Dead Island Review

By Darryl Kaye on September 5, 2011

Zombies really are the flavour of the month right now, so it came as no surprise when Techland announced they too were working on a game that, you guessed it, focussed around zombies. What did come as a surprise, was quite how they were going about it. Never before had we seen anything nearly as thought provoking as "that" trailer, nor had we seen a game that would focus so heavily on the visceral melee combat aspect of a zombie apocalypse. But now that it's all out in the open, it's clear that this open-world zombie apocalypse simulator is surprising for the wrong reasons too.

The game's plot focusses on a rather unfortunate turn of events. Well, any zombie outbreak is unfortunate, but this particular one takes place on the fictional holiday resort island of Banoi. This means that there are of course your typical drunken hooligans, but there were also families there on the island hoping to enjoy the holiday of a lifetime.

At the start of the game, you'll have to choose to play as one of four characters. They're all on the island for different reasons, but they all get lumped together because they're special. In other words, they're immune to the virus and are seen as something of a salvation for the small pockets of people who've managed to hide themselves away from harm.

Because of this, most of the game is centered around performing tasks for different people. You will of course have main quests, but there are also a ton of side-quests too which are there to try and add depth to the scenario. Despite this, the story of Dead Island never takes hold. There are cutscenes throughout, but a lot of it feels rather disjointed. The game acts like you should know these four characters rather well, so when you do get to see them interact, it can be in quite strong ways. However, it doesn't have a lasting impact.

A lot of the story just "happens" and the explanations are all rather flimsy at best. It's quite disappointing, because this was one aspect of the game that should have been a lot better. Instead, it's something that just becomes laughable as the game progresses.

At its core, Dead Island is about the melee experience. After all, if you were on a remote island and zombies suddenly appeared, you'd need to use whatever you had to hand in order to protect yourself. When you first start, things like an oar, a frying pan or even a small piece of wood will be your lifelines, but this changes rather rapidly once you progress through the game.Within a few hours that oar will be upgraded to a sledgehammer, and that frying pan could well be a machete. And that's not even getting into the weapon customisation yet. Yes, all of the weapons in the game can be upgraded and customised. What does this mean? It means you can have exploding knives and sledgehammers that emit huge electric pulses on impact - awesome.

The only downside is that these weapons will degrade over time and until you start upgrading your character, it feels as though these weapons degrade far too quickly. It's a necessary evil though, as it emphasises the resource management you'd actually need in this situation. On one hand, you want to use the weapons to protect yourself, but on the other you always want to make sure you at least have something handy. So, if you're on the more cautious side, it means you'll more often than not end up using your fists, so you always have your weapons for a back-up if things start getting crazy. If you're on the aggressive side, you'll end up going through weapons like there's no tomorrow which means you'll also end up using your fists.

There's also an RPG system implemented in the game, although it does feel a bit disjointed. It's understandable that you yourself would be able to get stronger and get new abilities, but there's no real reason why the zombies had to go through the same thing. Since the game is open world, they could have just made different parts feature zombies of ranging difficulties. Instead, they ended up with a system where the zombies towards the end of the game are pretty much the same strength as the zombies in the starter areas. So even if you go back to do easier side-quests later on, they actually aren't any easier. And in some instances, they may even be harder.

It really just epitomises Dead Island. For every good decision, there's always something that's questionable. For example, there's a huge glitch which is the result of how the game handles death. The single-player campaign works on the premise that you're playing with some imaginary friends. So, when you die, it tells you that you can still be revived by non-existent people. Once it realises that's not possible, you respawn - sometimes absolutely miles away - but everything is how it was before. Enemies have the health they did when you died, and you have the same resources too. That is, unless you're on an escort mission. In this instance, if the person you're escorting dies, the game actually loads a previous checkpoint and things are all reset to how they were - or so you think. All the enemies return to how they were yes, but all of your resources get drained to how they were when the NPC died.What does this mean? You get stuck an endless cycle where things just get harder with every load. Every time you fail, your resources get more and more depleted. So you can end up with a scenario where your weapons are all broken, your guns have no ammo and you've used all your healing packs - but you're still expected to try and progress. And because of how the game handles its saving system, there's no way to escape this cycle, unless you do another glitch - selecting another quest before you die to make the game respawn you somewhere entirely different in the world, as it thinks that's the quest you were doing.

Another glitch is where doors you're supposed to go through don't open even though that's the way you're supposed to go through according to the game's way-point system - something that doesn't even display properly all of the time. It's these bugs and afterthoughts that plague Dead Island and they can rather ruin the experience.

It's also clear that the game wasn't designed as a single-player experience. Often, you'll go through the game and die rather easily because you're just overwhelmed by a group of infected zombies. If you're in a team, this scenario rarely happens and often people only die due to their own negligence. Having said that, Dead Island is a ton of fun when played with friends, as it's more easy to just forget about all the things that Dead Island does wrong. Plus, there's also the fact you can break zombie limbs or just slice them off - that helps too.

To its credit, Dead Island is quite a lengthy game by today's standards. The single-player campaign will take around 12-14 hours depending on how many side-quests you do, and it could easily go over 15 hours if you try to focus on doing all the side-quests the game has to offer. There's also the choice to start a new game plus, so you don't have to start off with those measly weapons at the start of the game the second time around.

Final Thoughts

For everything that's good about Dead Island, there are even more things that are bad. And it's rather disappointing, because at its core, Dead Island is a game that has depicted a zombie apocalypse like no other - it's made it more palpable. It's just not possible to overlook the disjointed story, uneven gameplay elements and frustrating glitches. Fans of zombies games should definitely check this out, if only for the thrills of the scenario.

Fantastic scenario concept.
Playing with friends makes the experience much more enjoyable.
Customising weapons is awesome.
Poor execution of the scenario.
Very hap-hazard implementation of some gameplay mechanics.
Glitches are very prevalent.
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