Developer: Techland/Deep Silver
Release Date: September 6th, 2011 (Steam)
Official Website: http://deadisland.deepsilver.com/deadisland.php
America has an obsession with the undead. Zombies in particular. Where this obsession stems from, I have no idea. All I can do is sit behind my barricaded front door with a shotgun in hand and speculate. Is it because zombies are scary? Considering the amount of attention this particular strand of horror receives, I’d say no. At this point we’re officially desensitized. So many movies, books, and of course video games feature these shambling ghouls as a menace that it’s almost becoming cliché. Almost. But not quite.
Need proof? Then step right up. The zombie horde’s newest invasion has taken the form of Techland’s shooter/role playing game Dead Island. Out on the Xbox360, PS3, and PC, Dead Island is about as mundane a game can get without needing a surgeon general warning on the box reminding you not to play this game before driving or operating heavy machinery. Sounds harsh, I know. Trust me. I spent just about 12 hours in game fighting not only the undead, but the fierce urge to lay down and call it a day.
Let’s take a look at the big picture here, before we get into any of the grimy details. Dead Island takes place on the island of Banoi, somewhere in modern Papua New Guinea. The place is as it sounds. A paradise. Everywhere you look are long golden beaches, shimmering waters, towering resort hotels, and tiny mini bars resembling native huts. You control one of four unique characters; Sam B, a heavy hitting blunt weapon specialist and forgettable gangster rapper, Logan Carter, a former NFL star who’s really good at throwing weapons… Ha ha. There’s also the two cookie cutter female characters whose only interesting trait is their breasts. They specialize in sharp weapons and firearms, the latter being so rare it’s almost a shot in the foot to pick her.
You begin in your hotel room during a zombie outbreak. The worst case scenario kind, with jets crashing from the skies and all hell breaking loose. One thing leads to another, and you discover that your particular character is immune to the disease, leaving you to run errands for the non-immune and be a regular superhero.
That’s the meat of the game, running around from survivor station to survivor station gathering up quests from NPC’s who have exclamation points over their heads, and heading out into the fray. The quests are nothing more but “kill x enemies” or “bring back x juice boxes.” You’ll soon forget you’re playing an FPS, and swear to yourself that for a moment, you were back in World of Warcraft.
This brings us to the RPG features. Simply put, there’s almost nothing here. You gain experience from killing zombies and their various forms (Slow zombie, fast zombie, exploding zombie, tough zombie, charging zombie) and completing the cookie cutter quests. When you level up, you can put a skill point into one of the various trees, which further your characters abilities, or buffs a single one.
The combat tree increases your ability to deal damage, and unlock some handy moves like clotheslines and curb stomps. The utility tree increases your survivability and gives you a few cool things like the ability to generate more threat and unlock lock boxes scattered across the maps. Finally there’s the Fury tree. Putting points in this makes your Fury move (a powerful special attack that comes in handy for crowd control) more and more powerful, or easier to obtain depending on what skills you choose. Yeah, there’s different kinds of damage, different types of resistances, hit points and what not, but other than having a handful of stats appear each time you hover your cursor over a weapon, the game doesn’t feel like much of an RPG.
That is of course, until it comes back to the quests. In that case, the game feels like an mmo.
The storyline is just as disappointing. Throughout the game you’re constantly risking your life to help the survivors of this tragic infection, only to be yelled at, picked on, and never get your way. Bring back a truck load of food, water, and other supplies that quite possible increased survivability of everyone involved? Yeah. Thanks. Now go back out there and do this now. You’re immune, it’s your job. See what happens when you don’t accept a quest from one of the major npcs named Sinemoi. He basically fights against ripping your head off, no matter how great of a job you’re doing.
Not only does this theme of fetch and return continue on until the very later stages of the game, but there isn’t any real incentive to do any of it, other than to get some inane trinket that you could just as easily get roaming the various levels. Or, in some cases a common weapon that would have been useful about 5 levels ago. Sure, money and experience are awesome, but there’s never a time in the game where you feel short of cash, or cause you to REALLY need that next skill in the skill tree.
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking “Hey! Zombie games are always fun because the combat is really cool!” Yeah, you’d be right. A ton of zombie games have been great games in their own right, simply because the gameplay was solid. But in this particular case, it simply isn’t true. Dead Island is a sluggish romp through paradise that ends up being as slow and twitchy as the game would like you to believe it isn’t. Melee attacks, especially some of the heavier weapons, make you feel more like a lumbering hulk who is constantly out of breath.
Even the quicker weapons, such as knives and axes, only serve to relieve you of your stamina faster, and when that happens, hits from enemies knock you to the ground and keep you out of the fight for a good 20 seconds as you crawl pathetically back up. The ability to aim at certain body parts with any weapon and take swings at them is a pretty nifty idea, but half the time you’ll be attacked and stunned before you can get your shot across. You have a kick that can keep the enemy in place long enough to line up a precise swing, but if there are more then a few enemies around, it’s easier to just run to some narrow hallway which lets you focus on one threat at a time. The only combat that feels polished and deadly is the gun play. Unfortunately, guns and their subsequent ammo types are so rare that you never really use them, aside from a few main quests. Had Dead Island been more like Left 4 Dead in terms of fighting the horde, it would have been a faster, more entertaining game.
It’s not all bad. There are some moments when the game really shines. Weaponry never fails to amaze, for instance. Items collected throughout your travels can be used to upgrade your weapons with various modifications. Putting a saw blade on the end of your sledgehammer for instance, will make a pretty terrifying weapon that really sticks it to the zombies in a literal sense. The visuals also take a stand here, and the levels you play in never really feel reused or recycled from other parts of the game. I often found myself too busy enjoying the scenery to notice a few enemies sneak up on me.
The levels are solid and at some points extremely pretty, not to mention huge. The starter area alone will have you gape in awe at just the raw size of it all. Sprawling jungle greens stretch for miles, and golden, shimmering sands form long curly beaches as far as the eye can see. It gets pretty breathtaking, especially considering the fact that most of it is explorable. I spent a good hour navigating the roads and back areas of the maps just searching for new things to find and places to see. However, most of these vast areas are only there for specific side-quests, rendering any exploring you do without the quest virtually pointless.
My only gripe is traveling itself. Of course you could walk or run, but in order to traverse Banoi in a more timely manner, you often have to use various pick-up trucks and armored cars scattered across the land. Driving is a pain. The camera feels wonky, and if you’re relegated to a backseat position because your friends or allies have taken the driver and front seat, be prepared to stare at the back of their heads for a while. You can’t attack or do anything helpful in these situations, unless you happen to be sitting in the bed of a pick-up. Then you can at least fire your pistol… If you have one. Veterans of Crysis or Farcry 2, you know the kind of driving I’m talking about. It’s not terrible, but it isn’t fun either.
The multiplayer is also decent, but not perfect. At the time of this review there were still a lot of bugs, but me and two of my compatriots managed to get through the game without too much of a hassle. Together we stomped, sliced, smashed, and shot up just about everything there was to kill, and although Dead Island isn’t supposed to be a comedy, we laughed through most of the game, including through it’s trying-to-be-emotional-but-is-really-awful cutscenes. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up for you to decide, but know this. We did not go on unentertained, I’ll tell you that. The game, as a solo experience, will have you begging for your money back. If you tackle this beast head on make sure you bring as many people (up to 4) as you can.
The Bottom Line
Dead Island is the kind of game you see in a bin somewhere in a year or two that will cause your eyes to widen in interest. You’ll pick it up, look at the back, and suddenly remember just how mediocre it was. You’ll probably make some kind of audible disappointment, maybe an “oh” or a “meh” then quickly places it back in the bargain bin. Dead Island isn’t terrible. In fact there are a few things that really shine. But it’s the things that don’t shine that you need to look out for.
Because, like the zombies themselves, they’ll swarm you.
Game Play: 5/10
Replay Value: 4/10
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