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Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition Review: Lost in the shadows

Dead Nation Screenshot - Dead Nation Apocalypse Edition

Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition reminds me of some really fun games. It features special infected types and blaring car alarms reminiscent of Left 4 Dead. The dark level design and loot lust, albeit heavily simplified, reminds me of Diablo. The female voice that announces healing item pick-ups through the PS4 controller speaker reminds me of Housemarque’s last PS4 game: Resogun. Yet for all the fun games it reminds me of, the fun in Dead Nation doesn’t add up.

You take control of a survivor, either Jack McReady or Scarlett Blake (or both in co-op play). One of the cooler touches of Dead Nation is that the story instantly adapts to the character you choose, or features both if you’re playing with a friend. The two protagonists are immune to the zombie infection, and after surviving for a while decide to set out into the world and see what they can do. That amounts to a whole lot of zombie killing in a series of dark, urban environments.

Housemarque sticks to what they do well, with twin-stick shooter controls and dozens of enemies onscreen. However some effort was made to give Dead Nation a bit more nuance than Super Stardust and Resogun. Rather than spraying bullets endlessly, Jack and Scarlett’s default weapon is a semi-automatic rifle that can be charged for more powerful shots. In the game’s slower moments you’ll spend more time carefully aiming a single bullet through the heads of a half-dozen zombies rather than spraying bullets everywhere. It’s a satisfying mechanic early on that becomes far less practical as the game progresses.

Dead Nation Apocalypse Edition PS4

A melee attack gives you that extra sense that you’re playing as a human and not a space ship in human clothing. The trouble with the melee attack is that early on, getting close to enemies is too punishing, and later on, there are too many zombies to ever let off the fire trigger. This balance left me wishing for a better approximation of Left 4 Dead’s melee/damage model, where wading into the undead wasn’t an instant death sentence. Unlockable armor allows you to spec toward a melee warrior in theory, but I found myself preferring the extra health and speed bonuses instead.

You can find armor pieces tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the environment, and you’ll definitely want to seek them out. In addition, money from killing enemies and finding hidden crates can be used to buy and upgrade weapons at a shop. You’ll hit a shop checkpoint multiple times in each of the game’s 10 chapters, allowing you to restock ammo and deck out your guns with better firepower and larger ammo clips.

The upgrade system gets the job done, but it never triggered the loot lust I get in a good dungeon crawler. It’s unfortunate too, because the level design has a very similar feel to a Diablo, with dark environments and rewards for going off of the beaten path. It made me wish the game had a traditional colored loot system in place, because I was exploring the dark corners of the world more out of obligation than a thirst for a +2 armor bonus.

Dead Nation Apocalypse Edition PS4

As the game wears on it quickly runs out of fresh ideas. Bigger monsters are copy-pasted straight out of Left 4 Dead, and the challenge is only amplified by vomiting more zombies into smaller areas. While not a bad experience by any stretch, I was glad to see it over by the end of my 3-4 hour run.

As this is billed as the Apocalypse Edition of the game on PS4, I should mention that there are a few additions. The game includes the DLC content from the PS3 version out of the box, giving you access to a round-based arcade mode with a branching path scoring system, and an endless wave mode. Even being burnt out on it I found the new environment and branching upgrades added a nice wrinkle to the game.

Unique to PS4 is the game’s Broadcast+ mode, which allows Twitch or Ustream commenters to post on your stream of the game and vote on whether you should receive help or extra challenge. After Twitch Plays Pokemon blew up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this kind of thing in more games going forward.

Housemarque has crafted a mechanically sound game with solid level design and gameplay that’s a touch more thoughtful than the typical twin-stick shooter. But what damned it for me was the feeling I got anytime I died. It was fun enough to run through and kill zombies, but as soon as I died and lost a few minutes of progress I was furious. It was enjoyable enough to play through a level, but I never wanted to see that level again.

Dead Nation Apocalypse Edition PS4

That doesn’t exactly speak volumes for the game’s replay value, either. Dead Nation offers several difficulty levels, but the way the combat is tuned doesn’t make a challenge very inviting. Sometimes you just get rushed by an unpredictable enemy wave, sometimes a powerful special infected catches you reloading your weapon, and sometimes you just throw a grenade at your own feet. Most twin-stick shooters have a lot more predictability that you can account for, and most zombie games give you a lot more leeway to make mistakes.

This leaves me wishing Dead Nation built more depth into its upgrade system. I wish developing your character in an RPG-style was a bigger part of the game. I wish the levels emphasized that, with more dynamics, exploration, and down-time. I wish it had these things because then I’d want to replay the game on harder difficulties. It makes me wish for a co-op zombie action RPG --  a blend of Left 4 Dead and Diablo with twin-stick shooting. Ultimately, while Dead Nation is a decent game, it’s biggest issue is that it always left me wanting something more.

All in all, this is the best version of Dead Nation you can get. It isn’t much different from the PS3 game though, so if you already played that you’ve seen most of what there is to see. The bigger issue is with the foundation of the game itself. I always found it to be falling short in one way or another. As a zombie twin-stick shooter it gets the job done, but it’s qualities are lessened by its lost potential. It’s lost in the shadows of better games.

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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