September 9, 2011 by Paul Curtin
Although originally announced in 2006, Dead Island stayed under most gamers’ radars until earlier this year in February when Techland released one of the most talked about trailers of all time. It showed no actual gameplay but instead teased a story of a family on vacation that is forced against one another in order to survive a zombie attack. Despite the trailer being awesome, it seemed a little strange for there to be so much hype for a brand new IP from a developer who has yet to produce a blockbuster title.
The trailer got so much publicity that there was even talk of the game being made into a feature film. With an unreleased game that only has a CGI trailer and no details on the story already potentially being made into a movie, it’s easy to see how things could start getting overhyped. So does Dead Island live up to the hype created by its memorable trailer or does the actual gameplay kill what could have been the next big zombie franchise?
Dead Island is a game with a beautiful and unique setting, but with most of its core gameplay mechanics taken from other popular games. Set on a graphically stunning open-world island that you might find in another franchise without zombies like Far Cry or Crysis, Dead Island mixes a combat system similar to Left 4 Dead with a weapon system similar to Dead Rising 2. To make the zombie-killing experience more memorable, Techland has given the game a true RPG core similar to what you would find in Fallout, which takes the zombie genre to the next level by allowing advanced character progression and cooperative play online.
The first thing that comes to mind when seeing Dead Island is how similar it looks and plays like the Left 4 Dead series. Not only is it a first-person game where you slaughter thousands of zombies, but the game allows each player to pick from four different characters. Each character has a unique back story as to why they’re on the island and each is a different weapons expert: a one-hit-wonder rapper named Sam B who specializes in blunt weapons, a former NFL star named Logan Carter who specializes in throwing weapons, a resort employee/undercover police officer named Xian Mei who specializes in sharp weapons, and a former police officer named Purna who specializes in firearms.
Every zombie you kill and every quest completed rewards you with experience that goes towards your character leveling up. Each level unlocks a skill point which can be used in one of the three skill trees each character has, which allows for a great level of customization based on individual playstyle — whether you want to invest all your points in hand-to-hand combat or abilities to allow you take more damage and survive longer, or spread your points throughout all three trees to get a little of everything, the choice is yours. The system works great, but one flaw is that there’s no way to reset skills points if you decide later on to go in a different direction, so you’ll want to go over all the skills and decide which abilities you want to work towards before you start spending your points.
Unfortunately, if you were expecting a deep and emotional story (something we got a hint of in our hands-on preview at E3) from the characters based on the debut trailer, then you’ll be greatly disappointed with the end result. The initial bio about each character is almost all there is in terms of character development, with the majority of the voice acting coming from other characters who give quests. All you’ll get out of the main characters in terms of dialog is them yelling the same one-liners during combat and the same generic one-word responses when communicating with NPCs and accepting quests. There are some cutscenes throughout the game with a slight bit of dialog from the main characters, but the scenes are practically worthless and far and few between. Oh, and what about that family from the trailer you ask? At the very start of the game you can find the family’s hotel room with the father and mother lying dead on the floor next to each other. Techland stated that the family would not be featured in the game, so it seems like they’ve added this little Easter egg to keep fans of the trailer happy; however, comparing the presentation of the in-game family to the one seen in the trailer is more depressing than the trailer itself.
Once you get past the fact that the story’s character development is awful, you’ll find a very enjoyable game. Although the combat at first glance may seem like a straight copy of Left 4 Dead, the system is far more advanced with a stronger focus on melee combat. The shooter mechanics are a bit rough and function nowhere near as smoothly as L4D or other popular FPS games on the market, but the melee system that allows you to target different parts of each enemy’s body and strategically dismember them is so fun that you’ll prefer to use melee weapons over guns anyway, especially since Techland has made guns less effective to emphasize melee combat. The only problem with the melee system is that at times it can be a bit wonky and repetitive. I’d strongly suggest getting the skill that allows you to instantly curb stomp enemy heads so that you’re not standing over each zombie’s motionless body repetitively smashing their head in with 5-10 blows (depending on which zombie you’re trying to kill and weapon you use).
Aside from different outfits, there isn’t much diversity amongst the living dead, all of which seem to be taken straight from Left 4 Dead. There are regular zombies that will sprint right at you, fat zombies that vomit poison on you, suicide zombies that will blow up when close to you, larger slow zombie thugs that can take far more damage, and rare massive psycho zombies in straightjackets that are like tanks with the ability to charge right at you. There are also human enemies with guns who feel even less human than the zombies due to their poor A.I. programming and limited voice acting. Not improving upon L4D‘s zombie types is acceptable, but big boss battles are something every RPG needs and something Dead Island is severely lacking.
To add to its RPG core, throughout the game players can constantly pick up new weapons from the environment, in locked containers, or as quest rewards. The weapon system is fairly advanced with each weapon having its own statistics so you can compare it to what you already have and determine if you want to use it. Like other RPGs, each weapon and item is categorized by how rare it is based on its level and name’s color. Green items are common objects that you’ll find more of at the start while purple and orange items that can be found later on are rare and far more valuable. The inventory system is also easy to navigate and allows for just about everything to be horded except for weapons, which you can carry eight of at once. Similar to Dead Rising 2, after finding blueprints, weapons can be combined with other items found throughout the game at workbenches to create even more powerful instruments of destruction. The combinations aren’t as over-the-top as Dead Rising 2 in order to keep the game’s more realistic and serious tone, but they’re still crazy enough to keep the combat refreshing till the end.
By far the most enjoyable feature of Dead Island is the ability to play throughout the entire game with three other players in a totally open-world environment. At any time players can jump in and out of each others’ games (if they’re around the same point in the game). Because the game is less of a survival horror game than it is just a fun zombie-killing RPG, the experience is actually far more enjoyable when playing online with others, especially since the single-player doesn’t feature three other A.I. characters fighting alongside you, which takes away from the story when the cutscenes always feature the same four characters. The respawn system plays to the game’s more fun-spirited co-op style; however, it’s almost too forgiving by spawning you right next to where you died with a minor cash penalty, and thus it takes away from the more realistic approach the game takes.
Dead Island‘s biggest problem is how many little glitches and problems there are in the design of the game. You’ll constantly encounter minor graphical issues like objects and people clipping through one another. And while the smaller bugs don’t ruin the experience, they’re a constant reminder that you’re playing a game that isn’t as well made as it could be. Cooperative matchmaking is one of the biggest problems because of how it forces players to only be able to join the games of others who are currently in the same area as they are and sometimes doesn’t even allow you to join any games at all even when they’re found on the matchmaking screen. I didn’t experience that many game-breaking issues except towards the end when dealing with coopertive play and crashes that resulted in one of the worst ending experiences I’ve ever had playing a game.
While playing with three other people for hours with no big problems, the game began freezing for everyone in my party when on the last level. I finally gave up on co-op and went back to my single-player game where I was randomly spawned in a level many chapters back with no map available to me. I had absolutely no idea where to go and whether the game had taken me back to a previous save point or bumped me further along on the right path closer to the end of the game. I had to literally run through two different levels filled with respawned zombies in order to get to a fast travel point that allowed me to warp back to where I left off in co-op.
When I finally made my way to the final boss, a notification popped up asking if I wanted to join another person playing nearby. I selected to do so, and it brought me into the other player’s game… who had already beaten the final boss and was watching the last cutscene! I tried to quickly quit his game but my game had already auto-saved and as soon as I quit the credits began to roll. What’s worse is once you beat the game a brand new game is started with your current stats and no option to go back since you can’t manually select which level you want to play. I tried reloading my last checkpoint, and it just kept taking me back to the very beginning of the game. I had to go on YouTube just to watch somebody else beat the final boss after spending 20+ hours playing the game myself. It was a complete nightmare and sadly ruined my final impression of the game. The exact same terrible experience most likely won’t happen to other people, but similar issues that currently plague Dead Island can easily hurt the overall experience for others.
Despite my own bad experience and the game not living up to the hype created by the trailer, the overall game is still very fun and enjoyable. The name “Dead Island” nails what makes the game so great: a massive open-world island that you can waste days just exploring filled with tons of quests and thousands of zombies to slaughter. The RPG system is the best of any zombie game and the co-op makes the gameplay just as fun as Left 4 Dead. If you’re a fan of RPG games, then you’ll be able to enjoy multiple playthroughs; however, if you don’t like going from Point A to Point B grinding quests for XP, it’s hard to justify replaying the entire game since it lacks a compelling story and a competitive multiplayer mode like Left 4 Dead.
There’s supposed to be a Horde Mode game type released as DLC in the near future, but with so many other great games coming out this season, it’s hard to see how Dead Island will be able to fend off the competition. Hopefully Techland will release some patches to address the current problems and we’ll see a sequel to the game in a couple years when the developers are able to iron out all the issues that hurt the series debut. Dead Island gets 3.5 out of 5 stars (Very Good).
- Unique open-world setting with beautiful visuals and plenty of zombies to kill
- Great physics engine allows random weapon pickups and graphic zombie dismemberment
- Solid RPG core with tons of quests and a leveling system that allows upgrading of abilities and weapons
- Co-op allows for 4 players to quickly jump in and out of others’ games online
- Melee combat system can get very repetitive without the right abilities
- Dialog is weak, especially coming from the main characters when communicating with NPCs
- Realistic survival tone is hurt by the game’s very forgiving death and respawn system
- Tons of glitches and other minor in-game issues almost ruin the overall experience