Game Review - Dead Island: Definitive Edition (PS4/PS Now)
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
Dead Island: Definitive Edition is a remaster of the original 2011 multi-platform game bundled together with the downloadable content and is a much cleaner, improved version of the game - making it the ideal way to experience bludgeoning the undead in a tropical paradise.
Developed by Polish studio, Techland and published by Deep Silver in 2016, the game is a first-person open-world survival/action horror with a focus on melee combat and can be played with up to four players cooperatively online. Unfortunately, I have had to make do as a solo survivor so I can’t comment on the experience playing this with friends although I can imagine it would be tremendous fun sharing the zombie-killin' between chums.
It certainly makes an impression early on. The cinematic cut-scene that plays before you have even chosen a character is a first-person perspective of a guest at the luxury hotel on the fictional Island of Banoi (apparently located off the east coast of Papua, New Guinea), during the midst of a rap gig and full blown party. Not for long though as we see the infection quickly spread amongst the holiday-makers as pandemonium erupts and the living dead nightmare begins. It’s a terrific opening and fully sets the scene as well as gives little moments for the playable characters to appear.
Of the four, which include the aforementioned rap star, Chinese undercover agent and a former cop, I chose Logan, the disgraced football player whose back-story suggests he inadvertently murdered someone in the past and his specialty is throwing weapons. As a group of survivors they are referred to as ‘the immune’ as they seem to not be affected by the disease and their/your goal is to eventually find a way off the dreaded island. You begin in the Prologue set in the hotel - which acts as a basic tutorial - and then escape to the main resort area, whilst taking instructions from a mysterious voice over the emergency intercom system. The story is structured over a further eighteen chapters split between four main acts and each of these sees you spend more time in a different location on the island.
Once you are on the resort the game truly opens up and reveals itself to be a loot-driven, quest-based role-playing game with horror packaging. The fellow island residents serve as non-playable characters (NPCs) for you to carry out missions like finding their medication, food supplies, ammunition, delivering messages to family or clearing out areas of infected from potential safe havens.
To be slightly reductive, it feels like Borderlands meets Left 4 Dead, with the many NPC interactions being a basic quest run-down then a repetitive one-liner until you have completed them. However, there are story cut-scenes at key stages of the game which do add more personality for the characters and move the plot forward but always feature the group of survivors together. As my play-through was solo, it was incredibly jarring suddenly seeing these other characters that you are meant to imagine are with you the whole time - a reminder that the game is designed around co-operative play and probably more exciting that way too.
Having said that, it didn’t seem too difficult playing it on my own and although there were many challenging sequences, I wasn’t too frustrated throughout the main forty hour play-through (that’s right, this is a considerable size). The penalty for death sees a percentage of your currency taken and restarting at the last checkpoint but as the auto-save spots are fairly frequent this isn’t too much of an inconvenience (although in some areas you will appear right in the midst of the pack of enemies who killed you moments before, so can be fairly intense).
There are multiple types of zombies you will face, starting with the basic Walkers which shuffle around like your classic Romero or Resident Evil enemy, then there is the rabid Infected, which run at you like the ones seen in 28 Days Later and I cannot emphasise how many times these guys blind-sided me and literally made me jump.
As the game progresses you will be introduced to various sub-boss zombies akin to Left 4 Dead like the Thug (super-powered and buff), Floaters (similar in appearance to the Boomers in L4D, but spit acid), Suiciders (mutated nightmares that resemble T-Virus mutations from the Resi games), Rams (straitjacket-wearing hulking beasts that charge you and can kill you instantly) and the Butchers (super fast and very tough). In the open areas there will usually be any number of the first two zombie types and deeper into the game they will be peppered with appearances from the others amongst them. You eventually find the best methods to deal with each type but even towards the end I still felt dread at hearing some of the signature roars of the tougher special zombies.
One of the most compelling elements of this game is the almost limitless makeshift weapons at your disposal. Being melee-focused, you won’t see a gun until at least a quarter of the way through and even then you won’t really use it until the better ones show up later on. Its up-close-and-personal action adds to the ferocity of the carnage and the myriad of blunt and sharp implements you can use is almost overwhelming. From feeble paddles, sticks, and hat-stands to baseball bats, maces, knuckle-bracers as well as throwing knives, machetes and long-swords – there is something for everyone.
Using currency found from looting and completing quests, these can be upgraded at crafting stations and also repaired there as after repeated use they become damaged and lose effectiveness. On top of that, whilst looting you will collect all sorts of random items like duct tape, glue, nails and batteries so with these you can create modifications to the weapons which give them special abilities ranging from barbed wire bats, chainsaw maces, electrical staffs and even toxic machetes which can make the zombies puke out their insides. Glorious stuff.
Admittedly, the first few hours were slightly overwhelming for me as I tried to get used to all of these different systems at play and comparing weapon stats but once I did, the inventory management wasn’t as much of an issue as I had found a fair few weapons I liked and experimenting with the modifications became part of the enjoyment, especially seeing groups of zombies being electrocuted by my new snazzy Lord Raiden-like staff.
The combat has a fair amount of depth too, considering initially it feels like you only need to press the right-trigger to swing your weapon and hope you batter zombie flesh. Although not advertised overtly, you can change from this default setting (Digital) to the Analogue setting, which controls more like the EA Fight Night games, with the accuracy of your swing being determined by your rotation of the analogue stick. It’s pretty tricky to do and I found my character was best suited to the default setting but it seems from comments online that it can be very handy for the tougher stationary enemies like the Thugs to nullify them using more accurate shots with the Analogue controls. Again, this option is still welcomed and on a second play-through I would likely try this.
Each character also has a special Fury attack which seems to give momentary super-strength and one-hit kills but the button to enact is to hold in the same button used to apply a health pack so I ended up not using my ability as more often than not I was wasting health packs instead, which seems like an oversight from the developers. Contextually, it also doesn’t fit as there is no explanation for this superpower but I guess a video game can get away with this (whereas a movie definitely would need to have a line justifying why your character can turn into Wolverine very briefly).
As well as the monster enemies, you will also come across human gangs which involve gun-play. It mixes up the action a fair bit although this is nothing like Call of Duty in that the controls are fiddlier and as there is less ammo lying around you won’t want to waste your bullets on the zombies too much. The AI for the human enemies tends to be more noticeably shaky as I found a few times that if I was able to sneak round some and shoot them they still wouldn’t react to my presence until I was close by, which broke the immersion more than some of the weird quirks of the zombies.
The main game-play loop does have a nice pace to it, though. You will pick up a fair few missions from different characters and wander the vast areas with a breadcrumb trail to follow to your destination and then usually have a slew of enemies to fight. However, on your travels there will be some scattered around which you can try and avoid or take on depending how equipped you feel. As much as it’s an open world game, it’s not littered with repeatable side quests like the typical Ubisoft game which I can appreciate. The actual missions do tend to force you to scour the majority of the large areas at some point so you end up seeing most of what they have to offer but if you venture off the recommended path and search around there are various collectables to find or hidden rare weapons.
Being an abandoned island, there are a few vehicles for you to commandeer and is a particular highlight as there is unquestionable joy in pulverising whole groups of zombies as you run them over (the controls are fairly accessible too). Eventually, after completing specific main missions you will also unlock the ability to Fast Travel to certain locations which is definitely welcome especially if traveling between the four main maps of the game.
Techland also really excelled in the visuals and atmosphere department. Each main map area feels distinct from the other and although there are plenty reused assets within they don’t seem too noticeable or out of place. The game’s setting wonderfully mixes the exotic sun-drenched world of the island resort with the horrors of the zombie apocalypse as you regularly find dead bodies littering swimming pools, blood-stained shanty town alleyways and body parts scattered over the sun-beds on the beach. I love the resort area for this and the jungle setting as well looks absolutely gorgeous with trees enveloping the skyline so it almost feels at times that you are truly isolated in this exotic land.
There are also plenty in-door sections to vary the action and these range from some abandoned buildings, the luxury hotel, a police station and occasional sewer trips. Each of these work to make the world feel lived in and the tension and horror atmosphere definitely ratchets up when you are playing alone.
This is helped with the sinister score composed by Pawel Blaszczak which finely balances the moments of terror and adrenaline with cinematic intensity and then also the quieter moments when you are speaking to victims of the plague with a haunting, solemnity. The tension-filled in-door areas are punctuated with screams of anguish and this carefully managed ambience is incredibly effective at raising the fear levels. Likewise, the general sound design is equally masterful as the roars of the different zombies distinguishes which ones are nearby and they all sound so guttural that you will shudder on occasion.
It’s not all great, though. The main story is a little weak and the cut-scenes are showing their age with some blank stares and awkward movements - such giveaways that this game isn’t a truly modern game. The original release in the PS3 era was criticised for myriad technical issues and I can’t say that I suffered too much of this so likely this remaster has cleaned that out, but there are some strange things I did notice. A missions difficulty would tend to be completely different from when it was first proposed, so it would show as a one star mission that sounds trivial when I have accepted it and then when visited in the Quest Menu system it would display as a four star mission for some inexplicable reason. I had a few other hitches here and there with enemies’ glitching through walls occasionally but nothing game-ruining.
The downloadable content is nice to have packed in but the Arena Mode is not something that excites me and I can imagine is likely more fun with a group. As for the main extra Ryder White campaign, it’s a decent extra four or five hours of story and more linear than the base game, but also noticeably more difficult. With tonnes more enemies flanking you repeatedly until you move on, it doesn’t benefit from the nice pacing of the original game as there is a little too much combat frustration. Although, it has an interesting reveal on the base story ending as it is played concurrently from the character Ryder’s perspective so that may make it worthwhile.
With the extra downloadable content combined with the fact that there is a New Game Plus option (you can retain your upgraded weapons and skill-tree stats while replaying the story through); there is an absurd amount of replayability. Additionally, there are three other characters you can choose which do have slightly different in-game benefits as well and considering the amount of in-game challenges, trophies and collectables to find, this has many hundreds of hours of potential play time ahead. Of course, everyone’s willingness to do all of these will be different and I personally found it hard to really keep going after I completed the Ryder campaign but the option to return is something I can envision doing at some point again (if only to use my snazzy electrical staff once more on those brain-dead mutant scumbags).
Verdict - All in all, Techland’s game is a visceral and unflinching experience with a wealth of dynamic zombie-battering fun. The visuals still hold up, the tone and atmosphere is tremendously creepy at points and the core game-play is ludicrously enjoyable. The slight technical issues and fairly average story slightly hold it back but not by much as this remaster does alleviate the worst issues and downloaded on a base PS4 from PlayStation Now it still runs really well even with lots of zombies on screen. For value for money, it’s unassailable even as a single-player experience and for anyone needing to bash the skulls of the undead with buzz-saw-modded baseball bats, this game is for you.