Posted on September 5, 2011, Phil Hornshaw Dead Island Review
When that first teaser trailer for Dead Island first showed up so many months ago, it swept over the Internet. In just about a minute and a half, the trailer managed to tell a compelling, heartbreaking story about fear, loss and zombification.
Dead Island the game is nothing like that trailer, and I think that was my biggest trouble with it. Not that I expected Dead Island to deliver an emotional and compelling narrative — but I did expect some thought to be put into the narrative of the game at all. Instead, Dead Island is a collection of demanding and uninteresting NPCs that send you off to run their errands, with many zombies making the accomplishing of those always run-of-the-mill tasks rather difficult. The lack of any real incentive to complete all those errands, other than to get more errands to complete, ended up making the game somewhat boring.
Dead Island (PC [Reviewed], Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: Sept. 5, 2011
MSRP: $49.99 (PC), $59.99 (console)
Mostly it’s boring because you’re going to do roughly three things in Dead Island, and you’re going to do them often. The first is kill zombies. Depending on which of four nearly personality-free protagonist characters you choose, you’ll have a different specialization for fighting — blunt weapons, edged weapons, throwing and firearms. All the characters are capable of using everything they come across as a weapon, but some are better at certain things than others. Regardless, primarily you’re going to be searching your immediate surroundings for something like a knife or a canoe paddle, and you’re going to be burying that thing into a zombie skull.
In between long bouts of zombie-bashing, you’ll generally be either fetching things or escorting NPCs places. As the story (term applied loosely) goes in Dead Island, you and your three possible co-op compatriots are immune to whatever the zombie virus is, and as such you are the perfect candidates for the “going out and doing” part of surviving a zombie apocalypse. While everyone else stays back at the fenced-in enclosure in relative safety, you’re the one leaving to find gas for the generator, food for the bellies, protection for the mostly useless randos you encounter, and answers for the plot.
At the start of the game, a disembodied voice guides you to escape the hotel and before long, you find yourself with survivors. They immediately start assigning you jobs, and you’ll complete campaign quests and side quests ad nauseum. This is where Dead Island breaks down — while you might be able to compare it to Dead Rising, Borderlands or even to Fallout 3, it falls well short of all because it almost totally lacks characters. The “plot” of the story, largely, is “We’re outta food! Please help!” or “The water’s not working! Go fix it and I’ll allow you to advance to the next area where you’ll complete three more tasks before moving on!” or “How are we gonna get off this island? Go get a thing that might help! Oh no, it didn’t help! Go get another thing that might help!” At no point does it feel like accomplishing any of these tasks actually gets you anywhere; you’re merely helping each new group of people you encounter with whatever they need you to do, so you can move on to the next group and the next set of tasks. Your reward is experience points and usually some material possession, be it a sweet new weapon or some cash, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re endlessly engaged in busywork in a world that could care less whether you do it or not.
But it can be a fun world to screw around in. Dead Island finds a stride in its RPG elements, with tons of loot scattered throughout the game and lots of new weapons to find or build. There’s a fairly huge number of weapons, and they wear out and become less effective as you use them, making Dead Island a constant inventory management game that requires lots of strategy. Players need to keep track of which weapons are on the way out, which are most effective, and which need to be sacrificed by throwing them away. You’ll also find a ton of weapons mods that can be initiated at work benches, where weapons can be repaired and upgraded. Benches are more important than just about anything in the game, and you’ll always be spending the ludicrous amount of cash you find throughout the game at benches to keep your weapons in good repair.
Every time you gain enough experience points to level up, you’ll be able to unlock an ability in one of three tech trees. One is dedicated to “Rage,” each character’s ability to go into a super-powered berserk mode that lasts until he or she stops killing for too long. Another is for generalized combat, upgrading your strength and increasing your stamina; the last is generalized survival, with perks that go toward exploration and finding and using items. There are a ton of upgrades and you’ll need to spend a lot of points to unlock the lower portions of the tech tree, so there’s a good deal of customization involved. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of throwaway abilities that aren’t that useful but are in the way of better ones further along on the progression scale.
In combat, Dead Island isn’t bad, it’s just repetitive. The sheer number of weapons available and the different ways they work, coupled with a dismemberment system that dishes out different effects depending on where you hit enemies, means combat is (mostly) strategic. There are also a number of tougher zombies that require different strategies to defeat. Mostly, you’ll find yourself assessing situations and looking for the best options: stand your ground or flee, go for high ground or chance it on the street. After a while, running is as good an option as fighting, if not better.
That’s partially for saving time — you’ll spend a lot of time in Dead Island if you do everything, possibly 30 hours or more — but also because zombies are f–king hard to kill, both as a function of the way the game is made and because of the wonky way that it plays. First-person melee combat can be tough to gauge at any point, with the ranges of weapons being tough to guess, and that’s to say nothing of the sometimes choppy zombie animation that can sometimes work against you. Zombies also scale right along with you during the course of the game, so you’re always fighting top-level enemies. This requires you to continually search for newer, better weapons to stay competitive. It also means you’ll repeatedly get your ass kicked by run-of-the-mill zombies who get the drop on you or gang up on you.
The combat stays fresh and quite harrowing throughout, and when you’re adventuring around the island, you’ll be constantly checking corners and listening intently for clues as to where enemies will be coming from, how many they’ll be and what type they are. In this sense, Dead Island is really rather spooky and immersive. Fighting zombies is always a fight for your life, and most of the game you’ll have no choice but to get close to the monsters to dispatch them. That engenders some pretty powerful adrenaline bursts throughout.
It’s too damn bad the reasons you’re out bashing zombies in the first place are less compelling and sometimes downright annoying.
It’s just that for a game like Dead Island to work, players need an incentive to spend all that time, escort all those characters and smash all those skulls. Usually, the carrot in front of the cart is a storyline, but the way Dead Island delivers its plot made me feel like I went to the bathroom during a key scene in a movie. Wait, there’s a “rumored” lab somewhere on the island? Wait, I found Semtex at the helicopter crash I investigated? Wait, what happened to that group of survivors, the well-being of whom was my sole concern for the entire first half of this game?
Without a compelling plot, Dead Island becomes too big, and certainly just not interesting enough to warrant yet another search for bottles of water for NPC X or the fetching of gasoline for NPC Y. Nothing ever happens, despite the Herculean effort the player ends up putting into the game by the end. The exploration of the huge world or the destruction of zombies might be an end unto itself with some friends in co-op, but alone it’s extremely tiresome.
My playthrough for Dead Island’s review was on the PC version, and it was a buggy, strange affair. I’m not sure if it was my review build or if the retail version will be the same way, but I’m forced to warn players away from it. Visual bugs infected the entire experience: my copy would never render fire or steam escaping from vents, or even the gross Boomer-like spit of certain zombie types. I had to use my imagination and lighting clues to guess where fire was so I could avoid getting burned, and despite my character yelling “Damn!” whenever I blew something up, I never got to see an explosion. Cutscenes, too, occasionally suffered some really weird visual issues. Audio also would sometimes cut in and out, and I caught more than one NPC switching voice actors from encounter to encounter. However, I played a fairly complete preview build of the first hour on Xbox 360 with no similar problems — so I can’t be sure if it’s just me, or if the PC version really does have so many problems.
Dead Island does get a lot of things right, almost in spite of itself. It’s a huge undertaking and you’ll certainly get a lot of content for your money. The question is whether you’ll want all that content, and I highly doubt that you will. Sure, it feels like there are 100 quests in Dead Island and if you play them all, you’ll get 30 hours out of the game — but they’re all the same two or three quests, mostly offered by different faces. By the end, I found myself saying, “I have to go fetch you something again?” and no number of action-packed zombie close calls could make it exciting.
(Note: As of this writing and due to time constraints, I was unable to try Dead Island in its cooperative mode, which is a major selling point for the game. This review will be updated once Game Front staffers have had a chance to experience Dead Island’s co-op.)
- Truly incredibly huge world. Just when you think it’s really big, you enter a new area — which is the same size as the first. And then you do it again. And again.
- Deep weapons and modding systems add some engaging requirements for staying alive and capable of killing zombies.
- Huge amount of content: as much as 30 hours or more
- Harrowing zombie combat that doesn’t relent for the entire game
- Despite the huge number of missions, they’re often extremely repetitive
- Story isn’t compelling, which makes continually running off to fetch yet another object located across the island rather tedious and lack payoff
- Some serious audio and visual issues in the PC version
- Your actions really make no difference in the game: very little is dynamic and you’ll never make choices
- Escort missions
- Scaling enemies nullifies the advantage of making new weapons pretty quickly. Plus they’re annoying.
- Story feels like it leaves out important information and often doesn’t really hold together
- Combat can be frustrating
- Doesn’t feel finished; clipping issues, weird animations and other bugs mar the experience
Final Score: 65/100