Publisher: Deep Silver
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Dead Island is an easy series to criticize. A resolutely B level zombie game from relatively little known European developer, Techland, it only made it's way into the average gamer's radar thanks to a head turning zombie-attack-in-reverse cinematic trailer going viral. Up until that point, the only other console offering from Techland had been the middling Western shooter, Call Of Juarez. The trailer for Dead Island was a huge stroke of luck for a game that likely would have come and gone without making much of a ripple. It also raised expectations to an absurd level given the developers previous output.
Reviewers slapped it for it's graphics, it's clunky interface, a plethora of bugs, uninteresting characters, laughable dialogue and a nearly non-existent story. I even heard people complaining that the game wasn't like the trailer which boggled my mind because... how would that even work? (Does anyone think that the live action trailer for Call Of Duty: Ghosts means you're going to be able to play as an aborigine warrior? It was just a cinematic trailer, guys.) The game was carried mostly by it's melee-focused action/RPG combat. Guns and ammo were very hard to find and almost useless to anyone who wasn't playing the gun specialist character, Purna. Hitting zombies in the face with electric sledgehammers and poison katanas was a surprising amount of fun, even if the charm started to wear off by the last fourth of the game. This was enough, however, to carry the game onto being a modest hit.
I wasn't at all surprised when they announced Dead Island: Riptide last year. Careful to frame it as more of an expansion than a sequel, with a slightly lowered price point to match, it seems meant to serve as a place holder until a proper sequel can be released down the line. It features the same cast of character, with one new character who specializes in fist fighting, on a new island fighting the same zombie threat.
Most of the criticisms of the game are, in fact, pretty accurate and not much has changed for Riptide. The story is still very silly and the plot is advanced mostly through your characters being very, very dumb. There's still plenty of bugs to be found including glitchy weather effects that stop and start at random, very hinky frame rate drops when things get crowded, weird collision detection moments and a mini-map that has regressed into near uselessness whenever you're out in the forest or boating.
Techland hasn't completely ignored our pleas, though. We now have a proper reticule. Importing your character allows for a raise in your level cap to even further buff up your character. There are also additional leveling you can do in each of the weapon types, hand-to-hand, blunt, sharp, and firearms, that will increase the more you use them, meaning finding that sledgehammer when you wanted a machete doesn't mean it has to be completely useless. Co-op play scales so that your level 66 Xian can play with someone else's level 10 John with no ill effects. Something you can't even do in a snazzier, higher profile co-op game like Borderlands 2. Guns and ammo are more plentiful and once you level them up a bit you can explode heads with your shotgun like a champ no matter which character you play. They've also added Dead Zones which are separate areas ruled by a much-tougher-than-normal mini-boss. These mini-bosses all have roughly the same abilities, though, so it would have been nice if Techland put a little more effort into giving these mini-bosses some extra flavor.
As is becoming the trend, the game also introduces a number of different holdout sequences with options like electrified fences, minigun placements and environmental hazards to slow down the horde. They game also introduces mines as a grenade type for some additional defense. Unfortunately, after the first couple, it starts to feel like a chore. It doesn't help that there are never enough zombies at one time for you to feel like you're in danger. Even on single player I never lost an NPC. Siege sequences like this need stronger direction so that it feels like you're barely keeping everything together as you rescue NPC's, erect new barriers or lay down some covering fire with a minigun. Without that, they feel kind of tepid and overlong.
That said, if you liked the first game, Riptide is an ever-so-slightly more streamlined expansion of the original. The quality I like the most about it is precisely the thing that keeps it's Metacritic rating in the mid-60's. While recent games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon trade on silly 80's nostalgia, complete with ironic homophobia and sexual encounters of questionable consent, the Dead Island games are what Blood Dragon tries so hard to be: the modern video game equivalent of a grindhouse movie.
As someone who grew up on weird cult movies, the one trait that they all share is the earnestness with which they were made. It's the difference between Evil Dead and House Of 1000 Corpses. Dead Island wants very badly to be a tense, gripping action/horror game. It isn't. From Sam B's omnipresent one hit wonder "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch?" to the frighteningly cross- and dead-eyed woman in the makeshift hospital who drones her sad life story every time you pass her by, it lures you into it's absurdity so often that it's impossible to take it seriously.
However, just when you think the whole thing is a joke, you take a trip through some pitch black sewer or sparsely-lighted building that surprises you with some real tension. You can hear the zombies moaning and your flashlight is almost dead, so you hurl a flare ahead of you to see a small squad of zombies standing there, staring at nothing and just waiting until you get close enough for them to lurch at you. Then it's back to the comedy as you pop it's head like a grape with a shotgun blast and kick it's still teetering corpse to the ground as it's arms weave around where it's head used to be, as if asking itself "wait, it was just here a second ago..."
I'm not sure if the debt Dead Island and Riptide owe to Italian horror movies by guys like Umberto Lenzi or Ruggero Deodato (or even Lucio Fulci if we're feeling generous) are deliberate but the parallels are certainly there. Other franchises base their zombie games firmly in the early George Romero model as far as clarity of tone and the simplicity of the concept. In Italian horror, the result is the thing. Whatever it takes to shock or appall, that's what they'll do. Slow zombies? Fast zombies? Big, hulking monsters in straightjackets? Sure, throw 'em all in. Left 4 Dead has the same approach but the setting and the atmosphere is vintage Romero.
Dead Island, on the other hand, is total Eurosleaze. The severed torso special edition that the gaming commentariat got so incensed over a few months ago is straight out of something like Cannibal Ferox or one of Sergio Martino's Giallo films. They can't go nearly as far as a Fulci movie without getting slapped with an AO rating but the basic components are all there: boobs, blood, bad acting, sub par design and copious gore wrapped around a little nothing of a story. And that final scene? Straight out of something like Nightmare City.
If you've been on the fence about the Dead Island series, that's all you really need to know going in. It's purely cheap thrills and low brow fun. If you can revel in the B movie cheese of it, you'll have a blast... especially with a team of four friends and a couple of beers. Riptide, in particular, cuts the fat that weighed down the first game so that it never wears out it's welcome. If Techland continues to release Dead _____ games of roughly this length at this slightly reduced price point, I think they could really be on to something.
If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it's genuinely not. The slightly sleazy Euro edge to the series is what makes it stand out in a crowded field of zombie games. I hope Techland delves further into that end of the pool for it's inevitable next gen sequel. I can be moved to tears by something like Telltale's The Walking Dead and still appreciate smashing a zombie's head into paste with a giant sledgehammer in Dead Island. The game is critic-proof, really, because it does exactly what it says on the tin. So long as Techland keeps the series fresh, they can have a perennial hit on their hands. It may never win awards but it can certainly be satisfying.