Last month marked the release of Dead Island - Game of the Year Edition, a feat that some might say would test the very definition of the term "Game of the Year" itself. In an industry atmosphere plagued by constant rehashes of long-established IPs, Dead Island has been among the precious few new faces to emerge in the past couple of years.
However, a part of its success is a combination of elements from some of entertainment's most popular series, from Lost to Left 4 Dead, and its ardent fans' ability to overlook its few but undeniable flaws. Dead Island has merits, but can it be said that they amount to a "Game of the Year"?
What even makes a "Game of the Year"? A compelling original story that carefully steers clear of established tropes? A gameplay style that is easy to adapt to while challenging classic conventions? High replay value? A well-chosen setting with a strong sense of atmosphere? The list is endless.
Whatever the criteria, clearly Dead Island failed to meet it, as virtually no reputable publication has called it "Game of the Year" to date. Where did Dead Island falter? How can Deep Silver course correct when approaching Dead Island Riptide? What will it take to usher the Dead Island series into an identity totally its own,worthy of the title "Game of the Year"?
Undoubtedly, the biggest complaint about Dead Island was its failure to deliver the sweeping emotional experience depicted in the trailers, the tension and intrigue lost amid anticlimactic cutscene intervals, shoddy character development, and a vast but poorly mapped open world structure. The plot device surrounding the Island's outbreak (a mutated form of Kuru infecting a local cannibalistic tribe) in its cliche lent itself to easily dismissing the drama inherently present in a zombie apocalypse, effectively dispelling any cohesion of the story. While the zombie apocalypse format itself is essentially a writer's blank check -- a vehicle for senseless but justifiable violence with little need for an elaborate plot -- a sense of mystery can compel the audience to continue playing even as the hours wear on. Sadly, this dynamic was absent.
The game's last chance to convey any sort of dramatic narrative -- the notes and recordings scattered throughout the island -- was often easily overlooked, thus creating gaps in the player's understanding of the plot progression. This was not helped by the lack of meaningful interaction between the four main survivors, each cutscene merely a shallow means to carry them to the next burst of action. With little room for mystery or emotional investment, it's unsurprising that, for many, Dead Island simply failed to engage on a long-term level.
If anything, the fan reaction to the disparity between the game and its trailers illustrates how important that oft-heralded "emotional experience" truly is. If Deep Silver capitalizes on that by following through on the fans' initial expectations, it will play a key part in contributing to Dead Island Riptide's lasting impact.
One major defining facet of the game is its emphasis on melee -- there are few firearms and ammo is understandably in short supply. While logistically this makes sense, in context it plays out as shallow, almost as an afterthought. Deep Silver should boldly ditch the guns altogether and make it a melee-only game. Post-E3 2012, there seems to be a waning interest in shooters; refocusing the emphasis on melee and evasion, perhaps adding some other form of environment-based defenses like traps, could be an extremely well-timed improvement. As Dead Island isn't a shooter, it would not be losing a part of its identity but instead helping to establish one.
The weapons' elemental aspect, based around fire-, electricity-, or poison-based mods, could also use some work. As it stands, it comes off as an afterthought, whereas it could be playing a major role in combat strategy. They should first make each of the zombie types susceptible only to certain elemental damage, then formalize the feature through the mod menu, adding organized tiers based on the strength of the elemental mod and what weapon it can be used on. This would both draw emphasis to the elemental-based combat as a whole, while adding some sense of order.
If combined with melee-only gameplay, it could add much to Dead Island's "it" factor and thus Riptide's potential as game-of-the-year material.
One of the more distracting aspects of Dead Island was the menu, a sluggish affair that always required one step too many. Combined with a rapid rate of weapon deterioration that necessitated constant rotation, the system felt interminably slow and destroyed any sense of panic. Balancing repair costs with cash flow required almost constant visits to a work bench (which, to Deep Silver's credit, were located everywhere). For all its little flaws, Dead Island had solid melee combat; forcing the player to constantly interrupt it was almost a tragedy.
The map could also use some serious work. It was difficult to find specific areas without having a mission actively guiding you to them, while waypoints were too infrequent. Efficient travel between districts would make the collecting aspects of the game a bit easier to pull off, a bonus to those who enjoyed tracking down all the weapon mods (arguably one of the game's best features). Even just labeling each district would be a massive improvement. If Riptide is to improve on Dead Island as a whole, the map and menu are a good place to start.
In terms of establishing its own identity, Deep Silver could also stand to perfect Dead Island's zombie classes. While many zombie sub-types have entered the sphere of trope, if the audience can easily point out the similarities to their sources (in this case, everything from classic Romero to Left 4 Dead), then it comes off as outright stolen instead of inspired. The resulting effect only serves to further diminish any lasting impact as a compelling original work.
If Dead Island as a series is to become anything other than a Left 4 Dead clone with Lost, Borderlands, and Dead Rising elements, then diversifying the zombie mutations is a good start. Carving a new mechanism for the infection and its impact on the human race is the only way to stand out in a sea of other tired zombie apocalypse stories.
With these kinks worked out (in tandem with a disaster-free launch day), Dead Island Riptide stands a real chance at becoming indisputable Game of the Year material. What changes do you want to see in the sequel?