Lead flies in all directions, lights the gloom in bright flashes of justice. Bullet casings pile up around my feet like Smaug’s treasure, and the thrum of machine gun fire reverberates in my ears sweeter than a falsetto Christmas choir. I drop a mag and reload. A runner lunges at me, swipes my aviators to the ground. I grimace.
Bad move, bub.
I swipe a grenade from my belt and shove it in his mouth, pull the pin, and duck behind the firebombed hulk of a family sedan. I pick my sunglasses off the ground and pull them over my eyes as I watch his brains explode in goopy, dazzling fireworks.
If this is how you’ve imagined wiping out hordes of the undead in Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition, Housemarque’s spirited, yet ultimately phoned-in reissuing of the 2010 PS3 shooter of similar name, you’d only be half right. And by half right, I mean all wrong. The tedious gameplay isn’t near as cool as I’ve made it sound; in fact, it’s mostly about as fun as watching brains dry.
The original Dead Nation was as much about ambiance as it was gunplay. It was visually appealing back in 2010 with its gorgeous post-pandemic cityscape, its eye-popping explosions, and vivid lighting effects. The same can be said of its reissue, with the most obvious improvements coming to the latter, dynamic lighting.
Now, more than ever, your flashlight is as much your lifeline as your guns. It scans over the fog – or doesn’t – with realistic feel and action; it illuminates and hides zombies with terrifying accuracy. There’s a certain primal dread that arises when a fallible blue cone predicates your line of sight, makes lampposts look as menacing as gigantic, sword-handed zombies. You’ll definitely feel that way wasting valuable sub-machine gun bullets firing at it only to realize you’ve been duped.
However, it’s unfortunate that Housemarque didn’t put as much tender care into Apocalypse Edition’s other graphical departments. The game often runs below 60 fps – which admittedly isn’t a huge deal, but still curious – and the environments and character models often look as if they were pulled from an early PS3 game such as Haze. That’s cause for concern, especially on new hardware. Nonetheless, I will say the start screen’s Dead Nation logo is beautifully rendered on the PS4’s robust hardware; it really is marvelous... (yay).
But even the thing on which the game hangs its hat is ultimately flawed.
Apocalypse Edition’s competent twin-stick shooting could be incendiary, infused with as much fun and panache as Housemarque’s other acclaimed titles, Super Stardust HD and Resogun, but unfortunately it falls flat almost from the start. The tedium of shooting horde after horde of endlessly spawning necrotic flesh becomes even more burdening by an inaccurate aiming mechanic and an over reliance on the single shot rifle, your infinite-ammo starting weapon.
Of course there are other weapons such as the routine sub-machine gun, hackneyed flamethrower, and zombie-kit-staple shotgun. But none of these weapons are of any real use for the deft marksman who can navigate nearly all of Apocalypse Edition’s graveyard streets patiently pulling off headshots, even against some of the tougher mobs. It’s only when tides of zombies threaten to pull you into a bloody sea of your own body parts that you’ll feel the urge to switch to a more powerful weapon. And that’s rare.
However, it’s not all drab in this house of horrors; at times, shooting shines. It’s invigorating mowing down zombie after zombie when you’re perched on the precipice of death. Drawing mindless freaks to alarm blaring cars, then blowing said cars into oblivion with one perfectly placed rifle shot is great fun. Watching the mind-numbingly moronic lugs devour a grenade or two before shambling into a group and sending the whole lot rocketing into the stratosphere is a blast.
Couch (Potato) Co-Op
Dead Nation has always been a game that encouraged cooperative play, whether over the slinky fibers of the interwebs or on the grease splotched cushions of your college couch. That continues here with the bundled Road to Devastation DLC and the new Munchkin style Broadcast+ mode.
Road to Devastation – which should more accurately be called “Road to Masochism,” or something similarly cheeky – is separated into “Arcade” and “Endless” modes. “Endless” is exactly what it sounds like: no continues, no saves, one life. It’s brutally hard and unforgiving. How long you survive the increasingly difficult waves of infinite zombies is ultimately up to your nimble little fingers and the clever hunk of grey matter squished between your eyes.
The more forgiving “Arcade” mode boasts unlimited continues and checkpoints through its six rounds of zombie slaughter. Immediately, it sets itself apart from Apocalypse Edition’s other modes by its choose your own adventure vibe. Presented with three choices at the beginning of your excursion, choosing wisely shapes your own story and destiny.
Don’t give a rip about score? Stroll down the yellow brock road of “Money and Health.” Fancy yourself a modern Rambo? Blaze down the “Guns and Supplies” route. See yourself as none other than the Gordon Gecko of shooters? Prove it by racking up your multiplier in the “Score and Armor” stock market.
The problems begin immediately. There’s no way to know how to vote, who you’re voting for, or what the heck you’re voting to do to the poor sap when you finally figure out what’s going on. In all the hub-ub, you try desperately to decipher what the three indecipherable icons below the player’s avatar mean, but there’s really no way of doing this because there’s no key, no navigable symbol glossary. And get this: you “vote” simply buy typing either #A or #B into the chat box, which I figured to mean Player 1 and Player 2, but I never found out for sure.
I quickly got a headache. More than half my time with the mode found me glaring at the screen in confusion. I never knew exactly what I was voting on or who I was voting for. I’m sure if I spent a couple dozen more minutes with it I may have figured out what the hell the mod symbols meant, but should it really take that long to figure out a system for a game that prides itself on plug and play arcade panache?
In the end, Dead Nation Apocalypse Edition is a feeble port that has a vigorous start, but ultimately falls victim to repetitive gameplay and unintuitive game modes. Housemarque would have been better advised to spend their time making Dead Nation 2 than porting a game no one really asked for in the first place. There's a lot to frightened about with Dead Nation Apocalypse Edition, but very little of it has to do with its shambling undead hordes ...