Everyone remembers that first cinematic trailer for Dead Island, with the family desperately trying to get away from a zombie attack. It was touching, heartrending, and not representative of the final product at all. The game we actually got was somewhat schizophrenic; while the narrative was incredibly dour in tone, in keeping with the aforementioned trailer, the actual moment-to-moment gameplay was incredibly silly. Luckily, you could ignore the narrative for the best part and just enjoy the thrills of (re)murdering the undead en masse with an electrified sword constructed by duct taping a car battery to a katana.
Despite having a certain quirky charm, both Dead Island and Riptide suffered from numerous technical hitches on consoles (though most were patched out eventually), which ruined the fun at times. These problems seem to be firmly in the past now as Deep Silver bring us the Dead Island: Definitive Collection, a new remaster of both Dead Island and Dead Island: Riptide, complete with all the DLC plus a fun bonus game: Retro Revenge. While the gameplay is basically identical to the originals, the graphical spit and polish is substantial, as both games have been re-rendered in the Dying Light engine. Meanwhile, Retro Revenge is a surprisingly enjoyable game in its own right.
The trouble all starts in Dead Island on the tropical island of Banoi, a sun-kissed holiday resort caught in the midst of a zombie outbreak. It’s up to you and your band of survivors to brave the hordes of tanned, braindead nightmare fuel (Much like a week in Benidorm) and escape the island. For a tropical island, Banoi is surprisingly varied, taking in sandy beaches, dense jungles, and dingy sewer systems. On your travels, you’ll also happen across other survivors in need of aid that you can choose to help along the way. Most give you new missions by default.
Players take on the role of one of four visitors to Banoi, each specializing in using a certain kind of weapon and fulfilling a certain role in the game’s four-player multiplayer; Sam is an expert in blunt weapons such as bats and paddles and is basically the tank of the group, while Xian Mei uses knives and swords to great advantage, taking out enemies with a flurry of strikes thanks to her increased stamina gauge. Logan favors throwing weapons and is a jack of all trades kind of character and finally, Purna specializes in firearms (which are pretty hard to find at first) and acts as support. Riptide (which carries on directly where the first game leaves off) adds a fifth playable character, John, whose specialty is hand to hand combat and knuckledusters.
The basic gameplay of both Dead Island and Dead Island: Riptide remains unchanged from the original release, with your group taking on hordes of zombies in frantic, first-person, melee-focused combat (there are guns but they don’t appear in any great numbers until at least halfway through both games and ammo is usually in short supply). The range of items you can use to dispatch the undead is quite impressive, with all manner of items being obtainable, from paddles and planks to machetes and sledgehammers. Your faithful zombie clobbering stick also needs to be periodically repaired to keep it from breaking, though this requires money instead of materials at one of the games many workbenches, which can also be used to construct all manner of wacky weapons from the odds and sods you find on your travels.
Though combat can feel a little overwhelming at times (and combat controls don’t allow you to attack multiple enemies at once with any degree of accuracy), successfully plowing through a group of zombies also feels incredibly rewarding. Managing to slice a zombie’s head clean off with a machete as it comes barreling towards you and watching it fall at your feet never fails to make you feel just a little bit badass. Killing zombies and completing quests rewards you with XP, which allows you to put points into your skill tree every time you level up. While these mostly just convey additional buffs to your weapons, occasionally you’ll be able to unlock a new attack which significantly increases your zombie killing prowess.
The highlight of the game, however, is the ability to upgrade and modify your weapons using blueprints found dotted around the islands. From genre staples like adding nails to a baseball bat, to crafting an electrified shovel or even your own set of wolverine-style claws is a ton of fun, and the resulting carnage you create with your newfound zombie-whacker never fails to impress, making the scramble for parts all the more satisfying in the end.
The undead hordes follow the standard zombie game formula. Masses of the gormless brain-munchers lurch around the environment, charging at you if they realize you’re there. Occasionally you’ll stumble across a tank, a larger zombie that can knock you for six. Later, these give way to other types that explode if you get too close, or run you down like a charging Rhino. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself facing off with other survivors, and these sections feel a lot more like a traditional shooter. Enemy and ally AI is fairly intelligent, with most zombies and humans giving chase for quite some time and even occasionally attempting to flank you, while friendly AI actually attempts to take out foes and hold their own in a fight, rather than just staring at the their shoes and waiting for you to do something about it.
The improvements provided by porting both Dead Island and Riptide to Techland’s new engine that they used for Dying Light make both games look substantially better than their original console ports. The new global lighting system, in particular, makes the games’ locale pop like never before. The improved textures give the island a sense of vibrancy that it was lacking before, while the greatly improved shadows make the game’s darker areas feel all that more tense and atmospheric. The models used for the horde also look a little more unnerving thanks to the improved texture quality, but the living seem not to have fared quite so well. They look touched up, sure, but they still look a little wooden and the lip synching is still pretty shit. Both games run at a solid and stable 30fps, which is a bit embarrassing these days, but don’t suffer any of the same performance issues as their last gen counterparts.
Although smacking about hordes of the undead is surprisingly engaging, the same cannot be said of either game’s narrative. Both are ultimately forgettable affairs that basically revolve around your group learning a little more about the zombie-infested island. Though both attempt to introduce an element of mystery to the whole thing, it just boils down to the usual genre tropes of Shady Inc’s latest biological weapon being accidentally unleashed on an unsuspecting populous with hilarious results. The voice acting doesn’t help this situation either. Most of it feels phoned-in, with Steve Blum putting on another bad accent (this time Australian…I think). The glum tone of the voice actors and gloomy, melodramatic tone of the narrative simply doesn’t gel with the slap-happy gameplay and hectic melee brain splattering. It’s like listening to someone reading Chekhov to the Benny Hill theme tune.
Though it could be argued that Dead Island and Riptide, are tonally inconsistent, the same cannot be said of the bonus tie-in game Dead Island: Retro Revenge. More like the silly zombie-slaying shenanigans found in Yaeger’s Dead Island 2 (which was sadly canned), Retro Revenge is a 16-bit sidescrolling endless runner, starring the bastard child of Jack Black and Coop From Megas XLR on a quest to save his kidnapped cat Rick Furry, while battling through zombie hordes and, later, some angry military types.
Best described as s cross between Streets of Rage (when I first saw it I thought it was a straight beat em up) and Bit Trip Runner, you must guide Not Jack through each level as he automatically runs from from left to right, dispatching enemies when they careen towards him, or avoiding them by moving between the three lanes you can run down. Over the course of its three chapters and 24 stages, the game slowly increases in complexity, introducing different enemy types that require certain attacks and combos to be unleashed.
There are also weapon pickups, special attacks, and summons reminiscent of the magic from Golden Axe (you can even summon a dragon!) that help to wipe the screen and get you out of tricky situations. Each stage ranks you out of five stars depending on how many points you rack up, and there’s also leader boards to try and top too. Though Retro Revenge isn’t particularly long (you can run through the story in a couple hours), it hooks you in with that just one more try mentality that sees you playing the game for hours and trying to improve your best scores or 5 star every course when you only meant to play it for 10 minutes.
Dead Island: Definitive Collection is a decent remaster and a clear upgrade to last gen’s console versions. The upgrades to the visuals and lighting make the island look far more alive (ironically) than the previous iteration, while the stable framerate and numerous bug fixes rectify problems that held back the original console release. As such, it’s certainly the best way to experience both Dead Island and Riptide, while Retro Rampage is a fun little extra, and a nice break from the melodrama. That being said, all the visual upgrades in the world can’t fix the series’ narrative shortcomings or forgettable characters. Still, if you’ve never played the spiritual predecessor to Dying Light, it’s a decent game to play online with friends when you’re in the rare mood to give zombies a good paddling. Dead Island: Definitive Collection won’t disappoint.
Dead Island: Definitive Collection was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
Developer: Techland | Publisher: Deep Silver | Genre: First Person, Survival Horror | Platform: PC,PS4, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: 18+/ M | Release Date: May 31, 2016