Having played the first third of the game in two-player co-op, however, I can admit to being wrong.
Dead Nation is exactly what it appears to be: a top-down shooter with zombies. But video and screenshots don't capture the subtleties that propel this game from generic to something outstanding. For one, the audio design is eerily detailed. It's not just how good the sounds are, but how many of them there are: every empty can, piece of paper, leaf and corpse you walk over produces a sound. Coupled with an exhilarating soundtrack that picks up right when it needs to, the sounds effects are completely immersive. Dead Nation deserves to be played in surround sound.
The visuals are also terrific. I never thought that an arcade shooter would be capable of scaring me, but Housemarque's attention to detail creates a truly terrifying experience. Dead Nation pulls this off with lighting. Instead of scaring you with darkness, the scariest moments are when you're almost able to see what you're aiming at. The way light reflects off objects, and diffuses into the air and fog, further sucks you into the game. Brightness, in many ways, is something to be feared. In certain areas, the overwhelming brightness can blind you, taking away your ability to see your laser sights. When a hundred zombies are rampaging down a bridge, you'll want to see what you're firing at -- trust me.
Yes, I was scared by a top-down shooter.
It's easy to gush over the technical achievements of Dead Nation. Like Stardust before it, the game really pushes the PS3 technology. However, it's the gameplay that ultimately makes the experience so worthwhile. Even aiming with the default rifle is fun: holding down the fire button gives you an aimed shot that can go through zombies for multiple headshots. But once you get access to the customization options, that's when the game really opens up.
Scattered through the stages are checkpoints stationed with a weapon shop. Here, you can buy the supremely useful flares. The light attracts the zombies, as they swarm around the glow. For as long as the flare is active, the zombies are sitting ducks, making for an easy mass target to grenade or mow down with your weapon of choice: shotgun, machine gun, flamethrower, and so on. Different weapons are best suited for certain situations. The molotov cocktail, for example, isn't particularly deadly or effective in open areas, but when you use it on a narrow passage (like a bridge), you'll discover how devastating it can be after counting up all the charred remains on the ground.
While I'm enamored of Dead Nation so far, I do worry that it could become repetitive. While each of the early levels I played introduced new weapons, new enemies and new strategies, the freshness could wane across the game's ten levels -- about eight hours of zombie killing, folks.
Of course, if those hours are filled with classic moments like this one, then Dead Nation will be special: I'm walking into an alley, and I tell my co-op partner to stay behind. I walk towards a chest, and as I step closer, a pile of dead bodies falls from above. Weird, I think. I walk over the bodies, approach the chest and get my loot. As I walk back towards my partner, the bodies immediately rise, lunging at me. Ahh!
Yes, I was scared by a top-down shooter. (And that wasn't the only time.) If Housemarque can pack more of these moments into the full campaign, it has a winner on its hands.