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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.