There is quite a bit going on in Dead Island. Like Dead Rising 2, it features outlandish weapon creation amidst unending hoards of zombies. It boasts a massive, incredible open world to explore and absorb, along with over one hundred quests to undertake, calling to mind Fallout 3 or Oblivion. Loot is color coded based on effectiveness and rarity, and you can play four different classes with up to three friends, like Borderlands. Far Cry 2 also bears resemblance, with the tropical setting and a dedication to favoring realism by way of consequence over the more typical model of instantly gratifying fun. Ironically, the somber narrative beats implied through Dead Island’s re-debut teaser last winter is one asset it does not have. In any case, it’s not uncommon for games to borrow heavily from other games (look at Darksiders) but Dead Island’s pieces combine to form the proverbial Voltron of zombie/loot/open-world/cooperative experiences. It’s really good and surprisingly unique, despite a few of the problems it creates along the way.
Dead Island makes a few lethargic attempts to construct a narrative around the player character. One of four crude stereotypes is at your disposal, each of which is somehow immune to the rampant zombie plague that has just broken out on Banoi Island. Non-playable characters will never speak to you by name, and for whatever reason all four playable characters appear in every cut scene, as if they’ve been together the whole time. It’s a little unsettling as it only makes sense in the rare instance that you’d be playing online with three other, different characters. In the end it’s relatively unobtrusive, but Dead Island could have benefited from a more detached, silent-player model exhibited so well in other open world games. Dead Island’s best moments are made by experiencing your own narrative through the wild and crazy situations that occur on Banoi, and a shallow back story offers little to support that.
While their personalities are an empty visage, Dead Island’s characters maintain a unique identity via their class. Sam B, who I chose, is tailored to blunt weapons and boasts high health while others have talents with throwing objects, blades, and firearms. Each character also has three skill trees, which all feature the same “combat,” “survival” and “fury” labels, but offer abilities and enhancements unique to their particular talents. There’s also the possibility for builds within builds, as I noticed when I took my Sam online and saw other Sam’s doing wildly different moves I had yet to earn. Variation ensures not only a highly specialized collection of classes for cooperative play, but also a decent incentive to replay the game again solo under a different class.
Combat composes most of your activity in Dead Island, and it’s one area where the team at Techland managed something wholly original. At first I didn’t really get the appeal; all I appeared to be doing was mindlessly swinging my boat paddle at zombies and/or kicking the crap out of them until their health bar depleted. After an hour or so I changed the combat mode from digital to analog in the options menu, and, after a bit of practice, the system unraveled into something beautiful. Analog combat is engaged by targeting a zombies head, arms, or legs, holding down a button, and then swinging the analog stick in a motion that mimics your characters arm placement. If you’re locked on a zombie’s arm and swing your stick from left to right, your character will mimic your motion with their hands. It’s difficult to get the hang of and almost a hindrance in situations where there are a lot of zombies to deal with, but approaching a Thug zombie and systematically (and literally) ripping him apart piece by piece can be incredibly satisfying.
Great combat also happens to yield impressive weapons. Mallets and hammers can break bones, rendering zombie arms dangling and useless, while a variety of bladed weapons can rip limbs clean off. Gun combat pops up when you’re dealing with human enemies and while it’s actually quite good, the limited availability of ammunition insures sporadic use, at best. Workbenches can be used to upgrade a weapon four times, but “mods” steal the show of weapon customization. Unlocked by quests or just finding them around the island, mods are essentially recipes for absurd weapons; gather the correct tools, get enough cash, and you’ll be able to transform an axe into a spontaneous incendiary device or a standard hammer into a lightning spewing cattle prod. Weapons also have levels and wear down with use, which pushes the player to either constantly repair and upgrade or rely on finding new weapons more appropriate for their level.
Quests are dispensed in a typical fashion. The story is pushed forward with tasks that generally have you rescuing people or going on some sort of mission to obtain an item, while side quests compose both busywork and the more experimental sections. What’s particularly interesting are the quests that don’t offer any sort of GPS-guide path to your goal. What can seem like a lazy omission is actually a means to encourage exploration and, in turn, discover quest givers who aren’t found at the “safe” locations.
A commitment to raw survival is Dead Island’s strongest asset. This is an odd thing to say about a game that only penalizes death by taking ten percent of your money, that relies almost exclusively on energy drinks and power bars for health replenishment, and requires arbitrary money to repair weapons and create modifications, but it’s surprising how seriously it takes itself. Zombies that level up with the player create a constant sense of vulnerability, further enhanced when you’re in the middle of nowhere armed with a hammer, two flaming baseball bats, and a defective handgun with six bullets. Whether I was driving my truck around and exploring abandoned gas stations or walking up and down the beach, I felt somewhat prepared, but ultimately powerless and alone.
And that really only describes the first act. Dead Island is an unexpectedly massive game, and it came as a surprise when I left behind the seemingly large resort in act one only to arrive at an even larger map in act two. Better yet, each of Dead Island’s four acts offer a different take on survival; whether you’re running down the deserted streets with a hoard of Infected in tow or trying to find a car to run over a menacing Butcher in the jungle, Dead Island maintains an active interest in keeping the player on the edge. After twenty five hours combat had crawled to a routine and lost bit of its flair, but thankfully the game ended before it completely wore out its welcome.
I appreciated the sense of isolation granted by solo expeditions, but I also took some time to play with random people online. Dead Island’s cooperative play comes with a limiting yet contextually appropriate hitch; you can only play with someone in the same story arc and general area as yourself. A message pops up and says someone is close by, and from there you’re free to join someone else’s game. Playing this way made Dead Island feel more like a videogame than an experience, but I suppose that’s why it’s an option.
It also doesn’t hurt that Dead Island looks quite nice. Drowning zombies in the cerulean waters of a picturesque beach created an odd juxtaposition of perfect beauty and horrific gore, all rendered quite well through Techland’s Chrome Engine. The concrete slums of the city were appropriately filthy and impossibly congested while the cliffs in the jungle area provided an impressive sense of vertigo. The music was also a bright spot, quietly shifting in dynamic when the action started to get wild. Games certainly look better, but Techland managed a commendable job with the looks of the PlayStation 3 port.
Near the end of act three I was ready to evangelize Dead Island as the premier open world game of 2011, but then something terrible happened. Dead Island’s escort missions arrived with the caveat of legitimate game over if your escort happened to die. So far that hadn’t really been an issue, but in an act three mission called Pure Blood it became a debilitating nightmare. Horribly outnumbered by a Thug, Butcher, and a handful of Walkers, my idiot escort would charge head first into the hoard and usually die in about ten seconds. Molotov’s would have helped, but with my automatic rifle and a set of decent melee weapons, I would have probably been okay had I been allowed a bit of trial and error to work an appropriate strategy.
The problem is Dead Island saved all of my spent ammo and weapon degradation with each attempt, meaning I was actually getting less powerful after each failure. Eventually I had used all of my bullets and my health packs, and worn down all of my weapons. Worse, Dead Island’s save system, of which there is only one file you cannot manually control, would not allow me to restart the mission, drop the mission, or go anywhere for supplies. Once I was bled completely dry constant failure was inevitable and it was literally impossible for me to continue. I can appreciate the intended consequences of hands-off save system and the intended commitment to consistency, but it nearly snuffed a twenty-plus hour investment in Dead Island’s content.
In a perfect example of the cure being worse than the disease, I wound up circumventing this problem by exploiting Dead Island’s other weakness; the insane hodgepodge of bugs. Exhausting all other options, I tried to join an online game in the same area, and when I quit out of it I was magically further ahead in the quest. Throughout the entire game I had seen my fair share of disappearing quest givers and respawns that magically placed me in completely separate areas, but I never thought I would have to rely on awful programming to actually play the game. A day later I downloaded a patch that erased all of my challenge progress, but the rest of my game (all two hours of it) was bug free thereafter. A bit of research around the web suggests Dead Island still boasts a serious collection of problems and game-ending bugs. A certain amount of jank has become acceptable in vast open world games, but shipping a product this bug ridden is completely unacceptable and Dead Island’s appeal ultimately suffers for it.