Any port in a storm, or so the saying goes, and there have been stormy times in the Vita’s past where this would have indeed rung true. Times have changed, however, and almost on a weekly basis the promise of a new release or translation gives Vita fans something to look forward to, as well as the ability to be a bit more discerning with their purchases. Housemarque may have found recent favour with their PS4 launch title Resogun, and Super Stardust Delta on the Vita was divine, but plunging into their back catalogue for this particular release does raise a few eyebrows.
So then, this is the third time that Dead Nation has been released on a PlayStation console, beginning life on the PS3 in 2010 and then more recently hitting the PS4 with the souped up Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition. Bargain fans, you can rejoice and cry because the Vita version of Dead Nation is cross-buy compatible with the PS3 version, meaning your four year old purchase continues to give, but this release doesn’t include the Road of Devastation DLC. Boo, hiss! Even more painful for your wallet would be if you had just bought the PS4 version, as there are no cross-anythings available here, leaving you to double-dip over two current gen platforms.
Enough of cross-buy moaning however; a twin-stick shooter starring you, some upgradable guns and lots of zombies Dead Nation never really decides whether it wants to be an arcade or a survival horrorish game. Attempts to integrate elements of both genres sees limited ammunition (at least in the earlier levels) mixed with huge hordes of shambling dead; hidden enemies hug walls ready to pounce should you come close while each new weapon available for purchase is more outlandish than the last. As you’d expect the story is fairly light, although animated segments are interspersed between each of the ten levels, giving you a basic story premise to explain your character’s ongoing journey through this city of the dead.
Amusingly, a good chunk of the time it takes you to run through the segments of each level won’t necessarily be taken up with zombie slaying, but rather exploration and petty theft. Each and every intact car you see has money hidden in the boot which you’ll need to fund your purchase of weaponry and ammunition, although there’s very much a risk-reward equation to take into account as indiscriminate shooting near cars can easily damage them to the point of explosion – great for when they are surrounded by zombies, not so hot when you’re trying to score some dollar bills. Detailed exploration will yield the location of armour chests, allowing you to customise your character at regular intervals throughout each level. You’ll need to find a good number of these pieces too if you plan to play on the higher difficulties, where each extra stat boost could mean the difference between life and death.
The zombies come in a variety of different flavours, from shambling weakling to a body-armour covered zombie soldier. Stronger standard zombies all strangely seem to wear head protection, protecting them against a one-shot kill from the default rifle and allowing them to act as a bullet sponge against some of the weaker weapons. Larger mutated zombies appear too, each supposedly requiring a slightly different tactic that in practice boils down to a simple ‘stay away, shoot it’. Of them all the Mouth is probably the most fun, the hanging, gaping maw on the front summoning hordes of zombies if you don’t take it out in time.
Not very long into this Vita run however and you’ll be counting issues. The lack of any aim-assist over on the main consoles was a welcome feature, but here the smaller Vita sticks make those longer range shots slightly trickier – not to worry though, as there are weapons that you can just spam fire to get yourself out of anything. The SMG is a particularly good culprit here, often allowing you to run through whole checkpoints mowing everything down. More worrying however would be the factors that make it more difficult for Dead Nation to work on the smaller screen – the sprite size is just about manageable on the smaller screen, but the lighting effects that were so impressive on the TV can make the game almost impossible to play on the Vita. If you’re anywhere vaguely light you’ll be forced to crank the in-game brightness up thus removing most potential tension.
Much, much more annoying than this, however, has to be how the reduced visibility leads to you getting stuck on the environment; on easier difficulties you can pretty much ignore the dash mechanic for almost all of the game, yet rushing through oncoming hordes becomes surprisingly useful once you start playing on Grim and above. Although, this usefulness is tempered by the fact that it’s all too easy to waste the time dashing against a fence you didn’t see, or the very edge of a shopping trolley carelessly strewn in the way, paving your way to inevitable dismemberment.
Even with all of the above in mind, really what lets Dead Nation down most of all is the repeatability of it all. Running along and see a choke point? Expect a weak horde to attack from behind while a stronger one magically appears in front of you. Want to fiddle your way along the weapon selection to the funny spinning blade shooting gun? Don’t bother – against nearly everything it’s far more efficient to set them alight with the flamethrower and finish them off with something closer to hand. The secondary fire controlling explosives is nearly wasted throughout on the normal difficulty, with strategically placed mines or lobbed flares only required for later arenas in higher difficulties. Dead Nation has all of the mechanical pieces of a good game, it just fails to merge them together in an entirely holistic way.
Thankfully the game is more promising played in co-op, the extra fun and slightly tinkered difficulty levels helping to smooth over some of the cracks – effectively doubling your chances of surviving an unseen bioweapon threat or comedy terrain clip. If you’re into your trophies then you’ll be needing to run through the campaign a few times, including on co-op, to tick them all off, giving Dead Nation some form of replayability, although even with individual stages unlocked for freeplay after the first campaign completion it never quite feels like something you want to boot up for a quick session.
Dead Nation isn’t a bad game, it just isn’t a good fit for the Vita. Elements of the game that worked on the PS3 fall flat here, and it feels ever so slightly insulting for the device to receive a lacklustre release after the definitive package was only so recently put together over on the PS4. Housemarque have a strong history, and if Resogun is any indication then they’ll be around with more great games in the future, but if you do have a hankering to visit this undead title from their past then you’d be best to do so on any platform other than the Vita.