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MeekinOnMovies on...Dead Ahead

Dead Ahead
Publisher: Chillingo
Developer: Mobirate Games
Genre: Side-scrolling Vehicular Zombie Homicide Simulator
Platform: Mobile
 Cost: Free

Every now and then, when cruising the app store, pawing my way through game after game, I like to take survey of just how great ‘gamers’ really have it. At literally any moment of any day, I can hop on my iOS device and for a little less than the price of a Starbucks coffee, find a gaming experience tailored to whatever whim I want to indulge. Strategy, RPG, CCG, Platformer, Shooter, MMO, Flight Sim, Puzzle - not to mention all the subgenres and hybrids. Simply put, if you ask me, we are in the golden age of gaming accessibility. But ease of accessibility breeds entitlement, and with nearly limitless options, it’s difficult for one title to stand out. So it’s with much delight, and a dopey smile on my face, that I’ve chosen to describe
Dead Ahead, the new side-scrolling vehicular zombie homicide simulator, with one word (and a punctuation mark): Wow!

If you combined the animation of Invader Zim, The gameplay of the NES Classic Excite Bike, a bit of homage to Akira and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, plus some classic side-scrolling beat em’ up tropes, and you have the core of Dead Ahead.

Following a fairly haunting cut-scene that plays on start-up, you’re presented with a motorcycle, a weapon, and an endless stretch of road. But Easy Rider this ain’t. That endless road is filled with debris, broken down cars, trucks, buses, potholes, the occasional jump, and, oh yeah, hundreds of sortadorable zombies eager to nom-nom on your face parts. 

And I mean sortadorable. Dead Ahead’s anime-influenced art style is an absolute treat, packed chock-full of numerous little details that add up into something closely resembling a soul. From the way your character’s shirt flaps in the wind, to the hilarious way in which the hordes of undead will waddle-run after you, flailing their arms in front of them like a toddler eagerly reaching for a bottle, to how each of the different kinds of zombies: Cops, nurses, bikers, construction workers, have different little animated nuances - it’s easy to get distracted admiring the game’s ability to mix the endearing and the disgusting with ease.

Which can be problematic since the actual game part of Dead Ahead is excellent in it’s own right. It’s a capital V, capital G, Video Game that would have been right at home in a 1990’s arcade cabinet, perfectly content to nom-nom-nom on quarter after quarter like the zombies on screen. The mechanics are tight, with your main controls being the ability to move vertically on a 2D plane by moving your finger up and down on the right hand side of your iOS device, and a shoot and boost button on the left. You’ll use these buttons quite frantically, shooting the zombies that come up behind you, then hammering the zoom button to plow through zombies ahead of you as your boomstick reloads, all the while navigating around road obstructions across 5 seemingly endless levels.   

These three elements: shooting zombies, plowing through them, and avoiding roadblocks would probably make for a decent free-to-play game, something to be played for twenty minutes and forgotten. But the beauty of Dead Ahead is in the way it combines these perfectly serviceable elements into an addicting sort of poetry, thanks in part to an objective system that ties directly into how you progress through the game. Being challenged to make it 1500 meters without using boost, or score 20 kills with a pistol before dying in order to go up a level extends the replay value exponentially. When you toss in boss zombies, a hefty selection of weapons, and a few upgradable bikes to try out, it’s easy to drink Dead Ahead’s Kool-Aid.

But, surely there must be a catch. Is this Kool-aid loaded with the empty calories of pay-to-win carbs and IAP sugary-substitute nonsense? No. It seems developer Mobirate has gone the noble route with Dead Ahead, literally providing the entire game free of charge, and hoping that the gaming community will choose to buy something as a show of support. I’ve put about five hours into Dead Ahead, and outside of a few advertisements, I’ve advanced in the game completely unabated. The game’s only currency is coins, and you’ll earn plenty just from playing - though you can buy some with real cash-money if you’d like. Similarly, a wicked cool looking Akira style bike, along with the two most powerful weapons in the game (who are actually additional riders on your bike), are only available via in-app purchase - which is perfectly fine considering the karma Dead Ahead earns in every other facet of the game. A guy’s gotta make a living, right?  

Ultimately, Dead Ahead scratches an increasingly elusive itch that arcadeish classics like NARC, Mega Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Battletoads, and X-men used to pinpoint like the fingernails of a goddess. The addicting, I know I can do better nature of the difficulty, the power-ups, the style, and a certain simplicity of design that did a few things excellently, instead of many different things decently - created some truly exquisite games. But, for better or worse, gaming has evolved in complexity. Simple pinpoint back-scratches became antiquated in favor of more elaborate, but ultimately less satisfying massages. Even the re-releases of those arcade classics lost something in the translation, so it’s kinda of profound that Dead Ahead nails it so flawlessly. I’m tempted to use a cliche about how Dead Ahead is greater than the sum of its parts, but in truth, the parts are excellent on their own, and the fact they fit together so well is gravy.

Five Stars (out of five)

(Writers note: I attempted to post this review on a popular IOS review outlet that rhymes with Smuch Marcade, and they informed me my opinion was wrong. I ultimately quit that paid writing gig because they told me I liked the game too much. Since the game is free, It'd be nice to see if I'm the only person on the planet who thinks this game is awesome) 


  1. That's funny, I downloaded this when it came out, played it for 10 minutes, then lost all interest.

    Tried it again yesterday, and I just can't get into the gameplay. I don't like the controls and I found it to be just endless grinding. Play, die, get money, buy something, repeat, unlock new level, repeat, etc. There's no disincentive to dying and that hurts it for me. Doesn't help that it's a zombie runner game and there's tons of zombie games and tons of runner games.

    That being said, it's good to see a free game that's actually playable without spending money. I'd give it a 2 1/2 to 3.

  2. Well that's what arcade games are, play, see how far you can get, die, repeat, You mean to tell me the animation, audio, and weapon selection didn't appeal to you at all?

    And genre saturation is no reason to disregard a game in a crowded genre. That's like saying there's too many steaks, so this awesome steak I'm having sucks because there are so many other steaks.

  3. But that's exactly what happens. If I buy a club pack of steaks and have steaks every night from dinner, by the end of the week I'd probably rather eat a peanut butter sandwich for dinner even if on some abstract level it's a lot worse than the steak. At the very least I'd need to do something to the steak (add some sauce, make it into a salad or fajitas) to make it interesting again.

    To use a gaming example, back on the SNES there were scores of great baseball games. A gamer could easily decide to pass on Ken Griffey's Baseball in favour of playing Super Baseball 2020 and they wouldn't lose that much. In recent consoles there's many fewer baseball games, so it's easier for something like MLB Power Pros to stand out even if it had a lot of flaws.

    As for the first part, this is different from classic arcade games because it's about grinding, not advancing through levels without losing lives. In a classic arcade game (Battletoads, X-Men, etc) if you die bad things happened, like having to insert a quarter, losing your powerups, having to start the level (or game) over, or just not reaching the end of the level / game. But with this, nothing bad really happens because you have infinite lives, the levels never end, and you keep all your coins. In Battletoads, if you didn't have the skills to beat a level, you couldn't beat it until you improved or memorized the level's layout. Here if you don't have the skills, you can just replay it without any consequences until you can afford a better gun or bike that lets you get further. And even if you do get further, there's no real end to the level, just a new location to unlock if you finish the challenges. It's a minor difference but it's important to me because it takes the intensity out of the gameplay.

    The animation's good, the audio I turned off in favour of my iPod's music, and the weapon selection didn't really do anything for me. It's not a bad game or anything, it's just not that interesting to me.


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