The ongoing glut of zombie video games shows no sign of slowing down, but at least games like Dead Island can still bring some new mechanics to the wanton slaughter of the undead thousands. In this case, the unique additions are a sprawling open world and deeply embedded RPG hooks that place this game squarely between Zombie Fallout and Zombie Borderlands, with just a little bit of Zombie, uh, Left 4 Dead sprinkled in. It's also got some of the most hard-hitting first-person melee combat in any game I can remember, and an optional cooperative element that really broadens its appeal. Dead Island constantly runs the danger of collapsing under its own weird, esoteric technical quirks, but when it's running at full tilt its charms are hard to resist.
There's only a thin wisp of actual storyline here--you're one of four hapless but capable souls marooned on a tropical resort island in the midst of an all-ensnaring zombie outbreak. The game attempts to give all four characters some interesting background at the selection screen: the blunt weapons guy is a one-hit-wonder playing a pity gig at the resort; the blade specialist is the daughter of a high-ranking Hong Kong police official. But none of those stories go anywhere, nor does the main plot thread. You kill zombies throughout the resort, then in the island's lone city, then in the jungle, and would it surprise you to hear the military and Big Pharma might be involved? Does it even matter? (Not really.)
The game isn't weaker for the lack of story, since surviving the apocalypse pretty much is the story. The point of Dead Island is to level up, find better weapons, level up some more, and massacre every last zombie that gets in your way. I'll readily admit my weakness for questing in an open world and hunting color-coded loot, and this game scratches that itch very well. It's especially similar to Borderlands, with surviving quest givers congregating around safe houses, giving you tasks that yield experience and rare weapons. Many of the quests simply have you fetching items from one place to another or killing specific targets, but there's enough variety and abundance in the settings and activities to keep things entertaining, especially with better and more unique weapons, abilities, and other trinkets always waiting at the end of each mission.
The parallels to RPGs, and in particular massively multiplayer ones, run deep. The items use green/blue/purple color coding, which everyone who spends much time with video games must be at least passingly familiar with by now. There's a large number of crafting recipes that let you stick nails in a baseball bat to give it a bleeding damage-over-time effect, or wire up batteries to a machete for a chance to electrocute zombies even as you're slicing their limbs off. Each of the four characters--already predisposed to specific combat roles--has a unique skill tree that lets you further customize the way they play. This customization seems tailored toward having the characters work well together in co-op. The blunt weapons guy has a bit more health and can gain an ability that makes nearby zombies more likely to go after him, for example, and heck, the manual actually refers to him as a "tank." If you're burned out on actual MMOs but still get off on their specific set of mechanics, this game is likely for you.
All the upgradable purple weapons in the world aren't much good if the combat doesn't make them fun to use, but Dead Island really delivers in that category. By default, you can mash on the attack button to swing your melee weapons wildly, and the game gives you a loose ability to target specific zombie body parts to break their bones, sever their limbs, or go for critical damage with a blow to the head. That style of combat is already tactically valuable, since you get experience bonuses for doing specific body damage and you can almost completely neuter some of the stronger enemies by taking their arms off and such. But I also really got hooked on the game's analog combat option, which asks you to make unconventional (and at first, uncomfortable) use of the right analog stick in exchange for total control over how you swing your weapon. Want to swing upward in an uppercut motion, or slam your hammer straight down on a zombie's head, or swing right to left to knock multiple enemies in a specific direction--say, off a ledge? You can do all that, and it's immensely satisfying. And from the standpoint of sheer brutality, it helps that the way flesh strips from bones, arms dangle limply from sockets, and shattered heads spout fragments of skull and blood is also extremely impressive, if a bit disturbing.
More than the RPG nuts and bolts, Dead Island nails its setting. The thing that hooked me in World of Warcraft wasn't just the loot-and-leveling treadmill, it was the sense of discovery, the feeling that you were roaming around a fully realized world and constantly encountering unique new areas, events, and people. Dead Island does that specific thing really well. You roam around the resort and find a guy kneeling and sobbing in the middle of a pool of blood, babbling about how he just killed his entire family, or a beachfront bungalow full of apocalyptic partygoers who want you to bring them booze so they can toast the end of the world. You might receive a new quest giver icon on your map simply because you explored a new section of the city and found someone shouting at you from their rooftop. Dilapidated mercenary camps dot the jungle, but then, what's this? A high-tech research lab? The game constantly rewards your exploration of its massive areas with unique new encounters and quests you might have otherwise missed. In place of interesting plot momentum, Dead Island has an interesting world, and that's good enough for me.
It's also great that you can explore that world with up to three other people. That's where the Borderlands comparison feels especially apt, as you traipse around the island completing quests and working together to take down large groups of enemies. Like most co-op games, you can take all of this about as seriously as you want, skipping through quest dialog and getting right down to the business of collecting gas canisters or kicking zombies back and forth. I personally found the game's world so well-realized that I enjoyed it almost entirely by myself, but for those who value atmosphere less than silly hijinks with friends, the cooperative options add a completely different dimension to the game. The game integrates the co-op into your experience really well, giving you cues when other random players are nearby, in case you want to hop right into their games. Of course, you can filter these options for complete privacy if you want, but it's nice that level of integration is there.
I'm not exaggerating when I say Dead Island could have been my favorite game of the year so far, if it weren't for the presence of strange design issues and technical problems so numerous that I don't know where to start talking about them. The game in general feels chaotic and unevenly paced. Early on in the game you'll open up two different safe houses almost simultaneously and then get bombarded with so many side quests your head will spin, but other sections of the game will feel like there's nothing but the main quest line to pursue. Also, though the majority of the game is nice and open, there's a handful of hours that sends you through not just tightly constrained, linear corridors, but the same constrained, linear corridors over and over. The difficulty seems wildly uneven, with some sections of the city area in particular bombarding you with far more enemies than anywhere else. One of the loading screen tips suggests there are some parts of the game too tough for a single player to survive, but if this is one of those areas, it's poorly marked as such. And more to the point, it's kind of offensive that a large swath of the game might not really be accessible to someone who wants to play by themselves. Occasionally the game seems to forget you can play it by yourself, since some cutscenes feature all four player characters, even when you're playing alone. Other times, though, you only see your character. And some NPCs tend to address you as a group, even when you're alone. It's just bizarre.
There's also a host of large and small bugs that never break the game outright but certainly detract from the experience. I had one quest completely disappear from my quest log when I loaded a save game, but I suppose that was karmic retribution for another quest that the game had given me credit for finishing even though I hadn't actually visited the area where you would finish it yet. (Then again, the quest giver in that case literally vanished when I went through a door and came right back in. What?) Issues pop up consistently with the interface as well. Map markers for quest givers and objectives appear and disappear randomly based on some inscrutable set of factors, and I had problems with inventory items refusing to stack, forcing me to drop items temporarily just to pick up objects that I certainly had room to carry. (That's all the more frustrating because the menus are sluggish to navigate even on a good day.) And despite what you may have seen yourself, the game doesn't even consistently let you move between seats in drivable vehicles. That feature only works some of the time, though that may be related to using the analog combat controls. Who can say, or should even try to figure out, why any of this happens? A patch for the console versions of the game is reported to be in testing, and the PC version (which launched in a legitimately broken state) has already been considerably cleaned up with updates, but I'm not convinced this game will ever reach the functional state of most games, on any platform.
Trying to keep a mental catalogue of the things that are wrong with Dead Island, at least in its current state, is kind of exhausting. The good news is, the sum total of those issues still isn't damning enough that I would dissuade you from playing it. If you list open worlds, questing, co-op, loot, and zombies on your list of video game interests, this game has an awful lot to offer, warts and all.
Disclosure: The game featured in this review is or was an advertised product on giantbomb.com.