Zombies. They have quickly become the popular centerpiece for more than a fair share of games these days. Hell, everything seems to at least feature them in some form or fashion. So when we first heard about Dead Island it was hard to get too excited; another zombie game where you are constantly tearing apart the undead? Big whoop. That was until I actually got my hands on the game and quickly became enthralled with everything it did. All of a sudden, I was on the island, fighting for my survival and collecting quests like there was no tomorrow. Yes, friends. I love Dead Island, and there are plenty of reasons you will too.
The opening cinematic showcases some drunk patron of the hotel stumbling around bumping into each of the four main characters. This island is definitely prone to the party crowd, as women are scantily clad and booze abounds. Once you pick your protagonist, you are awakened in your hotel room to one hell of a wake-up call. The place is overrun by the infected, and your vacation has quickly become a nightmare. The story isn’t going to knock you for a loop, but it does a decent job of progressing the events.
Now, you might be wondering what exactly is Dead Island. Is it like Left 4 Dead or Dead Rising? In the short answer, the game has more in common with the likes of Oblivion or Borderlands, in that it really delivers an RPG experience wrapped in a zombie slashing action game that takes place in first person. If that isn’t a mouthful, I don’t know what is. The game delivers quests constantly and will have you traversing the island to find anything from water to juice to something as trivial as a teddy bear. There are three types of quests: sidequests, main plot quests and continuous quests that all add to your overall XP.
You can track all of these via the menu and a handy navigation arrow will point you to your next objective that you have tracked. This makes moving from one quest to the next a breeze, and the game really drives home that ’just one more’ mentality nicely. It keeps you playing for hours on end, and when you partner up with a friend it makes it that much more exciting. You can play with up to three friends online, and what is even cooler is that when someone is in your proximity when playing alone, it will bring up a menu for you to join their game with one quick button press. This game was definitely designed with cooperative play in mind.
With that said, we come to my one gripe about the game mechanics. The leveling system is kind of broken in the fact that enemies always level with you, making each upgrade less substantial. This also hinders playing with friends, because if they are not close to your level, it becomes problematic for them to keep up. The only advantage to the leveling system is the skill tree, which opens up new abilities. This is really the heart and soul of leveling up. Here, you can opt to branch out your Blood Rage meter or make yourself more or less attractive to zombies. The cool part is that is the trees are different for each character, giving you plenty of ways to play the game. The actual levels themselves don’t make much difference, but the skill tree certainly does.
Weapons also play a large role, and for the most part the game focuses on melee combat. You can use almost anything as a weapon from a rowing oar to large machetes. Probably the coolest part is that you can modify these weapons by discovering or earning mods. Once I created my electrified machete I was hacking and shocking zombies with the quickness. Weapons also work on the Borderlands method, where colors are important. Finding an epic weapon will definitely get you excited. Guns play a minor role as the ammo is limited and, of course, what zombie killing game would be complete without some explosives and fire? Molotov cocktails and exploding barrels are littered around the world, making zombie barbeque a constant possibility.
The actual combat itself will take a bit to get used to because of the melee nature of it. I will be honest, from the outset I had to turn down the sensitivity on the aiming as it is definitely a bit fast by default. You can aim for various body parts to either slice them off or break them, depending on what type of weapon you have. You also have your kick, which becomes imperative when surrounded by infected, to keep them at bay. The game also allows for analog controls that mimic your swings. Personally, I didn’t care for these, but they are a nice option for those that prefer them. Once you get the hang of it, the combat is quite satisfying. Watching zombie limbs and heads go flying never gets old, and the game does a nice slow down motion when you land a devastating blow.
The one aspect most zombie games don’t get is that fear-driven struggle for survival. Not once when roaming the island or city streets did I feel safe in Dead Island. The game does a fantastic job of constantly creating an atmosphere of terror. Even when you realize that the penalty for death is minor, you still find yourself trying your hardest to stay alive. I loved this because I would constantly be afraid that my weapons would break down or that zombies in a dark corridor would overrun me. Getting that sense of intensity is hard to do in gaming, and the guys at Techland nailed it.
The island and its world are definitely nice to look at even with some minor graphical glitches here and there. Character animations can be wonky at times, but the environments are well designed and you quickly become accustomed to the layout. The island is also quite massive, and I found myself wondering off to explore more often that I am accustomed to doing because it was such a unique place. I love the immersion of the game, and sound plays a large role in that. The first time I heard a thug screaming or heard zombies running behind me, I truly felt terrified. The voice acting is, for the most part pretty lame, but the ambience and effects more than make up for it.
Dead Island is not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, and I am sure I have forgotten to mention some of the things about it in my meager attempt to describe this massive adventure, but it definitely has hooked me into its world. You can easily spend over 30 hours in this game and so far I have yet to grow bored of anything it had to offer. Fans of RPGs, or zombie games in general, really need to check out Dead Island. It really just manages to suck you in and deliver a good time. I love the co-op, the atmosphere and so much else that all I can think about right now is diving back into the game. Do yourself a favor and check it out. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Review copy provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.