Just when you think we’ve reach peak-zombie in popular culture, some new zombie franchise lumbers over the horizon, shuffling along with the same labored movements while simultaneously trying to stand out from the rest of the rotten horde. As far as horror goes, zombies have been in vogue since George Romero essentially created the genre in the late 60’s. Why can’t we have an apocalyptic universe with chupacabras in it? There’s a monster demographic that is grossly underrepresented in Hollywood.
Techland have been picking away at this infected sore since the original Dead Island popped up in 2011. Since then, they have released Dead Island Riptide and Dying Light, before remastering Dead Island and Riptide into the bundle that you see before you. But has a fresh coat of paint managed to revitalize the original game?
In some ways, yes, it’s clear that Dead Island has benefited from a graphical upgrade, and the performance seems pretty steady. The tropical locale looks particularly paradisiacal, especially at a distance. The sun-kissed resort just seems to stretch on forever. It’s a shame then that the game doesn’t stand up to quite the same scrutiny when up close, especially with some of the character models where the living often appear more frightening than the dead. This is likely the consequence of slapping new textures over old character models. Still, they are at least in higher definition, even if their eyes are totally lifeless.
Speaking of lifeless, the voice acting is still universally terrible and the characterization is poor throughout. As with the original, some of the survivors you’ll be helping out are essentially just flapping mouths to describe your next objective, and no real effort has been put in to distinguish them for each other. As you talk to people, their quests will fill up your log with tasks such as “Help Dominic”, but you wouldn’t be able to discern who Dominic is if it wasn’t for a fat quest marker that drives you directly to them.
If you’ve played Dead Island previously, you’ll notice that absolutely nothing has changed in terms of the quest structure and gameplay mechanics. Most of the quests you’ll be undertaking aren’t exactly inspired, but they do a satisfactory job of showing you around the island, and they generally make sense given the situation. You’ll be sent to retrieve gas from the gas station to power up a generator. You’ll search several beachside huts for fresh food and water. One quest involves finding someone’s brother to give him his insulin. Many of these are worth doing for the XP rewards and the special weapons that you’ll be granted upon completion.
The XP system is still functional and, while it doesn’t tend to give you many new skills, they usually offer slight combat benefits. In an average fight, the perks you unlock don’t offer an enormous amount of obvious advantages, but in terms of progression it is reassuring to know that you have a percentage boost when swinging a blade as opposed to a blunt object. You do receive increased health when levelling up, which is always handy considering the large amounts of zombies that tend to show up in certain areas. In these densely-populated locations, a bigger health bar is often the key to reaching the objective.
Weapon crafting is a much more visible upgrade of your abilities, especially when upgrading a blade. Not only will your weapon do an increased amount of damage, but you’ll have more opportunity to cripple a zombie’s limbs. Upgrading a meat-cleaver can be hilarious when you rush in, slice off both arms of your undead assailant, before finally decapitating them as an act of mercy. The improved visuals only serve to make this aspect even funnier.
These moments are viscerally enjoyable, but you’ll need to make sure that you have the money and materials to upgrade and repair your equipment to keep your enjoyment levels up. As with any zombie apocalypse worth its salt, you’ll spend a lot of time in Dead Island scavenging for supplies. Piles of tourist suitcases will line the streets and corridors, so it is prudent to search them all and extract every last penny you can. Search every locker and drawer for scrap, and pick up every item that is available to you, as these will be valuable whenever you find a workbench. It might sound as if this constant foraging might distract from the business of zombie-killing, but in truth it is no more disruptive to the flow of the game as, say, searching the trash cans in Bioshock Infinite. In some ways, it can actually serve as a welcome respite from the horde.
As mentioned, with an upgraded weapon by your side, the combat can be pretty fun. However, if you have to rely on non-upgraded weapons, these often turn out to be flimsier than a cobweb in a hurricane. In the early game your weapons break with such regularity that you’ll often find yourself kicking zombies instead, which is sometimes the most efficient way to deal with a singular zombie. A kick or two will usually knock them over, then you can just kick in the head to finish them off. Failing that, find a car and simply run them down. Between kicking and driving you can actually trivialize the combat to a large degree, which in some ways is a shame because there is something very enjoyable about bludgeoning the undead with a baseball bat and finding new weapons. This is something that Techland could have revisited for this remaster, perhaps by making kicks less powerful, but for whatever reason, they chose not to do so.
The Definitive Edition of Dead Island doesn’t really fix anything that held the first game back. It offers a graphical facelift, but very little else of difference. The dull story, bland characters and game structure all remain intact. Many of the game’s aspects are as mindless as the elements of society that Romero satirized in his films, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any enjoyment to be gained from the game. If you liked it first time around, there’s nothing about this that wouldn’t like. However, there’s nothing new to come back for either.
The graphical upgrade doesn't mask the soulless story and characters, but Dead Island can still be a fun brawler.