Remember that Dead Island trailer earlier this year? That one that totally made you cry even though you put on a brave face and said that it absolutely didn’t and yet we all know the truth? That trailer (which for the record, I do share the opinion that it is one of the greatest video game trailers ever produced) grabbed attention for that game on a pretty magnificent level which both worked in its favour and against it. Although it gained notoriety for a game that, at least to the best of my knowledge, was not being discussed by many people, it now had some pretty crazy expectations to live up to. Just how much would the final product resemble the tone set in that trailer?
Having now played literally dozens of hour’s worth of Dead Island, I can say that it only matches in tone very slightly. Thankfully however, it turned out to be a pretty solid game regardless.
Everyone keeps trying to set-up Dead Island as “its _____ meets ____”, and I will now attempt to do the exact same thing. One I’ve seen a few times is Left 4 Dead mixed with Fallout, plus a dash of Borderlands and just a sprinkle of Dead Rising for good measure. It’s a lot of ingredients but it’s pretty accurate. You got an open world, quest system, loot (Borderlands and Fallout) and you got yourself plenty of zombies, 4-player coop and the ability to create weapons (Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising). Thankfully all of these elements come together well and prove that there may still be life (I actually didn’t notice this terrible pun until editing this review so I plead total ignorance on this) left in the zombie sub-genre, which at this point I think is its own full-fledged genre.
At the start of the game you can choose between four characters that each have a surprisingly in-depth back-story. Each one has their own weapon specialty (guns, blunt objects, etc) but I can’t say for sure how different each character feels from one another as I chose to go with the blunt weapon specialist, aka Sam B the one hit wonder rap star. As this character I was still able to handle other weapons efficiently so my assumption is that the main difference between the characters is how the skill trees are laid out. Also his rap song? It has been caught in my head consistently since I first started playing the game.
I will admit that for the first two or three hours, Dead Island was not doing a whole lot to impress me. Although I was pleasantly surprised at just how great the resort environment looked, the game itself was leaving a lot to be desired. A lot of this was indeed my fault, as I didn’t yet have a grasp on the weapon system so I spent a lot of my time running around, trying to find a new weapon after breaking my current one. Some of it however was not at all my fault, such as the quest that could not be completed or the quest that flat out vanished from my quest log. Thankfully these latter issues seem to have been resolved with a patch that was mercifully released a short time after the game came out.
Eventually though everything started to click. I got a much better sense of the repair system for the weapons so that I wasn’t spending all of my time hunting for new ones. I also got a much better feel for the combat, digging more in depth into the ideas of breaking the zombies’ limbs instead of just mindlessly bashing away at them until they were dead. Turns out the combat is a hell of a lot of fun, which thankfully helps the fact that about 80% of the missions you will be given are nothing more than heading to a location, grabbing an item, and then bringing it back to the quest giver. Every now and then Dead Island will mix things up, but usually that just means a mission where you have to kill all of the zombies in a designated location. Of course there is also the dreaded escort mission, which thank the gods does not that show up that often but when it does, holy shit.
There is no better time than now to tell the story that almost led to me smashing Dead Island into a wall and then crying for three days. I was at 80% progress in the main storyline. Now you have to keep in mind that Dead Islandis a very long game if you are simply sticking with the primary story missions. I however, was doing damn near everything there is to do in the game. I was doing basically any side quest I was given, hunting down collectables; I was overall being very thorough. Then at this point I was given an escort mission, one that for the record goes on for way, WAY, too long.
So a good 20 minutes into this mission, we’re being attacked by a Thug (a large zombie who is a great deal stronger than the regular ones) who ends up pushing my AI companion into this tall basket. After defeating the enemy, my companion remained stuck inside this basket. There was literally nothing I could do about it. Nothing I did could get him out. So I just re-loaded my last checkpoint and was ready to do that chunk of the mission a second time. Only problem? Motherfucker was still stuck in the basket when I re-loaded. This shit auto-saves so it wasn’t like I had a back-up file saved at an earlier spot that I could go back to. I was fucked. I sat there staring at the TV completely stunned for a good 5 minutes, really not sure of what to do. By this point I had played for a minimum of 30 hours, and with only a small stretch of game left before the end, I was stuck. I wasn’t sure whether to scream or cry, but I knew one thing – I would never be playing Dead Island again.
There is a happy ending however. You see by leaving the area by fast traveling somewhere else, then running allllll the way back to my dumb fucking AI partner, he somehow managed to get himself out of the basket. When I rounded the corner and saw him standing in the middle of the path sans-basket, it was easily one of the greatest moments of relief I have ever felt in a video game. Still though, you should not have to put up with insane shit like that in a finished product. That’s another way that Dead Island is like Fallout – you often have to put up with some ridiculous bugs and glitches to enjoy the actual game. That was by far the most extreme example of a glitch that I encountered but it’s too bad it may be the primary memory I walk away from this game with.
I also had some navigation issues with Dead Island, primarily with the path that is meant to guide you to your next objective. Jesus this thing is unstable. There were so many times where the path it was telling me to follow was physically impossible to traverse. I’d love to cut through the side of this mountain quest path but I can’t fucking do that! Other times it can’t seem to make up its god damn mind about which way it actually wants you to go. Several times I would hit an intersection and the path would tell me to go one way, only to change its mind once I did and tell me to go back to the intersection and walk down the other path. It would then keep switching back and forth depending on which way I went. There will frequently be times when you’re better off to tell that thing to fuck off and simply find your own way there.
My other issue with the navigation, and I’ll admit right up front that this one may actually be user error, is the fast traveling. Since some of these environments are quite large, and often missions require you to go back to places you’ve visited previously, it’s nice to have fast travel as an option. However when you go to do it, you are given the names of the places you can go but it does not indicate where they are on the map. One mission in particular I remember trying to save time by fast traveling, only to waste far more time trying to piece together the name of the area I wanted to fast travel to. If I did miss something here then by all means let me know because I would love love love to have a better handle on the whole fast traveling thing.
Jesus this is turning into a surprisingly negative review but there’s one more thing I need to touch on, which is the environments themselves. I already mentioned how impressed I was with the resort area that opens the game. It’s expansive, detailed, and there’s a great contrast between the sunny, tropical settings and the blood and chaos going on within it. It’s a very strong opening to the game, the problem is that none of the subsequent environments can live up to the standard it sets at the beginning. Not only are they far more drab, but seem to become more and more enclosed as well. To start the game off with this large expansive area, only to confine you more and more to interior locations such as sewers and laboratories, is not the best route as it just added to my desire for the game to be over since I was less and less interested in what was going on.
Complaints aside, I still quite enjoyed Dead Island primarily for its combat. There’s an analog setting that takes some getting used to but allows you to have a lot more precision with your attacks so that you can actually aim for specific areas of a zombie’s body. Once you get this down pat, it’s really the only way to go. Throw in a large variety of weapons, and I was still enjoying the combat right up until the very end.
I was also quite fond of the overall atmosphere of Dead Island, even if doesn’t live up to the promises delivered in that initial trailer. There is very little humour to be found here. Everything is quite bleak and hopeless and you will encounter some characters that have been through some raw shit. It’s definitely one of the more realistic portrayals of a zombie apocalypse, as realistic as you can make such a thing at least.
Fun combat, solid atmosphere and an addicting level and upgrade system helps elevate Dead Island above some of its other issues. There’s a lot of content here, which is almost to its fault, but anyone who isn’t tired of dismembering the undead will find a lot here to like.