locales. The first 3 or 4 levels focus on leaving the city, and the other 6 or 7 take you several different places such as a trainyard and a harbor.
Dead Nation takes the form of a top-down shooter; your view of the world is from a bird’s eye view. The game’s pace lends itself well to this viewpoint, and I never found myself wishing that the game was in first or third person. The zoomed out view of the world allows me to see where hordes of zombies are coming from, and where points of interest are located. My only gripe with the camera is that because it’s zoomed out, it is sometimes hard to see zombies that attack from behind. Dead Nation utilizes a flashlight on the end of your weapons as a primary source of light; if there are street lights, they illuminate the area, but if you’re in a dark place, zombies can come up from behind and slash away without any prior warning. It’s annoying at times because one stray zombie way escape the horde and come at you as you’re turning your back on it. Luckily, I was always able to swing around and kill the zombie before he or she inflicted too much damage.
Ah yes, he or she. Dead Nation embraces gender equality in the undead. Some zombies are male, and some are female. More importantly, they have occupations… well, they did before they died. It is refreshing to see zombies with “personalities” since many zombie games just feature them wearing torn, bloody, random clothing. Instead, these choices make sense. For example, if I walk past a delivery truck, zombies in brown jumpsuits might pop out and beat me with boxes since they were UPS drivers in life. Gangster zombies come at me with guns; they aren’t very accurate, but it is still a nice touch. Most notably, some zombies will emerge from fire trucks wearing fireman’s gear and wielding fire axes. Whereas all the other zombies are highly flammable, these zombies can walk through walls of flames, which helps them enter areas where you would otherwise be safe from zombies. Furthermore, your flamethrower and Molotov cocktails become useless.
In any case, it’s nice to see some variation in the zombie’s character models, and there are actually a lot of different zombie models in Dead Nation. On top of that, there are other classes of zombies aside from the roaming cannon fodder that travel in the stereotypical hordes (but don’t get me wrong, there are tons of those too). The Mouth zombie lets out a wail that calls other zombies to your location unless you kill it quickly. The Jumper will leap toward you and attempt a sort of Hulk Smash on your head. Cutters slice you with their giant cleaver hands, and so on.
These specialist zombies create a decent level of strategy in Dead Nation that I should have expected, knowing Housemarque developed it. Just like in Resogun, Dead Nation seems simple enough, but upon closer inspection, it requires strategy and planning. Don’t worry, there are a half dozen difficulty modes, so if strategy isn’t for you, there are easier options. I played on the second of the many difficulties, and I had my hands full at times (though others were quite easy). I can’t imagine what the toughest difficulties are like! In any case, the specialist zombies did provide the layer of strategy that I am thankful for; it makes Dead Nation something more than a mindless killing frenzy.
For example, if a Mouth and a Jumper are in the same area, which do you kill first? The Mouth because he can bring a horde of zombies to your location, or the Jumper because he can inflict sizable damage? How do you take the time to eliminate the extremely deadly Cutter if there’s a huge train of roamers behind you? Situations like that create organic, original moments that require quick thinking and wise use of resources.
Speaking of resources, Dead Nation requires a smart use of your money, and it provides for plenty of weapon customization in the upgrading zone. Money is collected by opening abandoned car trunks, killing zombies, and finding some scattered chests. At the weapon shops in the checkpoints, you can buy or upgrade items. The weapons include the rifle which has unlimited ammo, a SMG, a shotgun, a flamethrower, and more. For the first three weapons, you can upgrade the damage per bullet, the rate of fire, the maximum mag capacity, your inventory’s maximum ammo capacity, and more. I decided to upgrade the rifle primarily since I couldn’t run out of ammo. With the SMG and shotgun (which were my other primary weapons) I often had to choose between upgrade X or upgrade Y. No matter what I chose, each upgrade provided a noticeable improvement; it wasn’t like I was just upping the stats by a hair here or there. If I upgraded the rate of fire, I could see and feel the difference. By even enlarging my shotgun’s mag by one, I could inflict more damage by needing to reload just a little less often. Even the equipment like grenades, mines, and Molotovs can be upgraded with increases to the blast radius or the maximum inventory, to name a couple.
Dead Nation never makes you feel like you’ll need one weapon over another, and all have their pros and cons. All seems pretty balanced, even the fancy ones like the flamethrower. For example, it can light lots of zombies on fire and weaken them, but you also run the risk of accidentally lighting yourself on fire and losing health, which is a lot easier than you’d think. The shotgun is great at close range, but the reload time is a huge downfall. The SMG is better for distances, but you’ll find yourself running out of ammo quickly, and when the zombies close in, it becomes very inadequate.
In Dead Nation, the controls are tight and responsive, and the button mappings are fully customizable! This is something I was probably too excited for, but as a console player, I absolutely hate the fact that we only get a few default mappings to choose from in most games. If I want to shoot using the trigger, by gosh, let me do it. If I want to shoot by spamming the circle button, let me do it; it’s my controller and my game! Thank goodness that Dead Nation allows this. Alright, rant over.
There are a lot of controls to keep in mind, but you adapt pretty quickly. Default, moving is mapped to the left stick, while aiming and changing direction are mapped to the right stick. The left and right arrows on the D-pad select your weapon, and the up and down arrows are used to select your equipment. Sprinting is mapped to the left trigger, throwing equipment is on the left bumper, firing your weapon is on the right bumper, and melee/interact is on the right trigger. The face buttons are used like hotkeys; you can map a certain weapon or piece of equipment to them for easier access. I didn’t utilize this feature since I didn’t buy all the items, but I can definitely see how it would be handy.
The only issue I had (which is probably tied to my lack of using the hotkeys) was that in the heat of the moment, I would forget where certain items were in my inventory, or I wouldn’t utilize the equipment I had at my disposal. Because you can carry so many items, it can be a tad overwhelming; there are so many options! But hey, I’m not really complaining. I would rather have more options than fewer, so I will gladly deal with this.
The HUD is decent; not my favorite, but it does the job. Bars on the top left of the screen show your stamina and health, and a loot counter is there too. In the top center is a tally for your points and multiplier. The bottom left has a couple sliding menus for your weapons and equipment. My only issue with the HUD is that the icons for the weapons are a bit large, but it’s hardly anything worth mentioning or complaining about.
Graphically, Dead Nation does its job well. It isn’t a game of detail due to the camera’s perspective, but the lighting and shadowing are great. I love the effect that the flashlight gives, and it makes the game a bit more suspenseful. Sometimes fog rolls in to obscure a view, and it looks up to par as well. There’s nothing to gripe about graphically concerning this game; it meets my next-gen (now current-gen) standards.
As far as the sound effects are concerned, there really isn’t much to comment on. The weapon sounds are pretty standard fare. The zombies types all have a unique sound, but none really stand out in my mind like the deep, commanding voices of an Elite from Halo or the terrifying sound of a Clicker from The Last Of Us. As far as the soundtrack is concerned, it comes in at just the right times and manages to set the mood well, just like the Resogun soundtrack does.
Next, to mention the co-op. Co-op is definitely a focal point of Dead Nation, and it creates a whole new experience. First of all, it seems like loot is shared in co-op; this makes every upgrade more valuable since you can only really upgrade half as often as when you play solo. If your teammate dies, you have to make it to the checkpoint on your own before they respawn. This is tough to do since Dead Nation throws more zombies at you in co-op mode than it does in solo. If your co-op partner isn’t as good as you are at Dead Nation, you will find yourself at a disadvantage as opposed to playing it alone. Even if it gets harder with a buddy, it is more fun, so it makes up for itself. There is local co-op, but there’s also online co-op as well.
A couple other features are tossed into Dead Nation as well. An endless mode is sort of like horde mode where they come in waves. It’s more strategic than most similar modes, however, because each level will give you the opportunity to upgrade a weapon or armor or maybe purchase new items. The way it plays out, you have to choose your new perk or item wisely every level, otherwise you’ll end up dead in the next wave. I love that layer of strategy. You can also challenge your friends to beat your high score in an individual campaign mission, and there is an Arcade mode that I have yet to try out, but it’s similar to Endless mode. It is worth mentioning that the Arcade and Endless modes are only available on the PS3 version through DLC, and the challenge feature is exclusive to the PS4 version of Dead Nation, hence the suffix: “Apocalypse Edition.”
In the end, Dead Nation offers plenty of replayability. Whether you want to challenge a friend, play with a friend, or try conquering the game on tougher difficulties, there are many reasons to come back to the adventure. I rate Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition an 8.5 out of 10. It isn’t a perfect game; it suffers from a non-compelling story, and cheap shots from unseen zombies can be annoying. With that said, it is definitely a game that shouldn’t be missed by PS4 owners, and it is one that I will continue to gravitate to. Dead Nation creates a fun and hectic atmosphere and is nearly everything I hoped for in an amazing zombie survival game.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed. Leave a like if you have found this review helpful, and maybe comment below with what you like or dislike about Dead Nation.