Giant Bomb Review

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Dead Island Review

4
  • PC
  • X360
  • PS3

Technical blemishes aside, you might be surprised how well loot-driven open-world questing and a tropical zombie apocalypse go together.

Who are these people? Wait, who cares?

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.)

Guns aren't much good against zombies, actually.

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.

It's a big island, and there's a lot to find.

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.

He's a big boy! Grrr! Yes he is!

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.

Hell of a time to take a vacation.

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.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+
120 Comments
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Posted by Legendary

ZOMBIES!

Posted by DavoTron

UH! UH! UH! UH! UH!

Posted by Shady

Color me surprised.

Posted by Nightriff

i really, really, really want to pick up this game, Brad convinced me in the quick look to at least try it out

Posted by Heimdal

Yes! Been waiting for this review (even though I have already sunk a good few hours into the game (and again after my save got lost thanks to janky auto-save). I swear, Dead Island is creating a whole new sect of masochistic gamers and it looks like I'm right there with them. Because despite how broken this game can be, it keeps sucking me in.

Posted by Ramone

I really want to get this now. I hate the fact that you need money to buy things, I find it really restricting.

Edited by UberExplodey

Flaws aside, I fucking love this game. You guys should definitely check it out.

Posted by Timsobuff

I've been playing it both co-op and single and HOTT DAMN is it fun. I would agree with the 4 stars.

Posted by McShank

@Ramone said:

I really want to get this now. I hate the fact that you need money to buy things, I find it really restricting.

I finished this game in 35.5 hours. I finished with over 40k and that is with me upgrading things i have never and will never use.

Money is easy to come by and you will never run short of it. Also if by chance you do run short just go out and kill some things as i was finding an average of 1.5-3k off zombies every 5-6 kills.

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

Seriously, what's with the exaggeration of the number of Zombie games? The only Zombie games I can think of that were major releases of late are Left for Dead and Dead Rising. What else has there been? Sure, games have zombies here and there, but actual zombie games seem to be far and few between unless you go to mobile markets. I want the giantbomb guys to list all of these "Zombie games" that they keep bitching about. And then compare that to just about any other genre. Hell, there are more major racing and fighting games than Zombie games that I can think of.

Posted by Agent47
@Timsobuff: Yeah and I like the fact that the developers are already dishing out a patch with things like improved interface navigation,fixed animations,more polished co-op elements etc. all sounds great.
Posted by MrJorOwe

@Ramone: Do you mean in real life? If so i agree, it seems to slow me down in a manner i do not appreciate

Posted by Metal_Mills

I want to like this game but the bugs and glitches and just little annoyances really stack up. The terrible Australian accents get pretty awful to listen to as well as an Australian. They don't even look Aussie! That guy at the start is clearly Mauri!

Posted by mfpantst

@Agent47: @Timsobuff: @UberExplodey: Ditto.

@Metal_Mills: Sorry bout that, but isn't the game fun at killing zombahs?

Posted by lordofultima

@McShank said:

@Ramone said:

I really want to get this now. I hate the fact that you need money to buy things, I find it really restricting.

I finished this game in 35.5 hours. I finished with over 40k and that is with me upgrading things i have never and will never use.

Money is easy to come by and you will never run short of it. Also if by chance you do run short just go out and kill some things as i was finding an average of 1.5-3k off zombies every 5-6 kills.

That's weird, I could have sworn he was talking about real life money and purchasing games and all that.

Posted by Yummylee

Great review. I always enjoy reading through the opinions of Brad and Alex, no matter what the game itself is or my own opinions toward it. Dead Island will be an ''eventual purchase'' most likely; second-hand sometime in early 2012 maybe.

Checking over the user-reviews, I'm surprised to see a lot of disdain towards Dead Island... a lot of them have been un-recommended.

Posted by Metal_Mills
@mfpantst: Not as fun as Dead Rising but still pretty fun. It's all the shit that gets in the way of the fun that hurts.
Posted by TruthTellah

Awesome. Just awesome.  I think this game really calls for an all-zombie cast Happy Hour. :D

Posted by Vexed

This game is just flat out FUN.  I thought Borderlands started to really drag after a while but the melee combat in Dead Island never stops being satisfying.  Actually bought it for the co-op and ended up deciding I like playing it solo more, go figure.

Edited by Death_Burnout

I completely agree! but damn if this game has some flaws... the main one being it is completely jacked for solo players.

It's so bad, that one of the later chapters was near impossible on my own, and since this game is fairly buggy, each time i failed it would load back up my general "state" as if i hadn't died at all, meaning i had no ammo, and the weapons i had thrown were gone...completely disappeared. Oh and there's the part where it was one giant escort mission...

That aside! I reeeally like it. Though the last quarter of the game really soured me. Otherwise i would love it unconditionally. Still it is absolutely in my top 10 this year! I feel it's a shame so many people were skeptical about it, if they would have looked a little deeper they would have seen this game has been awesome since quite a while ago...I guess The Cartel is to blame.

Posted by Oni

Bought this immediately after the Quick Look, and have no regrets at all. I've been playing the PC version, mostly by myself, and have run into very few issues. No quest bugs or disappearing items/NPC's, anything like that. Seems like the PC version is pretty much fixed up. 20 hours in and still having a great time.

Edited by Nitrocore

I have no problems with switching seats in the car, infact I do it all the time because i'm an idiot who forgets which side the stearing wheel is on. O and I use the analogue controls also.

Posted by emem

Nice review, I've seen/played the PC version for a few minutes and really liked it a lot. I will definitely get it when it's cheaper on Steam.

Posted by tourgen

helpful review. i think i'm going to enjoy this game. RPG zombies with a solid melee combat system sounds pretty awesome

Posted by mfpantst

@Metal_Mills: See, I actually only really liked the 'case zero' distilled Dead rising, so for me this game is more fun.

Posted by baron_calamity

This game is so awesome. It would have been better with dinosaurs but zombies will have to do.

Posted by Abendlaender

Spot on.

I really, really, REALLY enjoy this game

I don't know why, but it seems I dig wierd easter-european games even though they have horrible bugs (at launch at least) like Stalker, Wichter 1 and of course Dead Island

Edited by 234r2we232

An even more broken Borderlands... but with zombies? No thank you. 
 
It's always funny to read a review begin with "this game may be broken"... I remember a time when a poorly made, technical mess of a game would be, y'know... scored poorly with a "...but I still had fun with it" acknowledgement. Ah well.

Posted by Pop

I wonder if the quest he's talking about is the plane quest cause that one disappears when you get it and reappears when you can enter the jungle. I haven't finished it yet but I'm really enjoying it, I'm playing the blunt weapon specialization guy, if I would of chosen the gun girl would I be getting more guns or not?

Online
Posted by Godlyawesomeguy

I love this game, and haven't run into any bugs thus far. Except maybe some collision stuff with brutes, but nothing that cannot be overlooked with ease.

Posted by buckybit

[I only played the PC version]

"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."

Really, Brad? Are your really even trying? Why don't you try it, and write it down? It could be called a 'review', you know?

Again this e n d l e s s bitching of an uninformed so-called game-journalist! Don't bother to googlebing the latest news and updates about this game (developers shipped the wrong built to steam). Stick to your 'narrative', that this game is 'broken' and feeling "not convinced this game will ever reach the functional state of most games" - "technical problems so numerous that I don't know where to start talking about them..." - etc, etc ... blah, blah Brad blah ... The latter quote is a very convenient sentence btw. Very "old school" lazy "review-journalism".

I cannot believe, I lived with this nonsense from him over a decade now!

A 'broken' game to me is something unplayable. A game, that has such technical issues, that it not only affects quests, but also my hardware. But, hell - DON'T LISTEN TO ME! I only started playing games in the mid-seventies. What the fuck do I know.

Brad Shoemaker, more than ever, loves to make outrageously opinionated statements, brushing them hastily against a big canvas, only to step off the next moment and bury everything in generalizations (listen to the podcasts, watch the Quick Looks - or rather don't).

I don't buy the "it's his opinion"-school of defense. Jeff Gerstmann knows how to write a balanced review, without pathos (so did Greg Kasavin).

  • with analog controls you can switch between the seats inside the car
  • with an xbox360 controller (or xPadder/x360ce) you can use ANY game-controller (preferably dual analog) and play analog controls on a PC

why do I know this? because I t e s t e d it myself. That's how you do it; you figure it out first and then write about it?"

Giantbomb turned into this endless stroking device, where staffers can rub their ego every second of every day. They don't even have to try anymore? They know, some guys will (always) bitch - "but the rest of them loves us!" Lazy reviews, are b a d reviews. Period.

Posted by HavokCXVII

Don't see how this review could run without mentioning that the PS3 version of the game is straight up broken, leaving thousands of users unable to save their progress. Completely unacceptable job by Techland. Shameful.

Posted by ptys

The only way you're going to get me to buy a zombie focused game again is if you put either Resident Evil or Mass Effect in the title, it's just so played to death!

Posted by Cincaid

@buckybit: Take a deep breath and calm the fuck down. It's a review of a video game, not the next famine in Africa. And no, I won't reply to whatever mud slinging I'm sure you'll throw at me. Just calm down man.

Posted by Jeffsekai

No mention of Co-op being completely retarded for anyone that isnt the host. If you are not the host you get ZERO xp from completing quests but they still count as being completed. Take this review with a grain of salt.

Posted by Drebin_893

Thanks Brad, great review.

Posted by Diablochicken14

Glad Brad liked it as much as I do. All the technical issues aside I've been having a blast with the game.

Posted by Summoboomo

@buckybit:You sound mad bro.

Posted by wsowen02

Great review Brad!

Edited by Phreaker

14 hours in, mainly co-op on 360 and I LOVE this game. Most fun I've had in a long time, probably the best co-op since Borderlands. Devs, please make more of these games! I can't seem to get enough co-op action RPGs. I haven't really run into any issues yet (finger's crossed).

Posted by lizzard2

It's a fun game but sadly i hade to put it in my shelf until a major patch comes along, I have the save glitch and can't make any progress in the game since it resets my save everytime i want to play and i can't connect to any people online ( i read someware that they turned off online play in europe atleast dont know if true but all people are greyed out in my game so no connection to anybody). I have the PS3 pal version with patch.

Edited by Branthog

Four out of five. I'd write more, but I can't stop laughing at how absolutely unrealistic and ridiculous that is. Bugs, glitches, monotony, broken quests . . . it should all count for a something.

If they fix a lot of shit, I might buy it when it hits $20 in a few months.

Posted by UnrealDP

@buckybit:

Overreacting would be a hyperbole in your case, look at how pointlessly angry you look right now and for no good reason. Brads a professional and i'm sure if there were any bugs or problems that stood out he would talk about them which is exactly what he did. Is posting patch notes into a review really what you want? It sounds like your just trying to find problems with his review by pointing out the most minuscule things. Just calm down for a sec and look at this review. If changing seats in a car or whatever that controller thing you were talking about were key parts of the game then i'm sure things like that would of been front and center accurate, but it's not like Dead island is an easy review or anything, in fact it's such a large game that i couldn't imagine having to review it on a deadline.

Bottom line, chill out and take a step back here. What's your problem anyway?

Posted by crusader8463

This game is terrible from top to bottom. All you do is run from pointless mission to pointless mission doing nothing but side stepping the odd zombie that runs towards you, and when you can't you press E to kick it then spam left mouse button to hit it in the head a couple times and it's done. There is zero effort to the combat, the story consists of nothing but walking up to random people and being told to go fetch this or that ad nauseum. Not even touching on the game being unplayablely broken for days after it came out, and the tons of technical problems in addition to the aforementioned, it's just boring, repetitive and tedious to play.

It's not very often that I feel like I was cheated out of my money when I make a bad choice in picking a game to buy, but this game is one of those times.

I would give this a 1/5, and the one would be generous.

Posted by CornBREDX

I concur. This game is a blast to play. Apparently I got it on the right console or something, not had any game breaking bugs yet. Sucks for those that do (some of my friends do too)- i hope they fix it soon.

That being said this game is fun.

Posted by JuxJuxJux

I picked this game up after watching the Quick Look this past weekend (PS3). It's certainly buggy, and there layer of jank that needs to be overlooked, but when it's firing on all cylinders - it's a surprisingly fun game! I agree with Brad's review!

Posted by Zaph

@buckybit said:

rambling nonsense

If this game isn't broken, I don't know what is.

I've been playing the PC version with 3 friends for the last 2 days, and while we've really enjoyed it (when it works), it is most definitely broken.

Whether of not Dead Island works out-of-the-box on your PC is complete pot luck. Here's our current status (bear in mind we all have very high-end modern gaming PC's) using the latest Steam version:

  • Me: I've had the least issues, with only the cut-scenes not working. Had to use Dead Island Helper to enable Vsync and change FOV due to motion sickness.
  • Friend 1: Severe stuttering issues, not even the Dead Island Helper fix works. Game freezes for up to 5 seconds every minute or so.
  • Friend 2: 90% of the time game launches to a black screen. When he can play there is no audio at all.
  • Friend 3: Similar issues to mine, but also has lots of stuttering (but not as bad and friend 1).

I don't know what weird issue you seem to have with Brad or GB in general, and I don't really care, but defending the current state of Dead Island (especially on the PC!) is a fool's errand.

Edited by Peanut

@Branthog said:

Four out of five. I'd write more, but I can't stop laughing at how absolutely unrealistic and ridiculous that is. Bugs, glitches, monotony, broken quests . . . it should all count for a something.

Sorry, but this. This all over. I don't understand how sometimes the most minuscule of bugs or minor problems warrant "marks off" and slight monotony is held against a game to the letter, but this bug ridden, monotonous monstrosity somehow rakes in a 4 out of 5. Don't get me wrong, I don't give a SHIT about review scores, but how am I to continue taking the opinions of the GB guys seriously if they aren't even consistent?

Also, bugs that don't break the game outright? Last night me and two friends somehow got caught in a death loop that would never end. The screen turned blue, the game chugged at literally 1fps and we'd keep dying, over and over and over. After dropping the game and reloading the save, we'd lost all progress we'd made for a good two hours. After that annoyance, we reloaded, went back to turn in a quest we had already completed, had the quest character disappear and were unable to continue because the main quest required us to speak to him, upon reload, NOTHING CHANGED. THAT is outright broken.

And I don't even want to get into the monotony of the combat. I'm using the analog control also and have been since the beginning, but it almost makes it MORE monotonous because you're trying to do the exact same thing to every zombie you come up against.

Posted by kerse

I agree with this review, maybe I'm one of the lucky ones but my friend and I are playing on pc and having no crazy issues like I've been reading in here. I do however have a problem with picking up alcohol and the game deciding I wanted to get rid of the weapon I had equipped. My friend wasn't having that problem with the game pad, could be my keyboard I suppose. However this is a hell of a lot of fun despite its issues that are pretty annoying. I don't think I would have as much fun playing alone though.

Posted by ComradeCrash

Great review. Makes me think I should get it.

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