Could you kill the ones you love?
Do you remember the teaser trailer for Dead Island? The tandem rewinding and fast forwarding of an innocent family overwhelmed by zombies put Techland’s latest IP on many a gamer’s wish list. So exactly how well does Dead Island capture the excitement of the video’s undead family vacation? Not well I’m afraid, but that doesn’t mean Dead Island is a bad game – far from it.
Dead Island follows the narrative of any zombie movie birthed over the past decade to the letter. Several lucky survivors – our group of playable heroes – are immune to the communicable mutagen plaguing Banoi’s residents, which immediately appoints them to the position of post-apocalyptic errand boys. I will refrain from any major spoilers, but it’s disappointing to say the incoherent story is Dead Island’s weakest element. Initial speculations point to military involvement or extraterrestrial meteors as the source of infection. The actual cause of the disease is eventually revealed, but the explanation is no more exciting and just as ludicrous.
Well at least the protagonists are interesting, right? Wrong. At the start of the game, players are given a choice between four combat-capable individuals, all of whom are similarly uninteresting and emotionally unstable. Purna is a former vice detective and expert marksman, Xian is a master of martial arts with an affinity for edged-blades, Logan is an ex-football star that specializes in throwing knives, and Sam B is a one-hit-wonder rap artist skilled in the use of blunt force weapons.
A quick ground stomp will instantly kill a fallen zombie.
While each champion begins fundamentally equal, spending a few points to upgrade their talent trees can vastly alter the way you tackle gameplay. Even two friends leveling the same character can yield massively different results. My love of swords instantly drew me to Xian. A few levels in, I had increased my stamina and my weapon durability when using scythes, sickles, machetes, etc. By level ten, I had spent points in my Fury tree, which allows Xian to go berserk with a switchblade for several seconds and carve up any zombie types with a single swing, though Dead Island practically necessitates a New Game+ playthrough to max out your character's level, earn better loot, and wreak destruction on the zombified vacationers.
What Dead Island lacks in storytelling it more than makes up for in pure, unadulterated, zombie-slaying goodness. In a world of undead cannibals, it’s all about self-preservation, even though the heroes seem more than eager to fulfill another survivor’s most menial of tasks. Quests range from the typical fetch and escort variety, but the occasional “slaughter all infected in this area” mission permeates your quest log. One moment I was hunting for a mentally unstable woman’s teddy bear, the next I was gunning down human psychopaths that seized the local police station. There is something to be said about Dead Island’s staggering length. My first playthrough concluded just before the 25-hour mark, yet I still had leftover side quests to complete.
Unfortunately, Dead Island’s coat of polish wears thing before players even get to the combat. The survivors’ movements are awkward – almost animatronic. The locals must be masters of ventriloquism too, because no one's dialogue matches their lip syncs, facial expressions, or body movements. Forming an emotional attachment to any of the characters or their backstories is arduous when not once during their hysterical diatribes of sadness and regret do they shed a tear. The blurry aura encompassing several NPCs is also pixelated, and the flaw only becomes more apparent the more you increase the gamma.
"Axe me a question."
Stepping out of a straw-roofed bungalow to confront my first zombie victims, however, I was immediately sold on Banoi’s sense of scale. The environments are nothing short of impressive. Sprinting around the circumference of the starting area alone can take upwards of 30 minutes real-time. New locations provide a distinct atmosphere, driving home the ominous realization: You are alone. No one is safe as barriers once thought impenetrable are overrun and the inhabitants devoured. Denizens of the city’s slums run amok in the streets while the survivors barricade themselves behind thrift store doors. Screams of distant zombies echo throughout the jungle’s lush treetop canopies. A not-so-secret laboratory accommodates the only remaining scientists bent on curing the epidemic, and an isolated prison is now ruled by the inmates it once enslaved.
In a game pushed to its limits with the already insane amount of graphical detailing, the variation amongst the living dead is extraordinary. From prison guards to spring break partygoers, all of the island’s occupants have succumbed to the virus. Blood drips from their frothing mouths. Exposed ribs and dangling flesh show their human existence did not end without conflict. A lack of appendages implies damage from other survivors. Those of you with a keen eye may notice the occasional reused character model, but in the heat of battle, limb dismemberment takes precedence over whether or not the zombie you just slaughtered had nine twin brothers.
But unsurprisingly, being that this is an open-world game, Dead Island is not without encumbrances. Infrequently, I encountered major draw distance issues. Buildings and walls I was standing 20 feet from refused to render. I experienced a few crippling glitches that impeded my further side questing, too. After fast traveling back to the overt, jungle laboratory, several of the scientists were missing. The exclamation marks that indicated their current positions were still in place, but their bodies, both living and dead, disappeared. I resorted to a quick reboot of my game, but I've seen worst-case scenarios where branches of questing shut down completely for less fortunate players.
Great, now we have Hannibal Lecter on steroids.
No matter your preference of zombie type, Dead Island has got you covered. Walkers are the slow, shambling moaners that take an incredible amount of stupidity to get eaten by in movies. The Infected are more of 28 Days Later fame. These adrenaline-fueled monsters run down their prey without rest. If not kept in check, just two of these screaming psychos can overpower any brave warrior. Thugs are the more durable, brutish of their undead brethren. These meatheads are slow-moving and easy to anticipate, but they pack one hell of a punch.
Dead Island’s brand of special infected are even more formidable. The Ram is the tank class. Despite his arms being bound by an industrial straightjacket, this seven-foot behemoth has no qualms charging into the fray to trample any oblivious fighters. The Suicider has a more explosive personality. This nightmarish creature is covered in boils that contain enough lethal force to immediately incapacitate any survivor (or zombie) caught in the blast radius. The Floater is most reminiscent of Left 4 Dead’s Boomer. Their bodies have been left to stagnate in pools of water and sewage, turning their flesh opaque and bloating their organs – their intestines can be seen through their skin. These festering dead spew forth flammable bile that disorients their victims. The final special infected, the Butcher, is a bit of a surprise. I was half-expecting a mutated lab experiment with cleavers for hands, but instead of kitchen utensils, the Butcher’s forearms have been sharpened to a point. This agile freak of nature is not afraid of close-quarter skirmishes, heedlessly charging forward to stun and interrupt your melees.
Dead Island includes two discrete control schemes for the zombie slayer in training. Digital controls are simple enough. Pull the right trigger and your character swings his or her weapon. Like I said, simple. But when you break off the training wheels and switch to Analog controls, Dead Island feels truly rewarding. Players hold the left trigger to ready their stance and use the right analog stick to mimic a swinging motion for those precise dismemberments and decapitations. For instance, target a Thug’s arm: Break the bones and he will no longer be able to fight with that appendage. Sever his remaining arm, and now his only means of attack become headbutting and biting. The damage models are gruesome to say the least. Watching a zombie’s limb hang limply by its side with nothing but bundles of tendons to hold the digit in place is not for the easily unsettled.
Like Dead Space, dismemberment is key. Take off a zombie's arms to reduce its hand-to-hand capabilities.
Banoi is not exactly the most militaristic of exotic getaways. While players will discover a handful of shotguns, pistols, and assault rifles to deal with the infected horde, the combat of Dead Island is melee-centric. Anything and everything can be used as a weapon. After punching a handful of zombies to their untimely demise, that broomstick suddenly becomes a more viable option. Further exploration rewards you with a baseball bat, then a sledgehammer, then an axe, and my personal favorite, the katana.
Weapons can be upgraded, created, traded, and repaired to deal more grisly injuries. Find a couple batteries and some wire? Now your machete electrocutes your dimwitted foes. Want to drench a rag-wrapped bat in lighter fluid? Great, now you can enlighten that zombie’s day with a good torching. The concept is similar to that penned by Dead Rising 2, but you won’t be running around with Bowie knives taped to boxing gloves here. However, after spending the healthy few grand to augment and repair my favorite arsenal of toys, the weapons still deteriorate too quickly. I fought halfway across the city’s slums before I was reduced to a collection of fractured scrap metal. Considering the initially limited number of inventory slots, having to stop every two minutes to mend broken equipment only detracts from the immersion.
Perhaps the biggest inclusion to Techland’s new IP is the addition of four-player, drop-in/drop-out co-op; Dead Island is almost built around it, and there are far fewer experiences more exhilarating and enjoyable than hacking apart undead with your friends. If you want to ignore all dialogue and kick infected around like a schoolyard game of hacky sack or engage in a game of last man standing among the city’s well-populated streets, Dead Island delivers.
The lack of linearity turns the locales into a proverbial zombie playground. Stats and weapons earned in co-op will carry over between single-player and multiplayer, but mission tracking will not. The Nearby system can instantly match your story progress with another player online in the same, general area. Your current progress is then saved and can be continued at any time once you return to the title screen. If you’re looking for a more solitary adventure, though, the feature can be turned off from the main menu.
Firearms are rare. Modify weapons to get more use out of standard tools, including the traditional nail bat.
Dead Island often forgets people can play the game alone, sadly, at least in terms of difficulty balance. During one particularly frustrating section later in the story, I was tasked with protecting native tribal leader Ope while he led me to the catacombs of his ancestors. (Keep in mind, I was soloing this specific scenario.) We stumbled into his once peaceful village only to encounter a Butcher, Thug, several Infected, and half a dozen Walkers. I initially activated my Fury to swiftly dwindle their numbers, but while I was preoccupied fending off ten overpowered zombies, the lumbering Thug pummeled Ope. I changed my strategy.
I equipped a handful of molotovs to set the mentally lacking drones ablaze, but Ope thought he would join in the fireworks by charging headlong into the flames. Reload checkpoint. I tried a mix of letting him distract the narrow-minded zombies while I executed them from behind … to no avail. The aggravation continued for ten solid minutes as I exploited any advantage to gain the upper hand. I finally managed to subdue all my opponents, but only after a multitude of flawless dismemberments and sheer, dumb luck. I can’t help but feel the needless frustration could have been averted if I had brought along a competent friend to even the odds.
So if you’re the individual with a dissertation of 38 intricately detailed zombie plans nailed to your closet door (Be honest, aren’t we all?), is Dead Island worth the return on investment? Yes. The developers at Techland have crafted the most ambitious first-person, horror-themed, apocalyptic action RPG on consoles to date; there is nothing on the market that compares. Dead Island takes the expansive exploration of Fallout, the weapon looting of Borderlands, and the melee combat of Left 4 Dead, crams all these features onto a DVD and yet never lives up to the quality of the epics from which it draws inspiration. The plot is clichéd and glitches hinder mission progress, but the pros far outweigh the cons. If outstanding co-op, open environments, gut-wrenching fistfights, loot hoarding, and zombies are bullet points on your video game checklist, Dead Island remains an exceptional post-summer surprise that will shatter your expectations, and maybe sever their limbs as well.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: September 6, 2011
Number of Players: 1-4 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC