Released in 2011, the original Dead Island may not have lived up to its rather fantastic announcement trailer, but it still remained an original and immersive open-world zombie killathon despite a raft of flaws.
Capturing the attention of gamers worldwide for reasons both good and bad, it did well enough to warrant a stand-alone expansion in 2013 titled Dead Island: Riptide. Fast forward three years, and whether it’s because development of the long-awaited Dead Island 2 has been troubled, or maybe just because the last-gen console versions were technically dire due to a lack of power, Techland have seen it fit to grace us with remasters of the two titles, enabling console and PC owners to experience them in their best form ever. Additionally, whilst both are available separately for a reasonable price, buying the collection comes with a nice little Brucie bonus: an all-new 16-bit scrolling beat’em up called Dead Island: Retro Revenge.
By moving both Dead Island and Riptide over to their newer Dying Light engine, it’s instantly apparent that Techland have been able to greatly improve the visuals, bringing them more into line as to what you’d expect of a current-gen title. Textures are vastly increased in detail and there’s an abundance of special effects such as dust clouds and glare that makes traversing the already convincing environments that bit more realistic. Performance has also been improved across the board, making the games easier on the eyes and more fluid to play. Unfortunately some graphical and technical issues still rear their ugly heads though. Character models for example, particularly so in Dead Island, are still quite poor, and their animation remains laughably terrible. Also, whilst the framerate of both games has been clearly improved, there are still instances where it noticeably dips, and screen tearing is evident from time to time. Luckily however, whilst disappointing, these technical hiccups are never bad enough to hinder your enjoyment of the titles too much.
Despite the core gameplay of both Dead Island and Riptide being what makes them so addictive and successful, it’s somewhat of a letdown to find that these remasters only go skin deep. When it comes to game mechanics and features, nothing has been updated or altered whatsoever; all the annoyances of the original games are still resident. Enemies still aggressively scale with your own level progression, making you never feel like you’ve grown particularly stronger, sustained damage can often be highly erratic, with weapons thrown by enemies able to wipe out a full health bar, and hit detection can frequently feel very iffy, resulting in the combat sometimes being unfulfilling. Also, whilst it was never expected that drastic changes would be made to the games, it has to be said the stories in both are never more than passable, and the locations get less interesting as you progress in each; with sunny beaches and holiday resorts being succeeded by clichéd laboratories, dingy sewers and generic residential areas. In the end though, these pitfalls simply dampen the experiences provided by both titles rather than drown them, allowing their gameplay to still exhilarate and entertain throughout their lengthy campaigns.
It’s the loop of questing, zombie massacring and character development that drives Dead Island and Riptide, and when it works as intended it’s a highly satisfying one. There are a huge number of quests to complete, and while most feel like meagre errands, the rewards drive you on. When you’re not yearning for your next level, eager to spend another skill-point on one of the three trees at your service, you’re searching for better weapons before upgrading and modifying them to make them all the more destructive. Heading out to engage in yet more undead genocide with an electrified machete in tow, the glorious carnage just serves to fuel your desire to keep the cycle going until you reach the inevitable end. Riptide, arguably the better of the two games, also introduces some new gameplay elements to the formula such as defence sequences, Dead Zones, increased character development and boats, which are required to make your across its main swampy environment. These all add some much-needed variety to the proceedings.
Additionally, whilst it’s quite easy to run out of cash in Dead Island thanks to the extortionate cost of maintaining your favourite weapons, Riptide alleviates this problem by increasing weapon durability and cash pay-outs. Some players may see this as a negative though, as it lessens the need for effective inventory management and turns most of the weapons you find lying on the floor during your adventures into simply items to pawn rather than use in a desperate situation.
Also included in the remaster of Dead Island is the DLC, which prolongs your zombie slicing activities even further. The Ryder White campaign pads out the main story a little whilst putting you in the shoes of a new character, but it’s the Bloodbath Arena horde mode that proves to be the more interesting of the two extras on offer, especially with friends in tow. In fact, whilst both Dead Island and Riptide can be fully played and enjoyed in single player, making your way through them in co-op is a much more attractive proposition, and it even makes the tone of the games totally different too. When you are playing by your lonesome, you have to approach the games cautiously, aware of the space around you and your equipment at hand. They actually feel very much like horror games in this regard, where death can come very quickly and horrifically for those who adopt a gung-ho approach. When played in multiplayer however, the experiences generally become one of all-out war and fun, especially with a full party of four players where the chaos of characters wildly swinging their weapons at the undead hordes becomes riddled with laughs. It also makes the games a damn sight easier too.
Thankfully the netcode of both titles seems to have been much improved, making the online experiences more stable and stress free. Unfortunately though, whilst Dead Island was solid for me throughout my multiplayer endeavours, Riptide exhibited a fair number of bugs. Errant footsteps heard when no-one was walking became to be a minor but irritating issue, but more troublesome were my co-op buddies being warped to distant areas and cutscenes that failed to show any audio or video; taunting me with subtitles going through the motions against a plain black screen. As there were less than a handful of these more pressing problems during my extensive playing time however, they weren’t bad enough to sour my fun to any considerable degree.
The black sheep of the Dead Island: Definitive Collection, Retro Revenge, offers an experience that is a far cry from previous entries in the series. Part scrolling beat’em up, part endless runner, you play as Max, a man hell-bent on fighting his way across California to save his kidnapped cat. With Max constantly running forward of his own volition, it’s up to you to change between three lanes, avoiding obstacles and defeating zombies as you see fit. The four face buttons of the controller perform attacks in the respective direction, and with some zombies only being susceptible to attacks from the back for example, you’re required to move lanes quickly to be able to defeat them. Many others however are damn near impervious to any assault, so it’s up to you to familiarise yourself with each zombie type as well as their strengths and weaknesses in order to progress effectively. To be fair though, most zombies can just be avoided when vying to complete Retro Revenge’s levels; crushing the zombies in your path simply serves to boost your score and power your devastating special attack. There are 30 levels of Retro Revenge to make your way through all in all, and whilst it’s not a game that’s going to blow your mind or feed the love of scrolling beat’em ups of yesteryear such as Streets of Rage or Final Fight, it does at least offer a nice diversion from the main games.
For its budget price the Dead Island: Definitive Collection offers two solid open world experiences that have never looked or played better on console as well as a retro-styled novelty that can be enjoyed in short bursts. It’s just a shame that the changes made to both Dead Island and Riptide are only visual, as both have gameplay aspects that could do with a little more polish. More irksome is that Riptide in particular is still subject to the occasional bug, especially when playing in multiplayer. On the whole though, the Dead Island: Definitive Collection is a great place to start for those not familiar with the series, and even those that have played the two mainline titles previously may want to jump back in for their unique and addictive gameplay.