I started playing this mid-summer for kicks, but what do you know, in early september Dead Island 2 actually resurfaced after 8 years of radio silence, multiple developers change, and it’s coming out… in February 2023. Odd date, but i guess Deep Silver isn’t keen on waiting for a timely summer release, after the game overlong stay in development hell, so much that Techland spun another zombie series after basically being denied work on any Dead Island game after Riptide.
Perfect time for a retrospective of the series as a whole, so let’s start from the original Dead Island, in its Definitive Edition form (which on PS4 and X-Box One came packaged as a collection with the direct sequel Riptide and the spin-off Dead Island: Retro Revenge included).
We’re reviewing this version also because i’ve played Dead Island on PS3 when it was new… and this was indeed one of those games that could have used some enhancing and overhauling, etc.
I guess some history won’t go amiss, but if you happened to… not exist in 2012, you missed one of the most perfect example of misleading, bullshit hype trailers ever made, as originally we were fed a non-gameplay trailer that went for shock value (depicting a dead zombie child, among other things), trying to make you believe the game would treat the topic with some seriousness… only to find out Deep Silver were just being the deceitful liars they are, as we had a game where you combine shit to make fire-laden blades and battery-powered electrical pikes, with a slow-mo effect for when you decapite the plentiful undeads, or crush their rotten brains under your foot.
As in, they wanted to have it both ways, and despite copying some stuff from Dead Rising, sure as hell they didn’t manage to replicate the ability to balance campiness and serious horror stuff like the original Dead Rising, still a good example of how to make the two “tonal tigers” coexist in a convincing way, while Dead Island sits as the dunce capped student with the crayons in the brain.
Then again, in retrospect this marketing is on brand for Deep Silver, the publisher later behind the infamous “Like An Anime Fan On Prom Night” trailer for Mighty N.9, or the one that willfully decided to put into the world absolute underbaked crap like the legendary crapfest of Ride To Hell: Retribution, which was pushed out in silence, and without handing out review codes to anybody.
Not that the polish developer Techland fared much better before this one, though they had a lot more games under their belt than you might think, especially in the PC space, but they started getting some recognizition with their Call Of Juarez series, and Dead Island was their big break into the console space, the game that put them on the map internationally, so to say.
One that previously and heavily sold itself on the complete lie that was the game announcement cinematic trailer discussed before, but at this point in time i’m not gonna criticize the game heavily for it, no point when there’s no secret about it anymore, so let’s discuss what the game is.
And that can be done very easily and very confortambly by stating the truth: this is a melee-focused version of Borderlands, as in there are some guns you can find and use, but most of the weapons you’re gonna find and use are blades, hammers, clubs, with the ability to throw them and some stuff like poison grenades, but nothing that will change the main dish of melee first person combat.
Which is janky as hell since it’s hard to gauge the distance between you and the enemy due to first person prospective, always, so you better be up close to the enemy because you’ll never how exactly if you’re so slighty out of the zombies attack range, or closer to them than you’d think.
Since it’s melee focused, there’s more emphasis on managing your stamina bar and there’s a weapon degradation system, but it’s simply hard to overlook how much this game rips off of Gearbox’s popular looter shooter, as it the skill trees are so brazenly copied, as are the RPG elements, with the enemies displaying a stamina, life meter and level when targeted, the visual feeback of seeing how much damage in numbers you dealt (and the color indicating if it’s some kind of elemental damage), alongside the MMO-like open world stuff.
One of the few istances where Techland just switched things around enough to avoid a lawsuit is in the vehicles. In Borderland the game switched to a third person camera so you can actually see where you’re going while driving a vehicle, but Dead Island nope, we gotta have the game retain the first person, but not the kind you expected, a camera angle that almost feels like you’re watching from the passenger’ seat, despite the angle being the one of the driver’s.
It’s just awful and makes the already tiresome driving sequences of tedious backtracking worse, as often you can see very little, making you intentionally crash into a tree so the player character can smash the front windom and actually let you see a bit better where you’re going.
It’s amazing how bad this small design decision makes these segments, since you would realistically have a better field of vision while actually driving a real car. Amazing.
The main trust of the experience it’s combat… first person melee combat, which is exactly as janky as you think it will be, since the weapons are mostly melee but still kinda work with gun physics and an iffy autotargeting baked in that just about makes it work. You’ll never be 100 % sure of the reach you or the enemy has, so often you die because one of those unfliching tanky zombies managed to hit you with its punches, as apparently you happened to be in reach at that moment.
Yes, there are guns and are powerful but they are deliberatly rare as fuck to find and not that effective against zombies that routinely bumrush you. Gunplay isn’t good either, but again, i think this is by design, Techland wanted clearly to make a first person melee brawler more than a Borderland rip-off, despite stealing -as previously mentioned – their skill tree verbation, and their respawn system that kick you in the wallet. And other things. They do get the grinding emphasis of the game pretty well, for better or for worse there’s a lot of grind.
For the sake of completeness, i have to mention that you also can swith the controls scheme to an alternative “analogic” one, meaning you use the right control stick to aim and move the melee weapons, which in theory it’s better since it frees you from the iffy autotargeting, but it means you have to mimic swinging an axe with the analogic stick movements, and the result it’s even more clunky and slow, as it takes you forever to even land a hit, so i wouldn’t bother with this control scheme at all, despite the game encouraging you to try it out via messages on loading screens.
Getting back to the ripping off, Dead Island also features a Dead Rising-inspired crafting system that lets you repair, power up or – most importantly – create weapon combos like a knife with a charge glued to it that you can also throw as a “knife bomb”, or an electrical charged hammer.Though it’s amazing how nonsensical is that you don’t get charged money for creating combo weapons or projects, but you do when repairing or powering up weapons.
Not that it makes sense to charge you at all in context, it’s just a regular craft bench, so who the hell is charming you cash for labor on a zombie infested island? Maybe the same big brained merchants that still keep open their weapon shops during the epidemic, hoping to serve the thugs demographic.
The main distinctive feature of Dead Island’s combat is oddly is the “kick button”, as your character is equipped with a “mighty foot” of Duke Nukem-esque power proportions, not because it works like the kick in Bulletstorm (for example), but because it’s so useful it destroy any chance of the combat itself having any nuance, as a single kick can stop or hugely make a normal zombie flinch, and since it consumes relatively little-to-no stamina, you can abuse the kick without remorse.
And it works pretty much everytime on the regular base zombies, so its kinda hilarious to see them go taking a running start and screaming at you, only to be stopped by the character’s kick like it’s a comedy routine. And yes, you can often kick the regular zombies to death quicker by “footwork” than with some weapons, and even at 0 stamina you can pull off a kick that does 1 of damage but serves to stop most base zombies. It’s absurd.
Obviously this doesn’t work as well (or at all) against the special types of zombies, heck, the very first one you meet, the oddly named Assassin, distinguishing itself from the base zombies because he can’t be kicked down, he barely flinches if at all, and he mostly tanks his way by standing still and throwing punches since you can’t interrupt his combos.
Still, despite the overpowered nature of your kick, weapons are quite useful, since the enemy IA is powerless against you jumping on top of a car, unless the zombies are spitters, have a weapon to throw or they randomly glitch above the ground, they will gather round the car waiting to be shot or even hit with maces, if the collision detection is favorable.
There is a “wrath” system that’s also ripped off Borderlands and manages to break-make more arcadey the balance, i mean, i was able to basically cheese the final boss thanks to the wrath charge itself, so it’s a useful feature but like the game itself it’s not very balanced.
I mean, enemies don’t regain lost health after you die and respawn, so that already makes challenge non-existent, and it oddly helps “balancing” out the game, as in, it’s still very unbalanced, to be generous, but somehow these unbalances manage to coexist with each other, as strong enemies can basically two shot your ass regardless of level, not that that those mean much as the enemies’ levels scale with yours (making the whole thing completely pointless, oops), with the occasional exception made by some boss or boss like enemy.
Exploration doesn’t fare much better, and it’s definitely one of the aspects mostly left untouched from its original release, with navigation in this open world island being very finnicky, often requiring more work because the game decided some missions don’t have map markers showing on the map (like the one that requires to reach the jungle to find where an aeroplane crashed….. but you can’t actually reach that area when this quest becomes available, so why even let me start it?), but also main missions often decide to indicate on the mini-map the objectives…. but not the pathways.
Yeah, it’s a sometimes yes, sometimes no in terms of the map actually showing the ideal (and/or only) path to the objective, and the open world formula feels a bit dated, as in there are very little in term of fast travel points, you can’t just open the map and teleport to a point of interest, so prepare for a lot of backtracking on foot. Oddly, you can set a personalized map market that always works.
I guess that speaks for the game itself being jank as it was originally, it’s the same janky, creatively-lazy, mish mash that despite not being good has some fun to it, big emphasis on despite, since it’s also one of those heavy on fetch quests and oddjobs as part of the main missions.
Though the world isn’t small, aside from the resort the island has a city and a security prison on the nearby atoll, even a jungle and a laboratory (yeah, within the jungle), so there’s more variety to the locations than i remember, to be honest. Mostly, anyway.
You’ll still have to wade a lot of the expected bullshit, like it’s incredible how many dang sewer sections there are, it’s not just them being expected and obligatory, but how much you go through them while in the city level. Pretty stock/expected shit from a zombie game, overall.
New areas and locations don’t translate to much in terms of new stuff, maybe one new enemy type to deal with, but even those are doled out arguably so slowly and overall there’s no much variety to these zombies as foes. But you’ll become quite familiar with these, as it’s one of those mid-range/budget game that want to give you the “AAA” campaign length but doesn’t have the resources, so you’ll start to notice the reuse of assets or straight up recycle of both interiors and exterior buildings, sewers, etc, even more if you indulge yourself in the side corn, that way the already not small backtracking the game requires… well, doubles, at the very least.
Point is, even by doing only the main missions, the game kinda overstays its welcome because it “thinks” it needs to be “XX” hours long. Kinda.
I say that because for this occasion i i took my time with the game and sampled pretty much all the sidequests, so i finished the first campaign run at 29 hours, while it would have took 18 hours for just finishing it by sticking to the main missions, though i could have done without some.
Of course being the Definitive Edition it comes with the original DLC baked in, as in 2 blueprints for weapons, the arena mode, and the Ryder White campaign, most of which i didn’t get/bought nor bothered with in its original release. The latter is made to explore the story from the side of the Ryder White character, a soldier in search of a cure for his zombified wife, and it’s not bad as a small , 4 hours long mini-campaign, you still revisit familiar locales but Ryder also has some quirks of his own, like his rage mode using a one-hit-kill gun, and plenty of emphasis on guns.
Makes sense to make him get so many guns constantly, as he doesn’t have a skill tree (but comes already “fully developed” and can’t level up) and the levels throw out a lot more zombies at you, while also featuring more verticality (and some platforming sections), foreshadowing what would become the leading design choice for the levels in Riptide.
I didn’t bother with the arena mode, not even this time. Not that’s there much to say about that.
I understand why they haven’t changed the systems drastically, as they basically would have to redo the navigation systems from the ground up, but honestly they could have at least have the objectives indicate where you should go more clearly, it’s not fun wasting time nor pausing to checkin the map and see if you actually are going the way you need, since the game fucked up on its end.
Almost forgot, the story.
It’s about a group of unrelated people that happen to be on the resort-hotel in the tropical island of Banoi when a zombie pandemic starts to spread, and as they found themselves to be immune to the virus, they’re forced to band together and find a way out before the US army nukes the island.
It’s as shit as i remembered, but i guess the unintended benefit of that is you can pretty much ignore it without any repercussion, though the game suffers from the “postboy syndrome” open world (and open world-ish) games like these often do, alongside the tonal fandango caused by having some quests that can be done over and over for items, so you can keep bringing water to this bikini babe that will never move from that bungalow. Immersion, son!
From a technical standpoint, aside from the expected improved load times, i can say that at least they fixed that infuriating issue with the NPCs that basically stopped moving during escort missions, i distinctly remember how fucked these were back in the day, but worry not, there are still some janky bugs and glitches.
Some harmless and funny like an escort character glitching in and out of assets and walls but always going back to the expected route, some more annoying, like where in a sidequest i entered a house full of looting thugs, did arrive at the final section and cleared, but after respawning the prompt to open a door so i could go back to the quest giver…. never showed up.
Nothing that a checkpoint re-load wouldn’t fix, thanks fuck for the autosaving.
Also, while the voice acting feeling basically untouched from the original release (as most likely is) isn’t a notable issue, at times you wonder why some characters have voice acting that seems like it was recorded in a desentization tank or in a submarine, or why their old face didn’t get either a HD-dier coat of paint or why they didn’t fixed the “wandering eyes” some NPC sports fairly notably….
Yeah, even if their eyes are ok, the textures and models used on the NPC are so obviously untouched and un-updated from their originale 2012 release.
It’s a broken, janky, unbalanced, repetitive mess of a game… and YET it’s hard to deny the satisfaction on sledgehammering (without the Quay Brothers’ help) a zombie in the face and see his head pop off entirely in slow mo, even if you already did it dozens of time the core loop it’s somewhat satisfying, despite everything. A rare game of a so bad it’s good game, almost.
It’s a testament to how you can have fun with complete absolute messes of games that you know aren’t good, but are enjoying despite the very obvious and numerous flaws, and a lot of jank that survives even in this improved edition that fixes some horrible bugs, updates most of the technical side of things, but still could have used some more polish to it. Pun not intended.