Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Let’s go back for a moment to January 2011. Zombies had gone so mainstream that a lot of people were already feeling fatigue. Simon Pegg had gotten some red on him back in ‘04, Tallahassee found his Twinkies in ‘09, Alice had fought the Umbrella Corporation 4 times already, and Rick Grimes and his Scooby Gang had just found the CDC in Atlanta. While all of that was happening on TV and in the movies, games were overflowing just as much.
The Left 4 Dead series had already perfected (in my mind at least) first-person co-op zombie survival shooting. Dead Rising was already having us stitch together brooms and chainsaws for epic third person mayhem. Dead Space gave us zombies in space and introduced my favorite move: the curb stomp. Even games like Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption had cashed in on the craze by releasing zombie modes in their games.
Where else could zombies go? What else was left to be seen? Why would anyone care about ANOTHER zombie game?
In February of 2011, Deep Silver released the now-infamous first trailer for the Dead Island game. It was a moving 3-minute clip that got everyone to sit up and take notice. Was this going to be a character-driven epic that focused more on emotional impact than the typical “kill them all” approach taken by everyone else? Was this going to be the video game equivalent of The Walking Dead, which was less about the zombies and more about the characters who happened to be living in a zombie apocalypse?
Sadly, no. The trailer was certainly beautiful and perfectly established the setting. What it didn’t do was convey the type of game it actually was. Gameplay videos emerged and people saw another first-person game where you run around killing zombies, this time on an island resort. While the setting seemed original, the gameplay did not.
When the game released that fall, it seemed like it fell between the cracks a bit. It got decent reviews, but the marketing didn’t sell people on what the game really was. The game did find a following, though, and went on to sell 5 million copies, spawning its own small franchise.
So what type of game is it? While it is a first-person zombie game, it actually has more in common with the Elder Scrolls or Fallout series than Left 4 Dead or Dead Rising. It is a light, first-person RPG that happens to take place in a zombie apocalypse.
At the beginning, you choose one of 4 predefined characters, who represent different archetypes. You have the blunt weapons expert, the slashing weapons expert, the gun expert, and the thrown weapon expert. The game supports online multiplayer for up to four players, each controlling one of the protagonists.
Waking up after a serious bender, your character finds themselves in the middle of the end of the world. Most of the island inhabitants and tourists have died and come back with a taste for flesh. Your character is one of a very small handful of people immune to the disease. While this may seem like a great deal at first, it doesn’t take long to realize the downside. The remaining panicked survivors all around the island see you as their way to safety, survival, sanity…. The island is populated with all types of needy people that are afraid to venture out there, but would much rather send the guy/girl that doesn’t get infected.
The first game is then broken up into three acts as you try to help the few remaining humans band together, acquire shelter and resources, contact the outside world, and try to get off this hellish island. As would expect in a survival scenario like this, there are all kinds of people. Some people want to get your help establishing radio contact with the outside world or gather food and water. Others want you to retrieve personal effects left behind or discover if their loved ones are still out there. And some just want to get drunk and forget everything and will pay handsomely for the privilege.
Dead Island: Riptide picks up right where the original game ends with our plucky band of heroes making their escape from the island, but not getting away from the outbreak entirely. It introduces another character to play, but otherwise generally follows the same beats as its predecessor.
As you explore the tropical island of Banoi, running around completing your fetch quests, you’ll gain experience for killing zombies and eventually other humans who are also fighting to carve out a corner of the new world. Each character has their own skill tree with plenty of abilities to upgrade and customize. Upgrades are generally categorized into combat upgrades, survival skills (things like lockpicking, health, stamina upgrades), and “fury”. Fury is a mode you can enter after killing enough enemies that grant you additional, stronger combat capabilities based on the character you are playing.
While the fetch quests can feel a bit samey and can get tedious, leveling up your character and upgrading weapons keep you moving on to the next section. Weapons need to be maintained; constantly hammering away with a machete will dull the blade and eventually make it worthless if you don’t hit the workshop and keep it in good condition. More exciting, though, are the mods you can find throughout the game to make your weapons even more deadly. You add nails, fire, electricity. You can make blunt weapons heavier, making them much more lethal. The quest for newer and better upgrades is a great diversion; once you find the mod, the hunt is on for some of the rare ingredients to actually build it.
The game also lets you use vehicles to get around the island quicker and mow down zombies wandering in the streets. The controls are a bit wonky and take some getting used to, but it is a nice addition that helps separate it from similar games.
As with many other post-apocalyptic tales, the setting itself is one of the main selling points of the game and definitely sets it apart from most other generic city/suburb-type environments. Even when you leave the beach to head into town, it feels like a resort town and not just another New York City stand-in. It is also a clever way to gloss over open-world staples like re-using chunks of environment. For the first third of Dead Island, every bathroom you enter will look practically identical. It makes sense in context, though….you are exploring a resort village where the different bungalows SHOULD look practically identical (other than the tourist’s crap spread around their room).
Along with the environment, the characters themselves seem to fit logically within the narrative. You’ll run across plenty of air-headed tourists, resort staff, local/native residents, and military personnel. While the voice acting can be hit-or-miss, it is generally above average and I appreciated the mix of accents that help immerse you into the world. It really does feel like a place where a bunch of people from across the world are visiting for vacation and all get trapped together.
I enjoyed the Dead Island series back on the Xbox 360 for all of those reasons. How is the “Definitive Collection”?
Techland definitely spent some time putting this package together. The original games were known to be buggy. In my time with the Definitive Collection, I didn’t run into any bugs (or at least didn’t notice anything that detracted from gameplay). The most frustrating experiences I had on the original were when I would throw weapons (Logan’s specialty) and then never be able to find them again. While it occasionally happened in this version, it wasn’t nearly as often. That was refreshing; it was aggravating to spend time upgrading a weapon, hurling it at a Thug and having it disappear behind a wall, lost forever.
The textures seem to be given an upgrade, but the models themselves do look dated. You meet a lot of characters wearing little more than swimsuits (lots of bikinis in particular). Since the character models are trying to represent human anatomy rather than baggy clothes or accessories, they can look particularly off-putting. The zombies themselves looked better and seemed to have a little more variety than I remember.
In general, though, I thought everything looked pretty good for a game that is 5 years old, with one glaring exception. For whatever reason, I noticed a lot of motion blur toward the beginning of the game. I’m not sure if it died down later in the game, or I just got used to it, but it was definitely distracting early on.
Melee combat feels slightly better; the collision detection seems to be more forgiving, particularly while kicking (which I tend to do a lot).
Otherwise, the games feel largely the same as they did back in 2011 and 2013. The plot is the same, the quests are the same. While they feel a little crisper, the mechanics are all essentially the same. As a fan of the original game, it was nice to go back and run through trying out different characters, but there wasn’t really anything new to see or do.
For people that have never played Dead Island, I think it is worth looking at. It definitely has its own place in the zombie genre and the unique setting helps make it fun to play, even if it is a lot of fetch questing. This is definitely the best way to get the games now; the package also includes a 2d side-scroller, Dead Island: Retro Revenge (which was unavailable at the time this review was written).
For those that played through Dead Island and its standalone expansion before, it really comes down to how they felt about it. If you get the itch to go back to Banoi and don’t mind getting “who do you voodoo” stuck in your head again, then check it out. Otherwise, there isn’t much there (other than the 2D game) that you haven’t already seen and you can safely skip it.
For me, I’ll continue to enjoy this version. I’ll also look forward to other developers carrying forward some of their older games. While it may come across to some as a soulless cash grab, I appreciate being able to re-play games I already enjoyed with a fresh coat of paint. With open-world games like this one, there is also the chance to go back and find all of the things you missed the first time around.Score: 7.75/10