RPG-Lite, Heavy Zombie Blood, not too much more.
More often than not if a game has some truly fun gameplay and mechanics they can usually carry the other aspects of the game – like story, shortage of features, and technical polish—that are lacking, Dead Island is one of those games. Developer Techland has borrowed from some other games and companies like Bethesda and Borderlands, but has put their own spin on the finalization of Dead Island to create a new IP that is simply great entertainment to take part in. And hacking, slashing, looting, extremely accessible multi-player, eviscerating, and mutilating zombies in Dead Island are enough to shoulder the game’s shortcomings.
The simple score breakdown of “Dead Island” is like so…
Visuals and Animation – 8/10
Fun Factor – 8/10
Story – 6/10
User Interfacing – 7/10
Sound – 7/10
Value – 7/10
Learning Curve – Minor
Total – 7.4 / 10
Presentation and Immersion
Dead Island’s immersion is done quite well when looking at the places my mind went with the environments around me and how I interacted with some gameplay elements, but the narrative itself is lacking and doesn’t do much to place you in this zombie world. The reason I felt as though the nightmarish island environments and gameplay immersed my mind in a world recently stricken with an undead outbreak relates to several reasons. I started to realize this during online gameplay because surprisingly your interactions with other people and other human NPCs is where the real immersion is rooted – even in a tale focused on walking dead monsters known as zombies. At first when I was online I was being helpful and telling people that “hey, there’s an energy bar over here to restore some health” but then after dying a few times and losing chucks of my money I couldn’t help but become selfish. I would consume an item to restore my health even though an ally was nearby with lower health than me and I knew the item would give me more health than I needed to restore to full. I soon realized that it was every man for themselves and at times the game can make you enter this mentality which can radiate an emphasis on a true survival thought process that feels authentic. Another circumstance that really put me in the mindset of a zombie outbreak scenario was the fact that when I was low on health I came to the conclusion of “hey, find humans and inherently they’re going to have supplies I need”. So, when I was in the open-world I might take it upon myself to seek out human enemies to kill them and take all of their guns and food for myself. This aspect alone made Dead Island feel like a true-to-life survival apocalypse was underhand. And an entire island littered with zombies didn’t hurt either.
The main story on the other hand doesn’t offer up much of a choice and is fairly generic throughout. You’ll play as one of four different main heroes who are each immune to the contraction of zombification. Sadly though, the main storyline and all side-quests make you feel like you’re little more than playing the role of an errand boy. You never truly feel important and I can’t help shake the feeling that I’m just an NPC’s zombie drone. They send you out and send you alone because well…why have them risk their necks when you’re immune and when a little bite could turn them into a zombie? You’re constantly sticking your neck out for these NPC’s and they never return the gesture. With objectives like gathering food, this girl needs insulin, go find spare engine parts, kill my wife and kid “because they’re not human anymore”, find this person an inhaler, find champagne for a group of party animals, and other things of this sort you wonder why you’re even helping these people. Since you’re all strangers and they’re never aiding you, you never feel a connection to the people you’re continuously helping. Although finding supplies and other materials to heighten your chances of survival do at times feel like realistic endeavors because some of these tasks might be what you would actually go do if faced with a survival situation like this – the real problem is Dead Island’s lack in choice of how you proceed with your tale of survival that makes quests feel generic apart from their trivial objectives and disconnect to the NPCs guiding you along.
In a narrative that is trying to make a survival zombie scenario feel realistic I wonder why then the game gives you no options of how you act in the world around you. When I think of a post-apocalyptic undead world I think the sentient humans would act in one of several ways. Firstly, one persona would be the “survival savior” human in which your character would do what was the best for a group of people and survivors around them by gathering food and supplies for the benefit of everyone, essentially clinging onto morality and their humanity. Second, would be a scenario in which your character would be allowed to run across people and say “survival of the fittest; what was yours is now mine because I am stronger than you” and take what they need from the weak. Lastly, would be an “every man for themselves” character, wherein they would not help anyone get supplies and have a mindset more inclined to think “Who cares about the stupid girl that needs the inhaler? Why should I risk my neck to get her breathing easy?” I would have liked to see some of these different circumstances of which are feasible personality choices in an actual survival situation. Dead Island does not have shades of gray or black and white morality. Dead Island instead forces you into the “survival savior” role where you can only play the storyline in a way that makes your character help the different groups of wayward survivors you’ll find on the zombie drenched island of Banoi.
Aesthetically the fictional island of Banoi is detailed to a stunning level of realism and breathes atmosphere. At times you can almost feel the humidity in the air and can tell humans used to find quite a paradise there. The strong lighting in certain locations can be especially eye-catching at times. The game’s world-layout is like that of Borderlands. There are several very vast areas to explore with varied quest-hubs around the map. After progressing through a certain amount in the main campaign you will be able to reach the next large area like; the urban havoc strewn streets of the slums, the luxurious get-away of the hotel resort, and the skin-deep beauty of the vegetative jungle to name the bulk. You can always fast-travel back to any previous location if there are any stray quests you forgot or want to return to. Tracking quests is extremely simple and following them on your mini-map is as easy as following a dotted trail to your destination, though you will be rewarded more often than not for going off the beaten path.
At the end of the day, Dead Island’s presentation is simply mediocre. The music and sound do nothing above average and the story seems to have the same goal by basically being a mechanism to chug the game’s combat and zombie-slaying along. The fantastic visuals get dragged down by texture pop-ins and the fruitless NPC encounters, dialogue, and side-quests make the game’s narrative, sight, and sounding appeal average on the overall presentation of this zombie RPG.
Thank goodness then that the gameplay and combat is extremely gratifying.
We’ll get this out of the way quickly – Dead Island is a first-person game and it does have guns, but it is first and foremost a melee combat game. And what amazing combat it is. You’ll never feel like you’re swinging at air. Every connection with a baseball bat “cluncks” with a fantastic weight and every machete slash mutilates or twists a zombie’s body in just the right way. And the analog controller scheme is an absolute necessity when playing this game.
The analog controller setup makes otherwise run-of-the-mill combat mechanics standout and feel special. With this controller setup you move your crosshair over the desired appendage location on the zombie you wish to attack and then you pull the left trigger to lock-on to that location. You then use the left joystick to circle and maneuver around your foe while using the right stick to actively take part in your swing. When you move the right joystick left you can see your right arm come across your chest by your left shoulder or when you push the stick up your arm goes up above your head. After you have moved your arm in one of these striking positions you then need to quickly move the stick to the opposite side of the direction you’re currently holding, making your character slash or swing in that direction. This controller mechanic makes for an extremely satisfying melee combat experience and quite frankly needs to be adapted to basically all future melee first-person games. It’s not perfect, but man does it really add to the feeling of hacking apart an enemy. The analog system is definitely more interactive and more fun than simply continuously hitting the right trigger to make you swing back and forth.
When combating with zombies you’ll choose from a slew of different melee weapons and traditional modern guns like pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles, and the sort. Melee weapons are broken down into two different types – Blunt (maces, clubs, boat oars, etc) and Blades (machetes, cleavers, kitchen knives, and so on). All of these weapons can be modified by finding crafting materials around the open-world that are stored in various suitcases, garbage pails, dumpsters, corpses, and so on. If you find the blueprints and materials required you can then craft a mod onto a weapon whenever you visit a workbench. Mods range from putting barbed wire or nails through the end of a baseball bat or running electrical wires up a blade that has batteries on its hilt for addition shock damage. Also, when you’re at a workbench you will be able to repair a weapon’s durability (which dissipates annoyingly fast) and up-grade weapons to more powerful tiers of potency – to a maximum up-graded level of four.
All of these weapons have their strengths and weaknesses. Blunt weapons, for example, can knock an enemy down quickly allowing you to pummel them, but don’t have the lethality of an edged weapon’s cutting power which is able to remove limbs and heads very quickly where as a blunt weapon is able to take limbs out of the equation by breaking them but it takes more blows to render them useless. And let’s face it, when it comes down to firearms unless you’re an Olympian marksmen then a gun is the worst weapon of choice on the market when arming yourself to do battle with some zombies. Hope you’re really good at headshots otherwise you’re dead. Shotguns on the other hand…not so much, a great weapon of choice. I really like that guns are not the focus of Dead Island’s arsenal. As a matter of fact guns are basically absent until you’ve finished one third of the game and run into some hostile humans out in the world. The void of guns early on really makes them feel like Link’s “master sword” and when you finally get your hands on them they’re actually much more satisfying and feel powerful.
Though I love that guns are not the focal point of Dead Island and that they’re actually absent for the entire first act of the game I couldn’t help but feel as though this was a poor development choice or at least bad character specializations. You see, when you’re choosing between your four playable characters at the beginning of the game you can pick from one of the game’s cliché protagonists like; Sam B the dwindling rapstar who is handy with blunt weapons, Logan the ex-football star who can chuck throwing weapons like it’s nobody’s business, Xian the undercover informant for China who is martially trained with blades, and finally Purna the ex-detective turned bodyguard who is a firearms expert. It’s too bad then for Purna that guns don’t play such a paramount role as they do in most first-person games. Each one of these characters has a skill that can be unleashed if their furry meter is maxed out. You get furry after each kill which can then be triggered at your leisure when you think the time is right to lay waste to whatever zombie situation you’re faced with. Everyone basically has only the two different skills that can be unlocked through skill trees which are an ever improving head-stomp and their individualized furry mode.
For the most part skill trees are fairly generic and simply fit a formula which seems to simply swap the word “Blade” with “Gun” depending on the character it is pertaining to. For example, Sam B (blunt expert) has a skill called “Devastation” which increases damage and force of blunt weapons and then you’ll have Xian’s (the edged weapon expert) tree which has a skill called “Flawless Blade” which increases damage with sharp weapons. The skill trees do little to differentiate a different play style from character to character and feel as though each tree is simply retrofitting one word for another to make it fit a different weapon-type without doing much else.
Gear or lack thereof, is another RPG element that doesn’t do much to change the overall gameplay but is a welcome feature nevertheless. ‘Gear’ in Dead Island is simply one thing – your weapon. No armor or anything of the sort. I don’t know about you but if I was on a tropical resort infested with zombies I would be putting on a life jacket…sure it wouldn’t cover my arms but think of how hard that would be to bite through, better than nothing. And on a tropical get-away you’d think there would be some chainmesh for adventure seekers looking to swim with some sharks. I’m sure a scuba chainmesh would make zombie bites impossible to break the skin. What I’m getting at is the fact that I would have simply enjoyed to see other facets of equipment apart from only arming myself with twelve different weapons at a time.
Besides some of the issues I’ve stated throughout the review with the development fumbles; these are some technical problems that I’ve run into personally during my time with Dead Island. Here we go, an NPC that I was escorting to safety jumped down from a ledge only miss the ground completely and fall through the earth and die seconds later making the quest fail, I’ve thrown weapons at an enemy only to have my best weaponry zip away inside the zombie like the monster was a black hole never to be seen again, frame rate momentary freezes, textures can take a while to render, and on my first play through I had 28 hours invested and was relaxing at level 35 with Xian when I choose to save and quit and the game froze at the screen that says “don’t turn off your console right now” and my saved game was corrupted. All of these and more!!!! =D
ALL IN ALL
Sure Dead Island tries to be an RPG even with its absence of choice, lack of character development through narrative and skill progression, and a basic color-coated loot system, but is Dead Island still great fun in spite of all of its technical and presentation shortcomings? Absolutely.
Dead Island’s focus on weighted melee combat and ease to seamlessly enter and exit multi-player at a whim are parts of what makes Dead Island retain its replayability, besides dismembering zombies of course. Sure it might only take you thirty hours to compete the main campaign and most of the side-quests, but tons of different weapons and ripping apart zombies with friends will make you want to return to the nightmarishly beautiful vistas of the zombie-ridden island of Banoi, if only get drenched in blood once again.