Picture this: you are on a remote, tourist-ridden island in Papua New Guinea. You likely have no experience on this sliver of paradise, but have just recently arrived there on vacation with your family. You are having a good time, maybe relaxing by the pool or the ocean with your family; or even out at a club dancing and drinking a lot. Suddenly, the world changes; and you become the center of attention as you are bitten by a breed of infected humans (we call them zombies), yet you survive. Do you have what it takes to live in this new, monster-ridden world?
The premise of Dead Island is one that is relatively familiar as far as zombie movies and games go, but the core niche of people developer Techland is looking to target are gamers who have had very few (if any) experiences where they are able to feel like they are a legitimate part of the Zombie Apocalypse. In fact, up to date, there have been zero mainstream game releases they have made you feel so immersed into a world infested with zombies. At best, we are able to sit back and watch television shows and movies (like The Walking Dead), or read books and comics with similar subject matter. As good as these other art mediums are at conveying a sense of dread, despair, and humor that comes from a zombie outbreak; none of them come close to putting you in control in this environment.
Dead Island takes a page from role-playing games like Fallout 3, and more action oriented zombie games like Left for Dead and Dead Rising 2 to create an atmosphere where you become the character you are playing. The story told is not so much about the character on screen, but rather develops into your personal story. The environment this takes place in, a beautiful island with vacation homes and resorts, just makes the plague seem all the more real.
The hype surrounding this game was enormous immediately after the release of the official trailer, aptly titled Dead Island: Gore Ballet. Needless to say, there is no denying the sheer beauty of this trailer from a cinematic and graphical perspective. The trailer is so moving that it has even compelled many people to break into tears. This is simply not something that tends to happen with video game trailers, much less something that is fully animated. As a result of this viral video, most gamers were keeping a keen eye on Dead Island’s development; and looking forward to a rather serious and emotional game that would focus heavily on family and overcoming a zombie infestation. So, the first major question I will look to answer in this review is this: does Dead Island live up to the hype of its massively popular trailer?
The best way to answer this question is in the form of descriptions of my gaming experience, as opposed to just a simple “yes” or “no.” Dead Island is broken up into four main acts, each of which takes place in separate environments. From the beaches and sunny resorts of the first act, to the downtown district and forest regions in the latter acts; Dead Island provides an open-world gaming experience that is diverse and constantly on the move (much like your own character). Unfortunately, the latter environments become particularly linear; and the more you traverse the island, the more you begin to realize just how confined you are. For example, while traversing the sewers in the downtown district, the game becomes incredibly redundant, especially after you are forced to traverse these same sewers several times in a few different missions.
The story that begins to unfold, especially from the second act on leaves much to be desired as well. In the early portions of the game, I was absolutely in love with the content; and the sense of dread I constantly experienced as I navigated this new landscape filled with the living dead. Throughout many reviews you can read on Dead Island, the same experience seems to be universally shared. Still, as the game progresses, you will find that every question you take part in (whether in the main plot line or the many side quests) consists of doing the same thing over and over. Almost every quest in this game is a fetch quest, and your selected character is quite frankly everyone else’s bitch. In the beginning, these quests made a significant amount of sense. My first outing to a gas station to fill up some gas tanks, turn on the gas station power, load these tanks into the back of my truck, and fight/escape the zombie hordes was just excellent. Fetch quests very rarely come with such a sense of realism like this. But, again, as the game continued on; the quests began to lag exceptionally, to a degree that I was starting to frankly get verbally pissed off at some of the things I was being asked to do. Not to mention the escort missions in the later chapters of the game, which are wholly dreadful.
As awkward and downright terrible the main plot in Dead Island is, the actual experience of just traversing the island and its sub-locations is generally very interesting. Playing online with three other players makes the experience all the more immersive, though instantly begs the question: why is there no split-screen multiplayer for this game, which is primarily meant to be experienced with a multiplayer component? This is a huge detractor, and Dead Island is unfortunately contributing to the mainstream movement away from local multiplayer. Regarding the online components, joining other players is usually very quick; and the game runs pretty smoothly overall while online (at least on the Playstation Network from my own experience).
With all these complaints regarding the cinematic elements of the game, it is important to keep in mind that the core gameplay contained in Dead Island is just superbly done. Much emphasis is placed on melee combat, to an extent that you will not even come across any firearms in the game until the second act. And even when guns are implemented, they are not particularly over powering (for better and for worse), and frequently will run out of ammo as well. Guns are good for short-term use, especially when you are looking to bring down large hordes of enemies quickly; but ultimately you will be returning to the variety of melee weapons constantly at your disposal. From baseball bats and machetes, to hammers and coat hangers, Dead Island has you covered in the melee department.
Dead Island’s other significant gameplay feature is the ability to repair, upgrade, and create new weapons. The interface is fairly minimal, but easy to understand. As you fight your way through your many enemies on this island, you will come across a variety of spare parts and pieces of equipment that you can use to create new weapons. Money also plays a significant role in this game, as you must spend money to buy new weapons and repair those you already have. The created weapons are very diverse, and often highly amusing to look at as well as to use. From fire coated baseball bats to electrified machetes, you just can’t go wrong with these upgrades weapons.
Many people have complained that these often-unrealistic created weapons detract from the gaming experience, but I beg to differ. Certainly, having an electrified machete and hacking through a group of zombies is not quite what gamers were expecting upon seeing the aforementioned Dead Island trailer, but these weapons are not particularly overpowered and ultimately only add to the gameplay. If you are significantly opposed to their use, just avoid upgrading your weaponry. I personally like the ability to upgrade and create new weapons from those I already have.
One cannot review a zombie game without highlighting the graphical beauty of the blood and gore. Dead Island parallels Left 4 Dead and other similar zombie games in this respect, but ultimately takes decapitating zombies and hacking limb from limb to whole new heights. Different weapon types interact with these bodies in a realistic fashion. Sharp weapons have a tendency to slice through body parts much easier than blunt weapons, but the blunt weaponry is able to stagger the opponent and crush heads in while on the ground. The experience of nicely chopping a manic zombie’s head off as they run towards you is completely satisfying, and is one major reason why I continue to turn on my video game console to experience it.
Ultimately, Dead Island is a very flawed but fun game. It is significantly lacking in the story and cinematic qualities. Characters have next to no personality, and the quest giver’s character models are also exceptionally stiff. Actually moving through the latter half of the story can be painstaking as well, which undoubtedly will turn many people away from this title. Still, if you are playing online or primarily for an opportunity to kill a lot of zombies; you will probably thoroughly enjoy Dead Island. The developers at Techland took a lot of risks with this video game in terms of gameplay and graphics, but ultimately missed the mark with regards to providing a full gameplay experience that people would want to return too day in and day out.