Dead Island – Review

Platform | Release Date
PC | September 6, 2011
PS3 | September 6, 2011
X360 | September 6, 2011
Developed by Techland
Published by Deep Silver

The Pitch:

Dead Island combines first-person action with a heavy focus on melee combat, character development and customization of a vast array of weapons. All of these gameplay features are presented in a dark story inspired by classic zombie movies with a gritty and engrossing campaign that can be played with up to 4 players in co-op mode.

One of the most unanimous complaints about the original Dead Rising was that it primarily focused on the ever present timer, forcing you to advance through the story. Many people wanted more of a sandbox experience in which they could exterminate the masses of undead at their leisure. Dead Island has been compared most often with Dead Rising and Fallout, and most if not all of these similarities are warranted to some degree. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a timer does not exist in the world of Dead Island, and while the console and PC releases begot mixed reviews, Techland has provided a few updates to curb many issues that plagued the original release on Steam.

Here’s the setup: You dispose of groups of undead en masse. You can use everyday items as makeshift weaponry. You can modify these weapons to make them much more powerful with seemingly useless items scattered throughout the single player campaign. You struggle with item durability and sub-par inventory management. You can modify your weapons at a workbench placed in key areas of the game. Yep, sounds like Dead Rising to me! The only disparity is the much more comical overtone in Dead Rising as compared to the somber, solitary feeling that is constant throughout DI.

When I first heard about the heavy focus on melee combat in DI, the first thing I thought of was NFL 2K5 by 2K Sports. The reason for this is the first person mode NFL2K5 shipped with was unforgettably horrible. I imagined being surrounded by zombies and not being able to handle the ensuing melee due to the limited range of sight in most FPS. In truth, this only gets frustrating in DI if you spin around quickly while surrounded to find out who or what is behind you. At times, targets are located just below your viewpoint almost directly in the space you occupy. This is a terribly frustrating situation to be in, especially when surrounded by powerful infected who are difficult foes when faced solo. Thankfully this didn’t happen so often that it was detrimental to the entire experience.

A good portion Banoi Island, the setting, is open to you from the start. However, you’ll find yourself coming back to the few safe spots with a work bench to restock and reload, mainly due to the limited durability of the weapons at your disposal. Dead Island is a long game. Even if you avoid all the side quests it still takes many hours to complete the entire single player campaign. Adding the side missions along the way can increase the time played but also makes the story progression seem less significant to your dire situation; something a timer would have facilitated.

In my experience, more quests usually translated into more options and most often, more power. Unfortunately, your opposition in DI scales with you as well. So that level 25 axe you just picked up won’t be nearly as useful a few levels down the not too distant road. Three skill trees are at your disposal and can unlock more capabilities by redeeming points that are acquired when leveling up. Some of these much more useful than others. I found myself completely avoiding the Fury skill tree; instead focusing on the Combat and Survival portions which directly impacted what my character did without needing any additional interaction.

Dead Island’s pace adapts depending on your actions, but still undulates while matching your play style. Scenes will start off tense, slowly easing you into a comfortable place, before ramping up the intensity once more, punishing your complacency. This flow rings true throughout the entire experience, and is welcome for those who are interested in a more sandbox style experience that incorporates and adapts to your actions. You can really just walk around, explore, and lop the heads off of some infected, but engage in the story, and the zombies will be out for your head once more.

The first truly tense moment besides the initial escape at the start was my first encounter with a zombie thug. Not knowing how powerful they were, I based my initial ranged attacks on their booming yells and larger stature when compared to the other zombies in the vicinity. Only after I exhausted all of my throwing weapons did I realize my folly. All of the edged weapons were embedded in the thug, and the blunt ones fell to the ground near the impact point. With only my fists at my disposal I went in close and was promptly knocked on my ass. After many quick jabs and circle strafes I was able to pick up some of the blunt weapons to finally finish him off. There are plenty of other tense moments to keep you on your toes, particularly when the Infected scream and you whirl around to see what direction they are charging at you from.

You’re not required to regularly drink fluids or eat food to sustain yourself in DI. Food is reserved for boosting your health, and drinks usually offer a quicker burst of replenishment. Alcohol is obtainable at various points in the game and is far too easy to ingest by accident, but it’s also a Molotov component so having a few on hand is a good thing as long as you do not equip them inadvertently. Many things can kill you quickly in DI, so there is never a point in time where you feel too powerful. Weapon durability and scaling enemies prevent that from ever happening.

Depending on the speed and capabilities of your opponent, using a gun will have differing results. Guns are especially powerful versus living opponents and less so towards the soon-to-be or completely undead variety. Replenishing ammunition is usually reserved for areas where a conflict with the living takes place, so stock up when you can. This isn’t Resident Evil, so there are plenty of deadly implements scattered throughout Banoi with varying levels of durability and effectiveness. Weapons are plentiful, but good ones are sparse.

A few vehicles are available to you throughout the campaign, mainly of the 4×4 variety. Some are quest-based, but others you may stumble upon and use just because it’s a hell of a lot easier than footing it across the island and wasting the durability of your weapons. Splattering zombies across the windshield is not frowned upon during these rides, and should be done gingerly as these vehicles do take damage. Some of the quest based events with cut scenes show you driving throughout the island, and the next scene you are outside the vehicle with infected running in your direction. This didn’t sit well with me. Why did I get out of my armored truck after just acquiring it? There is no reason I can come up with to justify this, which happens a few times throughout the campaign, though hopping back in is easy enough to do.

The campaign, if you pursue as many side quests as possible, starts to break down the limited cohesive elements of the story. A lack of story progression after hours of finishing of these quests left me feeling like it really didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. Only after committing to the main plot did the story move forward with a satisfactory speed. Then it broke me out of the reality of it by showing me a cut scene with all of the characters you can choose to play from the beginning. The entire game is played under the assumption that you are part of a group. This is great if you are actually playing with a group of your friends, which I wasn’t. None of the dialogue or game play elements up until that point let you in on this little secret until specific points, which unfortunately only exist in the main plot.

In my opinion, the soundtrack of any zombie movie or game that takes itself seriously needs to provide a sense of hopelessness, solitude, and intensity that fluctuates based on plot events. I cannot praise Techland enough for the musical score and up-tempo event cues, as they were spot on. The forests felt quiet, yet dangerous. The rushing Infected provide just enough of an adrenaline boost to get your heart pumping. The mood was set perfectly with this stellar audio work and lends a lot to the believability of the entire hopeless reality I was tossed into.

Techland teased the world with their now famous trailer for Dead Island. Unfortunately, the end result never delivered the potential that the teaser hinted at. This disappointed many, including myself. Despite this, Dead Island is an ambitious project that provides a lot of what zombie fans like me were yearning for, albeit not delivered as smoothly as one would hope. There is an enormous amount of fun to be had in exploring and dispatching the undead without being forced through a contrived story, and therein lies the draw for many. I am definitely looking forward to the next chapter, and you should be too.

About @artayd2

@artayd2 can be found traversing hills of toddler entrails while searching for the last pint of unicorn blood to quench his ever present thirst.
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