The zombie game genre is one that has exploded this console generation. With so many different titles nowadays featuring zombies in some aspect, can a bold new contender like Dead Island stand out from the crowd?
I have to be honest with you, I don’t like zombie games. I’ve just never seen the point to the craze. Next to MMOs, (which I’m also not a fan of), I think slaughtering endless amounts of zombies is one of the most repetitive things that a goal in a game could be.
I mention this not only to give you a glimpse of my perspective as I played through this game, but to add more weight to the following statement: I really enjoyed Dead Island.
Dead Island is an interesting mix of games. It’s like someone took the idyllic island paradise of Far Cry, added in the zombie hordes and weapon crafting of Dead Rising 2, and added a touch of RPG elements from Borderlands.
The game begins from a hotel resort on the fictional island of Banoi, located in Papua New Guinea. The morning after one helluva party is the mother of all wake-up calls. Screams are heard throughout the resort, people are running in panic. Somewhere along the line, your character gets knocked out and wakes up surrounded by people on the brink of smashing your brains in due to fear you’re one of the infected. Thankfully they don’t, and you learn that you (and whoever else is playing with you at that point, the game DOES have 4-player co-op afterall), have some magical immunity to whatever has gotten to everyone else.
Players are thrust into the game at that point, assisting the remaining survivors in finding a way off the island that is literally trying to eat them all alive. This is done with a typical quest system. You go to a person, they tell you what to do, you go and do it and you come back at some point to collect rewards. There are numerous main quests, and many more side quests. While main quests obviously advance the plot, side quests will often reap rewards such as massive amounts of XP and cash, as well as unique weapons and blueprints for custom weapons.
It may just be me, but I did a lot of these side quests during the first act of the game (of a total of four, the final of which you cannot access the rest of the map), and did almost none after the first act. They all started getting a little repetitive or didn’t reap as great rewards for the task you were usually given. I did, however, accept any quests given to me on the off chance that I would run into the necessary items or terms on the way of doing the main quests. I think I may have finished about a dozen side quests purely by accident.
But the story shouldn’t be what’s urging gamers along for the ride. The real meat and potatoes of the game comes from chopping up the walking dead into tiny, bloody bits. The combat works very well. Much of the fighting takes a focus on melee combat, although firearms do become more frequent towards the later half of the game. Of the four characters, you have one that specializes in blunt weapons like clubs and pipes, you have a character that specializes in edged weapons like machetes and axes, one who specializes in throwing weapons and one who specializes in firearms.
Oddly, the character you choose has an almost “Pokemon starter effect” on the game. For example, pick the edged weapon specialist for the most fun, and arguably the easier time through the game. Pick the firearms expert for a difficult beginning of the game, but an easier second half. Throwing weapons, especially axes and knives, is incredibly fun but tricky to master. Blunt weapons provide a challenge throughout the whole game. Keep in mind, you’re never limited to one set of weapons specifically, but it’s natural to gravitate more towards what your character specializes in.
Even then, you’ll have access to all sorts of customized weaponry once you find the blueprints and the right parts. Early on I found plans for a mod called the “High Voltage Mod.” This took a blade of some kind, (a machete in my case,) attached batteries to it, and made it into the sharpest cattle prod you had ever seen, doing additional electric damage on top of having the ability to sever limbs.
To add even more to that are the RPG elements snuck into the combat. Killing zombies and fulfilling quests gives you XP, which raises your level. Besides the usual increase in maximum health and other stats, each level unlocks a skill point to put into a number of perks, be it extra damage when attacking something of the opposite sex, allowing a chance to set your enemies on fire when shot or increasing your weapon durability with custom weapons. This is a system that RPG nuts will already be fluent in.
The combat isn’t all perfect, but that’s almost to be expected of a game like this. In my entire career as a gamer, I’ve not once seen first-person melee combat be perfect. Dead Island is, unfortunately, no different. It may be tricky to judge the distance between you and an oncoming maniac to time your swing, especially if you’re lugging around something heavy like a sledgehammer.
However, when the combat works, it works amazingly well. You will find no greater feeling of satisfaction than hearing the scream of an Infected (a class of zombie that runs towards you at top speed), seeing it come at you, winding up and taking it’s head clean off with one well-placed swing of a machete.
This limb severing actually plays into a bit of strategy at times. A good example is when players will be faced with a Thug, a giant zombie that has the ability to knock you back and take half your health with a single, powerful swing. However, if you come at it with a fire axe, duck under its swing and aim for it’s arms, you’ll take its arms off and the Thug will flop about trying to headbutt you into submission, which is also the single most hilarious moment of the entire game.
Much to my surprise, strategy actually plays a big role in a lot of decisions. Similar to the limb severing mentioned above, players who put enough hours in will start to notice certain tactics that make situations easier when there’s very little equipment at hand with very many zombies. An easy example is if you can spot a propane tank nearby.
Pick up the tank and throw it into a pile of zombies. It will knock them over, the game smartly automatically switches to a firearm if you have one, allowing you to cause an explosion, wiping them out. A better example is during one of the final hours of the game. I was just out of reach of a few zombies, completely out of ammo, but I had one molotov left. A bit of patience allowed me to wait until two of the zombies were within the path of the remaining zombie. I tossed the molotov at the two zombies and, as planned, they set on fire and ran into the remaining zombie, setting him on fire. It was only a few seconds until their charred remains were lifeless and it was safe to continue on.
The game is very much about survival. Ammo is limited and your weapons actually break down over time. Health items are broken down into health packs and food, the latter of which must be consumed immediately and can’t be stored, so it may be a better idea to leave it if it’s not entirely necessary. It got to a point later on in the game where I ran from more zombies than I killed because it presented such a thrilling experience. I absolutely love the combat to death, but this running-from-danger approach feels much more like how the game was supposed to be played.
The game is not without its faults, however. While the environments and the zombies themselves look spectacular, there are a few graphical issues here and there. Textures might take a bit to pop-in, most of the weapons you’ll be holding look like plastic, and there were three instances where a cutscene wouldn’t load, so I had to skip it in order to progress. Not only that, but the controls are just a tad too loose. Not game-breaking loose, but it’s something to get used to.
I’d also like to see things like elemental attacks tweaked a bit. I mentioned earlier about the amazing lightning-machete death machine I had concocted early in the game and carried with me all the way until the end credits. Half-a-dozen times I threw this at a zombie while it was standing in water, and half-expected all the other zombies in the water to become electrified like the one that was now neck deep in my favorite machete. This isn’t a deal-breaker either, but instances like this could have provided at least a few more “Whoa, that was cool,” moments.
While the story wasn’t anything spectacular, what really drove me insane was how often the player had to return to certain environments. Early on in the game you have to search the nearly deserted town for supplies like food and
The fastest way to the town was through the sewers. Okay, I can handle that. Later on I needed to get to the jungle, and apparently the only way was through the sewers. That doesn’t quite make sense but I guess I can do that. To return to the resort again I needed to backtrack once again through the sewers.
Once more towards the end of the game I had battled my way through an abandoned warehouse full of zombies for what seemed like hours. The voice guiding me on the radio congratulated me as I got the item I needed….and then told me to go through the same freakin’ sewers again. I rarely curse at games out loud, but this was one of those times. I never want to play another sewer level again!
There also seems to be some continuity issues revolving around the 4-player co-op. For the most part, I played alone, and only allowed someone else to join my game during side quests. While speaking with quest-givers and during cutscenes, there was a big mix up with how many people were actually speaking.
The early cutscenes had only my character, although the NPCs said things like “you guys” and “friends” and “sir” while I was playing a female character. Later on, there were cutscenes with all four characters, and NPCs had reversed the mix-up as if there were only one. Keep in mind, the other three characters do not appear as AI-controlled allies when you’re playing by yourself. Although, that might be a good option that Techland may want to consider for a future patch.
My only other issue with the game was that there was no penalty for dying, other than losing a few bucks. If you die, even alone, you simply respawn five seconds later nearby. All the zombies you killed are still dead, and all the damage you left on the zombies still standing remain. It kind of breaks up the whole survival feeling I mentioned earlier knowing that you’re stuck in the “Bioshock effect” and really aren’t punished for getting yourself stupidly cornered by a herd of zombies. There were a handful of times where I had even accidentally respawned in an incredibly beneficial spot like up out of reach of the zombies or directly on top of my next waypoint.
Besides that, Dead Island is a zombie game that everyone should give a try whether you’re a zombie fan or not. It’s crazy violence, 4-player co-op and combat are enough to satisfy zombie fans, while the open world structure, 20-30 hours of gameplay and RPG elements are enough to make it stand out enough for those who may be sick of zombies by now. Despite a few things that need to be ironed out, Dead Island is a fantastic game.
Dead Island releases on September 6th, 2011 on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. This review is based off of the retail version of the game, which was provided for review purposes.