The first impression the world got of Dead Island left it with some lofty expectations to uphold. In one of the most emotionally stirring game trailers of the past decade, no one knew really what to expect from the Techland developed zombie title. At that point, no one even had any idea what kind of game Dead Island would even be.
What Dead Island brings is a combination of many genres both in theme and gameplay style. Debating whether the title is a first person shooter with RPG elements or an RPG with first person combat becomes a moot point as the lines are so blurred in the intoxicating gameplay of Dead Island.
As just mentioned, Dead Island is a combination of both FPS combat with tons of RPG style gameplay seamlessly mixed together. Add that to an open world environment and the Fallout comparisons begin building up quickly. To say that Dead Island is Fallout 3 with zombies though would be an oversimplification of what Dead Island brings to the table.
First, let’s talk combat. Dead Island is played entirely from a first person perspective. Players begin with nothing more than their fists but soon begin picking up common items found on an island paradise such as paddles, kitchen knives, coat racks and machetes (with all that jungle, it doesn’t seem odd that these are found throughout the game world). Through the use of these items, players must bash their way through zombie attacks.
In the vein of Dead Rising, these items will degrade through use but unlike Dead Rising they will not disappear but just do less damage and must instead be repaired. They can still be used but inflict less damage. Players can repair and upgrade items as well as add modifications such as nails or electric zappers to weapons to increase their effectiveness and damage at work benches throughout the level.
One thing that helps set Dead Island apart from both Dead Rising and the game it was most initially compared to when gameplay was first shown, Left 4 Dead, is that combat is risky at almost every instance. One on one, players can take down most standard zombies without trouble. Add a group though and things get tricky. Dead Island doesn’t play like a shooting gallery and even the most skilled player can be overwhelmed if they don’t pay attention to their surroundings. There are many instances where fleeing and returning with a better weapon, a full gas tank or a truck may be the safest path. Certain enemies such as the Thug zombies, muscle bound beach bullies who continue to torture innocents in their afterlife, can cause players some serious grief even in one on one encounters if a player isn’t able to properly disable them early in the fight. This tactic of breaking or severing limbs is one of the most useful in Dead Island as well. Instead of blindly bashing away and wearing down their stamina, skilled players will place hits on limbs or the zombies head to take them down with much less aggravation.
Through kills and completing quests and various challenges, players gain experience and will level up. Each character class comes with a different Fury skill tree along with a Combat and Survival tree. The Fury tree is specific to either munitions, blunt weapons, sharp weapons or thrown weapons depending on the players initial character choice.
The combat tree revolves around combat bonuses and the survival tree gives players options like additional inventory slots or have items deteriorate at a slower rate. Early on, players may try to get by with kicking and punching but as they level up and enemies level up alongside them, improved weapons with stat bonuses will be the only way they can survive.
The game does have some gameplay flaws, mostly in the mission system. Upon accepting missions, waypoints are set on maps and while a player may be trying to complete one quest, another’s waypoint may still be active. Other times, it becomes a challenge in mutliplayer to figure out where on the map everyone should be headed towards as waypoints for missions don’t show up across the board for everyone. While some could say this helps add to the chaotic theme of the game, it ends up just being incredibly annoying.
Though being given such an emotional trailer, Dead Island takes the path of least resistance when it comes to the title’s actual story. Players are given one of four stereotyped characters (who coincidentally fall into one of the four common gaming character archetypes) that can all be dropped into the same story. An island resort is overrun by a mysterious virus that sends people into a lunatic rage all while the player has been passed out from drinking too much the night before. The player wakes up to find the paradise has been lost and must work their way around the island in search of other survivors in efforts to find a way off.
Because of the way the story is told, there is never an opportunity for players to build a connection to their character. They play a silent protagonist. Mysteriously before the end of the game’s first act, the player has met up with the other three optional characters and in cut scenes are seen going through the game as a group, whether or not the player has been playing multiplayer. This creates a serious disconnect as solo players have just been fighting for survival and then see a gang of friends pop out from behind a bush making them wonder where their assistance was moments ago.
Dead Island is a good looking game. While the design feels fairly standard for environments and characters it does a great job of capturing the feel of paradise lost. The character designs are also done in such a way that zombies do a good job of blending in with each other instead of looking like clones of each other. For example, in Dead Rising, players would quickly recognize a zombie with a brightly colored patterned shirt they had slaughtered seconds ago. But, in Dead Island, zombie textures aren’t so distinct that they stand out as much. As a result, zombies feel more like actual threats than repetitive clones.
The biggest criticism to the game’s art style is the animation. While the zombies do a fantastic job of lumbering through levels and attacking players, the reactionary combat animations and limb loss mechanics don’t hold up as well. When a player gets a good hit on a zombie, they tend to fall over in an unrealistic fashion. The zombie that was just enraged and attacking a player becomes quite docile as it slowly tries to right itself back to two legs. Limb loss is another issue as body parts don’t cut off in the same direction they weapon was swing at them. If a player cuts from the top of the screen down, it looks incredibly awkward and kills the immersion to see the limp fall off from a horizontal slice.
The sound design behind Dead Island is a brilliant one. There aren’t any action packed guitar riffs. There isn’t super eerie music signed to build tension and make you know something uncomfortable is coming. Instead, it’s silence. It’s exactly what you’d hear on a deserted beach interrupted by screams in the distance or the growls of the undead. The freaky part is, these growls aren’t ambient noise. They only pop up when something is on its way to make you its dinner. The second a growl from a thug is heard, players just get the urge to start running but of course take that pivotal half second to decide which way to run so not to just bring themselves head first into danger. As a result, the sound becomes a threat all on its own for players to deal with.
Dead Island redefines what this generation has brought to the zombie gaming genre. Zombies quickly became targets for players instead of real threats. Dead Island gives players something to be scared about once again. While some of the characters feel cliché, the heart of Dead Island falls in to the addictive nature of its survival gameplay and RPG questing system. The game gives itself a mass appeal for fans of both the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series to those who enjoyed titles like Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising as well.
While the emotion viewers felt the first time seeing Dead Island’s now infamous trailer never returns, a whole new set is evoked. One of terror and exploration, one of anxiety and a willingness to do whatever must be down to get out alive. While it may not be the greatest zombie game ever made, Dead Island is surely one to be remembered.
XBox 360 (also on PlayStation 3 and PC)
Publisher: Deep Silver