Dead Island has a long and difficult history for a game with such a short life. It was a game that seemed destined to find itself in the graveyard with thousands of games that just never quite survived the development process. I first heard about Dead Island nearly two years ago and back then the details were a little wishy-washy. Was this going to be a first person shooter? Was it going to be an RPG? Was it yet another zombie game? I’m going to make it easy on you: yes, yes and yes.
Who do you voodoo?
There’s not a whole lot to the story in Dead Island. The opening credit sequence attempts to give you a little preview as to when and how the events transpired by showing a nightly party on the island of Banoi. From your perspective, you’re drunk out of your mind and stumbling around the concert, running into one of the four characters you can play as. This makes for a real out of the body experience because supposedly you pass out back in the room that you wake up in, but we’ll keep that little hiccup for later.
You stumble into Logan, who is a washed-up has-been pro football player who has a drinking problem (clearly). You then get up on stage to do a little more drinking and dancing to Sam B’s one-time hit, “Who do you voodoo?” You, of course, piss off Sam B and get thrown back into the crowd. The next playable character, Purna, is less than impressed with you and pretty much shuns you on sight. A guard attempts to help you on your feet and gets attacked by a rabid infected, splattering blood all over you. Your next instinct sends you to what appears to be the women’s restroom to wash up where you find the final playable character, Xian Mei, tending to a woman who has passed out and likely has a mean case of the zabies (zombie-rabies).
Finally you work your way to your hotel room to pass out. A successful drunken night, indeed. You wake up right where you pass out in the opening credits. Confusing,I know. At some point you must have gotten into a scuffle with yourself. Who cares! What a party!
A beautiful atmosphere of destruction
Perhaps the most breathtaking part of the game is how the environment that you’ve seen with beer goggles is completely torn apart. Which begs the question, “How long was I out?” The entire island is in shambles. The zombie outbreak really must have taken control very quickly in this case. There’s something surreal about how the island still holds many of its innermost beauties: the sun, beaches, tiki huts, jungle landscape and so on. At the same time, however, it’s covered in blood and destruction.
You will be traveling by foot or by vehicle everywhere you go. It’s a pretty big island with an open world concept somehow. That’s impressive. The game at times still seems to struggle with dealing with overzealous gamers who like to investigate every square inch of the game. If you try to swim off the island you don’t die. You’re transported back to the nearest shore. It feels like a small disconnect in otherwise a brutally detailed world.
The lighting is fantastic throughout Dead Island. You’ll come across the warm sun, damaged lights, flickering lights, fire-lighting effects and sometimes nearly no light at all. Your flashlight will become useful in many scenarios, but like all 300 kilowatt flashlights it will die relatively quickly to leave you back in the dark where you came. Don’t worry. Shake the light, give it time and it will be back on in no time.
So many zombies, so much fighting
The most unique feature of Dead Island is the combat system as it doesn’t quite feel like any zombie-killing game to date.
The game is in first person the entire time. Most of the fighting is done by brutal melee weapons. It will be rare to ever run low on weapons to use on Banoi as there are plenty of island themed tools of zombie destruction available. You’ll find things like paddles on beaches, knives in kitchens and stores, baseball bats in the city and many more. The weapons degrade as you use them, and you’ll be forced to repair them over time. Guns are available, and ammunition is limited on the resort island until you get in the inner city of Moresby. When you reach the city you’re met with crowded streets of the undead, so guns can be useful. Be aware of the cues the game gives you as to how many zombies there are on top of what types of zombies may be lurking nearby.
The combat system feels relatively fluid until you’re swarmed by zombies. This is okay. I imagine that’s how it would feel when you’re really swarmed by the undead. You can resort to kicking, punching, stabbing and just about everything in between to fight the horde away. Unfortunately, there’s a stamina meter that will quickly evaporate if you’re not careful. If things get too hot, you can jump away, sprint or climb ladders to escape. Perhaps the saving grace for your stamina is the ability to kick the undead when they’re down, per se. Actually, no, exactly that. When you knock an enemy down, you can save a ton of energy by repeatedly kicking them. This is both fun and extremely satisfying if you’re having a bad zombie day. Dismembering your enemies is another great way to render the undead helpless to catch a breath and to have a little fun with them.
Enemies of all shapes and sizes
It would be boring if all zombies were slow and shambling. In most cases, sprinting away from these zombies when you’re “not in the mood” is pretty easy. That would make the game rather dull. So why not spice it up with other zombies? Among the slow, lumbering zombies you’ll get a wide range of undead to do battle. The special zombies are the more dangerous ones whereas the common zombies are only dangerous in large numbers or when grouped together with other specials. These zombies all have unique attacks and qualities about them to pose a threat to your livelihood. You may have to experiment with how to do battle with them to find your niche combat strategy. Also, the zombies aren’t the only dangerous inhabitants as there are survivors on Dead Island that would assume it’s safer to just kill you.
A minor complaint is that your enemies will tend to level up with the player. This isn’t all bad, but it can make the game feel grueling at times as you’re trying to wade through a sea of undead. Personally, I would have liked to have only the special infected level up and have the game throw more of the common horde my way. I understand why they did this, but it has been an issue in other open world RPGs and I didn’t like it there either.
Bring your friends
Dead Island is built from the ground up to play with your friends. The story can be played in single player while adding and dropping co-op players at your leisure without skipping a beat. Not surprisingly, this game is much better with your friends than when you’re alone. The undead come in larger numbers, you can accomplish multiple goals at the same time, and it’s damned fun to beat on undead as a team. There is a huge adrenaline rush when you and three of your friends find yourselves pinned down with an oncoming horde with nothing but rickety wooden sticks and kitchen knives.
Side missions are thankfully often found along the path you’re taking in the main storyline, and they are important to the game by allowing you to earn money or unlock modifications for your weapons. Very rarely do you have to go out of your way to find side missions, but the side missions do begin to feel like work rather than satisfying diversions. Choose your missions wisely or else you’ll find yourself saying, “You’re on your own, old lady.”
A zombie game with RPG (ZRPG?) elements is a rare gem to find. Besides the missions element of the game there are carefully constructed skill trees for you to customize your chosen character with abilities that best suit your playing style. You can become a jack of all trades or master a few set skills, it’s up to you. Each character has three skill trees to build, but each character’s skill tree is different. Logan’s skills focus on throwing weapons, Sam B likes to pummel things, Purna shoots stuff and Xian Mei can wield some mean cutlery.
A glitchy adventure
Dead Island attempts to break the mold in the traditional zombie genre and I believe it does. Unfortunately, while trying to cover so much ground, the game is left with an assortment of glitches that still plague the game as I am writing. Not all glitches are bad, however, and some often add pretty hilarious results to the game when you are feeling a bit overwhelmed what you are trying to accomplish. As your proceed and the game gets more and more intense, you may come across more out of place glitches or loopholes. This really can take away the immersion factor that the game desperately attempts to provide. Some glitches can be game-breaking, which many players reported from day one. Sadly, some glitches can even break the game completely.
You can play through the game multiple times so you may find yourself wanting to complete the game in a streamlined manner the first playthrough and then finding all the easter eggs and completing the side missions. You may find yourself skipping quests just to “get it over with” more than wanting to know what a side mission may provide. Dead Island is a solid game, but the pacing of the game coupled with various glitches can make it feel like a chore more than a game by the end. Despite some of these setbacks, I still found myself coming back to Dead Island because the dismemberment and sheer brutality I can unleash on the undead horde is just too much fun with my friends.
Giant Bomb (images)