Review by xenodolf
"The best zombie game of this generation."
I'm a hardcore zombie fan. The few times I go to a theater to watch a movie is more than likely because it has the living dead or their infected associates involved. The last book I read was World War Z. Several Resident Evil titles are nominated in my personal "Best Games of all Time" list. When Dead Island was announced years ago, I paid particular interest in its development - which was painfully stretched out from then until a long-awaited released date on August 06th, 2011. Dead Island was a rare title - one that managed to combine just about every niche in gaming I most cherish. Beat 'em up and first-person shooter game-play spiced up with RPG elements, oriented toward co-op survival-horror - with zombies being the cherry on top. Originally viewed to be a niche title, Dead Island caught the eye of many gamers with its bleak family-vacation-gone-awry trailer deemed one of the best and simultaneously one of the most controversial ever made. Having picked it up at its midnight launch (with about 30 other people in line), I just recently 1000/1000'd the title and feel I have experienced enough to crank out and accurate review for GameFAQS.
What do Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Zombie Apocalypse, and Call of Duty: Zombies have in common? Obviously, the undead - but the real link because them is that they present zombie-focused game-play with humorous, often tongue-in-cheek elements. Witnessing the dead re-animate, especially if its someone you know or love, is a terrifying experience - but none of these games can present the issue with a straight face. In fact, the only comedy-free zombie title on the Xbox 360 is the widely-panned Shellshock 2: Blood trails - which makes you wrangle through several clumsy Vietcong levels before you see your first infected enemy. Thankfully, Dead Island goes its entire campaign without once trying to reference one of the many cliche zombie jokes that have totally saturated the zombie market media these days. The achievement list is the only segment of the game that breaks the fourth wall (giving a nod to Left 4 Dead and a few other icons). What you're left with is a tale about four immune survivors of the initial zombie outbreak on a island resort, each of them carrying baggage from their pre-apocalypse lives but suddenly thrust into the role of being one of the few who can get anything done on the island without risk of infection. Although often vague with cut-scenes that leave open questions of the fate of several characters - Dead Island is through and through bleak and somber. Lives are shattered around you with families separated dreams destroyed in the sudden wave of violence that transforms a palm-tree and beach vacation park into a hellhole isolated from the rest of the world. Food and medical supplies are scattered around the place, kept from those who need them by walking dead and anarchist hoodlums who see the collapse of social order as free reign of chaos. Dead Island has some of the best atmosphere I have ever experienced in a zombie game - stretching back to my favorite since Resident Evil Outbreak File #2. My only complains is that the emotional level never lives up to the intensity of the infamous trailer, and that more character development between the survivors and the NPCs would have been nice.
Dead Island has a number of large, expansive environments like the recent Fallout games and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. As with the aforementioned games, the quality of graphics rises and falls based on different factors like character and environmental models, as well as cut-scenes. The four survivors themselves seem a bit stiff and rugged in terms of textures, and some of the levels (like the opening hotel location) come off as dim, cloudy, and bland. On the other hand, the second major location (a city slum under a failed partial quarantine and besieged by undead and gun-wielding looters) is the best urban zombie location I have witnessed since Raccoon City. The zombies look great, with several dozen different types to battle throughout the campaign. Each can be damaged in ways that reflect on them physically - like their flesh getting charred from fire, limbs severed or beaten into pulp, and you can tear apart heads with melee weapons or a well-placed bullet. I experienced no dip in frame-rate even during the most frenzied combat, and nice little cinematic touches like a brief spell of slow-motion as you wreck havoc on a enemy kept my adrenaline flowing.
Most of the voice-acting in Dead Island uses foreign accents, so it is hard for me to judge them with my American standards. Some of the NPC survivors you come across sound sort of annoying and have limited repetitive dialogue, while other seem genuinely terrified or distraught. The ambient noise and combat sounds, as well as the zombie groans and screeches, come across as well done. The musical soundtrack was a bit lack-luster, especially after the "vacation" trailer teased everyone with a brilliant piano song.
Dead Island features two controlling methods - digital and analog. Digital is a simple pull of your right trigger that allows you to swipe at an enemy, and while not typically formatting itself into the most devastating of blows, is more than enough to get the job done. Switching over to analog requires you to balance movement of the analog sticks with the distance and direction of the enemy. Against one or two enemies, I could sometimes time my attack correctly and unleash a limb-severing slash that dismembers powerful "thug" zombies in my initial attack. However, it requires a significant amount more of attention to detail and even then it seemed to drain more stamina than usually, especially against rabid mobs of infected. Overall, the reach of weapons and landing of your weapons seemed accurate MOST of the time - and use of the firearms was pretty much spot-on.
Dead Island is a survival-horror action-RPG, which ends up grouping in significant beat 'em up and first-person shooter elements in with the looting and XP-harvesting elements. If you took Borderlands, replaced most of the run-n-gun tactics with the brawling of the Condemned games (more or less), added the weapon degrading and building idea from Dead Rising, and the infected atmosphere from Left 4 Dead... you would have a general idea of how the game feels. Personally, I feel the game is better than of the aforementioned titles (aside from parts of the Condemned games). Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising had me feeling too overpowered most of the time against the common enemy, while even a fully-fitted veteran character here can walk into the wrong dead-end and be overwhelmed in moments. The environments also feel more authentic than Borderlands, as if people were truly having their time of their lives just hours before you walk through a deserted Tiki hut littered with broken furniture and blood. Like Condemned and Dead Rising, you more than often have to rely on spur-of-the-moment melee weapons to deal with enemies, which can me something as flimsy as a wooden board or as effective as a fire-axe. However, to get anything done without dying constantly, you will have to loot boxes and bodies for actual weapons and then improve them through modifications and reinforcements. Power and death are two sides of the same coin, as in Borderlands - getting downed will cost you a fraction of your money, and losing too much of it means having no way to repair that high-powered katana you found unless you want to spend an hour rooting through luggage for dollars. Some people complained about the spawn system putting them too close or too far away from where they died, and while I've had my lousy spawns, it didn't become a regular thing for me. While the game features various models of pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles - you won't becoming upon firearms in any regular fashion until the final quarter of the game - and they first have to me pried away from enemy looters, bandits, and military units. You will come to treasure your guns, because although they may seem weak per individual attack - the act of keeping a distance between you and a "special" zombie can be the difference between keeping and losing 2000 bucks in a death. In addition to run-of-the-mill shamblers, you will face half-a-dozen more powerful mutants of the virus outbreak. These range from slow-moving muscular zombies who soak up damage and can knock you on your back in one blow, to horde-like infected humans that will overwhelm survivors will cumbersome weapons, to a charging freak that requires you to attack its exposed back if you want any chance of defeating it. Unlike Left 4 Dead, these "special" zombies are rare threats, something you will only have to deal with every couple of blocks - so you aren't bogged down by them while trying to explore, and many of them can be avoided (although they reward you will a huge chunk of XP). The four characters you play as all have different strengths and weaknesses, and certain people will find one more fitting to their style than others. As in most action-RPGs as of late, you have a branching skill-tree that cannot be fully filled - so you have to decide if having an XP multiplying perk is worth three points that could have gone into cheaper repairs, a longer rage more, or less stamina recharge. As in real life, you can't swing a weapon or run forever, so there is a limit to each action before your character slows done and wheezes in a vulnerable state. I like this touch, which keep the survival-horror elements intact no matter how powerful your weapons are, although the axes do seem too drain a little too much for the damage they deal out per blow. While playing the game solo is a hard and atmospheric experience, this game was meant to be a co-op adventure and it is more enjoyable having up to four people performing multiple missions and scavenging for supplies as a team. Overall, the game is great and one of the best purchases I've made all year - although I have to mention it can be very buggy. Some people had saves delete, item vanish from inventories, achievements not register or lock up, and until the recent patch some of these issues were game wrecking. I didn't suffer from too many of these flaws, so I have an optimistic opinion of the experience - although I downgraded it from a 9 to an 8 to paint a portraits of the universal issues that could pop up. Dead Island is not a short game, so expect to sink in at least 50 hours into it - or double that if you're a stickler for completion like me.
Dead Island has four playable characters (plus another slated for future DLC), each with a unique set of skill-trees. Although the quests and storyline are almost identical any character you select - you will notice pretty varied traits and abilities the further along in the game you go as you rank up. This is especially noticeable online, when an experienced team can dedicate roles to certain characters as they play through the game (scout, tank, long-range, and everyman). While I do wish there were character-specific items, people accustomed to the universal loadouts despite what your character looks and sounds like (Call of Duty: Zombies, Left 4 Dead) will enjoy the chance of standing out in a crowd. Dead Island is also an enjoyable game, and even while navigating through several glitching achievements and replaying the campaign partially through roughly eight times - I didn't find myself bored or feeling the experience stale.
This game was released to a mixed cocktail of hype and littered with various bugs (I lucked out and managed to avoid experience almost all the major ones). A patch and several dev team promises later - some people view the product as a wasted effort or a flawed gem. I, myself, purchased this will modest expectations (expecting to award this around a 7/10 based on footage and beta testimony), but ended up having the best zombie-related experience since the days of Resident Evil Outbreak. I hope that future updates, additional content, and a quick response to glitches and bugs will smooth out the Dead Island experience for future replays, but as it is - I can't suggest anything less than a rental and don't regret for a moment my day-1 purchase.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/19/11
Game Release: Dead Island (Special Edition) (US, 09/06/11)
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