While Numerous Bugs Hinder It, Dead Island Is Still A Good Time
At a glance, Dead Island doesn’t seem to be anything special. It looks like yet another first-person shooter with a survival horror theme, a mash up that gamers are all too familiar with. However, in reality, Dead Island is a very ambitious title with satisfying combat, RPG elements, and vast open landscapes to explore. While the core ideas usually come together to create a fulfilling experience, numerous flawed design decisions and bugs add up to make the vacation to this tropical hell fun, but far from the perfect getaway.
An infection has been set loose on the island of Banoi, a popular tourist location, and, as a result, it has become overrun by the hungry undead. You awake in your hotel room as one of four different characters oblivious to the situation, but slowly find signs that something isn’t right. After a close encounter with the infected, you awaken with a group of survivors, realizing that you are one of the few immune to whatever has caused the outbreak. With the remaining humans in desperate need of help and a mysterious voice on the radio promising a way off the island, you are the perfect candidate to run around the hostile resort and take on the walking dead.
If you’re coming to Dead Island expecting an engaging narrative about survival, you’re going to be disappointed. The story is merely a framing device so you have an excuse to massacre legions of the undead. The main characters are given small amounts of backstory in the character selection screen, which is quickly forgotten, and none of the side characters you encounter have any memorable traits or dialogue. The story does try to become a bit more prominent in the closing hours, but never manages to be engaging in the slightest and leads to an ending that fails to provide any closure.
The bulk of your time during the 20 or so hours it take to complete Dead Island will be spent taking on the infected up close and personal with whatever weapons you can find. While there are guns in the game, they are introduced rather late and the amount of ammunition you can carry is limited, so melee combat is definitely the focus. Since you’ll be engaging in melee combat so much, it’s good that the act of swinging an axe, knife or baseball bat is incredibly brutal and satisfying from start to finish, thanks in no small part to the damage model on enemies. You can tear flesh off your undead adversaries, break their bones, and sever various limbs. It’s equal parts disgusting and gratifying and is sure to coax squeals of joy out of any player for the first few hours.
The default control option delegates the act of attacking to a single button press, which works well enough, although there is also the option to control your swinging motions through the use of an analog stick. It takes some getting used to, but once that learning curve has passed, most will find the analog option to be the preferred way to play Dead Island, as it allows for much more precise control over how you attack. The lack of some type of block button can sometimes result in a quick death, but you do have a dodge move which allows you to jump back if a zombie if getting a bit to close for comfort and a kick that knocks enemies back. Most of your actions are dictated by a stamina meter, which drains as you run, jump, or swing a weapon. This prevents you from wildly attacking or running past every encounter. While you may find yourself in a compromising position without any stamina left, it refills quickly enough so it rarely gets in the way.
When firearms are eventually introduced, their main purpose is to help you deal with the gangs of human enemies that have either gone insane or are simply taking advantage of the lack of authority on the island. The pistols, rifles, and shotguns you find are all functional, but the shooting action lacks any sense of excitement, thanks to the poor A.I. of your fellow man, who routinely stand still, allowing you to line up headshot after headshot. Thankfully, these encounters only happen every so often and only take you away from the zombie slaying for a short amount of time.
While the action is the core of Dead Island, there are various role-playing elements wrapped around it. The island of Banoi is large and open taking you to varying environments from the sandy beaches of the resort, to a run down city, all the way to the surrounding jungle. From safe houses in each location, you’ll meet with survivors who provide you with quests, like locating essential supplies or tracking down a loved one. The majority of these quests simply ask you to walk or drive from point A to point B, find a specific item, and bring it back to the starting area with some defense and escort missions thrown in for the sake of variety.
Upon completing a quest, you’ll earn experience. Experience allows you to level up and with each level you are given a skill point, which can be spent on your character’s skill tree to give you additional bonuses like a higher chance for critical hits or increased damage with certain weapon types. Enemies level up as you do, but whether you enjoy this aspect is based on your tastes. While it does allow the challenge to stay consistent and will force you to keep your guard up as one or two infected can be enough to kill you if you aren’t careful, it also means that you never feel like your character is getting much more powerful or otherwise progressing.
You’ll also earn money from quest givers or find it scattered around the island. Money can be used to purchase items from venders, but its primary purpose is for the workbench. Weapons degrade with use, so it’s at these benches that you can repair your arsenal, upgrade them to improve their base stats like damage and durability, or craft brand new tools of death dealing. These range from a standard baseball bat with nails, to electrified blades, and even homemade bombs using deodorant cans. These custom made armaments never become as outlandish as those from games like Dead Rising 2, but they work well and make the act of slaying zombie hordes a bit easier.
While the quest system gets the job done more often than not, various bugs related to it pop up from time to time. Quests will occasionally complete themselves without any player input, specific items needed to progress will be unobtainable, characters you’re escorting will refuse to continue on their path, the radar will show quest givers who don’t exist, the waypoint markers leading you to quests will lead you in the wrong direction or disappear entirely, and completed quests will reactivate as if you’ve never done them before. These problems can typically be solved with a simple reload, although doing so may cause quest items in your inventory to disappear, forcing you to collect them again. These issues don’t happen all the time, but crop up enough to be mildly annoying at some points, and frustratingly irritating at others. A patch has been said to be on the way that will alleviate the numerous bugs, but no such patch has been released at the time of this review.
When playing alone for long stretches, Dead Island does start to feel repetitive with its abundance of identical fetch quests. As a lone warrior against thousands of infected, death also comes rather often. While you can typically scrape through a battle with a small group of zombies, sometimes it’s smarter to just run. Most environments are open enough to allow for a healthy amount of maneuverability as you weave through alleys and over cars, amassing a horde on your tail. When you do succumb to the hungry undead, the penalty for dying is minor, only forcing a small waiting period and the loss of some cash, followed by a respawn close to where you died. Every once and awhile, the game will spawn you in a dangerous location surrounded by enemies, leading to another death, but it doesn’t happen especially often.
Late in the game, playing alone can also result in frustrating difficulty, with sections where you’ll fail objectives and be forced to reload your last save. This wouldn’t be an issue, except that while enemies reset, any damage your weapons sustain or med kits you had used do not. This results in a constant loop of failure with your arsenal getting weaker and weaker each time you’re forced to replay the section. It can be absolutely maddening.
These issues when playing alone largely vanish when playing cooperatively. Dead Island supports four-player online co-op where you can complete quests as a group or just go on a zombie killing spree and is clearly the way the game was meant to be played. This feature is well integrated into the experience with notifications popping up when you are close to the location of another player with a similar level and story progression, allowing you to quickly jump into their game. Players can join your game the same way at any time without the interruption of a load screen, though this feature can be turned off if you’d rather go solo. The act of coordinating with other players to fend off enemies and complete objectives is extremely satisfying and a ton of fun, especially with a group of friends.
Co-op works extremely well, with lag being almost non-existent. One thing to note is that you are not allowed to join the game of a player who’s farther along in the story than you. This prevents a new player from joining a world with creatures far above their level and allows for an even playing field, although experienced characters can join a low-level characters game to help them out or simply have fun laying waste to weaker foes. The option for random matchmaking is available, but will only look for players on your level and has a bad habit of presenting a list of unjoinable private games. One issue with co-op is that upon leaving a multiplayer session, your quest log will typically be confused as to what you have or haven’t done, which makes a reload necessary.
Graphically, Dead Island has high points and low points. Some of the environments, specifically the resort you start in, are bright and beautiful, which acts as a perfect contrast to the gruesome sights you come across. A few later stages, namely long stretches in a sewer, lose this beauty and are much less effective. Environmental pop in is frequent throughout regardless of where you are though. Zombies all look appropriately disfigured or bloody and animate well, although the same cannot be said of the other humans, who typically look unnatural with stiff and awkward animations. Clipping is also common, with enemies charging straight at you, oblivious to what’s in front of them, resulting in multiple body parts coming through a wall. The best part, as mentioned previously, is the damage modeling on enemies, which is extremely well done with every attack leaving a gruesome indication of where it’s hit.
Sound is a bit better overall than the graphical presentation. The screams of the undead are chilling and effective at making you feel uneasy when in dark, claustrophobic areas. Music is typically understated, allowing the shrieks of the undead to do their job, although when the music does kick in, it complements the action nicely. Voice acting, on the other hand, is generally poor, with multiple unconvincing accents and halfhearted deliveries, although occasionally you’ll stumble across someone who sounds convincingly panicked or unnerved by the situation happening around them.
Dead Island is definitely an ambitious project. It mashes many different elements together, and manages to get some of them extremely right. The combat is vicious and the cooperative options allow for easy access to slay the undead with friend and stranger alike. Unfortunately, the few odd design decisions and the various annoying bugs get in the way rather frequently. The journey through Dead Island undoubtedly provides a good time, but one should expect more than a few bumps along the way.