Review: Dead Island

Review: Dead Island

Surrounded by hype, dramatic trailers and great anticipation for popping some zombie heads, Techland’s Dead Island is set to stagger into our lives next week. But is this zombie-chopping, island-exploring adventure truly as stellar as the first trailer or should it have stayed dead and buried?

Dead Island itself takes place on the fictional island of Banoi, located in Papua New Guinea. This island is inhabited with thousands of individuals, most of which are holiday-makers staying at the luxurious Royal Palms resort but is also inhabited by local (and cannibalistic) tribes while a sprawling city houses a large score of people as well. In short, this means that when a zombie epidemic strikes, there’s going to absolutely thousands of the damn things to contend with and, unfortunately, said zombie epidemic kicks in at the game’s beginning.

This is where you come in – starring as one of four selectable ‘survivors’ each with their own unique traits, moves and skills, you find yourself waking up right in the middle of the zombie attack. You’ll then soon discover that you’re somehow immune to the zombie’s infectious bites and this, naturally, means you’re the go-to guy or gal for dealing with the various trials and tribulations of other survivors of the evil undead-raising plague (these guys aren’t lucky enough to be inexplicably immune to the virus). Using your character of choice, you’ll then be unleashed upon the massive, sprawling world of Dead Island, given a small, poor weapon to get you started and defend yourself and then set off to whatever you damn well please.

See, that’s where most of the fun of Dead Island lies – while many may compare it to Capcom’s Dead Rising in terms of concept, Dead Island instead isn’t saddled with a constant, ticking countdown like Rising is – instead this game encourages exploration, is filled with collectibles, hidden secrets and plenty to see and do.  Speaking of which, you’ll be seeing all the action through the first-person perspective of your character of choice and, given the emphasis Dead Island has on melee combat, this is a model way of surviving a zombie horde, and helps to keep the game much more intense, focused and compelling because you feel as if the zombies are actually attacking you directly, rather than someone such as Frank West who was shown in a third person perspective in Rising.

Dead Island

CHARGEEEEE!!!

The game itself is a very different affair to most zombie titles I’ve played as well – in Dead Island, the undead are relentless, they attack in packs, and every single moment of the game feels like a struggle for survival against something that is much larger than you (which is often the case, some of the zombies are massive!).  While some may not approve of constantly having to heal yourself and fight against multiple attacking enemies at once, often dealing extreme amounts of damage to you, I find that the game ultimately benefits from this approach – rather than being an overpowered, killing machine, you’re always on par with most of the zombies in term of strength, as they level up with you. This ultimately means you’re going to have to struggle for your life through the entire game and – while it can be infuriating to constantly die (which loses you cash but lets you respawn) – the game itself ramps up the tension and creates one of the most memorable and disturbing zombie titles in recent memory.

The presentation of the game itself is what makes this game succeed so well in ramping up the tension as the zombies themselves, as well as the huge, sprawling environment you get to explore, look absolutely incredible. One of my favourite aspects of the game is the fantastic musculature, bone and other types of damage systems that Techland has implemented on the zombies, leading to some highly impressive and extremely gory killings. For example, wielding a sword and swinging it wildly at a zombies’ arm (a remarkably easy thing to do given the flexibility of wielding weapons from a first-person perspective) will many a time sever the zombie’s arm completely, leaving them without one of their weapons. Other bodily appendages behave in much the same way – you can crush heads under your foot, chop them off, break zombie arms so you can see them flailing wildly and you can even shock zombies with electricity, set them on fire or poison them with your unique weaponry.

Graphically, Dead Island looks very good. Character models and the environment generally look stellar, but the game, in my experience, was filled with textures popping in far too slowly, sound randomly cutting out and other bizarre graphical glitches such as body parts coming through walls. That said, I did enjoy immensely the way zombie’s react to the environment – I once saw a zombie catch its leg in a gap on a pier which, given the undead terror’s momentum after I smashed it in the face, tore its leg clean off. It looked great, and the graphical niggles shouldn’t detract from the overall experience too much as generally the game maintains solid presentation with interesting locales. Some of the character faces/mouths are occasionally dodgy though.

Dead Island

Electrical Machete – Meet Face

Like Dead Rising, Dead Island also includes a vast amount of weaponry designed to deal with the zombie horde. You’ll regularly stumble across all kinds of stuff ranging from basic items such as boat paddles ranging to massive, crudely-hewn together maces that you can swing and smash a zombies’ head into oblivion with. There’s also a flawed but useful weapon customization system that allows you to change your weapons for the better, attaching things such as fire damage, electric damage and even creating a ‘magic wand’ that shoots zombies flying off into the distance. It’s fun and allows some interesting weapon combinations, but  this technique, implemented by interacting with a workbench, forces the player to spend money in order to upgrade their weapons and you’ll often find yourself strapped for cash as you’ve already spent the money repairing your weapons which degrade and become almost useless very quickly as you attack the zombies.  Quite who you’re paying when you have all the components yourself and there’s no-one in the immediate area is a mystery, but the fact remains you’re constantly going to have to collect cash in order to get some nice weaponry. Again, it feels like a struggle for survival, but I feel personally that this cash-oriented weapon repair/upgrade system retracts significantly from some of the fun of the experience.

While your weapons do last though, you’ll be gaining experience and levelling up in typical RPG fashion. This then allows you to upgrade your character’s skills (1 per level) and there’s three specific skill trees, one for your unique character trait such as being proficient with a certain type of weaponry, another for your ‘Rage’ meter (which fills up over time and allows access to a move that can send scores of zombies flying into next week) and then there’s a final one for your general abilities. You’ll also upgrade your overall health and stamina as time goes on, allowing you to swing weapons for longer and maintain effective attacks against the zombies without having to stop and catch your breath.  While this system generally works well and gives the occasional exciting upgrade (curp stomp was a particular favourite of mine – such satisfying head poppage!) the upgrades don’t seem to actually do that much (sometimes only upping your attack power by about 3%, so they seem hardly worth it. Couple the fact that zombies generally level up with you, then you’re still going to struggle for survival even though you’ve got more health as the zombies’ attacks have also got significantly stronger.  This means you’ll never particularly be able to ‘own’ the zombie horde and instead you’ll find every single you level up, the trickier the game gets to play on your own.

Thankfully though, you’re not alone. Dead Island supports 4 player drop-in, drop-out gameplay and while I played the majority of the campaign by myself in order to get more of a challenge, I did try it for a good while and having some friends to distract the zombies/help you bash them into their grave once more makes the experience easier than if you did a standalone story. Basically think of Dead Island as being a blend of all the major zombie titles over the past few years – there’s a sprinkle of Dead Rising here, a dash of Left 4 Dead there in the 4 player co-op, but Dead Island does actually stand up as a standalone, new title. While it may borrow aspects from other games, the implementation, presentation and fun factor of the game married together with the relentless struggle for survival mean this is a very different beast of zombie title that can be played in many different ways depending on your character and choice of how many people you’d like to play with or instead be a social recluse like myself and act alone.

Dead Island

Ah, The Curb Stomp. Cue Head Splat.

In terms of length, Dead Island has a huge amount to do. The amount of sidequests is bordering on ridiculous – I played through most of them and each has unique rewards and often they’re very varied. There’s some typical fetch quests and stuff of the sort, but often you’ll be sent into enemy territory and have to fight for survival in order to get to your goal. Since most of the unique, useful weaponry actually comes from doing this, I’d readily encourage anyone considering this game to explore, explore and explore again as you never know what you’ll find in a new location. It could be a new weapon, a new quest or even a new type of highly dangerous zombie. Who knows?

Sadly, the storyline of Dead Island itself is beyond bad. Since most of the game is told through your character saying nothing except yes or no when prompted with a quest, the tale is told mainly through other NPC’s talking to you. That is, until about halfway through the game when, all of a sudden you’re suddenly friends with the other three playable characters (they literally pop up out of nowhere) and then you’ll form an alliance as if you’ve been pals all along, and then they’ll randomly pop up every so often for a cutscene. Given the strange, almost after-thought presentation to the story, this means ultimately that you won’t give a damn about any of them and the less said about the ending of the game, the better. It’s a real shame as I thought this title was going to be a narrative tour-de-force to rival TV series The Walking Dead but instead I ended up playing through an island romp that just happened to be filled with zombies. There’s not really any closure to many of the plot points either during the action – instead it will routinely skip over some things or only mention them so briefly you’ll probably blink and miss it. For a game that had a trailer that looked so narrative based and captured the hearts of the world, I’m deeply saddened by the fact that the storyline was nowhere near as good as it should have been.

In summary, Dead Island isn’t as good as the first trailer – the story is pretty damn bad and hard to get attached to in any way due to seemingly random events occurring, but the gameplay itself is fantastically presented, pretty much constant fun that will have you smashing zombies’ heads in for many an hour. Dead Island isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the word; I just feel that perhaps it could have been so much better with a more interesting narrative tale rather than the shallow and under-developer storyline and characters we become saddled with as it progresses.

Score: 8/10

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