With word spreading across the internet like wildfire due to their controversial and publicity grabbing trailer, Dead Island’s hype level went through the roof, and as such the game had a lot to live up to. With very little information released at first, Techland kept gamers guessing as to what type of game to expect. However, one thing that was clear from the word go, was that we were looking at another zombie survival horror game. As more information slowly but steadily trickled onto our laps, it was revealed that the game was a free roaming first-person action game with underlying role playing elements such as experience, skill trees and weapon customisation. The zombie genre has been battered to death (pun intended), but does Dead Island re-invent this stereotype in an attempt to set itself apart? Read on to find out.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Dead Island sets the tone early on by putting you in the shoes of a very drunken male in the middle of a busy nightclub during the opening cutscene. Not knowing what to expect after sliding in the game disc, watching an intoxicated character stumble around and bump into various people (we’ve all been that guy before) through a first person perspective is the last thing you will anticipate. After getting shoved over by a few angry people, shit begins to hit the fan. A kind aging man that offers to take you back to your hotel room (in a totally non-perverse way), gets violently side swiped by a bikini clad woman, spurting blood across your face in the process. Things start to get a bit eerie, and the cutscene ends with the character passing out on a bed feeling sorry for himself. After selecting your character, the game picks up right where the cutscene ended, except this time you are controlling the undoubtedly hungover mystery person. There are multiple bodies strewn around the hotel complex, and no sign of another living being. Emphasis on the living there, because as expected it’s not long until you encounter the first of many brain munching zombies. With a guiding hand it’s not long until you find yourself amongst a small group of fellow survivors, and you learn that you are somehow immune to whatever is zombifying people.
From this point the Dead Island plot progresses through the form of main quests, coupled with optional side quests. Without giving too much away, the main quest involves getting to the bottom of the infection, as well as finding a way off the fictional island of Banoi. Side quests crop up regularly as you embark along the main story line, and primarily involve carrying out tasks for other survivors such as finding items or rescuing loved ones. Although the side quests are optional they are the key to obtaining powerful weapons and experience, and ignoring them will cost you dearly in the long run.
Dead Island’s story is not the deepest you’ll ever experience, but that seems to be a rarity in today’s big releases. It does fulfill its purpose of motivating you to carry on, but that’s about it. Dead Island’s strongest points most definitely lie elsewhere.
In the very early stages of Dead Island, the graphics seem to be far from ground breaking. Interiors can be very samey, with props heavily reused and a wish wash of dull colours. The zombies themselves look fantastic, but it’s not until you step into the warm sunshine that you really appreciate what Techland have done with the environment. Lush tropical palm trees sporadically line the wooden decked paths, and bright shafts of sunlight light realistically illuminate the area, creating an impressive level of immersion. Clear blue sea gently laps upon the silky blood soaked white sand, and flies buzz around decomposing corpses in a pulsating harmony. The island of Banoi would truly be a paradise holiday location, if it wasn’t for the locals.
Dead Island definitely pushes the current generation of consoles to their limits, and roaming the fictional location is a joy throughout the game. Most building layouts are the same, but with items such as wardrobes, beds and chairs arranged slightly differently each time. In the first area you must enter a large hotel complex, forcing you to leave the comfort of the bright sunshine. The dimly lit ransacked interior of the building drastically changes the tone of the game in a good way, with your flashlight dancing off blood stained walls and into the lifeless eyes of your foes. It’s clear that Techland focused the bulk of their efforts in creating a realistic and believable atmosphere, placing the player in an unpoppable bubble of immersion. On the flipside, this is also one of the game’s shortcomings. Pumping the console’s power into making the game look sexy actually jeopordises the gameplay. You wont find any Left 4 Dead style hordes in this game, rarely encountering more than 7 or 8 zombies at once, something which might well leave a lingering taste of disappointment.
The audio in Dead Island serves it’ purpose well enough, but not a lot can be said about it on top of that. Random unearthly screams echo through the island, keeping you on your toes and making you wonder what’s around the next corner. Blunt weapons like metal pipes and maces make satisfying crunching noises when smashing through flesh. However, the dialogue repetition of non-playable characters in the quest hub areas can become ever so slightly annoying. One particular character constantly repeats how he “should of gone with James”, whilst another shouts out “don’t sneak up on me like that, I could of blown your brains out.” every single time you walk past him.
As you slowly make your way deeper into the dark hotel complex, desperately trying to find your bearing, your torch swings around erratically. You wonder when you’re going to be spotted by a rotting zombie looking for its next meal. A loud groan echoes through the large swimming pool, the area you happen to be in. Looking up, you spot a “thug” through an overlooking window, one of Dead Island’s toughest opponents. The hulking beast hadn’t spotted you yet, so you closely hug the wall underneath its vantage point, edging your way to the next objective.
Up a staircase you go, ignoring the masses of blood smeared across the wall, opening various luggage cases on route, hoping to find a weapon to replace the nearly broken kitchen knife with. It’s your lucky day, one of the larger cases contains a shiny, well made butchers knife. Turning the corner, you find yourself in a large room divided up by private offices, each with a large glass window. You notice a corpse was sprawled out in the middle of the hallway. “Another zombie that’s going to spring to life when I get near to it”, you think. You charge it, thrashing wildly, sending blood chunks of flesh everywhere. It’s definitely dead, a sense of relief comes over you.
Sadly, it only lasts for a split second. You notice a dark shape moving in the office to your left. Before you have time to react, the zombie smashes through the glass and viciously grabs you by the throat. After a brief moment of struggle, you manage to throw the zombie onto the floor. Before he has time to recover, you pounce with your newly found butcher’s knife and make short work of the unarmoured beast, slicing off arms and legs as it slowly drags itself back to it’s feet. Finally, you line up your knife against the zombie’s head and deliver a fatal chop to its neck. Before you move on though, you catch a glimpse of the shocked look on the zombie’s face as its decapitated head slowly spins through the air.
If all that sounds like fun, it is. Dead Island’s combat is seriously entertaining, and the burden of fighting enemies never becomes tiresome. What weapons you use is mainly dictated by the character you chose at the beginning of the game. Logan, for example, is a professional American football player who specialises in throwing. As such, his “special” ability involves rapidly throwing small knives which hit multiple targets. It’s extremely powerful and allows you to effortlessly mow down waves of zombies. However, this ability can only be used when your fury meter is full, which can be achieved by killing zombies. Characters also possess three skill trees, which mostly contain passive abilities such as a small chance your thrown weapon boomerangs back into your hand, or increasing the rate at which your fury meter refills. These skill trees give you an incentive to level up, spurring you on to complete the optional side quests.
Each area of Banoi is divided up between quest hub areas, following the RPG stereotype nicely. Within these hubs are multiple survivors, who are willing to hand over cash, weapons and items in exchange for small tasks to be completed. These tasks can range from fetching more booze to searching for lost loved ones, or even recovering a favorite teddy bear. As mentioned previously, they are optional, but you will struggle to become a powerful, badass zombie slayer without doing them. The main quest and optional quests run alongside each other nicely, meaning you rarely have to trek across the island to carry out a simple task. The difference between them is mainly the difficulty of the tasks, and the progression of the storyline.
“Vendors” also reside in these hubs, allowing you to sell unwanted items for more cash and purchase weapons. The latter aspect is where Dead Island really shines. On your travels you can pick up pretty much anything to bash zombie heads with, such as paddles, pipes, knives and even hat stands. However, if you really want to inflict damage, it’s best to create your own weapons. Throughout the game you will obtain weapon blueprints, one of the first being the Nail’d mod. As it sounds this involves combining a weapon such as a baseball bat with nails, creating a brutal spikey bat of death. Other items can be “Nail’d”, but they have to be listed in the blueprint. For example, you can’t hammer spikes through your favourite machete. There are multiple blueprints to collect, and they succeed at mixing up the combat throughout the game. There are also guns in the game, but ammunition is scarce. In any case, it’s far more fun getting up close and personal with the living dead.
One gripe is how quickly weapons degrade when they are used. The more broken a weapon is, the less damage it does. You might as well be hitting a zombie with a feather duster if you’re weapon is on its last legs. Saying that though, weapons can be repaired at a workbench (the same place you create weapon mods), but these are mainly located at the quest hubs. There are skills that reduce the rate at which weapons degrade, but it’s still quite annoying when you get caught in an awkward situation with only a flimsy kitchen knife to protect yourself with.
You might be surprised to hear that death in the world of Dead Island isn’t really that much of an inconvenience. When you finally get overrun by dribbling heaps of flesh, you will respawn nearby a mere 5 seconds later. The only downside is the loss of a small amount of cash, but unless you are terrible at this game you aren’t going to find yourself bankrupt at any time soon. Any damage you managed to inflict with your wildly flailing arms in your last desperate moments will still remain, meaning you can quickly run back and finish off the job.
The amount of entertainment Dead Island creates sky rockets through the roof when you pair up with a mate in co-op mode. It’s simple to invite your friends into your game or join theirs. You can literally be double teaming zombies within seconds. There are restrictions in place however, meaning you can only join someone’s game if they are of an equal or lesser level.
Like everything, Dead Island doesn’t come without its shortcomings. Questing can be very cumbersome at times, mainly due to the map not being very clear and sending you in completely wrong direction. Movement in general feels clunky and stiff, and combined with dodgy collision detection, combat can become frustrating in places. Cars can be used to get from A to B, mowing down zombies on your way, but they have the turning circle of a three legged horse. That might a little harsh on the horse though, sorry.
If you check your in-game stats at around 5 hours in, you’ll probably find that you’ve completed 16% through of the main story. If you do the maths, that means Dead Island will easily take you around 30 hours to finish up. That includes doing the majority side missions and a little bit of messing around, such as trying to do barrel rolls in a car or toying with zombies before you splatter their brains. Take into account the replayability added by the different characters on offer, and you could probably squeeze out 2 or 3 more playthroughs. You can even start again keeping your high level character, as the zombie’s difficulty scale with your level, meaning you can max out your skill trees and become a demigod of zombie hunting. Finally, you have the extremely entertaining co-operative play, which can see you sinking multiple hours into Dead Island without even realising it.
It is a bit rough around the edges, but Dead Island still manages to succeed in fully immersing you within its world. No matter how powerful you feel, your heart will still beat fast when things get a little hairy. Wondering around dark and dingy environments, an electrifying mace in one hand and a flash light in the other, really gets the adrenaline going. When you add co-op to the mix, it just makes the package even more enticing.
It’s not the most ground breaking game, but being released just before the busy end of year period, Dead Island is the perfect time filler and maybe even a bit more. If you enjoy bashing zombie brains, then this well rounded hack and slash RPG is well worth a look.