The slew of zombie games that has flooded the market over the years shows no signs of slowing down. Thankfully, Techland’s Dead Island (known for creating the Call of Juarez series) offers a unique action adventure, set in an open world, and characterized by a loot-driven, XP-based ranking system. Despite its weak presentation and technical issues, Dead Island offers a fun experience, assuming you can overlook its shortcomings.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Dead Island’s story is not one that should be revered, partly because it is non-existent for a large portion of the game. After being treated to an opening cutscene depicting an inebriated vacationer stumbling through a hotel resort, you awake to find yourself trapped on the island of Banoi, a vacation resort that has been overrun by zombies. You get to play as one of four characters who are immune to the disease. Each character has their own unique stats and abilities. Although each character’s backstory is interesting enough, the game never expands upon these, and this only serves to make the characters seem more one-dimensional. The first few acts of the game solely focus on gathering supplies, undergoing fetch quests, and serving as a bodyguard on escort missions. Near the end of the game, a thinly-veiled story involving a vaccine, a pharmaceutical lab (Resident Evil anyone?) and a mysterious broadcast promising rescue from the island, starts to develop, but it fails to capture the audience in any significant way.
From a design standpoint, Dead Island is very similar to Fallout 3, Borderlands, and Dead Rising 2. Quests are given to you by talking to NPC’s, and you are given the option of completing them when you choose. There are both main story and side quests, and you have the choice of completing as many or as few of the side quests as you want. As you complete quests and gain XP, your character will rank up, allowing you to unlock passive and active abilities for your character. Weapons are found throughout the environment, and some are given as rewards for completing quests. Weapons are also tied into your character’s level, and you will only find weapons that are close to your current level. Not unlike Borderlands, you will be constantly finding and ditching old weapons to make room for better ones. Weapons can also be crafted and modified by using items that you will loot from your surroundings. The game takes a lenient stance on weapon crafting, allowing you to create electric blades from a machete, batteries, and wires (for example), but it doesn’t detract from the experience at all. All the weapons and crafting would be for naught if the combat doesn’t make them enjoyable to use, but luckily, Dead Island delivers in this respect. With sharp and blunt weapons, you can swing them by mashing on the attack button, and firearms can be fired from the hip or by aiming down sights. You also have the option of using an analog fighting system. Rather than using an attack button to fend for yourself, by using the right analog stick, you can direct your attacks in different directions. This feature is implemented quite well, considering the game features a dismemberment system. Rather than simply swinging at your enemies, you can target specific limbs and other body parts, and by focusing your attack on one area, you can disarm your foes (literally). Rounding out the combat system is the stamina bar. Simply put, most actions (running, jumping, and attacking) will deplete your stamina. Stamina replenishes quickly, but if you deplete it completely it will take more time to recover. Where other zombie games limit your abilities by limiting your character’s movement or ammunition (I’m going to have to reference Resident Evil again), the use of the stamina bar allows for more strategy when dealing with your undead foes.
On top of the tight gameplay, Dead Island nails its setting. The game drops you in the middle of a huge island, but it does a great job of easing you into it all. As you slowly roam around the island, you will discover more characters, who might offer you quests, or reveal more information about the island. By exploring, the game slowly introduces you to more quests, locations, and potential secrets, and it does help to make the world more interesting, as the paper-thin plot does little to shape the setting. You are also given the option of exploring the island with up to 3 other players (this is where the Borderlands comparison really feels apparent). As expected, you can tackle the game in any way you choose, by either completing quests one by one, or simply kicking zombie ass. The game notifies you when other players are nearby, and gives you the option of quickly jumping into their game. If you aren’t into random co-op, you can filter the online options to make your game private so that you can only invite friends or simply play by yourself.
While Dead Island had the potential to truly stand out against other games in its genre, it’s plagued by design and technical issues so numerous that it is sometimes hard to keep track of them all. In the first act, the game needlessly has you scrambling between two safe houses to complete quests, and at times you have so many quests to complete that it becomes mind-boggling. However, there are times where the game feels anemic, having very few quests to offer you at all, which only serves to exacerbate the already apparent pacing issues. There are also times where the game’s difficulty ramps up way too quickly. In Dead Island, the zombies rank up alongside you, so you will never encounter areas with enemies who are too powerful (unlike other traditional RPGs). However, certain sections (particularly the city section) assault you with too many enemies at once, making it seem like you should be playing those sections with multiple people, even though you want to have the freedom of playing by yourself. The game actually feels like it wants you to play with others, considering many of the cut scenes feature all four characters (regardless if you are playing alone), and many NPCs address you as a group.
On the technical side of things, Dead Island feels like the lesser cousin of Fallout New Vegas, with bugs that don’t completely break the game, but they definitely detract from the overall experience. While the graphics of the game certainly are nice, there is an abundance of texture pop-in, clipping, pixelization, and stiff animation. There is very little music in the game (though it’s not needed), and while the zombie growls serve their purpose in building fear and tension, there are times when dead zombies will be making noise, or you will hear zombies despite having none on screen. The game will occasionally respawn you in completely different areas, and it has been reported that some players have been respawned in areas where they can’t leave, forcing them to start a new game. The AI (especially for the zombies) is rather lackluster, with enemies having a tough time scaling small barriers, or figuring out that they need to go around obstacles to reach you. This extends to the NPCs as well: During one mission, after I had cleared out an swarm of zombies with a Molotov cocktail, the NPC I was escorting decided to run through the fire and die, forcing me to restart the quest.
It can be both exhausting and time consuming when it comes to keeping a list of Dead Island’s technical issues. Luckily, the game is better than the sum of its parts (issues included), and if you are into quests, loot, co-op, and zombie hunting, you should give this one a go.
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