A flawed, yet fun, Apocalypse
Although many wowed by that initial trailer believed Dead Island to be a game strongly focused on its story, the game itself doesn't really deliver on the writing front. You play as one of four Characters - with brief biographies available when you pick them, and very little else to discern any decent characterisation from - who find themselves on the beautiful resort Island of Banoi, which is suddenly overcome by a virus that turns holidaygoers and residents alike into bloodthirsty Zombies. The 25-30 hour long story focuses less on the emotional impact of such an apocalyptic event, and more on the practical matters - finding yourself immune to the virus, you must aid other survivors by scavenging supplies and finding a way to escape Banoi. Techland manage to hit all the right beats within the Zombie genre throughout the story, but anemic writing and poor characterisation, especially amongst the four playable characters, mean some of the attempts at emotion feel contrived rather than touching. Whilst not the best story one could find in this admittedly overstuffed genre, it moves along at a decent enough pace to drive players throughout the lengthy campaign.
The meat of Dead Island however lies not in its story, but in its RPG and combat mechanics. Each character has their own specific strengths and abilities - Purna, a firearms specialist, can use attacks that buff nearby allies, whilst Logan, who specialises in throwing weapons, can gain an ability that allows any thrown weapon to bounce back into his hands - that can be developed as they gain experience and level up, allowing the player to put points into three skill trees (Fury, a special attack mode, Combat, to increase weapon damage, and Survival, which features skills such as lockpicking and improved stamina), unique to each character. The RPG depth continues into the variety of weapons you find scattered across the Island, or purchase from other survivors. Pipes, guns, Paddles, meat cleavers, even Morning Stars and Katanas are counted among the many types of weapons, each with a whole host of RPG stats tied to them, meaning you're constantly on the lookout for better - and thanks to a WoW-esque coloured loot system, rarer! - weapons with which to fight the Zombie hordes. Every melee weapon you find can be improved upon with a variety of modifications that use various pieces of scrap players can collect, adding elemental properties such as Electricity and Poison damage, or to create home made explosives - but weapons also have their own durability and eventually break after continued use, so either constant repair at workbenches dotted around the environments, or simply abandoning them in favour of other weapons is crucial to staying alive.
Aside from plenty of stats, a good RPG must rely on solid combat, and this is another of Dead Island's strengths. A strong focus on melee encounters means the majority of your conflicts across the game will be up close and personal with the walking Dead, and although 'Visceral' is a word often bandied about by Game Marketers these days, it definitely applies to Dead Island. Every weapon, even the firearms (although they are admittedly the weakest aspect of the combat, especially against the occasional human opponents), pack an amazing sense of weight with each swing (especially with the optional Analog control option, which maps individual swings to your controller's right thumbstick, but this option has a bit of a rough learning curve to get used to initially). This, tied with some fantastic damage modelling on your Zombiefied enemies means every hit looks deadly, and makes what could have been repetitive combat a lot more appealing. Every encounter feels incredibly brutal, and although the combat doesn't change up very often, it's almost always enjoyable and satisfying to split a Zombie's head open - which is definitely good, as there are a lot of Zombies to kill on your way between the many fetch quests Dead Island offers up to you. The tedium of these constant fetch quests can be absolved by the presence of up to 3 other players (unfortunately splitscreen gamers are left out of the co-operative zombie slaying), with a simple and quick drop-in, drop-out co-op allowing players to seamlessly join up with similar levelled heroes and hack their way through the undead hordes, which definitely adds to the experience - if you can find some likeminded friends, Dead Island is an incredibly fun co-operative game.
In terms of its Presentation, Dead Island is more of a mixed bag. The various areas of Banoi offer some stunning vistas, even on the ageing Xbox 360 hardware, and a great, intense feeling of atmosphere, however indoor areas are rife with muddy texturing and human characters look a little too stiff (in fact, their undead counterparts are occasionally much more animated, with great variety and looks). Along with the outdoor views, the gore in combat is another presentation hit, adding to the brutal weight of your attacks. The major flaw however is an overall lack of polish to the game - texture pop-in in new areas or upon joining a game ranges from mildly distracting to sometimes horrific levels, and many bugs such as uncompletable quests, missing Objective markers, and even in some cases, corrupted game saves, tarnish Dead Island greatly. Although console gamers seem to have fared better than their PC-gaming friends initially, there are still a lot of bugs to be ironed out - the promised Day One patch does not seem to have surfaced yet as of writing, 5 days after the game's US release.
If Dead Island's gameplay component wasn't so strong, the technical issues still rife with the game would make it a tough recommendation, even to die hard Zombie fans. However, if you're willing to put up with a certain level of jankiness, underneath these issues there lies an immensely satisfying Zombie game, with great combat, a massive open world, and compelling RPG mechanics, whether you choose to survive Banoi alone or with friends. Whilst the journey Dead Island takes you on may not be without hitches, it is still a recommendable trip to take.