A long time ago, several Aliens-inspired mods hit for DOOM. The one that stood out from the rest of the pack opened the same way Dead Island does – in silence. Players started out on a landing platform from which they began to explore a formerly thriving colony. The entire level was a case study in intensity and atmosphere because you just knew that somehow somewhere an alien was going to pop out of a closet and attack. Right when the tension reached unbearable heights, the level ended. The next level provided false confidence because you once again found nothing. If anything, the mod seemed almost… boring. Midway through the level you found an elevator at the end of a long hallway. This dropped to the lower floors and BOOM… a dark, dank, muck-infested corridor stretched as far as you could see. Hissing echoed against the walls. From that point on until the credits rolled, there was never, ever a single moment when you felt safe. It was awesome.
The stillness of the opening hotel level in Dead Island is what did it for me. The introductory cinematic is a hallucinatory experience, which is as it should be considering you’re looking through the eyes of a staggering drunk on the floor of a rave. The alcohol flows like a river as the party goers bounce off one another in tandem to the beat. Drugs may or may not be involved depending on what you think is there. Things spiral out of control, but what did you actually see? When your character sobers up, he/she awakens to find a hotel where the halls are filled with luggage but void of people. No guests. No bellhops. No squealing kids running down the hall en route to the pool. The hustle and bustle one would expect from a posh resort in paradise are entirely absent while a look outside reveals a beautiful and brilliant day on the island. It’s not a stretch to imagine the sounds of the ocean carried on the wind, or the temperature registering a humid 78-degree morning.
Once your character exits the room, you’ll spend a good five to 10 minutes just exploring the floor and wondering why everything seems so still, so quiet. Spying an open-air balcony, your character walks out in search of answers… and sees two people fall headfirst over a balcony high above. You find yourself immobilized, helpless to silence their screams which dwindle as the bodies plummet to the ground several stories below. Right after that moment, there is a hissing sound followed by groans. From that moment on, there’s never an instance when you’re either safe or even at ease.
If nothing else, Dead Island absolutely nails the atmosphere of a small group of people under constant siege from the undead. Adding to the air of hopelessness is the reality that the survivors can’t escape into the hills, or evacuate the city, or move to another state. They remain trapped on a small island in the south Pacific surrounded by endless ocean. Even the seagulls have flown the coop, so to speak. There is no escape. There is only a war of attrition against the undead whose numbers dwarf yours.
So what do you have to defend yourself? Anything you can get your hands on. The fun of this game is that if it can be picked up, and there’s a hell of a lot available, then you can throw it at a zombie or whack a zombie with it. Even better is the ability, ala Dead Rising 2, to combine materials with various weapons which result in an enhanced tool that increases dealt damage. I’ve decapitated more zombies than I can think of with an electrified katana and it was by turns hilarious, disgusting, and emotionally fulfilling. You can have a nail-filled 2X4 if you’re into the basics, or you can change it up by adding poison damage to a sledgehammer. What’s the point of poisoning a zombie? Why, for the chance to watch them stagger off and puke up their intestines before falling to the ground and twitching.
The intensity of the melee combat is enhanced by the ability to cripple your opponents. It may not seem like much to break a zombie’s arm, but then he/she/it can’t do much damage with it. That doesn’t mean they’re any less dangerous though, especially when found in packs, so players always need to remain on high alert. However, crippled limbs are much easier to remove with machetes, knives, katanas and more. Taking a zombie apart limb by limb is just as messy as it sounds, and Deep Silver did a great job in letting you feel the carnage. You can throw a machete into a zombie’s chest then yank it out while he’s still standing and decapitate him with it. Oh, Dead Island, you had me at hello.
If you’re interested in zombie games and the above descriptions haven’t sold you on Dead Island, then how about a nice comparison to Diablo? As if the variety of weaponry and items at your disposal wasn’t enough, the staggering amount of them will invite comparisons to Blizzard’s favorite click-fest. Virtually everywhere you turn are chests to unlock, crates to search, items to pick up, food to consume, weapons to use on zombies, and so forth.
Dead Island also keeps the focus where it should be for most of its running time – on your character’s survival. At the outset, you select one of four archetypes (hand-to-hand fighter, gun specialist, etc.), then you’re off to the races. During the course of the game, you’ll encounter people who need to be rescued, or who need fuel, or who need one last favor performed before they die. You’ve seen just about all of this before in role playing games, but never applied so specifically to the undead genre. Dead Island gradually becomes much more of a role playing game than one is lead to believe from the promos. Upon leveling up, players allocate stats which in turn provide combat, passive, or skill-based bonuses. This allows for a solid degree of customization for each run through.
Where things start to get a little dicey is how the game treats each of its four sections. The first is the resort where all hell initially breaks loose. The second is in the city down the road from the resort, and this entire sequence is absolutely terrifying. The third is in the jungle which is where the game starts running out of steam. The fourth is a prison which returns players to the claustrophobic environments seen earlier in the game, yet tries to shoehorn in a plot that doesn’t add up quite the way the developers intended. Without going too far into spoiler territory here, the real villain isn’t who the game has you focused on and it’s obvious to anyone with a set of eyes. But that doesn’t stop the game from throwing one massive boss fight at you at the conclusion which is one element that does not work in any form or fashion (see also the original BioShock). The melodrama tends to be overwrought throughout and frequently doesn’t work. You feel compelled to help people, but the four main characters are never filled in beyond their respective classes. I know the big rapper guy is good with his fists and the Chinese agent is awesome with blades. That’s about it. The potential for character development is there (as evidenced by some of the supporting players) but Deep Silver either chose not to pursue this route as extensively as they could have, or didn’t have the strongest writing staff on the block. For the sequel, I volunteer my services.
But an emotional attachment to player and non-player characters isn’t what you’re playing a game called Dead Island for. For what it’s worth, the layout of the city is one of my favorite things in a game from all of 2011. You can find yourself easily swarmed by the undead, break free and run like crazy through one back alley after another, only to turn a corner and find another swarm twice as large as the first. Then it’s up a fire escape which leads to a chase over roof tops ala The Bourne Identity series. Between the zombies and a dangerous human element, you have to absolutely be on your toes. The sensation of dodging in between buildings, running up stairs and leaping across buildings while avoiding zombies is terrific and terrifying in equal measure. Adding to the tension is how the game parcels out weaponry. I found maybe one gun (and a crappy one at that) in the resort area. There are guns to be found later in the game, but players have to earn them and the way this works feels very right.
On top of a solid single player experience, there’s also a drop in-drop out co-op multiplayer feature where up to four players can hack away at any given time. Do note that the default setting allows for anyone to jump into your game. This can be changed to single player only, or only friends, or only invitees, etc. I’ve played with four people at a time sans headset and the resultant hilarity and carnage was truly breathtaking in scale. Imagine one guy driving a jeep while three others try to fend off a rapidly approaching horde of zombies. As they get closer, you realize that the driver has the jeep stuck and is feverishly working to get all of you out of a ditch. Do you jump out and establish a perimeter? Do you stay in the passenger side with your limited view and hope for the best? Fortunately, the game doesn’t allow for quest snatching, so if you’re on a mission and three others jump in, all four of you will received the experience and material reward upon success. The entire game can be played through on your own, but it is much, much more fun to do so with others in tow.
But this does bring up a minor quibble and that is how the game assumes that four people are going through it at any given moment. Quest givers always talk to you like you’re in a group, even in single player, and cinematics will feature all four of the possible playable characters. If you can look past this, then you should be fine.
Before I blow any more smoke up Dead Island’s bum, let me state that the game could have used several months more of additional bug testing. For example, whenever I headed underground in front of the hotel at the start, I found myself trapped by an invisible wall. The only escape was to crouch, bump up against the wall, then try to force my way through. Certain quests either wouldn’t unlock or complete once the tasks were finished (and the 72 locations achievement was completely broken until a patch was issued shortly after launch), but then would clear up following a reboot. Enemies tend to shoot and charge or just stand there shooting. It’s understood that zombies will just charge at you, but the human AI isn’t that much better off.
Also of note is how the game is tonally different than the trailer which debuted in early 2011. The sheer fury of that trailer illustrated the emotional and physical toll of a zombie attack on a single family and captured in two minutes what “The Walking Dead” has failed to do in two seasons. Right or wrong, Deep Silver must have felt an inordinate amount of pressure from the publisher to get the game out sooner rather than later in order to capitalize on the ravenous enthusiasm garnered by the trailer. They would have been better off debuting the trailer at E3 then releasing the game in early 2012, but they never asked my opinion.
So what else is quirky? The controls take some getting used to since the focus of the combat in the game is melee-based. Dead Island rips a chapter out of the Dead Rising book in this respect because anything you find on the island instantly becomes a weapon. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paddle or a shovel or a knife or a gun or a serving tray. If you can hold it in your hands, you can kill a zombie with it (or at least attack them with it). The result is a zombie game where everything is up close and personal. But what heightens the danger is item degradation that is, frankly, set to a stupidly high level. Weaponry degrades at a precipitous rate, no doubt increased due to the sheer volume of enemies, and repair stations are few and far between. One you find yourself attached to a certain weapon (and you will if only via the law of averages), then ponying up the cash to keep it in peak fighting condition supersedes everything else. As such, raiding bodies, luggage, homes, and cabanas looking for some extra cash becomes more of a primary objective than any other mission.
As for the missions, they make sense in the context of events and one tends to build off another. Turn on the power at one end of a gas station, for example, and you’ll still need to turn on the pumps, fill some tanks up with gas, and then transport everything back to survivors. Once you return with the gas, then you’re sent out on another mission to locate X or Y. The game doesn’t just traffic in Fed Ex-style missions though, and manages to keep a nice variety coming at you. But every now and then you come across some tasks that are deranged on their surface, yet prove to be continual sources of either XP or income. I’m specifically thinking of the Russian chick who just wants to party or the woman early on who just wants her stuffed teddy bear. It’s understood that given the circumstances some people might break mentally, but this is where the script sometimes falls flat.
The writing tends to be sporadic in quality and sometimes conversations are about topics completely unrelated to anything you’re doing. At one point, the lifeguard radioed me to say that a little girl I’d rescued was bitten and that the other survivors were debating killing her. For the life of me, I’d never seen that girl among the other NPCs and had no idea who he was talking about. He radioed me later while I was in the middle of the city to tell me that the girl had expired, and the only thing I could think of was, “What the hell do you want me to do about it and who are we talking about again?” Then there’s the ending where the true identity of the villain is spelled out a few times, but the characters remain unaware of it due to only seeing the person once. Huh?
On the plus side, dying in paradise has rarely looked this beautiful. The visuals are absolutely gorgeous, and just sitting on the beach watching the waves crest and the trees bowing in the wind is entertaining all by itself. Then a ravenous zombie tries to eat your face off and it’s back to work. The various zombies are all appropriately disgusting and monstrous, and the level of detail in both them and the world is intricate to say the least. From top to bottom, this is an extremely pretty game.
On the whole though, Dead Island is absolutely worth your time. At this point you should be able to pick it up for a discount and you will not be wasting your money. It is massively entertaining, features strong combat, a genuinely scary atmosphere, missions that are fairly unique for the most part, a variety of options on how to approach problem solving, and seamless drop in-drop out co-op. Dead Island is a hell of a ride from start to (near) finish and is a zombie game that stands out from the rest of the pack.