Dead Island Review

Publisher: Deep Silver / Developer: Techland / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol) / Price: $59.99

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On paper, Dead Island has all the ingredients for the perfect zombie game: a big open world with gameplay that’s not focused on high-impact action but rather on moment-to-moment survival; an atmosphere that’s tense, yet serene; a game that secretly makes you hope you’re alive for the real zombie apocalypse. Unfortunately it’s hamstrung by some frustratingly shortsighted design decisions and a laundry list of technical problems. Dead Island should have been the zombie game you always wanted. But it’s not.

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Story

When you start Dead Island, you pick one of four different characters. Xian Mei, a resort employee, Sam B, a rap star, Logan, a former pro football player, and Purna, a Sydney police officer. Similar to Borderlands, each character acts as a separate class distinguished by their expertise in different weapons. Xian is an expert with sharp weapons, Sam B skilled with blunt weapons (and smoking blunts, for that matter), Logan throws weapons, and Purna is an expert with firearms.

The characters’ back stories are summed up in a quick, voiced-over blurb at the selection screen. From that point on, you get a quip about zombies here or there and a couple of lines of dialogue in a cut scene and that’s about it for character development.

The main plot line goes something like this: you wake up from a night of crazy partying on the resort island of Banoi to discover that the dead have risen and are eating the living. What caused the zombie outbreak isn’t clear but you’re told that you are immune to whatever is causing the zombie-inducing virus, making you the perfect errand boy (or girl) for all the other survivors on the island.

If you were expecting an experience more substantial than “Oh shit, zombies. Let’s hit them with things,” then you may be disappointed. Occasionally, Dead Island makes a half-hearted attempt to elicit an emotional reaction via gentle piano music overlaying a slow-motion cut scene, but these moments usually end up being more unintentionally humorous than dramatic.

Dead Island isn’t the kind of game that requires a deep story or broad character arcs. It’s a game that demands zombies and bats with nails embedded in them. However, a point to pull me into the world would have been appreciated. Without an investment in the story or characters, it’s easy to wonder why you’re even here.

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Gameplay

Comparing Dead Island to games like Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising may be tempting due to the high consistent zombie slaughter, but it’s more like Oblivion or maybe Far Cry 2. Like those games, Dead Island is filled with an almost insane amount of content to consume. But what Dead Island has in quantity, it lacks in quality.

Whether plotting the core story course or embarking on the numerous side missions, Dead Island requires completing way too many mundane fetch quests. Through completing these quests, you earn XP, level up, and upgrade your character’s skills in one of three different trees. These heavy RPG elements are welcome because there’s just not a whole lot to the quests themselves. Traveling from one spot on the island to another to pick up a container of fuel or some cans of food becomes tedious really quickly–even when you have to deal with zombies everywhere you go.

In fact, dealing with the zombies could be the most double-edged aspect of Dead Island. On one hand, the combat system is hampered by needless restrictions. Other than an occasional shootout sequence Dead Island is a melee-centric game. Your attacks and movements are dictated by a stamina meter. If you sprint, jump, or swing a weapon, your stamina meter is drained. When the meter is empty, you must wait for it to refill before reentering the fray. I understand part of this decision is to keep you engaged and add some depth to an otherwise rather shallow combat system but, in practice, it feels like a really archaic and contrived attempt at game balance. Also, there’s no block button. The system would have benefited greatly from a block button.

But perhaps the most confusing design decision in Dead Island is the durability (or lack thereof) of your weapons. Don’t get too attached to that sweet knife or awesome baseball bat because it will break. Really quickly. I’m talking like after killing five or six zombies. It means you spend as much time scrounging for things to hit zombies with as you spend actually hitting them. I get that this is meant to create a sense of tension, but all too often I was exploring the world of Dead Island with no functional weapons to be found, in my inventory or otherwise. This resulted in a lot of frustrating and undeserved deaths.

But Dead Island’s combat is not all bad. You can repair and upgrade weapons at various work benches scattered across the island. They’re generally too few and far between (not to mention expensive) to alleviate the previously mentioned weapon durability induced insanity but, as you come across different weapon mod blueprints and the materials needed to craft them, you could end up with some pretty bitching creations. Smash a zombie upside the head with a flaming bat and or slice them with an electrified machete for exquisite satisfaction.

Dead Island is also riddled with technical problems. Between glitchy inventory menus, broken quest lines, and abysmal co-op AI that makes the handful of required escort missions a chore, it’s pretty clear that Dead Island could have used a few months in the oven.

(Note: Deep Silver has promised a day one patch to fix these and a handful of other problems)

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Multiplayer

If you’ve got a few friends (up to three to be exact), co-op is the way to play Dead Island. Similar to how I felt in Borderlands, playing with others humans in Dead Island tends to take the focus off of the negative aspects of the game and reapply it to having dumb fun with friends. It’s important to note that you probably shouldn’t ever bring anyone that’s a significantly lower level than you into your game. This is because A) they will obviously not be able to take on zombies that are much higher levels than they are, and B) they will not be able to make any mission progress. On the other hand, if you are a higher-level character and enter a lower level character’s game, you guys can both make story progress.

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Visuals

The technical problems aren’t just limited to gameplay. For starters, Dead Island has some of the most brutal texture pop-in and lighting I’ve ever seen. Some of the artifacting is so bad that backgrounds during conversations become indistinguishable blocks of color. And the facial animations are, let’s just say, not very good. On a macro level, however, Dead Island ain’t too shabby looking. The sense of scale and environmental variety remain impressive through out the game.

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Bottom Line

I get what Techland wanted to accomplish with Dead Island. I really do. Unfortunately their goal of creating an epic, apocalyptic first-person zombie survival game ends up cracking under the weight of their own ambition. A smaller scale and some more time in development and Dead Island could have been the zombie game we’ve always wanted.

6.5/10

  1. Pingback: An Optimistic Consideration Of Growing Critical Dissent Within The Video Game Industry | Shoot, Melee, Reload

  2. Dead Island is very lucky that it’s a zombie game, as I’m a survival horror enthusiast, and I really want to like it and give it the benefit of the doubt. But there are so many flaws in the design that it’s hard to play it for more than 2 hours without getting pissed off at it. In fact, it’s probably quicker to list the things they got right. There’s a nice selection of low-level zombies, with different behaviors and needing different tactics to handle effectively. I also like how you can toggle between walking and running by pushing in the movement stick — I wish more games did this. The weapon modding system is pretty deep, and you can make some fun weapons, like electrified machetes. Throwing molotov cocktails around is fun, and the game can get genuinely creepy at times. That’s about all they got right.

    The inventory system is just stupid and broken, which makes the game a lot harder than it needs to be (I have to equip medkits into a weapon slot and “attack” to use them?! wtf!). And why the hell does alcohol count as a weapon? And if alcohol counts as a weapon, why doesn’t champagne?! Make your minds up! The game is riddled with stupid inconsistencies like this. Also, you can’t pick up most health items to take along with you, you just use them on the spot, even if you’re already at full health. So you’ll end up in low health situations, wasting time running back to where you last saw some energy drinks, so that you can drink them and then run back to where you got beaten up in the first place. Just let me pick the damn things up, like every other game made in the last 5 years…

    I actually regret advancing the storyline to the point where the suiciders start showing up. These bastards explode when they die, almost always taking you with them. Sure, you could probably shoot them from a distance, but I’ve seen about 3 guns and 3 bullets in 20 hours of play. In a melee-heavy game, this is just a low, shitty, cheap game mechanic, again making the game unsatisfyingly difficult for no good reason. Then again, as dying has no real effect other than costing you around 10% of your money (why?), it’s probably not too bad. Bad luck though if you do run out of cash though, as you’ll need money to repair your weapons — am I repairing my knives by wrapping them in dollar bills?! What the hell?

    Most of the survivors on the island are stupid and lazy, and don’t really deserve to be saved. Each character has approximately 3 lines of dialogue, which they insist on repeating in their stupid made-up accents over and over everytime you come within 6 feet of them. “Its’ a jambo jit, not a needle in a ‘aystack. Its’ a jambo jit, not a needle in a ‘aystack. Its’ a jambo jit, not a needle in a ‘aystack. Its’ a jambo jit, not a needle in a ‘aystack.” OK, OK, I GET IT! PLEASE. SHUT. UP! Fortunately, the vocals have their own volume level in the options, so you can mute them out and rely on the subtitles instead. This does mean the voice recording was a total waste of time and money for everyone involved.

    The traders are a rip off, or they would be if they actually had anything useful to sell you (like, say, ammo) — they really only serve as somewhere to dump excess inventory for small amounts of cash, which is a tiny bit better than just dropping stuff you’ve picked up. There’s a rumor that if you have too many items in your inventory at once it will crash the game, possibly corrupting the save file. Given the state of the rest of the game, I can believe this. Don’t get too attached to your inventory in any case – expect items and weapons you’re carrying to disappear randomly for no reason other than general bugginess.

    Oh yeah — this is a fun one — you can’t actually *save* the game manually, so expect to lose up to the last 10-15 minutes of progress every time you quit the game and load it back up later. Has anyone on the design team actually played a videogame before? What is this I don’t even

    This could have been an awesome game, if the designers had focussed on making a set of consistent gameplay rules, letting the combat system stand for itself, and allowing a compelling story to unfold. But it seems like most of their time was spent inventing pointless and arbitrary hoops for the player to jump through in order to get anywhere in the game. Oh well, at least driving trucks through the sea is kind of fun, even though it makes as much sense as the rest of the game. On the plus side, I have a new-found appreciation for the first Dead Rising, which also has its own quirks and flaws, but it’s nowhere near as flawed as Dead Island.

    Playing Dead Island is like ordering a $50 steak at a restaurant, only to have it served on a garbage can lid with plastic cutlery, and a with a shit sandwich on the side – you really want to enjoy it, but everything about the experience undermines your ultimate satisfaction.

  3. Finally finished this game after over a year of effort. My conclusion is as follows:

    Gameplay is lacking. The hand-to-hand combat is a good start, but not flushed out enough. Any sections involving guns was always clunky and annoying. Making the melee weapons stronger might have made them more bearable, but this is alright.

    Graphically, the game is on and off. It certainly is pretty to look at, but pop ins are too often. The scale they accomplished with the island is sweet. The lack of any facial signs make these people look like zombies themselves…

    I’d easily give it a 7 out of 10. Wish they’d make a full blown sequel…

  4. So this was an interesting read.

    I’ve just finished the game and didn’t experience any of the negative things mentioned in the article or comments.

    The writer mentions not being able to play with good quality weapons, or having to repair them etc etc … I didn’t have one problem finding ‘full health’ weapons. The fact that I choose to play as the cop from Sydney who is suppose to be a firearms expert, but there being a distinct lake of firearms in the early part of the game did annoy me though.

    If you’re dying to Suiciders then you can’t play the game properly, or simply missed the easy tactic to defeating them – move close to them, then sprint away … easy.

    I never once had anything ‘disappear’ from my inventory.

    I agree that ‘equipping’ med kits into a ‘weapon slot’ to heal is a little odd, and was also frustrated that you couldn’t collect healing items – but having only ‘died’ 6 times (due to bad timing or stupid mistakes) in the whole game, staying ‘healthy’ wasn’t too much of an issue

    I actually enjoyed the no-save ‘feature’ – too many gamers rely on this type of ‘tactic’ to progress in a game such as this – “I’ll save here in case I die” mentality – playing until a checkpoint pops up is pretty easy.

    I really enjoyed this game, as with all games there will always be things that could have been done better/differently but on a whole, I had a great time! For the price I paid on Steam, the 33 hours of game play to finish all side quests and main story line was well worth it.

  5. I really enjoy this game, its like the zombie game I have been waiting for. I don’t have any complaints, this is how a zombie game should be. Hard , tricky and scary. Weapons break fast , forces ypu to scavange for money. But if you are going to enjoy this game don’t think about realistic stuff, zombies are not realistic either. The characters are all lame , thats one thing tho. Many things could have been done better I know , but what game could not ?
    I want to rate this game 6/6 but i can’t because of the lacks of many small details , even tho I dont care much abouy them 5/6. The best zombie game so far, want to try dayz :)

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