Dead Island – Staff Review

Dead Island is Borderlands meets Left 4 Dead set in Far Cry with the melee of Condemned. I wanted something less abrupt to start with, but this game is a Normandy beach landing away from hitting the FPS singularity (not to be confused with the FPS titled Singularity). No doubt the story of how a design team brainstormed their way to this is one for the history books. The combination might sound impractical and unwise, like wiring up a crowbar with a car battery, but you can’t argue with results. It’s messy, cumbersome, strange, and fun as hell.

Games have been down the zombie road so many times you shouldn’t be surprised at the explanation, a variant of the classic viral outbreak. The novelty comes from the setting, placing you as one of four survivors on Banoi Island, a resort overrun by the undead. Having slept off a hangover you missed most of the fun, and despite a fresh set of bite marks you seem none the worse for wear. Other survivors promptly rescue you from the hotel, guided by a radio voice that claims your apparent immunity is key to stopping this. The voice offers you a deal: help him cure his wife, and he’ll get you and the other survivors off the island. Of course you need to live long enough to do that, which means helping the scattered pockets of uninfected with more mundane issues. Forget pushing statues or matching up wacky themed keys, you’re going to have your hands full just shopping for groceries.

While the control scheme is mostly by-the-book FPS, Dead Island is anything but orthodox. The game readily invites comparisons to Borderlands, as quest tracking, character skills, and loot generation are practically identical. It makes no attempt to hide its RPG nature, what with floating damage indicators and experience for quests and kills. The map system is sufficient to keep you on task, though other menus can be rather cumbersome, such as skill descriptions that partly cover up the skilltree. Where Dead Island stands apart from the Gearbox title is in terms of weight, a sense of gravity to your actions on screen. Movement carries momentum and you won’t always stop on a dime, which you’ll notice the first time you have to balance precariously on a car, ledge, or rooftop. Picking up items is quick but not instantaneous, often requiring you to hold still for a potentially dangerous half-second. The camera never leaves first person, so getting in a car means actively looking around to see if there’s room to back up.

Hey, guys!  I found a great way to carve *and* cook at the same time!  Guys?
Hey, guys! I found a great way to carve *and* cook at the same time! Guys?

This weight carries through to melee combat, making a fight with even a single zombie messy and dangerous. Each swing saps at your stamina depending on the weapon’s stats. A sledgehammer is heavy and tiring but will instantly floor something, while a knife is easier on the arms but forces you to get in close. An exhausted survivor is a literal pushover for the first zombie that hits you, so charging in flailing blindly will give the undead a free bite or two. You can always kick out in an emergency and stomp a zombie’s head when it’s down, but this gives time for enemies to catch up. Zombies are countless and come in several flavors – some obviously vacationing from Left 4 Dead – but all are implacable and undeterred by anything short of final death. Lop an arm off, set them on fire, or hit them with a car, and they’ll just keep coming until you finish them off. There’s a reason the game’s crafting system lets you pound nails into a baseball bat, electrify a crowbar, and brew up homemade bombs: at some point you’re going to need that extra something.

By contrast, human enemies are rather frail and ironically more predictable. Naturally they can wield guns to pose a greater threat at range, and they’ll usually start in reasonable defensive positions. Nonetheless, they’re poor at actually taking cover and often only pose a challenge when they appear in large numbers. Gunplay in general feels a weird exception to the game’s sense of weight. Pistols, shotguns, and rifles all vary statistically, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a gun that has the same impact as a good machete. Some of the stats are just puzzling, such as a shotgun that holds eight shells loading faster than one with six. Furthermore, gun types fire from the same ammo pool – both handguns and revolvers use the same bullets, for instance – and you automatically pick up ammo boxes just by walking over them. Zombies don’t drop ammo anyway, so expect to find yourself hoarding the firearms for select situations, although a properly-directed shotgun remains an efficient predator of the undead.

Dead Island is no slouch visually speaking, rendering Banoi’s beaches, towns, and jungles in rich detail. Zombie apocalypse notwithstanding, the resort is everything you’d expect on a tourism brochure, from beautiful beaches to posh bungalows to well-stocked poolside bars. The game takes full advantage of the tropical setting, and even obligatory horror game locations, like a police station and a research facility, are colorful and interesting to explore. New areas often contrast intelligently with previous ones, such as a decrepit slum that suggests paradise has older, not-flesh-eating problems. Both zombies and survivors come in all manner of size, dress, and ethnicity, mixed appropriately based on the location. Fighting is visceral and violent, with exaggerated but suitably graphic results from your slashing, burning, and shooting.  The presentation certainly isn’t impeccable, being hampered by periodic glitches, overlong corridor sections (sewers, mostly) and a severe overuse of bloom.  Those hangups aside, Dead Island isn’t shy about showing itself off.

Audio holds up well, from the meaty smack of a pipe to the rewarding shuck-shuck of racking a shotgun. The zeds do a good job distinguishing themselves by sound, signalling if the thing chasing you will catch you in ten seconds or two. Ambient growls and gunfire are sometimes just background flavor, but usually mean there’s action nearby. Excepting the opening rap song by player character-slash-one-hit-wonder Sam B, in-game music is generally subdued but effective, if less than memorable. Voice acting proves the weak link in the chain, owed in part to an unremarkable script. Most characters at least act like they understand what’s going on and are justifiably concerned, and you’ll hear a few familiar voices doing decent work; yes, that’s Steve Blum croaking out what I assume is an Australian accent. Overacting is sadly commonplace, however, and some incidental dialogue is just strange. Why random goons would shout “Strong, true!” during a shootout is anybody’s guess.

Look, just level with me: does this zombie thing affect the half-off margaritas?
Look, just level with me: does this zombie thing affect the half-off margaritas?

Problems with the story aren’t evident at first, with a decent transition from gathering supplies to finding your way to the city. Survivor groups have individual and collective character, from a nun offering sanctuary in a church to a group of beachgoers holing up and partying until help arrives. Stringing all this together is where Dead Island drops the ball, with often flimsy pretexts leading you to your next destination. A crowning example is a recurring NPC insisting on distributing supplies to a police station where a street gang has taken over. The gang announces by loudspeaker that anyone approaching the station will be attacked, and like all public service announcements ignoring this leads to tragedy and a contrived rescue mission. Some survivors don’t even get that much attention, dying off screen or just disappearing as soon as you’re done. The four player characters have extensive backstories that basically go nowhere: a rapper, a disgraced football star, a Chinese agent, and a half-Aborigine cop, all with surprisingly little to contribute. Despite occasional threads of an interesting story, the game simply has no time for its own attempts at zombie-related drama.

Although many bugs have been addressed since the game’s troubled launch, gameplay doesn’t get away unscathed either. Escort missions are scarce but aggravating, typically featuring an NPC wandering ahead on a fixed path and only stopping at scripted enemy spawn points and ignoring random enemies.  Pacing is uneven, and despite all the time spent outside your few jaunts into linear corridors tend to overstay their welcome.  Picked-up equipment displaces your current weapon and its inventory slot. This happens a lot with alcohol, which has its combat uses but isn’t itself a weapon, so you can get figuratively smashed when you mean to literally smash something. Inventory in general is a head-scratcher, with a bottomless capacity for random junk but tight restrictions on ammo and weapons. Respawning from death can put you in odd locations, sometimes even closer to your targeted objective. Quest and map glitches are common, such as markers disappearing inside a certain range, and the absence of maps for interior locations does eventually get annoying.

Yet eventually the game’s disparate elements click to produce something special. You’ll run from a pack of zombies, hoof it to a ladder and climb up a ledge, when suddenly a previously unnoticed zombie at the top will knock you right back into the thick of it. You’ll be driving a truck, weaving between stalled, burning vehicles, only to hit a dead end by a clogged bridge with a crowd closing in fast. You’ll stop in a gas station to fill up empty tanks, looking over your shoulder for trouble and hoping there’s nothing in your blind spot. Then it hits you: Dead Island is about survival, not scares. The problem isn’t that you had to dismember someone’s reanimated friend, co-worker, or significant other and their guts are now coating your weapon. The problem is there’s a dozen more around the corner and even more past them. You’re out of bullets, you’re out of breath, your improvised melee weapon is breaking apart, and they just keep coming. Running isn’t cowardice, it means you’re paying attention.

What’s important is the game never gets too wrapped up in being intense to be fun. Yes, it’s crazy that a game about a zombie outbreak involves crafting weapons, learning skills, and spending money. But it’s so crazy it somehow works. A little on-the-side exploration nets you plenty of cash to wrap barbed wire around your baton or coat your katana with a paralyzing poison. Trick out your pistol with batteries and it’ll shoot lightning bullets, which has the dual effect of stunning zombies and making Nikola Tesla turn in his grave. Learn the right skill and your thrown weapons will damage multiple targets and return to your hand, which isn’t even remotely possible. The setting and scope put a fresh twist on textbook RPG quests, from arranging luggage to spell out ‘Help’ to finding a pickup truck to haul back food and water. Death is only a monetary setback, hitting your wallet without forcing you to start from your last save point. This can be too lenient at times, neutralizing an otherwise frantic encounter, but it does keep the game from growing too frustrating to enjoy.

Should've taken that job in Raccoon City.  I bet this never happens in the American midwest.
Should’ve taken that job in Raccoon City. I bet this never happens in the American midwest.

The game makes other concessions to convenience as well. Fast travel lets you rapidly jump between certain safe spots, and you’ll find vehicles often enough to quickly get to more out-of-the-way locations. Even still, there’s no shortage of ground to cover. While any stretch of land can be dangerous, exploration is often rewarded by rare weapons, supply caches, shortcuts, shops, or entire quest chains. Saving is entirely automatic, which nicely complements the lenient death penalty; rewarding caution, but encouraging you to get in and take your best shot all the same. Hitting every point of interest on the island can push the clock past 30 hours, and your stats can carry over to a new game if you feel so inclined. What little plot exists acts as if all four characters are together even in single-player, so there’s nothing really new for a second go-round with someone else. Getting more mileage will largely depend on how much the multiplayer appeals to you, which to its credit does a respectable job of matching random players based on level.

Frankly, Dead island‘s very nature makes it a markedly different beast than other co-op zombie fragfests. The aforementioned trip to a gas station gets a lot more manageable when you can spare someone to watch the truck while you fill up. If something requires hitting three switches, you can delegate someone to each switch or take it slow and safe together. You’ll find more use in dealing out weapons to characters with matching skills, rather than simply using the biggest, sharpest thing you can find. Cause distractions towards propane tanks, flank human enemies, get into head-stomping challenges, have a partner roll a vehicle through a crowd to pick you up, grab rowboat paddles and reenact Shaun of the Dead… multiplayer brings out the real sandbox of this game. Again, getting any of this working is a dicey proposition given the way players connect in-game, but Dead Island‘s multiplayer deserves a medal just for sheer imagination.

Few could forget the haunting teaser that emerged close to a year ago, and fewer could believe it teased at the Frankengame before us. Depicting the tragedy of ordinary people brutally torn apart by the paranormal is nowhere on this game’s to-do lost. In all likelihood, only people who can accept this and move on will give it a fair shake. It’s far from ideal, but what’s here is remarkable. From clearly borrowed elements, Dead Island concocts an experience that lacks emotional punch but delivers visceral satisfaction. In an era where zombies are so often dispatched with suplexes and dual-wielded pistols, it’s nice to see a game give them some teeth again. You might not care when the token eleventh-hour revelations roll out, but you’ll feel it when pulling out the knife already lodged in the zombie’s body is the best of your available options. You might even smile a bit when a properly-timed strike gives you the chance to curbstomp one of the zeds. Interrupt my vacation, will you?

Sometimes you just don’t get what’s on the brochure. If you can roll with that, and if Borderlands wasn’t a turn-off, you’ll still be glad you booked the trip.

This game was played to completion with a digital download copy purchased through Steam.

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