Review: Dead Island

September 12, 2011, Author: Ray Willmott

Holidays are a necessity. We all need a break from the insanely fast-paced nature that the 21st Century dictates. Without time to relax and unwind, we’d probably all be bouncing off the walls, our eyes spinning inside our head and our tongues permanently poked out, looking like a cross between a gargoyle and a caffeine-fuelled cartoon character.

Naturally, the concept of rest and relaxation varies from person to person. Some choose to go to remote, countryside landscapes, others choose to go to theme parks and ride turbulent rollercoasters. Then there are those who love the all-inclusive beach resorts that offer free food, drink and sun. For the cast of Dead Island, this final option certainly seems to be the most enticing.

That is until their blissful nirvana is marred by cannibalised corpses and swimming pools discoloured with blood. Suddenly, they wish they were back home, stuffing envelopes and making daisy chains out of paperclips.

Dead Island is one of most talked about games of the year, and one that certainly seems to have people on the fence. Now that the wait is finally over, I tell you, once and for all, whether the whole experience is worth taking a vacation for…

Who do your voodoo, bitch?
Dead Island is impatient, and doesn’t even wait for you to get to the Title Screen before plunging you into another of its cut-scenes. The opening scene is viewed from a First Person Perspective, and puts you in the shoes of a very drunk, abusive individual who is heading toward the resort’s nightclub. There’s live music tonight, and people have come out in droves to dance the night away. However, this drunken douche seems content in spoiling the fun and starts attracting a lot of attention, (the wrong kind) from others in attendance. Their suspicions seem warranted, as the drunkard shoves past anyone who brushes past them, starting fights and even groping a woman’s breasts. This one is a real charmer.

However, when the lush sees another member of the crowd gnaw at the neck of the security guard attempting to eject them, blood splattering all over, the drunkard gets spooked and stumbles into the women’s bathroom to clean up. Inside is a worse sight. Lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood is a woman who appears to be dead. Thinking it’s just hallucinations, the drunkard storms back to their room, takes a few pills, downs them with more alcohol and enters an unconscious sleep.

Now, something struck me as very odd about that cut-scene before I even pressed the start button, something that instantly hinders Dead Island’s continuity. The character (who appears to be male, also not taking gender into account) you follow in this cut-scene is supposed to be the person you end up playing in the game, as during the Prologue, you wake up from the night after.

What’s odd about this, is that during the cut-scene you interact with each one of the playable characters in the game, making the person whose perspective you’re viewing the cut-scene from someone completely different. Even when people interact with you during the game, they draw attention to ‘that night’ and the condition you were in. It’s a baffling continuity oversight and doesn’t really set a great trend from the offset.

Dead Exciting!

Anyway, as you walk around the hotel, you start to realise the Island of Banoi has been overrun by a Zombie outbreak. Dead bodies and deserted luggage hamper your steps, as you realise all too soon that you may just have rented a room in Hotel California. Then, suddenly, just when you think you’re all alone, you find yourself ambushed by Zombies who clearly haven’t had their nutritious brain-filled breakfast, yet. Quickly, a voice calls out to you to run to a nearby safe-house. As you’re unarmed, that sounds like a tempting proposition, and without question, you slam the door shut behind you.

Inside are a group of survivors, led by the head Life Guard, Sinamoi. At first, they had intended to kill you, thinking you’d been infected, until they realised that your character is, somehow, immune. Thus, your presence ignites some hope in the survivors, and so, due to your unique position, Sinamoi asks you to undertake some tasks in order to help the Survivors take control of the island. From this point on, it’s fair to say the holiday is over and hell has truly begun!

Surfin’ Banoi
You have a choice of four different characters to play in Dead Island, two men and two women; each with their own unique speciality and each with their own talent tree. You have Logan, who is a throwing expert. Purna who’s pretty nifty with a firearm, Xian whose proficiency is Sharp Weapons and Sam B who is the fiercest when clubbing you upside the head with a blunt weapon. While I played the game with Logan, you’re probably better starting off with either Xian or Sam B. Melee weapons are the prime method of combat in Dead Island, and when levelled up, both Xian and Sam B will cut through Zombies like a hot knife through butter.

Each character has a different talent tree, clearly defined by three separate headings. You can either invest points in Fury, Combat or Survival. These work in very much the same way as you’ve seen them in World of Warcraft or Too Human. You level up, earn a skill point and can spend that skill point in any of the three aforementioned trees. Fury focuses on boosting the ferocity of your character’s attack. Combat improves your ability with weapons, increasing critical damage or power, and obviously Survival improves your durability and stamina. You will need to carefully consider how you want to spend your points (If you’re anything like me, you will spend a lot of time with this!) as the points cannot be reclaimed. This also greatly determines how you will fare against the onslaught of the undead. You can already see that strategy is key to your success in Dead Island, which does represent a relatively unique approach for a game in this genre.

Something else very different about Dead Island is how much the game humanizes the enemy. Normally, in games like Left 4 Dead you face special infected like Tanks, Boomers and Jockeys, or other types of souped up Zombies in other games, but Dead Island puts you up against pure, honest to goodness tourists. These are just normal people that have been turned, men in swim shorts, women in bikinis, grannies with large pearl necklaces; they’re all just people who came for a holiday, and acquired a taste for human flesh.

When there is no more room in Hell...

It’s not just the enemy, though. The survivors, and people you endeavour to help show how much the events have affected them in different ways. Some just want to get pissed, drink champagne and forget the world. Others use it as an opportunity to have sex with half-naked women, cheating on their wives. Some just ball up in a corner and cry, asking you to search a resort for a teddy bear they can snuggle up with. The Island of Banoi has become a fractured place, a luxury resort reduced to a minefield of corpses. Yet, despite the connotations, the game never seems to reach the emotional depths that initial trailer reached earlier this year.

While that went some way to showing us how this game doesn’t take prisoners, and that anyone can be a victim as much as an enemy, I never felt as much of an emotional attachment to any of these characters over a thirty hour playthrough, compared to those two minutes I felt for that family and their small girl. However, as long as you’re not thinking in terms of the same dramatic impact that trailer delivered, this game still provides its own forms of drama and suspense.

In order to survive, your character is forced to reach the decrepit depths that surround them, and in this World, as I said before, melee weapons are your primary form of attack. They range everywhere from a wooden paddle, to a nailbat and a wrench. Once the weapon is hand, at the top right of the screen, you can see its condition. As you continue to use the weapon, so its condition deteriorates. In the beginning, you’ll find you go through weapons quite quickly, however later in the game, you can increase the player’s effectiveness with melee weapons through the talent tree. You’ll also need to be mindful of your stamina bar which deteriorates every time you swing your weapon. Once it is completely drained, you’ll have to wait a few moments before you can fight again. Again, this can be reconfigured via the talent tree.

You can carry several weapons at any time, or you can swap the one in your hand with something on the floor. Like Borderlands, the stats of the weapon you’re currently holding are compared to those of the one you’re considering picking up, showing you whether it’s stronger or weaker in various areas. Fighting Zombies usually turns out into a slugfest, and you’ll find yourself wailing around with your weapon, preferably aiming for the head, which produces the most damage. You’ll also want to look to cripple the body parts of the enemy, which not only give you additional experience points, but also makes the task of bringing them to the ground a lot easier.

When you start getting through the enemies with ease however, the game has a difficulty alteration system that adapts to your level and play style. The zombies will always be a bit stronger than you, that’s something you’ll just have to accept, and when they come at you en masse, unless you have backup, you’re liable to be crushed. There is an option for your character to kick zombies away which helps create some crowd control, however, like games such as Left 4 Dead, you will often find yourself getting overwhelmed.

Unfortunately, that does present a big frustration with the combat system. Even though it seemingly draws inspiration from Left 4 Dead’s horde-en-masse style of combat, I didn’t feel the same anxiousness and panic, but more of a tedium and frustration. The combat does become a bit of a slog, with the same attack formula making up the bare bones of the game. Fight one zombie, suddenly some just seem to appear from the sides, then, out of nowhere, one attacks from behind. You manage to get one down, turn around, there are more pouncing on you and you have to bat them away. Use a few kicks, hit them with your weapon, then keep kicking them while they’re down. Rinse and repeat.

What’s also quite surprising is that there’s no ability to block even though you’re using melee weapons. I feel this could have been an interesting dynamic that has been seen to work in other games (like Condemned) where you block a blow from the enemy, which is then deflected temporarily stunning them, then the player can move in for the kill. As I said before, the kick does serve as a kind of defensive mechanism enabling you to push some zombies away from you, but if you come up against the likes of a Thug, they’ll just brush it off and beat you into the ground. As a result, you’re kind of beholden to a ‘strike-move back-strike’ approach. Your character is also able to dodge, but the game doesn’t bother to tell you about it until the third chapter!

One great feature about Dead Island is the ability to craft weapons. There are benches in the world (which also enable you to repair and upgrade your existing weapons) and when you receive schematics (whether it is as a quest reward, or from just picking them up around the island) you will need to find the ingredients necessary to create them, storing them in your inventory as you go. These weapons can range from bombs, to guns, to random combinations of melee awesome. Naturally, there’s some weird and wonderful combinations, but there’s also a lot of them, so be prepared to keep on the look out.

The weaponry is varied, although they do break very quickly...

Banoi is a large, open world, which never feels constrictive. You always feel as if you can do whatever you please, and while some open world games teach you your boundaries early on, Dead Island never seems to be forthcoming with them. Sometimes though, the depths of the World can be overwhelming. Certainly, there’s a main story to follow in Dead Island, but the sheer number of side-quests are a story all on their own. Believe me, you won’t run out of them.

When interacting with an NPC and receiving a quest, your character receives a bloodied sheet of paper with a set of bulletpoints on it, the amount of XP you’ll earn and any rewards. Once accepted, the quest goes into the quest-log screen, which may be the most unorganised mess I’ve ever seen. Essentially, the quests are added in an order the computer feels comfortable with; not the player. There’s no way to categorise these according to Region or to difficulty, they’re just scattered in your quest log, and it’s up to you to either remember where you got them from, or just pick and choose, which is likely to send you all across the map like a headless chicken.

When you select a quest, a waypoint appears on your mini-map and you’re instantly told where you need to go. Well, that’s on some quests. On others, there is no guide, there isn’t even any hints in the quest book, you’re essentially left on your own trying to figure out where you need to go. Unfortunately, this lack of organisation does eventually become frustrating, especially when the quests just keep coming, and it makes you cry out for something more sophisticated that other games have been touting for years.

Fortunately, there are cars you can drive which get you around the map quicker. Unfortunately, the driving doesn’t handle particularly well. Steering with the left stick always seems to be a chore, and it takes forever for the car to react to your responses. Also not helped by the fact that the roads are littered with burned out cars and other debris which you’ll need to manoeuvre around. However, when the driving does work in your favour, it can be a real pleasure, and zooming over zombies while earning XP is actually quite satisfying. Sadly, getting to that point seem takes a lot longer than it should.

No tan, all pain!
Most horror games depict cloudy skies and darkened environments, but Dead Island is all set underneath the basking heat of the sun. Instead of bats flying in the night, or creaky old wooden shacks, you’ll see beautiful, moving waters and mountainsides in the distance. Palm trees waving in the wind. For horror enthusiasts, this will feel quite alien and unique, and that’s what makes Dead Island creepy. It doesn’t feel like any conventional horror, and that’s what carves Dead Island out from the other Zombiefests out there. The look of the game doesn’t feel stagnant, or regurgitated. It feels fresh, and, if anything, breathes life into a graveyard of lifeless releases that have stocked our shelves for the last few years.

Generally, the game does look very good, and while it dishes out the beautiful, it just as quickly produces the ugly, with ripped open carcasses and blood streams. Dead Island is a gory, violent game that really manages to blur the line between pleasure and punishment.

It’s not all art, however. Dead Island definitely suffers from many graphical glitches, the most obvious of which sees your character’s hand regularly go through the floor when trying to pick themselves up. It happens during most animations, and it becomes more than a little distracting. You’ll also notice that textures and landscapes only start to appear when you’re really close to them. It’s like you’re continuously catching the game by surprise by just walking forward, and suddenly it realises that it needs to put a series of trees in front of you. The engine always seems to be a bit behind the vast detail the game itself is trying to conceptualise. 

"Oooooh fu..."

The score has been composed by Pawel Blaszczak, who has also worked on The Witcher and Call of Juarez series. Generally, the tracks are quite dark, moody and murky, setting the tone nicely. There’s the harsh opening number ‘Who Do Your Voodoo, bitch’, performed by in-game character, Sam B. Then there’s the orchestral tracks, which gave me a bit of a ‘Lost’ vibe.

The game also handles the calming sounds of the sea and the swaying palm trees effortlessly. In-between the screams and shouts of zombies, it’s nice to have that moment of tranquillity, reminding you of where you actually are, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

Also, further to the humanizing point I made earlier and how you’re fighting zombies that are just normal people, the game has this undeniable way of producing pangs of guilt in the pit of your stomach. When you’re wailing away at a half-naked, half-dead woman with a shovel, listening to her wails and pleas as her blood splatters all over the side of the Jacuzzi, you realise the implications of your actions, and what it is you’re being forced to do. Oddly, it almost makes you want to stop, even though you know you’re making yourself vulnerable the moment you do. When developers say that games make you question your actions, I feel Dead Island proves that point very well, crafting an especially unsettling tone for itself. 

I won’t leave you behind!
Dead Island offers a unique online, multi-player experience that probably has more similarities to Borderlands than anything else out there at the moment. Dead Island remains connected to the internet at all times, and, as you play through the story and reach certain locations, the game pops up to tell you that another player is in the area, and is at the same part of the story as you. Once that pop up appears, all you need to do is press left on the D-Pad and you will attempt to connect to their game. Once joined together, you can go through the quests together with up to two other people. You can also set up a private party and have only your friends join in. Unfortunately, there is no split-screen co-op in Dead Island, and even if there was, the first player would be the only one to receive rewards and experience, making the whole idea a bit pointless anyway.

Lacks the fun comedy of a Dead Rising, but the combat is fun!

Just like Borderlands, sticking together is key. It is strongly advised that you team up with someone if you’re looking to tackle the ‘Hard’ and ‘Very Hard’ missions. This will make your progress much smoother and a lot easier. You should always work through objectives together, fight side-by-side and always be mindful of each other’s abilities. You can also trade with your partner at anytime, trading ammo and giving them inventory items.  

Generally, the online seems stable with only a few connection issues here and there (which, I feel were mostly dependent on the individual’s connection). It’s a lot of fun to work with someone else while playing the game; so much so, I would say Dead Island is at its best when it is being played with other people.

They don’t need no stinking Walmart, right?
Dead Island is a convincing, yet flawed experience. There’s a lot to love about this game, as it has a forward-thinking quality which allows it to sidle up alongside the likes of Borderlands for online RPG/Action co-op. Yet, there are some ridiculous design faults that should not have been ignored, such as regular graphical hiccups, continuity errors, a better layout for the quest system, and perhaps going a bit easier on the seemingly endless supply of side-quests.

The biggest surprise of all is that Dead Island mostly lives up to the hype, and while it doesn’t resonate with the emotional impact that trailer power-punched us with back in January, Dead Island does give you cause to think, feel, panic and survive. This is a solid, well-rounded package that doesn’t quite live up to the sum of its parts, but does set us on a thrilling freight train ride headed toward an inspired future.


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