Published on September 23rd, 2011 | by Ken Yarbrough, Editor
Dead Island Mega Review
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Release Date: Sept. 6, 2011
Earlier this year, at E3 2011, I had the opportunity to play Dead Island. While I was keeping my eyes on this title prior to E3, after, it became my most anticipated title of the year. As is the case with many titles pre-release, the end product was something not entirely expected.
Dead Island, developed by Techland (Call of Juarez, Nail’d), and published by Deep Silver, has been a largely polarizing game. It seems many reviewers have been especially harsh on some of the pre-patch glitches that have been present, and there are quite a few gamers that were expecting something different (for day one patch info click here). With that in mind, I decided to take a different approach to my review below.
(Enter Age and Refresh to play)
Earlier this year, the now infamous Reverse-Trailer for Dead Island was released. For those that haven’t seen it, you should take a look. It’s a brilliantly crafted trailer, which creates a certain kind of emotional response. That said, you should not assume that the trailer is in any way indicative of the gameplay. This has been the first piece of the puzzle to why the game has been so polarizing. Gamers and reviewers that have seen the trailer have assumed that Dead Island was to be some sort of emotionally resonant zombie title. That’s a pretty lofty expectation. Personally, I have never witnessed any zombie game (or movie) that elicited any kind of real emotional response. In this regard, Dead Island is no different
So what IS Dead Island? Dead Island is a large, open-world, FPM (First Person Melee) game with Borderlands-esque RPG elements. Wow that’s a mouthful. A lot of people have compared Dead Island to its other zombie counterparts: Left4Dead, and Dead Rising. These are simply poor comparisons. At no point during my time with Dead Island did I ever feel like I was playing anything resembling either of those games. Though it does share some common elements with Borderlands, Dead Island has plenty of “uniqueness” to stand on its own. But what works, and what doesn’t?
Graphically Dead Island is a little hit-and-miss, with a lot more hit than miss. The environments–especially the Resort and Jungle areas–are absolutely gorgeous. The environments are beautifully crafted, and are so well done that they truly instill a sense of immersion not found in many other games. The true stars of the show, however, are the many different zombies themselves. With a multi-layer damage system that shows exactly what damage you’ve done to the zombies; they are truly hideous, but in a great way. They realistically lurch towards you, and you can almost smell the rotting flesh falling off their bones. The NPCs in the game–as well as your player character and co-op partners–don’t fare as well. While they are rendered well enough, the animations for NPCs and players alike are very stiff. Most of the weapons are basically rendered, though there’s only so much detail one can put into your garden variety machete anyway. While the special effects are limited, they get the job done. Grenade explosions, however, do get a special mention as they are very realistic and extremely satisfying.
The story is one of the areas that the game has become so divisive. With the Reverse-Trailer insinuating some sort of emotional connection, I feel like many people have forgotten that at the end of the day, this IS a zombie title. As such the game does feature the same old zombie trope that has existed for years. This isn’t an insult to the writers, as there is a very specific formula that can be used for any zombie title, game, and movie alike.
There is a group of survivors, stranded somewhere the military cannot readily help them. There are four main characters which are extremely stereotypical (The African-American rapper, the Asian who excels at bladed weapons, etc). There is a zombie outbreak, which has been caused by either: A) scientific experimentation, B) mutated natural virus, C) government bio-weapon, or D) an alien parasite. It’s a plot formula that’s been followed for as long as I can remember, and there’s no reason to change it now. The writers actually do attempt to change the formula a little, and attempt to inject a little emotion into the story. Unfortunately, it fails to hit its mark. As mentioned above, the animations are too stiff to be believable, and the character we are being asked to be emotionally attached to doesn’t provide us with any reason to care. Knocking a zombie game for its story just seems a little silly, though.
The game controls well enough. There are two basic options: digital and analog. With analog controls the designers attempt to add a bit more realism into the many swings your character will take, allowing you to use the right stick to control the direction of the swing. Unfortunately the controls don’t really work all that well, as tying the attacks to the stick takes away your ability to easily maneuver in the heat of battle. While the analog control scheme can definitely be mastered with enough time, I found it far more intuitive (and enjoyable) to simply use digital controls throughout. Beyond the differences between analog and digital, there isn’t really much to say about the controls, except to say that they are smooth and nothing seems out of place.
Ah, the gameplay; the meat and potatoes of any great game. Upon loading your copy of Dead Island and choosing new game, you are asked to choose from the four main characters. For my initial playthrough, I chose Xian Mei. An expert in bladed weapons, I figured she’d be the most fun to play with. Also available was Logan, the throwing weapons expert, Purna the firearm specialist and Sam B, the big black dude who likes to beat up zombies with blunt weapons. I have actually completed a full playthrough with each of the characters, and can tell you that they all handle quite a bit differently, though the core mechanics do stay the same.
Upon choosing your character you wake up in your hotel room, only to find that the hotel itself is empty. Obvious signs of catastrophe are everywhere, from abandoned luggage to barely working elevators. After a few moments a mysterious voice begins to lead you through the hotel via the PA system. After narrowly escaping an early rush of zombies, your character is knocked unconscious and awakes again surrounded by other survivors in a small hut on the beach. This is where your game begins, and you have your first opportunity to kill some of the flesh-eaters.
Once past this introductory section (which largely exists as a quick tutorial to the controls) you are given mostly free reign to go as you want and do as you please. There are tons of survivors scattered across the resort, and many of them will give you quests to complete for them. You see, your characters cannot be infected. While you can still die, the infection won’t ever kick in for some reason, and the survivors view that as a strength; you are a tool for them to survive. Most of the quests are very simplistic in nature. Fetch quests definitely abound throughout, though I never found myself bored of completing quests. There is a primary questline that will progress you through the story as well. At a certain point the questline will take you away from the resort, and into the second area of the game: the City of Moresby.
Now, I will address “The City” in a moment, but for now you should know that while you can fast travel between any unlocked areas (resort, city, jungle), you cannot simply walk back and forth between them. This isn’t detracting at all, though. Each area contains anywhere from 10-20 hours’ worth of content, depending on how many quests you wish to complete. Quest rewards are a big incentive as well. Many of the games weapon mods (more on those later) and more rare weapons are only available from completing quests, and you get a large sum of experience for leveling your character upon each quest completion.
Outside of questing, there are a few secrets to be found (and even after 200+ hours of gameplay I’m not sure I’ve found everything), and of course there is essentially a never-ending supply of zombies to take your rage out on. And taking out zombies is something that, thankfully, never gets old. There are literally hundreds of weapons at your disposal: from simple boat oars and kitchen knives to katanas and assault rifles. While there are firearms in the game, unless you are playing as Purna, don’t expect this to be a first-person shooter. The game’s focus is clearly on melee combat, and it does it very well. Each weapon has the appropriate “heft” to it, and shattering a zombie’s arm has a satisfying crunch every time. Bladed weapons, of course, don’t break bones so much as remove limbs, and those dismemberings come complete with a fountain of blood as expected.
Mentioning the myriad of weapons in this game without mentioning the mods would be an absolute crime. There are a TON of mods in the game, covering all of the basic weapons. You can add fire to baseball bats, wiring and batteries to machetes for shock value, and you can even dip your weapons in poison. There are usually levels to the mods as well: you can have a level one fire mod on your baseball bat while having a level four shock mod on your favorite machete. It adds a depth of customization to the weapons, which are one of the big draws to the game. Looting is very fun. Mods are created by finding the blueprints (or being awarded them from quests) and then assembling the modified weapon with parts scattered around the island. You’ll find these crafting items everywhere, and should hold onto them as you never know when you are going to find a great new mod to add to your weapons.
The audio found throughout is top-notch. While the score is mostly subtle (except for a few key locations), it’s perfect for the atmosphere. More impressive are the ambient sounds that will sometimes have you jumping in your seat. Dead Island is not your normal variety survival horror; in that I don’t think the developers were trying to scare you all that often. Even so, there are times when the blood-curdling scream of an Infected will have you desperately looking back and forth to find where the sound was coming from. Definitely play this game with 5.1 surround sound if you have it. Each of the zombie types (more, below) have a unique “cry” to them, which lets you know just what you are up against before you get caught unaware.
Of the zombie types, there are many. Walkers, which are your classic Romero zombies, Infected, which are more in line with the 28 Days Later zombies, and many more; thugs whose strength is unmatched; rams who will literally ram you to the ground; floaters, butchers, and oh yeah…there are a few human enemies as well. You will find no shortage of enemy types here.
The one single thing that needs to be mentioned is the City of Moresby. Encompassing nearly all of Act 2, this area of the game is an absolute tragedy. I’ve put roughly six playthroughs of the game in and still can’t quite nail down what’s wrong with this area. It features smaller outdoor areas, with less room to maneuver, as well as an exponential increase in difficulty. It also features three different indoor areas which are even smaller. Through many hours of co-op play, the only time I encountered any slowdown or lag at all was during the city. My game froze many times while doing nothing but walking through the area. The later acts are actually easier than this one, so it isn’t a complaint about progressive difficulty, I just don’t feel the area was designed very well. It didn’t even feel like a chore playing through it…it was worse. One of my co-op partners nearly stopped playing Dead Island altogether because of the city. If there is one message I want to send to the developers, it’s that this area was a colossal failure. The rest of this game is utterly amazing, but the city fails on nearly every level.
Finally, I should take a few minutes to talk about the intangibles. With my review copy, I was sent a list of fixes that would be coming with a day-one patch. While this day-one patch didn’t quite arrive on time (it was about a week later), it fixed a lot of issues that reviewers have penalized Dead Island for. Animation bugs, disappearing inventory, this game was a mess at launch. Listen, I’m the gaming industry’s biggest critic. I don’t cut any developers any slack for their bugs and glitches, and I can’t stand it when publishers rush a product to shelves. However I feel that it is worth mentioning that this title deserves a little leeway.
Techland is a relatively small developer. They do not have a team the size of say an Elder Scrolls title (which are notorious for various bugs). Dead Island is a new IP. If this game had been delayed even a month (the approximate time which it would have taken to address most of the bugs), it would have released as far more polished, but it also would have been financial suicide. This holiday season is one of the worst in the history of videogames in terms of the sheer number of blockbuster titles to be released.
Had Deep Silver delayed this game, it would have been completely overshadowed by the other more established franchises hitting shelves in October. Sales would not have been great, and it would not have garnered enough support to guarantee a sequel, which I feel this franchise definitely needs. Add to that fact the game was patched within a week, and the only remaining bug is a corrupt save glitch that appears to be related to people duping and otherwise breaking the rules of the game anyway. I personally have not encountered a single game-breaking bug (before OR after the patch) in the 200+ hours that I have plugged into the game. Make no mistake, though: without the initial patch this game does clock in at around a 6.5 or 7 out of 10. Given that the publisher sent me a list of the fixes in the day one patch, I assume they did the same with all review copies. That makes it all the worse that reviewers are not cutting Techland some slack in regards to those bugs. I can name plenty of buggy games throughout the years, many of which were never patched … much less in the first week.
The other thing I would like to add to those that are still on the fence and have read some of the more negative reviews: an alarming number of reviews seem to be penalizing the game for not being like the Reverse-Trailer. I’m not sure who these reviewers are, but that trailer was released prior to E3 and was a CGI trailer. Any and all gameplay seen from Dead Island occurred after that trailer, and it was already clear that the trailer was nothing like the game, other than the fact that included zombies. For a reviewer to penalize Dead Island for this is upsetting, as anyone who has followed the game knew what to expect.
Overall, I found Dead Island to be game-changing. The game offers the same basic gameplay as Borderlands (leveling system, co-op) but in my opinion does it better. Looting has never been more fun. Modifying my weapons to do insanely impossible things is refreshing and exciting. Killing zombies has never been as satisfying as it is in Dead Island.
There is some stiff competition this year for Game of the Year: a new Elder Scrolls game, two military shooter franchises vying for first, and even a new Assassins Creed. However, I truly feel that Dead Island should at least be mentioned in any conversation about GOTY. This is a phenomenal game through and through (minus “The City”), and is a testament to the hard work of a relatively small development team.
+: Plenty of weapon customization
+: Over 80 hours of gameplay
+: Great co-op experience
+: Zombie killing has never been more fun
-: Pre-patch, game is VERY buggy
-: Different zones are in self-contained cells, requiring fast travel between them
-: The city of Moresby should have been scrapped entirely.
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