Review by sixgears2

"Dead Island is a paradox. It's simultaneously infuriating yet fun, broken yet infinitely playable, and stale yet oddly compelling."

Dead Island has been on most zombie fans' radar for quite a while thanks in no small part to a now infamous trailer that seemed to hold the game up as a zombie apocalypse experience that offered some emotional depth along with the standard gratuitous violence the genre is known for. I can safely say that Dead Island is not that experience, so you're in for a disappointment if that's what you were hoping for. Dead Island does nail the gratuitous violence, though, and it also manages to bring a few new ideas to the zombie genre. It's just a shame that the entire experience is marred by a lack of polish and attention to detail.

The setting for Dead Island is, as you may have guessed, an island. Called Banoi, the island is apparently a well-known vacation spot famous for its glorious beaches and posh entertainment. Unfortunately for Banoi and its inhabitants, it also happens to be the scene of the latest outbreak of the oft-foretold zombie apocalypse. You play the role of one of four possible characters: a rapper that specializes in blunt weapons, a Chinese woman who is great with knives, an American who is great at throwing things, and a British citizen who specializes in firearms. The game walks you through a pretty weak opening sequence involving mysterious radio voices and darkened hallways, and then you are chucked out into the big wide world on a quest to survive and uncover the truth about what is really happening on Banoi while maniacally hacking zombies to bits.

Banoi itself looks great most of the time, and while Dead Island's environments aren't impressive enough to warrant gushing they are certainly better than most in terms of visual appeal. The first area is the actual resort section of the island and, as such, comes complete with everything from crystal blue swimming pools to well-furnished seaside bungalows. It's colorful, it's interesting, and in some ways it's really quite beautiful, especially when it's juxtaposed with the festering walking corpses wandering all around it. Unfortunately, it also comes across as a bit sterile. The pockets of survivors here and a few scripted encounters—one of which features a man sobbing over his brother's corpse in a swimming pool stained red with blood—do add a little life to the resort, but overall everything just winds up feeling a bit dead and lifeless, and not in the way that Dead Island intended. Later environments—a city, a jungle, a secret location I won't spoil here—are also strong both conceptually and in terms of graphical quality, but they also succumb to the lifeless feeling that drags Dead Island's opening down.

The lack of life in the world is perhaps Dead Island's most notable flaw. I understand that the island is meant to feel desolate and lifeless in order to evoke that 28 Days Later feeling, but open world games make their living by immersing players in believable, organic environments. Dead Island never really manages to make Banoi feel as if it could be a real place beset by a catastrophe, and game contrivances like invisible walls, overly obvious do-it-this-way encounters, and enemies that are just a little too predictable only exacerbate the problem. Non-major NPCs generally only have one or two lines of dialogue that they repeat ad nauseum every time you talk to them, and most encounters with survivors outside of the main quest are disappointingly shallow and predictable. All of this adds up to create a world that, while compelling in some ways, never really stops feeling like an obvious video game. Dead Island does deliver on its promise of an open world filled with zombies, and to be honest it's pretty enjoyable if all you want is a carnage-filled playground in which to fulfill your violent zombie killing urges. If, however, you are looking for a world with life or character ala Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, Dead Island will only disappoint you.

The world aside, Dead Island really comes to down what every other zombie game eventually comes down to: massacring huge numbers of undead corpses. The combat system in the game is heavily geared towards melee weapons—you won't even get your first gun until well over the ten hour mark—so you can expect to be spending a lot of time hacking zombie limbs off with machetes and knives or bashing in their heads with hammers, wooden planks, or steel pipes, especially in the beginning. Each melee attack uses a small amount of stamina (heavier weapons use more), so you'll frequently have to balance your wild swinging with small, tactical retreats in order to avoid becoming exhausted and being overwhelmed. The zombies in Dead Island are deadly and especially so in groups, so allowing any number of them to close on you will almost always result in a swift, violent end. Fortunately, the game includes a massively helpful kick attack that can be used to boot your enemies back and buy yourself a precious second or so to set up your next attack. This kick drains no stamina and, as such, you'll find yourself using it more or less constantly. In fact, most combat situations boil down to kicking your enemies back once or twice before swinging wildly into them with a weapon and hoping to lop off something important, a proposition that is actually far harder than it sounds due to Dead Island's questionable target tracking.

Much like the beloved Dead Space series, Dead Island encourages players to maim their enemies in order to kill them. Zombies are layered with flesh, bone, and guts, and a well-placed hit to a limb with a sharp object may leave it hanging by a grisly thread or severe it completely. Similarly, hammers and other blunt objects will break bones and leave appendages dangling uselessly from their undead hosts. This is all well and good, but there's a catch: the targeting system is so useless that most hits come down to sheer luck. Attempting to hit a certain body part while being attacked by one zombie will most likely lead to you being severely injured and attempting to do it while being assaulted by a group is suicide. The auto-targeting system almost never selects the body part you want it to, so you'll likely find yourself simply hacking away frantically until something important falls off and the zombie dies. This eliminates most of the strategic potential that Dead Island's combat system had and as a result the game winds up coming across as a pretty repetitive hack n' slash instead of the deeper, more thoughtful zombie killing sim that many had hoped for.

Fortunately, Dead Island's combat isn't a complete bust. The violence is grotesque enough to by satisfying to even the most jaded of zombie gamers, and just because you can't intentionally lop a zombie's arm off or severe the head of a sprinting infected doesn't mean that it's any less satisfying when it happens. I once threw a machete at two zombies that were sprinting headlong towards me and the spinning blade decapitated the first and severed the arm of the second all in glorious slow motion. It was thrilling, and the fact that it happened basically entirely by chance didn't really tarnish the moment. These kinds of water cooler worthy occurrences happens every two or three minutes in Dead Island, and they do a great job of elevating what could have been a boring, no-skill-involved combat system to the level of a satisfying and sometimes downright awesomely unpredictable symphony of zombie killing goodness.

The combat in Dead Island is also enhanced by the ability to upgrade and modify your favorite weapons. All melee weapons in the game degrade ludicrously quickly when you first start out (a cleaver breaks in five minutes of use?), but they can be upgraded at workbenches throughout the world to increase their durability, damage, and heft. Later in the game you can even add elemental effects like electricity or poison through the use of objects that you find laying around Banoi. The weapon customization is arguably the best part of the whole experience; it's hard not to giggle gleefully the first time you electrify a whole group of zombies with your newly wired up machete. It's a real shame, then, that the ability to modify and customize equipment doesn't really show up until well into the second act of the game, again well past the ten hour mark. Many players may get bored with the bland weapons on offer in Dead Island's opening areas and quit long before they reach the tasty and satisfying upgrade system that Techland has buried further on down the road. If you can stick it out, however, you'll find a fun and interesting twist to an already entertaining combat system.

Perhaps the biggest selling point of Dead Island for many is the game's RPG element. “Fallout with zombies” became the most heard catch phrase for the game in the months leading up to release, and while Dead Island's skill system doesn't even come close to touching Bethesda's masterpiece it does well enough to succeed in the zombie genre. Each of the game's four characters sports three skill trees: rage, combat, and survival. The trees are modified for each of the characters, so your play experience will likely be substantially different depending on which one of the four you choose. As in every RPG, every quest and action earns you XP, and each time you level up you are given one point to spend in any of the skill trees. The rage tree improves your character's special rage attack, the combat tree improves their skills with their weapons of choice, and the survival tree enables them to sneak by zombies or receive discounts from the game's various merchants. The system works well, and although in my 20 hours with the game I didn't come across any mind blowing new ideas or amazing abilities I still enjoyed watching my critical hit chances grow and making use of the few new attacks given to me (the curb stomp is amazingly convenient for finishing off zombies on the ground). It isn't Fallout with zombies, but Dead Island does successfully integrate full-blown RPG elements into a historically shallow and static genre, and that in and of itself is a major accomplishment.

As much as I enjoyed my time with Dead Island, the title does have more than its fair share of problems. The rage attack incorporates an irritating delay when you begin the animation, and this delay generally results in you dying since the attack is generally used as a last-ditch effort to escape a bad situation and does not grant you any additional health until it's upgraded. There also seems to a problem with balance on the single player side of the game; some areas are very nearly impossible to get through alone. This wouldn't be so bad if the areas in question were optional side quests or hidden zones, but I found myself being utterly decimated even on main quest missions by the end of the second act. There are also more than a few cutscenes that involve all four of the game's playable survivors appearing out of nowhere and talking as if they've been together the entire time even if you've been playing all by your lonesome for hours. I understand that the game is meant to be a cooperative experience, but in the real world it isn't always a possibility to have a full crew or even a single partner at all times and, as such, games like this ought to be at least playable for single players. Dead Island very nearly isn't, and that's a major shortcoming for gamers out there who may not always be able to find someone they want to play with. You can always open up your party to randoms who happen to be at the same point in the story, but since many quests require all party members to be together in order to proceed this could lead to even more frustration if your partner decides to step away for a phone call or simply ruin your game for fun.

Thankfully, co-op with your friends is a blast. The drop in, drop out system works fantastically most of the time, and the Borderlands-esque way of dealing with quest progression (you can always keep experience and loot but will not get story credit for missions completed unless you are at roughly the same point in the story) still works well here. Trading items is as helpful and fun as it generally is in these types of games, but it has the added wrinkle of players being able to steal the weapons you throw into zombies if you don't retrieve them first. This led to a couple of pretty funny weapon hostage negotiations during my co-op time with the title, but I suppose it could be irritating if you were playing with the wrong people. Probably the best part of the entire co-op experience is the complete and utter lack of any form of distance tether. I could be running around completing quests on the beach while my co-op partners battle hordes of zombies a mile inland, and this freedom lends a nice MMO feel to the title. As I mentioned before, some quests require all players to be in the same place to proceed, but in these situations the game provides a helpful fast travel to party option to eliminate long, boring hikes back to civilization. Of course, this option only works if the people you're playing with actually care about what you're trying to do and aren't simply ignoring you, so I must stress again that Dead Island is best enjoyed with people you know.

Despite the generally fun co-op experience, however, Dead Island suffers from a general lack of polish throughout. I came across trees floating out of the ground and several of my co-op partners reported finding rocks with holes in their geometry and ways to get underneath the game's map with little effort. At one point, the game's questionable spawning mechanic—a mechanic that will usually either spawn you right where you died or a mile away from everyone—spawned a friend of mine into a bunker with no discernible exit. After an hour or so of admittedly entertaining rescue attempts, he finally had to commit suicide. I also ran into several quests that were simply bugged to the point that I couldn't complete them and was forced to carry them around in my quest log for essentially the duration of my time on the island. I even found one quest that simply would not register as complete and just continuously reset itself back to the beginning—an excellent way to mine XP had I been so inclined. These kinds of flaws are relatively minor and none of them really broke the game for me, but there are so many little problems that their whole effect on the title winds up being more serious than the sum of its parts. A few more months in development may have been a good idea for this one, because as it stands now it often feels unfinished and more than a little sloppy.

Dead Island has been a tough nut to crack from a critic's perspective. On one hand it offers an interesting, unique open world, plenty of zombies to massacre in a variety of horrific ways, great co-op, and well executed RPG elements. On the other hand, the game is littered with so many bugs, glitches, and odd design choices that it can sometimes be difficult to overlook or forgive them and I have to warn against a purchase for solo players due to the frustrating difficulty of later stages. If, however, you are a diehard zombie fan with a few reliable friends to help you through the co-op, Dead Island may very well wind up being one of your favorite games this year despite its flaws and shortcomings.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 09/15/11

Game Release: Dead Island (US, 09/06/11)

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