Dead Nation was announced for the PlayStation Vita at E3 last year, and then was promptly forgotten about. A port for the PlayStation 4 came and went, offering the ultimate version of the zombie-filled twin stick shooter for fans who wanted better graphics and all of the DLC. Finally, almost as an afterthought, Housemarque’s lurch-fest is finally set to become available on the go – but is it worth reanimating its already well-used corpse for a third time?
The most immediately annoying thing about this handheld version is that it’s a PlayStation 3 port. While the next-gen iteration boasted minor improvements and included all of the original’s post-release content, this Vita version does not. In fact, there’s already a highlighted option on the main menu for the distinct purpose of buying the Road of Devastation pack. It supports the cross-buy scheme, but only with the PS3 outing, so those who downloaded the PS4’s Apocalypse Edition in March will have to shell out again for the portable release.
Housemarque’s biggest efforts appear to have been in making Dead Nation as smooth as possible on the Vita, and its work has definitely paid off. The lighting is tense and atmospheric, but the darker areas are still unfairly opaque. Step out from under a streetlight and you won’t be able to see enemy zombies until they’re cleaning you out of their teeth. This is made more annoying by the fact that this is literally the same game as the PS3 version, which doesn’t really work on a screen half the size of an envelope. It looks lovely, yes, but trying to aim at a single enemy out of thirty on the screen is a real hassle. On harder difficulties, this proves a whole new source of frustration.
Dead Nation always suffered from aiming problems, anyway, and they still remain. Narrow alleys and dozens of on-screen enemies don’t really mix, especially when your main weapon, even when levelled up, leaves a lot to be desired. Extra weapons are there to use, but switching between them on the fly isn’t especially easy, and you’ll likely find yourself favouring one or two. There’s no aim assist either, so you’ll sometimes find yourself missing shots because your thumb moved slightly when you hit the trigger button. This doesn’t feel unfair, but not very fun either.
The other issue is that Dead Nation doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It presents itself as a survival horror almost – with toy weapons that do next to no damage and constant darkness – but then it’ll send a huge crowd of killers towards you. They’ll be able to slice you into pieces or will leap twenty feet into the air before crashing down onto you like some demented plumber. All this while you’re still trying to work out exactly which way you’re facing and how you’ve managed to get stuck on an abandoned car.
That’s something that’ll happen quite often – after all, what famous zombie killer hasn’t run forward into a road sign for 30 seconds straight? This can be used to your advantage, though, as those pesky brain eaters are just as likely to find themselves glued to the environment. That it happens to you is only really a problem this time around because, again, the size of the Vita’s screen means that you can’t always immediately see why you’ve stopped, or why you’re not able to get around a corner as quickly as you ought to. When you’ve got a bunch of hungry rotting firemen biting at your feet, getting stuck on a traffic cone is a big deal.
When you’re not swearing in frustration, you’ll likely be quite enjoying yourself. On top of a bevy of collectible weapons and a ton of cars to loot for cash, there’s also armour to find and secret areas to sniff out. These aren’t generally easy to discover – especially seeing as many are hidden behind some incredibly poorly thought out camera angles that mean that you won’t see a threat until your health bar starts dropping. Still, newcomers will be surprised by how much there is to see, and how much work you’ll need to put in if you fancy getting a Platinum Trophy.
On top of collectibles, you can level up your weapons. Finding cash and upgrading your arsenal helps to alleviate difficulty spikes. These can be a little bit annoying, because checkpoints are few and far between. If you die right at the end of a level, you’ll likely need to do a huge chunk of that stage again, including any collecting that you might have done. This makes the frustrating sections incredibly hard to get through as you battle not only hordes of zombies but your own will to keep playing.
There are also several difficulty levels, a few of which need to be unlocked. Easy and Medium won’t cause too much issue, but the higher that you go and the more that you play, the harder that it becomes. It gets very difficult, partly because Housemarque decided not to implement anything that helps you to aim your shots, and partly because, well, fighting a mob of zombies should be tough. The challenge doesn't always feel especially fair, but getting through a segment will still feel rewarding.
Once you’re done with a level, your score will be uploaded onto the leaderboards and you’ll be able to check your country’s ranking. This is one of those really cool things that you’ll look at once or twice and then never bother with again. The idea is that you get to see how you and the people in your country are doing in their fight against the infection. You can see how many zombies are being killed in real time, and more. It’s hardly social innovation at its finest, but it’s nice to check occasionally, especially if you make up a significant chunk of the kills.
Despite all of its issues, Dead Nation isn’t a bad game. There are some really nice ideas here, but they’ve been done over and over since the title’s original PS3 release in 2010. The Vita version just exacerbates old problems, and the fact that you can pick up an edition on the PS4 with all of the bells and whistles on top makes this portable outing feel a little bit tired.