If you're prepared to put in time, there is fun to be had here.
Dead Island is a fine example of a game that fails to really capitalise on its concept, there are great ideas present in the game but they are held back by the sheer volume of small annoyances that plague it from start to finish. There is certainly fun to be had throughout the game, but it feels afraid to let you have too much fun at once and puts frustrating obstacles in your way to hinder all the enjoyment.
There is a great concept behind Dead Island, a holiday island resort becomes the victim of a zombie outbreak and you must work with other survivors to get safely off the island. It’s an open world game, and pulls off that aspect very well, there are very few token limitations on where you can go and exploring the resort is really quite enjoyable. You can loot luggage and scavenge weapons and even create unique modified weapons that have special attributes. The main problem the game has is found in its gameplay, for some reason, there are two different control schemes; “digital” and “analog”. Digital just lets you pull the right trigger to attack with your equipped weapon where analog maps the swinging of melee weapons to the analog stick. You must first pull the left trigger to prepare, and then pull the stick one way then flick it in the opposite direction to swing your weapon. Using the analog system is great for getting the most experience out of enemies as you can target individual limbs easier, but it really stumbles when you’re facing numerous enemies. The digital system can handle that much better, but because you will lose huge amounts of experience for using it, levelling up your character is a very slow process. There is one huge plus though, you can fully re-configure all your upgrades at the cost of your chapters progress whenever you feel like it, this is very useful if you just want to test a particular upgrade and not make it permanent.
The other way to gain experience is by simply doing missions, you can pile on side quests early on to get a bit of a head start, but once you get past level 20 or so their reward just doesn’t justify the venture. When you need 30+ thousand XP for your next level, quests that give a couple of thousand just aren’t worth doing when the main story missions offer multiple times that. The reason this is such a problem is because of the way weapon durability and the economy is handled in the game. You’ll gain money from quests and looting areas and corpses and your weapons will become damaged over time but you can repair them for a price at a workbench. It also costs money to upgrade your weapons, but the durability aspect is handled through your experience, not upgrading the weapon itself. This is a very bad design choice as the further through the game you get, the more expensive it becomes to repair weapons and considering how late in the upgrade trees durability is found, it results in a lot of grinding that really slows the pace of the game. You can create modified weapons just like in Dead Rising 2, however there isn’t much reliability for finding the items you need and the system requires you to know the combo before you can make it. Couple this with the fact that upgrading weapons fully makes them just as useful as combo weapons and you have a rather pointless system.
The upgrades themselves are not handled particularly well either, but again, this is due to a secondary mechanic in the game. You can choose between one of four characters, each specialising in a certain area. The problem is that the game doesn’t seem to realise that, for example, one of the characters special skill is firearms, but you won’t encounter any firearms until at least the half way point of the game. Therefore completely nullifying your chosen skill for a huge portion of the experience. Characters that specialise in blunt or edged weapons are also not handled very well, I started off with the edged weapon specialist, but then proceeded to find edged weapons about as frequently as you’d find steak at a vegetarian buffet. The mouldy cherry on top of all this is that when you die, your weapon states carry over and you lose a sizeable amount of cash. This makes hard encounters infuriating because a lot of the time, your failure is due to the incompetency of the combat mechanics and not your skill. All these issues really hold the game back from being fun, which it really is once you’ve levelled up some. If you grit your teeth and slug through the grind happy first half, you’ll start to feel the reigns loosen and have some fun.
Apart from the issues Dead Island has in its gameplay, it takes itself far too seriously in its story and characters. This is mainly because the voice acting is beyond terrible and the character animations and facial gestures are often stiff and end up being humorous. The story itself is utterly ridiculous and when you actually find out what has caused all this zombie madness, it makes the serious tone of the game even more ludicrous then before you knew what was going on. Dead Island really doesn’t make the most of its setting either, the holiday resort is just simply a better environment to explore. When you’re taken away from this and put into a very bland, run of the mill zombie apocalypse town it just feels like an arbitrary reason to include it in the game. This point is where you’ll encounter human enemies, which are just plain not fun to fight and feel just as arbitrary as the change in scenery. There is some nice variety to the zombies though, you get your slow shuffling zombies, you get your fast zombies and some not so typical zombies that don’t make much sense but are still fun to kill regardless. The sound design for the zombies does warrant a mention though, the snarling and screaming noises that comes from them is really quite amazing and makes them a little more intimidating than the moaning and/or phlegmy zombies that are found in most other games.
I find it a real shame that Dead Islands premise ends up being the best part about it. There is a truly shocking amount of little issues that plague the gameplay and mechanics and it isn’t helped by the serious tone of the story that is punctuated by poor voice acting and downright terrible animation. That being said, if you can stick with it and grind your way through the early frustrations, there is certainly fun to be had in Dead Island, especially if you team up with some friends to help share the burden. Dead Island certainly isn’t all bad, but there are too many poor design choices for it to truly stand out amongst other zombie slaughtering endeavours.