‘Dead Island’ Wasn’t Quite the Catastrophe of a Zombie Game You Might Recall
Techland's title of 2011 was wrong in a lot of ways, but dig beneath its bloody surface and there were thrills to be had.
Well that's bullshit, is what you're probably thinking. I understand. And much like the announcement of remasters for both the original Dead Island and its expansion Riptide, coming in May, you're probably asking, if not begging: why?
There's no easier way of saying this, so I'll just go for it: I really enjoyed Dead Island. The 2011 game has a lot of faults, and there's a lot of player confusion about it. But give me these few minutes and I shall try to explain why this title from Dying Light developers Techland, which was over five years in the making, is actually worth your time. And maybe even your money, what with that "Definitive Edition" on the horizon.
I need to begin by clarifying that I first played Dead Island in its "Game of the Year" edition. Now, if you know a little about how video games marketing works, you're probably well aware that these GOTY-branded versions, which come out some months (or years) after the first retail wave, aren't really the recipients of real-world awards. No publication declared Dead Island to be the game of the year, of any year. Go and have a Google. All GOTY editions represent, typically (as some of these things do win awards, after all), is the vanilla game in question plus a selection of downloadable extras in one box. And I'm thankful Dead Island received such a treatment, because if it hadn't I'd never have played the Ryder White DLC missions.
Dead Island suffered at launch because of poor communication. Players were wowed by some of its marketing – that announcement trailer, I mean, really – but when it came to what you did in the game, that information got a little lost in translation. Perhaps the interest in that incredible debut trailer was partially to blame for derailing the conveyance of how the game worked, as beyond sharing the same location as the end product and the presence of zombies, there's little else to link the events of the clip and what the player was tasked with upon commencing their campaign.
It's hardly surprising to learn that the trailer was produced by an external agency, rather than Techland themselves. It certainly turned heads, but it generated a level of hype for the game's release that the reality of the experience in store could never live up to. Once you were playing the game, with its B-movie-like cast of characters with accents that owe more to daytime soap operas than comparable-budget video games, and an emphasis on swearing to look cool, you saw how removed the marketing was from the base tenets of play. All that was really replicated on the interactive side was the luxurious tropical island retreat of (the entirely fictional, located off Papua New Guinea) Banoi.
The original announcement trailer for 'Dead Island'
At the time of Dead Island's release, we were still over a year away from exploring Far Cry 3's totally tropical climes, and Techland's setting was a delightful virtual world to get lost in (those face-chewing zombies aside, obviously). Okay, so it didn't move all that smoothly – but people almost commend Bethesda for the wobbliness in their open-world games, so why not cut the Dead Island team a little slack, too? The awful motion blur is a distraction, sure – but stop and appreciate the scenery for a second, and you'll appreciate how this game gets its location so very right.
When you look at the ideas, the design and execution, Dead Island is an incredibly gorgeous example of world building. The Royal Palms Resort, the game's introductory area, is a beautiful juxtaposition to what waits beyond it, where the wealth, decadence and Westernisation that infects all overseas hubs of luxury tourism is so very far from relevant. The main town of Moresby (Port Moresby is the real-world capital of Papua New Guinea) is a wonderful collision of cultures, much like its you-can-actually-go-there equivalent, in one of the world's most culturally diverse countries. It's not exactly right, as it feels more Cuban than Commonwealth on occasions; but the population certainly comes from seemingly everywhere. It's all bright, colourful and gives the impression of being alive – or at least of having been alive fairly recently.
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Which is something a lot of the zombie games of the time never totally got. Just because the Zombie Apocalypse is happening doesn't mean that every single wall has to immediately become 30 different shades of grimy brown. The sun comes up, it shines, the world still spins and buildings don't suddenly become broken-down hovels. Looking at the two games that Dead Island obviously takes its gameplay cues from, Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead, you can see the need for a normal and relatable setting, much like the Romero-inspired mall in the former, combined with the dark and scary situations that the latter provides. Dead Island goes some way to gluing together the best of the humour split between both of these pillars of zombie-slaying thrills.
The relative freedom and silliness in the game's weapon modification options and crafting was definitely something that added another layer to my enjoyment. Baseball bats with nails in, electrified katanas, a pipe with a motorised saw blade attached to it, gas canisters that exploded regardless of what you throw at them (fir cones, bootlaces, snotty tissues) – it wasn't the huge splat fest that Dead Rising was, but it did enough and felt incredibly cathartic. Picking it up again, I activated the "fury mode" to punch zombies to (a second) death, and they just exploded into chunks. These poor, innocent ex-holiday makers were now nothing more than a meal ticket for carrion eaters, thanks to my incredible fists.
But then you get the repetition of the fetch quests and cutscenes that put all four playable characters into the conversation, as it desperately reminds you that this should be a co-op experience. And here's where the game begins to falter. Its later stages see the gameplay shift from a sometimes-hilarious hodgepodge of bloody knuckles and bananas melee weapons into a generic FPS slog. This confusing move from survival thriller to sci-fi plague prevention simulator can irk the player – it's easy to feel that you've ended up playing two different games, and the second one is nowhere near as strong as the first.
To get that far into proceedings though, you need to invest yourself somewhat in the story – which, sadly, isn't much more than the usual clichés strung together in a slightly different order. There are immune survivors, mad scientists, trigger-happy and grief-stricken soldiers, and pretty much everyone else is in denial and wondering if they can claim anything on their travel insurance. But the need for raw realism has dissipated as the quality of gaming visuals have improved, oddly. We happily suspend all need for it in Until Dawn, we revel in the bombastic despots of Far Cry, and the most interesting character in Fallout 4 is a 1930s detective robot that looks like a broken porcelain doll. Who needs believability?
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What you need, though, is clarity. Cliché is great so long as everything's resolved, but Dead Island ends in an entirely confusing way, with new characters thrown into the mix far too late on for them to feel worthwhile, leading to the sensation that nothing you've done has really had an effect on the story. You never had access to it, and you've not understood what's really going on. But this is where the Ryder White missions come in. Without spoiling anything, these extras not only introduce their (now-playable) titular character properly, but also join all those dots that felt like they were skipped over before. It all leads to an incredibly satisfying conclusion to the whole piece, which wasn't delivered by the original game "proper".
The remastered package arrives at a fairly good time. Dying Light has received a massive expansion, The Following, and efforts are probably shifting to a sequel to that game, so there's a zombie-shaped gap in the gaming market (for once). It surprised me to discover, given that Dead Island 2 is in the hands of British studio Sumo Digital, that Techland itself is behind the remasters. Given everything the team's learned making Dying Light, this could mean we really get the definitive Dead Island, better than it's ever been.
Dead Island never delivered the drama its announcement trailer teased. But we did get a gorgeous paradise gone to shit, brilliant weapon design, and a rough-about-the-edges campaign that, until its tonal shift, was never less than enjoyable. With the zombie game market becoming increasingly focused on early access survival games on PC that never seem to be fully released, you could argue that we haven't really moved that far on from Dead Island. Now is a good time, then, to be reminded of its peculiar charms, and leave its negative qualities in the past, where they belong.
Dead Island: Definitive Edition is released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on May 31st. More information at the game's official website.
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