Even as a zombie enthusiast, who drinks up every festering morsel of the medium I could possibly hope to consume, I can entirely relate to the frustration of how over-saturated media is with the rotting shufflers. I’ve probably reviewed a more than a dozen zombie-themed games in the last year or so alone (willingly) and had ones that reaffirm everything I love about them like Dying Light and Zombi, games faithful to what made many fall in love with the undead in a totally non-illegal way. Then there are the lazy and frankly devastatingly terrible ones such as Escape Dead Island.
Two of those games spawned from Techland’s original Dead Island game, a much-hyped zombie-slaying RPG set on a resort island in Banoi. That was mainly thanks to the now-infamous trailer’s impact. The game itself however was not anything like that trailer, containing none of the emotional overtones. Instead, Dead Island was a game about smashing the skulls of shambling husks of humanity with a electrocuted machete, which in fairness, was absolutely fine. The idea was good, and still a little bit exciting during the time of the modern era zombie-mania’s earlier days. All the promise was washed out into a sea of disappointment however, when the game turned out to be a bit of a technical tsunami.
Still, the formula had potential—Techland proved that themselves by eventually running off to make the superior Dying Light just last year. Before the Polish developers scarpered however, publisher Deep Silver commissioned a semi-sequel called Dead Island: Riptide,which somehow managed to make a bigger mess of the technical side of things, and in the process, sour what was an otherwise promising game. For all the negativity about remasters, I was incredibly hopeful for Dead Island: Definitive Collection to do the games some belated justice. Can they finally make clobbering zombies in board shorts with a ruddy great meat hammer that is on fire play as fun as it sounds?
We’ll start with the original Dead Island first then. A quick visual comparison between this version and the PS3 original sees a definite improvement in the character models, though they still give off a living waxwork vibe. The environments are also looking better; already delightfully atmospheric, the hazy sunshine and familiar normality of a holiday resort just seems more striking here, as does the less normal sights of debris and dead people. There’s a wonderful sense of place that goes a long way to making Dead Island memorable in the first place. It certainly isn’t memorable for the story, which is utter nonsense, but at least not offensively so. Cutscenes remain as risible as ever.
While many of the technical issues have been ironed out, including a much-improved frame rate, the game’s core failings remain. The mission structure is uninspired and flat, more so in the years that have passed since Dead Island’s release. All the appeal is lumped into the exploring and fighting. To be fair, there are plenty of open-world RPG’s that suffer the same fate, but for Dead Island, the painfully rough edges show. The skill trees are at least quite fun, and probably the next best incentive to progress after the smacking zombies about and drinking in the blemished beauty of Banoi.
The risk of monotony would be far higher if all you did was amble about hitting zombies with paddles on your lonesome, but two things break that up nicely. Vehicles come into play early on and as well as being good for getting around quicker, they also provide some gleefully macabre joy as you mow down the slow-witted husks lazily shambling about the place. They still control like a drunk hippo on rollerskates though. The second thing is the co-op. Honestly, little else in Dead Island can beat the satisfaction of tooling about with three friends, setting the undead world to rights, and given the deliberate B-Movie feel of the game, the hilarity and grim fun that follows allows for a perfect marriage of ideas. It’s definitely the best reason for revisiting Dead Island here, otherwise, it’s a bit plain by today’s standards, and sits as a marker of how far Techland progressed with zombie RPGs in just four years.
So, on to Riptide. A curious beast, full of potential, and just as full of game-destroying bugs last time out. It notably branched out from the more monotonous fare of its predecessor by adding a new area, waterborne exploration and some intense tower defence-style base building. It should have been a massively superior sequel, but being buggy as all hell and featuring more crashing than a Nascar season highlight reel, it suffered greatly. The big positive here then is that it is in much better shape now, but now that means there’s no place for the games actual mechanical flaws to hide.
Despite the addition of new ways to play, the core experience is still very much Dead Island, only a bit tougher, meaner, and more gun-friendly. That also comes with the fault of the original, by having weapons be way too fragile for far too long. With the increase in difficulty, it creates genuine tension during the tower defence parts and genuine frustration during the early hours as you get ripped to shreds far more often. Getting past this point does see a more enjoyable game, but it feels like a bit of a slog to get to that point. Riptide is definitely an improvement on the original Dead Island in this collection, but it’s a lot harder to get on board with. It does, however, feature an absolutely brilliant soundtrack, menacing, synthy and suitably atmospheric. It’s no coincidence that it evokes that 70’s/80’s zombie movie feel; Techland is clearly drawing from that pool for its inspiration in both these games and Dying Light. It’s why you can forgive a lot of the more problematic aspects of the Dead Island series if you’re nuts for zombies like I am. You can tell just how much the developer cares about the subject matter.
There’s also a bonus game to this package. A side-scrolling beat ‘em up called Dead Island: Retro Revenge. It contains a very daft ‘plot’ to get your cat back from kidnappers by smashing up the undead along the way. Rather than follow the path of a traditional beat-‘em-up, Retro Revenge is actually a secret rhythm-action game. Your character moves forward automatically and you only control his four attacks and which lane to switch to. Timing your attacks just right clocks up a higher score and certain attacks don’t apply to certain enemies. It’s surprisingly good fun, if a little one note in terms of level design. It’s a nice little addition to the collection, and easily the best Dead Island spin-off to date (though that’s admittedly a really low bar).
For around £25, Dead Island: Definitive Collection is at a very tempting price point. The first game has not aged well on a mechanical level, and Riptide is a bit of a rough gem even with the improvements made. Techland have inarguably moved on to better things since these games, but for zombie enthusiasts, it’s worth a stab if you fancy going somewhere hot for the summer on a budget. Just bring a poncho for the blood splash.