The developers of Super Stardust HD have really outdone themselves and have brought exclusively to the PSN, what could be the greatest top-down zombie shooter game of all-time.  Dead Nation takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a virus has all but obliterated the human-race, and it’s your job to find the cure.   The undead have begun rising from their graves, and aim to take out the rest of the survivors.

The controls have little to complain about, as everything feels finely tuned and responds quickly and smoothly.  The game has you controlling one of two available characters in twin-stick shooter style play, with you moving with the left analog stick, and aiming your weapon with the other.  The rest of the default controls are simple enough to regard the game as pick-up-and-play at just about any time.   You’ve got the standard shoot, throw, melee, reload, and rush buttons, as well as using the d-paid to switch items and weapons.  What’s nice is if you want to adjust any of controls, the game options allow for just about any combination of button mappings that will suit any play style.  I changed around the reload and melee attack buttons assignments, making the experience that much more enjoyable.  If you put down the game for a while and come back to it, the loading screens show you a full layout of your current control settings for a quick refresher.

In game, using a combination of the environment, like exploding cars or grenades, with your weapon of choice can make a huge difference when facing waves of zombies of various sizes. Once you’ve purchased a weapon in the shop, you’re able to carry it along with all of the other weapons you unlocked and have ammo for.  So, realism is no factor here with regards to the ability to carry such a huge assortment of weapons, and with more of an arcade feel, the game keeps a steady flow of action and tense moments.

The AI in the game reacts to everything you do.  As you explore the path the game takes you on for each level, sometimes you’ll notice zombies just wondering around.  If you take it upon yourself to get a few shots in before an attack, the surrounding zombies will notice and begin to head in your direction.  You’ll even see zombies on opposite sides of fences and gates that will do their best to still attack you, even if unsuccessful.  This can really make for some tense moments, as in certain areas with very little light, you may not notice the approaching enemies until they attack you from a dark area.

What sets this game apart from other top-down zombie shooters as well as other top-down shooters in general, is just how deep the game really is.  The main point of each level is to reach a certain destination or objective, and you would think you could just blow through a few enemies and move forward, at first glance.  Once you jump in the game, you realize you can’t leave certain areas until you clear out the zombies and can safely close off the path behind you.  With enough strategically placed checkpoints to help even the most novice of players, you can complete each level, section by section, and upgrade / refill your inventory to better prepare yourself for what lies ahead.   Throw in a simplified version of a loot grab element and you’ll explore hidden and out of the way areas trying to increase your stats and bank.  Using this collected loot, you’re able to upgrade and purchase new weapons and increased attributes as well as refilling your ammo for your new toys.  Unfortunately, besides playing through on the various difficulty settings, once you’ve completed a play-through there may be little else for those not interested in a loot grab or top-down shooter game like this.

Beyond the core game, your results are being tracked by country in the worldwide leaderboard race for complete zombie annihilation.  If you watch the leaderboards, you’ll see the number of zombies killed increases in real-time as other players continue to fight for their own team.  Of course, the multiplayer allows for local co-op or online play with an invited friend, with the ability for both available characters to take on the zombies with a team effort.  On top of that, hitting enough zombies and not taking damage increases your, sometimes insanely large, score multiplier for a leaderboard challenge on top of the frantic gameplay.

The graphics set an unnerving atmosphere with things like fog that will drive you nuts, especially in low light areas.  You might feel a sense of relief that a level or checkpoint is within reach, until you hit a button that shuts off the main lights and signals an ambush focused on your demise.  The audio will also leave you checking all directions with the subtle sounds that could be an enemy, while not over-exaggerating the smaller sounds like kicking loose objects around the area.

Overall, I’m confident that this game has successfully joined the ranks of the top PSN games available for the platform.  While multiplayer and multiple play-throughs may not be appealing to a more casual audience, the single player and co-op campaign won’t bore shooter junkies and can provide quite a bit of fun.  If this game marks the end of the zombie frenzy that has been sweeping this console generation, I would say there isn’t a better game out there.

Title : Dead Nation
Format : PSN
Developer : Housemarque Games
Publisher : Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date : 11/30/10

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*Sony Computer Entertainment provided with a promo code for a review copy.