Ever since the first trailer for this game managed to make me cry, I’ve been wanting to get my hands on Dead Island. As the news and specifics trickled in, my expectations shifted from an emotionally devastating to just plain good. Now I’ve had a chance to play it, and I’m happy to say that I was not disappointed.
The graphics for Dead Island are something of a mixed bag. Generally speaking, they are excellent. The setting is scenic Banoi Island, an island paradise. If we learned anything from the Far Cry series, it is that a tropical island is the perfect way to showcase high quality video game visuals. Any shot of the game that takes in a panoramic view of the island is magnificent, worthy of a brochure… Well, a brochure of an island resort that has been victimized by a zombie apocalypse, anyway. Likewise, when you get into the veritable war zones that make up the urban portions of the island, things look realistically wrecked, looted, and run down.
The enemy animation is good, and the dynamic results of your attacks are better still. Pick up a machete and start swinging, for instance. Pretty soon you’ll see arms separated from bodies and stumps gushing blood. This looks good, but dismemberment is so old hat these days. Better yet, pick up a baseball bat and start swinging. Sure, you’ll be informed of broken bones, via on screen prompts, but you won’t NEED to be. The sickening dangle of an arm or spineless flop of a neck makes it pretty clear that there has been a skeletal mishap. Weapons show realistic damage as they start to degrade, and when it comes to the improvised weapons – which you’ll be seeing a lot of – there is a tremendous amount of variety. The enemies aren’t quite so varied, but the different types manage to be recognizable at considerable distances. The functional bits of the graphics are quite good as well. A radar in the corner guides you with an auto-updating dotted line toward your various goals, and zombies that have managed to alert you to their presence show up as skulls. Don’t get too used to this, though. Just as would be the case in reality, the difference between a dead person and an undead person who isn’t moving at the moment is subtle at best. If you don’t notice the zombie, neither does the radar. Thus, prepare to be very attentive to your surroundings, or else be prepared for frequent ambushes.
Good as the graphics tend to be, there are a few flaws. Facial animation, for instance, isn’t the best. Characters tend to speak like they are still suffering the lingering effects of dental surgery. Also, I think the artists might have spent a bit too much time modeling zombies, because quite often the living have a vaguely decayed look to them. Interior environments, when completely unlit, or lit by point lights, look good, but when they try for a well lit interior, it looks more like daylight is somehow leaking through the ceiling somehow.
Dead Island is a survival horror game with RPG elements. This means that the only real constants you’ll be dealing with are scarcity and zombies. Everything else is dependent on the class you’ve chosen and the build you’ve chosen. The class, in this case, depends upon what character you choose. Sam B is the tank, able to take heavy damage and equipped to duke it out up close with blunt objects. I reasoned that just about everything you might find laying around in a zombie wasteland could count as a blunt object, so I decided to go with him. Other options include a firearms expert, a slicey stabby lady, and an expert in thrown weapons. Each will earn experience points which will in turn lead to skill points, and thus allow you to upgrade your skills and abilities. Each character has got a fury, combat, and survival build tree. Fury works off of a meter that builds primarily based on the number of kills you rack up. Once your bar is full, you’ll get a class specific rampage. In the case of Sam B, you’ll be punching zombies into the stratosphere. Combat increases attack and adds effects and benefits to different weapon types. Suvival helps you extend the life of weapons, regenerate damage, or otherwise extend the amount of time you can be out in the wild without resorting to repair tables and health items.
Repair tables, I might add, are spectacularly important in this game. By default, weapons degrade extremely quickly. A busted weapon deals little damage, and eventually becomes completely useless. This means keeping a close eye on the damage gauge of your current weapon, and collecting as many spares as possible. Visits to the repair table permit you to repair weapons and upgrade them, in exchange for cash, and if you’ve found the right blueprints you can even mix in some found items to add extra damage and effects. Baseball bat + rags + lighter fluid + glue = Torch of doom, creating a zombie inferno with a critical hit. Once you make your first makeshift weapon, you’ll find yourself wondering what sort of use you’ll be finding for all of these circular saw blades and deodorant canisters.
Since I did the melee focus, most of my experience is of the “club things until they stop moving” variety. Weapons have different damage, effects, and ranges, and it quickly pays to become as proficient with brass knuckles as you are with a boat oar. If there is something I think that this game did better than anything I’ve ever played, it is the tone of the combat. If you know where the zombies are, you can get the drop on them, clubbing them to the ground and finishing them off. If they get the drop on you, you will get a nice big taste of the authentic desperation that comes from being swamped by zombies. Every swing of a weapon eats up stamina. Sure, stamina is easy to keep an eye on when you are fighting on your terms, but when you are at the bottom of a zombie dogpile, your first instinct is to flail around in a panic, but doing so will leave you exhausted, still under a dogpile, and now moving sluggishly. You have a kick at your disposal, useful to put space between you and your enemy, or stomping a downed zombie into a paste. My favorite usage, though, is a perfectly timed punt to the face of a sprinting zombie.
That brings us to the zombie types. The standard zombie is called a walker, and it is your standard shuffling corpse. The fast version is called an Infected, and would be utterly lethal if it wasn’t usually screeching for so long prior to their arrival. As you progress, a handful of now-standard zombie types start to show up. There is a straight jacketed berzerker, a self-destructing bundle of pulsating boils, and a beefy hard hitter. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of boss fights, but each new zombie type tends to be a bit more than you can easily handle when you first encounter them, and naturally a well placed horde puts the appropriate exclamation point on a game chapter. Gameplay is organized into Main Missions, Sidequests, and Continuous Missions, and each can earn you XP, along with cash, weapons, weapon mods, or other items. The missions are all of the usuals, fetch quests, extermination runs, etc. As usual, the most tiresome, and one of the only weak points of the game, are the escort quests. The survivor AI is good, in that they want to move quickly, but not without their flaws. In one instance I was leading a man to a shelter, and there was a cluster of zombies at the foot of a short cliff. I decided to take the easy way out and toss a molotov. It worked, they died, and a moment later my buddy said ‘Hey, let’s get moving!” and dove into the still lingering flames. It wasn’t the most glorious instance of video game intelligence.
Another weak point is the vehicular portion. There is something off about piloting the vehicles. While it is cool that the windshield breaks and has to be bashed away, in general the vision is very limited, and control is a smidgen more… realistic than I would have liked. I think it is cool that you move around on foot realistically, sidesteps being uneven and such, but for some reason, I couldn’t get behind the same level of realism behind the wheel. Everything I’ve said thus far has dealt with the single player game, but it goes for the multiplayer as well, because transitioning from one to the next is virtually seamless. When someone at the same stage in the game and near your level of progress is playing online, you are one button press away from playing with them. It is that easy. You then gain potential revival, weapon and item trading, and all of the other co-op goodies. Spectacularly well done.
The sound in this game suits the tone extremely well. The soundtrack matches the intensity of combat and the tense isolation of exploration. Distinctive vocalizations let you know what sort of zombies are nearby, and a human voice lets you know that a survivor is near. The voice work is good enough, and the “Who Do You Voodoo, B***H” is oddly entertaining.
The story of this game is presented in what is also becoming a largely standard method for zombie games. Essentially, something horrific happened, and it resulted in zombies. The four player characters seem to be the only ones immune, and as the tale progresses, it seems that the four heroes may not have been present by coincidence. More information is turned up from survivors, from recordings, from found facts, and all of the other sources. There isn’t an emotionally heart-wrenching plot, as the initial teaser would have indicated, but it does have its moments.
With a few very minor exceptions, Dead Island combines all of the best parts of Borderlands and Elder Scrolls flawlessly. It is downright addictive, and hugely rewarding once you start getting the better weapons and skills.
9.7 / 10: A superb fusion of survival horror and RPG.