Housemarque's long-awaited follow-up to Super Stardust HD is exhausting, in more ways than one. The body count should be a clue: Dead Nation is suffocatingly dense, truly embodying the term "sensory overload." Zombies will swarm you by the hundreds, and once you've disposed of them -- with bullets, explosives, fire and a giant projectile blade-thing -- their ever-present remains ... remain, serving to remind of the havoc you've wreaked.
There's some spectacular tech powering the experience: atmospheric lighting, uncomfortably realistic audio and a subtle attention to detail that's difficult to encapsulate. But, I doubt you'll stop to soak it all in. In fact, you'll be lucky if you can manage a mumbled "wow," as you try to catch your breath after each level.
What takes Dead Nation from a "good" experience to a "great" one is that it constantly keeps you on your toes, surprising you in all sorts of dramatic ways with a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. Housemarque constantly plays with perspective. It uses light as a blinding enemy in one level and fire in another. The environment is an indiscriminate weapon against zombies and you: A deathly conveyor belt in the penultimate level still has me spooked.
Dead Nation is so densely packed, that the exhaustion it causes is totally understandable. The experience can be compared to eating a big meal, or getting a good workout: you'll enjoy it, but you might not want to come back for more right away. I found myself taking a break after every one or two levels when my nerves became too frayed to continue. This is a challenging game, and each level can take an hour (or more) on your first attempt. As with Left 4 Dead, starting a game means you and a friend are agreeing to a rather lengthy time commitment.
You'll be lucky if you can manage a mumbled "wow," as you try to catch your breath after each level.
And you will want to play with a friend. Whether you choose online or local co-op, you'll be able to come up with strategies that would be impossible alone. In one level, for example, you'll want one player to distract the zombie masses, as the other works on destroying a wall impeding your progress. One player can lay down suppressing fire, while the other uses charge shots to finish the undead. A solo playthrough offers only a small glimpse of Dead Nation's full potential.
If you read my preview, you know that I first approached Dead Nation with a lot of skepticism. Really, another zombie game? But if you have a willing friend, and don't have a history of heart disease, this is a journey worth taking.
This review is based on final code of Dead Nation provided by Sony.