When Techland first announced Dead Island back in 2005 we were just heading into the full zenith of the zombie craze. As its development wore on, and like a typhoon rushing toward shore, we would soon be bombarded with the undead in almost every form and function. Both our games and our media would become supersaturated with decayed flesh, and the moans of the walking dead soon became as familiar to us as the sound of the coins in Super Mario.
Now in 2011, two Left 4 Dead's, two Dead Rising's and an entire truckload of indie-zombie shovel-ware later, we are finally getting our hands on Techland's hat as it's thrown into the somewhat tired and worn zombie ring. In this new environment, Techland couldn't just make any zombie game and hope to ride the contrails of a fad. No, for Dead Island to break through our current undead-fatigue it would have to provide something special. It would have to approach the genre from a new perspective and, in the process, utilize a host of tried and true ideas.
Did they succeed? Does Dead Island make fighting the undead fun and fresh again? Well why don't you just read our review to find out.
Title: Dead Island (Xbox 360)
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release date: September 6th, 2011 (North America)
One cannot talk about what Dead Island is without first talking about what it is not. Techland's first trailer for the game, though good visually and a luscious piece of marketing for the game, couldn't have been more unrepresentative of the final product. People expecting an emotional zombie game, with a deep story and the heartstrings of Heavy Rain, will not find it here. Instead you'll find a minimalistic and poorly written tale which exists only as a feeble binder to get you from location to location. There are instances where Dead Island tries to put on the waterworks and throw a human face on all the carnage, but the effort is so transparent that these attempts not only fall far-short of achieving the moment, but they also take themselves so seriously that one cannot just chalk it up to Camp, chuckle, and move on.
The fact that the characters are also fairly languid surely doesn't help, and though the voice acting of the NPC's is fairly good, the voices of the main characters in-game are so bad they border on the hilarious. When I listen to an NPC wax poetic about about his suffering wife who needs medicine only for my character to shout “Sho' nuff!” when I accept the quest leads me to believe that Techland must be being ridiculous on purpose.
But honestly, none of this really matters because I just made a poisonous fire-axe and I'm carrying a gun that shoots electricity bullets.
You see, while Techland gets everything the trailer tries to convey wrong, they get everything the trailer does not convey right. The essence of the game is much more B-horror movie than complicated drama, and the very distillation of the emotional aspects found in the game are a direct result of that. It's hard to feel sorry for a bikini-clad woman who wants water when you just can't wait to stab a zombie in the head and shove him into a pool. And, often times, side-quests are just this tedious. But the reward of XP and cash are the very lifeblood the game runs on. So you'll bring her the water, just in the hopes that you can repair your favorite weapon that broke on your way to get it.
Though you can use anything you like as a weapon, all weapons break down over time so you'll need cash to repair them at workbenches. Luckily, since repairing high level weapons can become an expensive ordeal, cash can be found all around the island and on enemies you kill. It's a delicate balancing act between fighting to survive, and running away to preserve your best items, that's compounded by the fact that deaths are punished by a loss of cash. A handful of bad moments and it won't be long until you find yourself with all your good weapons broken and not enough money to make a repairs.
I've found myself in this type of position a few times. Having spent all my money on one good weapon, and no money to repair my spare, I was forced to brave the infested streets in a search of cash before I could even think about doing a mission. It was a frightful and harrowing experience that existed outside the confines of any scripted event or mission branch. Rather, it was an authentic byproduct of the game world Techland created. A moment of Survival-Horror in its most pristine form.
Generally speaking, this is what makes Dead Island work so well. It takes the idea of apocalypse, and eschews contemporary video game conceptions of players as Mad-Max type super heroes. Rather, Techland wants you to be the father in The Road, fighting and running away for your survival. Its a semi-realistic survival approach which, on one hand, keeps you in a state of constant dread as your trying to use anything you can to fight your way from one area to the next, but it also succeeds at keeping one foot firmly lodged in the fantastic, and allows you to combine weapons in some fairly obscene ways.
Weapon modification is one of the main systems in Dead Island and it's only a shame that it isn't explained a little better in the game. You'll end up with a virtual mountain of in-game components but you'll have no idea what to do with them unless you find the blueprint for the different mods. This means that you'll end up keeping everything just in case you need it later. And though components don't take up inventory space, it would be nice to have an idea of what components are beforehand.
If you have a blueprint and the correct components you can modify any weapon in the game, granting it the ability to do all sorts of alternative damage effects. From an Electrical Axe, to poison bullets, to fire sticks, almost anything is possible. And this weaponized environmental damage isn't just limited to whatever weapons you use. Zombies will take damage from the game world as well. They'll catch on fire or be electrocuted if you can manage to knock them into something deadly. You'll even be able to drown them if you kick them into pools. I wasn't aware that zombies needed oxygen, but there ya go.
Weapon damage is further modified by the abilities of the character you choose at the beginning of the game. In Dead Island you play as one of four archetypes, each with their own proficiencies. Xian Mei is best at using bladed weapons, Sam B is all things having to do with blunt weapons, Logan specializes in cutting and throwing weapons, and Purna is your gun expert. It should be noted that even though these are preset archetypes anyone can use any weapon they choose, but within the skill trees of these characters are the skills which allow them to make the most of their proficiencies.
Skill trees are separated into three trees, Fury, Combat and Survival. The Fury tree has to do with each characters special ability which they can trigger when they have obtained enough 'Fury' set it off. It's a timed special move which allows the character to do massive damage to large groups of enemies for a short period of time. The Combat tree raises the characters abilities with their preset proficiencies, and the Survival tree provides skills in things like lock-picking, damage reduction and health regeneration.
If you're starting to think this game seems a lot like Borderlands, you're right. In fact, there are so many aspects of Dead Island which are clearly gleaned from other games that you can almost make it a mini-game to find them all. (There's a weapon called The Ripper – Fallout anyone?) But there is certainly no harm in doing what works, especially when Techland has managed to take some of these ideas and improve on them significantly.
Like the real world, guns are not in big supply in Dead Island so you'll be doing most of your fighting melee style. For this game to work at all, Techland would have to nail down a combat system that many developers have struggled with in the past. Luckily, Techland has done a wonderful job at creating a melee system that becomes deep by its mere simplicity. To put it in contrast, Condemned 2 had a good melee system that ended up being weighed down by it's own attempt to expand itself. It relied on complicated combo moves that where difficult to master and made it hard to do anything truly amazing. Dead Island, on the other hand, has a simple and forgiving melee combat system that allows you to easily string together fantastic moves that would otherwise not even be possible.
For example, I was able to kick a charging zombie in the face just before he reached me, throw a knife into his chest, then move back in and hit him in the head with a wrench which exploded his head. As he stood there motionless in front of me, I grabbed the knife back from his twitching body and kicked his bleeding corpse onto the ground. Needless to say, melee combat in Dead Island feels fantastic and moments like these never cease to be fun and feel generally inspired.
This is not to say that there aren't problems with Dead Island. First and foremost, it's a buggy game that certainly shows signs of needing more time in development. For example, my first excursion with a vehicle ended quickly when I clipped through a planter and became stuck. Clipping problems like this exist throughout the environment which allows zombies to force their way through gates (beware the city alleyways) or become stuck on world objects. Also, the menu system is sluggish and not very well organized. When trading with NPC's, your currently equipped weapons are not marked, and more than once did I end up selling off equipment that I really needed. There is a “Buy Back” option but marking equipped items is a staple of modern RPGs that should have been included.
Furthermore, though the environments look great, character and zombie animations leave a lot to be desired. It's not as noticeable on the zombies since you can chalk up the movements to them being....well, zombies. But the human enemies in the game move just as jarringly, and their robotic movements look very archaic in a game being released in 2011. Shooting also feels fairly clumsy but I'm going to excuse that for the fact that the characters I played simply don't know how to use a gun, and I doubt I would do any better in the same situation. Be warned though, the clumsy gun-play excuse shatters when using Purna.
The game also has some balancing issues in that it has a tendency to over-spawn enemies at times, or just overly pound the player for no good reason. Dead Island just loves to spawn multiple Infected or Thug zombies out of nowhere which will makes short work of you if you can't get away. Because of this, death can come quick and often in later levels, and in its current state Dead Island can be far more brutal to players than any other zombie game out there today.
Coop worked flawlessly in my playthroughs as far as connectivity goes but the game allows anyone on your team to finish missions, even if you've just been standing by and watching the entire time, or somewhere else entirely. I suppose this makes a little more sense but it led to my partner just finishing a bunch of missions for me as soon as we got in, leading me to just simply watch the “Quest Completed” titles flash across my screen and my gameplay to fly away with it.
Dead Island is set to be released with a large patch on its opening day, and I can guess that there will be even further patching in the future. I hope so. When the game is good it's one of the best zombie survival experiences on the market, and a little more love by Techland to help it along would do the original dream justice.
It's quite possible that the first Dead Island trailer might just be the best and the worst thing that could of happened to this game. As much as it was fun to watch, I fear that it may not prepare people to accept it in its final state; to understand what Dead Island actually is and to fall in love with both its horror and its absurdity. For their part, Techland probably would have been better off falling in love with the absurdity a little more themselves, and crafting a tale that didn't take itself so seriously as to stand in harsh contrast to the gameplay beneath it.
And that gameplay is, without a doubt, some of the best survival-horror gameplay I've experienced to date. The fact of the matter is, Dead Island is an emotional game, but it has nothing to do with the emotions of the characters in it. It is the feeling you get when you have a “flimsy stick,” no money, and you need to go from one end of the city to the other with hundreds of infected dead standing in your way. That emotion is fear. Something Dead Island gets right.