September 05, 2011
Dead Island landed with a bang thanks to a lush CGI video that whipped up a hype-style frenzy and put the game firmly at the top of people's most wanted list. A whole island full of zombies to kill, with up to four player co-op? Seems to be a no-brainer (sorry, zombie pun). However, while that video certainly did its job the final product is a touch more rough around the edges, though thankfully not at the cost of the core gameplay.
It would be easy to draw a lot of parallels between this title and games like Borderlands and Left 4 Dead, as it's certainly tailored as a co-op game first and foremost, with decent RPG elements and a whole bunch of missions to mess around with. It also has a wonderful survival element to the whole experience, with zombies bursting out of nowhere and chasing you down, while you remain torn between fight or flight. However, the best thing about Dead Island is the fact it is very much its own game, and while it's clearly drawn some inspiration from other titles it can stand alone as a well-constructed package.
The storyline is almost simple to a point. A zombie outbreak has occurred on the tropical island of Banoi and swiftly overrun the island, you take on the role of one of four survivors with an immunity to the seemingly virulent disease and it’s up to you to figure out what the hell is going on. In truth things are a little predictable and, at times, the story seems a touch ragged with events taking place with seemingly little or no explanation, and the cutscenes being baffling at best. However, the story is not what the game is all about, as it's the experience that really matters and Dead Island makes you act and feel like a survivor battling against the odds. Being dropped on an island with no clue what is happening and a free reign to explore leaves you with a plethora of opportunities and a grand sense of adventure.
Rather than having the whole island to wander around, the game is broken up into a number of huge maps that take in the resort, city and outlying jungle, as well as a few surprises. Each area is full of survivors to help out, as well as a host of the undead just waiting to be dispatched. While you can certainly play through the game from A to B, by just completing the story missions, it is fair to say that you could miss out on half the fun if you don’t stray off the beaten path every now and then.
The missions are surprisingly diverse, with the obvious fetch and carry tasks mixed in with escort missions, defensive jobs and even rigging up speaker systems for the church. The beauty of the game lies in the fact that you can bump into survivors while just roaming around the environment and then it’s up to you whether you stick to your current objective or take a bit of time to help them out. Wander past a radio and you might pick up a cryptic signal from someone in distress, then it’s up to you to track them down. Feel like exploring? Of course you do, and another subplot opens itself up ahead of you.
Combat is primarily melee-based and that can take some getting used to at first, as no doubt we’ve all spent some time blasting away at a zombie horde from the relative safety of a machine gun scope. Here though you are invited to get up-close and personal with a variety of paddles, cleavers, sickles, hammers and knives. Careful dodging and swipes are the key to taking down all of the brain-eating opponents that are thrown your way. Plus the clever dismemberment and bone breaking system means you can literally sever limbs and shatter skulls if you time it right. The sight of a zombie with two shattered arms flailing ineffectually in your direction never gets old. Though a couple of niggles do hinder combat, namely that your attacks can be interrupted and some of the quicker infected take advantage of that fact to reduce you to a bloody, and frustrated, pulp. Also the analogue combat option is frankly a nightmare, as it takes away your ability to alter your aim effectively and makes swings take even longer which, coupled with the above zombie-style exploit, can lead to far more deaths than is necessary. Though thankfully your only penalty for biting the big one is the loss of some cash and the slightly disorientating spawn locations, assuming your team don’t leap to your rescue of course.
Surprisingly guns only have a supporting role in the whole game and while that's easy to justify due to the resort style setting, it is also quite perplexing when you realise just how, well, useless they are. As well as the relative scarcity of firearms and ammo, they also tend to pale in comparison to the damage output from a regular kitchen knife. One swipe with a cleaver may well behead a zombie, while that same zombie could easily take five or six headshots to put down. It’s an odd design choice and one that seems deliberately forced on players in order to make melee combat the more appealing choice.
Obviously no one wants to be using the same paddle for combat throughout the entire game, and as melee weapons degrade during combat it's up to you to find replacements. Luckily as you make your merry way around the island you will obviously be looting everything in sight in a quest for money, weapons and items for modifications. Find a repair bench and you can splash the cash to repair weapons and upgrade them to do extra damage, and if you find blueprints you can then use scavenged parts to add interesting effects like poison or electricity too. The amount of mod parts you can carry is thankfully limitless, so you won’t lose any sleep over whether to swipe that algae or leave it for a laptop battery. Weapons and med-kits have a limited amount of space though, so that is where the hard choices come into play.
With all this killing, looting and questing you will be doing experience points will be accruing, which can only mean one thing: leveling up. There are also a whole range of challenges that earn you extra XP, so getting kills in certain ways, completing missions or looting corpses, can all snag you some extra points with a bit of effort. As you go up a level you earn skill points to spend on Rage mode - which makes you a super-powered killing machine for a while - as well as general combat and survival skills. Your general combat skills will vary depending on your character, but they generally give bonuses to certain weapons, while survival skills can help you snag more experience, pick locks or get cheaper prices in shops. The beauty of the system is that no two characters will be alike and you can focus on the skill trees that you feel best suit your own style.
While things might quickly get a touch stale if you go it alone, the game also has a neat online matchmaking system. At any point you can invite a host of other people into your match or, if you find yourself at the same point as another random soul online, the game will prompt you to hop into their game should you so wish. It really is that easy and makes finding a co-op buddy as easy as possible. On the down side though, people tend to do what they want to do, and even though you can join other people's games don’t be shocked if they quickly drop out or even ignore you to do their own thing. It is certainly advisable to play with friends and use a microphone to co-ordinate the action.
With an exciting open-world to explore and the simplicity of playing with your friends, it's easy to think that things are flawless, but there are times when the game is distinctly lacking in polish. First and foremost are the graphics, which are terrible at times, especially during cutscenes and when entering new areas when there can be an obvious delay before textures pop in. Sometimes zombies get stuck on scenery or your car might hit a zombie, which will then fly off at an implausible angle. We can occasionally forgive all of that due to the amount of things going on, but when it comes to missions, these glitches can be more obtrusive.
At certain times missions seem to reset themselves too, so you will have to carry out an objective again in order for it to register. This happened on a few occasions and led to a host of frustrating treks to redo previously accomplished tasks. We also had a couple of missions that simply wouldn’t end, whereby we would return to the quest giver and no option to advance the game would present itself. This could only be cured by quitting the game entirely and reloading the last checkpoint, at which time the requisite dialogue would occur (after we had, once again, redone the mission). It can be a major pain, and lead to the loss of a good half an hour's worth of progress at times, which isn’t justifiable by any means.
Thankfully the achievement list is full of fun and invention, with very few tasks tied into any specific missions other than the overriding story arc. This means you are free to wander, or drive around killing zombies and picking up points as you go. Though we are a touch concerned that the Catch achievement (for killing an Infected with a grenade) may be glitched, we mixed up a whole bunch of the explosive blighters and dropped them on countless infected but had no joy getting that signature sound. Hopefully this is just a simple workaround, but no one we played with seems to have had any joy either. It would be a shame if such a solid list were ruined by one seemingly minor task.
Dead Island is a huge game and assuming you take the time to complete all of the side missions you will be looking at 30-40 hours to get everything done, even in a team. Such a grand undertaking might be a touch too repetitive for solo play, but this game was designed for co-op and thankfully thrives on it. The story may be hokum, but the experience of being trapped on an island with only the bare minimum in terms of supplies is one that sells itself. You will probably spend as much time hightailing it away from zombies as you do fighting them, but even a great escape can be an adrenaline-pounding thing of beauty. The only issues really are the graphics and mission-related glitches, which are more intrusive than they should be and hold the game back from true greatness. So, pick up a posse, immerse yourself in Banoi and don’t forget the sunscreen... Although perhaps a machete would be a better option.
Good voicework for all of the characters, and superbly atmospheric growls and snarls that have you jumping for cover around every corner.
Possibly the weakest aspect of the game, with a variety of visual glitches and obvious texture pop-in. Plus the cutscenes are ropey and make even the most emotional of moments seem a touch vapid.
Great fun with a team and almost as good solo. There are a few niggles with combat that can boil over into frustration at times, but the overall balance is spot on.
An island paradise full of zombies and tension. This is a well-crafted action game with a superb RPG backbone, not to mention a superb co-op experience.
A fun list to strive for, plus plenty of in jokes in the tiles themselves. Though the potentially glitched achievement could prove to be a downer for some people.
Dead Island surprised us by being a tightly crafted experience, full of interesting locales and intriguing missions. It can lose its way at times, but you will find yourself coming back for one more go time and time again, as crippling zombies and saving bikini clad females never gets dull. Losing yourself on Banoi will feel like the vacation from hell, but you’ll love it.