Remember when encountering a single shambling corpse in a videogame was enough to make you run in the opposite direction? That may be a thing of the past. Just as the undead are now a permanent fixture across the spectrum of pop-culture, their presence outside of typical survival horror games has become commonplace. Yet somehow the zombie craze seems to be building to an even greater fever pitch, but if that means we get more games like Dead Nation, that may not be such a bad thing.
Recent top-down zombie shooters like Zombie Apocalypse and Call Of Duty's "Dead Ops" mode have taken a more aggressive stance on killing the dead than the horror games of old, but Finnish developer Housemarque's latest effort may have a leg up on its competition. As indebted to compulsive, arcade classics as it is, Dead Nation actually feels like a real zombie apocalypse.
Sure, there are plenty of undead guts to be spilled, and the game recalls any number of "zombie outbreak" movie moments when the entire screen is assaulted by ravenous undead, barreling towards you, 28 Days Later-style. But it's really the atmosphere that sells the experience. Between breakouts, there are moments of relative quiet, where you might find some stashed cash for weapons upgrades, or maybe even a new piece of armor. Zombies often burst out of closed buildings or through windows, or may even fall en masse from, say, a rooftop onto the street.
The moody atmosphere evoked by Dead Nation's impressive use of light and shadow is a great touch - particularly when shining your flashlight on a zombie's blood-spurting head - though it can sometimes obscure your zoomed-out view of the action. Conversely, when the going gets tough, you're completely overwhelmed, particularly in the later levels, which throw waves of varied beasties, gelatinous exploding zombies, and Tank-esque bruisers at you. Strategies like knowing when to use your dash, melee, or items like attention-drawing grenades are vital to survival.
Dead Nation is an action game first, though, and luckily Housemarque has already cut its teeth in the dual-stick shooter genre with its excellent debut PSN release, Super Stardust HD. Here you can choose from a good assortment of standard and exotic weaponry and secondary arms, from SMGs and shotguns to sawblade shooters and lightning guns, all of which produce appropriately graphic effects on your deceased assailants.
The only sticking point about Dead Nation is that playing co-op is practically a necessity. While the game offers a marginal amount of fun as a single-player experience, the repetitive nature of its design means you probably won't stick around long enough to finish the ten-chapter campaign on your own. Jump on the PlayStation Network or grab a friend for some on-the-couch undead carnage, though, and you'll be all set. Dead Nation may not be perfect - the imbalance towards co-op keeps it from becoming a truly great solo experience - but compared to its numerous competitors, this is one corpse that still has some fight in it.
Next page: Our expert verdict