Dead Island review
The stream of zombie filled games doesn't seem to be stopping. Each developer is keen to make their mark on the genre by adding their own twist or hook; Valve's Left 4 Dead series introduced us to the fast paced world of zombie shooters; Dead Rising placed us in worlds to explore filled with the walking undead. These creatures aren't restricted to their own games either, even the Call of Duty franchise is getting in on the action, with its multiplayer featuring its own zombie mode. Now it's time for another zombie game to enter the market. Savvy gamers will recognise Dead Island from its moving teaser trailer which depicted a family getting caught in their hotel room by a bunch of blood-thirsty zombies. It was very moving and quickly got many gamers' attention, so it's fair to say that Dead Island has a lot of live up to.
The game's opening movie, however, doesn't really do a great job of setting the tone. It features the drunken antics of a party goer stumbling his way through a hotel, encountering the principle characters from the game, mostly by stumbling into them. It does a really bad job of setting up the scene, and doesn't inspire much confidence in what's to follow. What's even more curious is that this doesn't match the tone of the rest of game which, luckily, when you start to play Dead Island, is actually rather good. Like so many of these games you wake up to find yourself smack bang in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Starting off in your hotel room, as you make your through the hotel, you find out that things aren't exactly going well for the living population, and very quickly you find yourself ambushed by the undead. Turns out you happen to be immune to whatever disease is infecting most of the rest of the island's population, so you get put to work, helping out the remaining survivors, working towards getting yourself off the island.
It's melee weapons rather than guns that you actually use more
Once you're in the action and you've beaten away your first few zombies, Dead Island becomes quite different. No longer restricted to the confined corridors of the hotel, you literally have the entire island to explore and the true nature of the game is revealed; hidden beneath the first-person zombie bashing mayhem is an RPG. Many of the survivors have problems they need help with and as the island's only immune survivor, people are turning to you for assistance. This is Dead Island's quest system, allowing you to pick and chose from the requests of the island's inhabitants. Considering there's a zombie apocalypse going on, some of these missions are downright bizarre, such as Anne who wants her teddy bear or Jeannine who wants her necklace back. A greater sense of priorities is in order, I think, but if you're after experience points then those options are there. There's also recurring quests; some of the survivors are after supplies and will give you XP every time you give them the item they're looking for, such as giving water to a trapped survivor or if you want something a bit more tangible, one of the survivors will make you Molotov cocktails if you give him some beer bottles. Almost all of the game's quests typically involve you going from A to B, fetching items or activating a switch, such as a generator. We can forgive Techland for this, though, because it's the variation in the locations that makes the each mission interesting.
As we already discussed, zombie games come in all shapes and sizes. It's Dead Island's take on this genre that makes the game special. Instead of throwing zombies at you, it goes for the subtle approach. The whole island has the feel of a world interrupted, devastation everywhere. Bodies of tourists are piled up around the pools, cars are wrecked on the side of the road. Considering you spend most of time exploring on your own, this lends a great deal of tension as you're unsure where the next zombie is going to come from. You'll find most of them in groups of two or three amongst your travels, either on the main paths between destinations or hidden away amongst the chalets and beach condos; there is the odd exception where they send a wave of them against you, but most of the time it's just you in the deserted holiday resort, with a few zombies in your way, hidden away down side-paths or silently lying on the ground, blending in with the rest of the corpses.
Expect plenty of slaughter
So now that you know what you're up against, how exactly do you take them down? The emphasis in Dead Island is on melee combat, as you're left to improvise your own weapons. All sort of things can be picked up and used, such as boat paddles, brooms, cleavers and more. Each of these can be thrown too, useful for taking a zombie or two out before they get too close, but dangerous if you through your last weapon away. Don't get too attached to them, though. Like many modern RPG mechanics that are more annoying than fun, each weapon has durability which means that they quickly break. They can be repaired at benches located in the safe-houses, but unless you've upgraded the weapon it is easier, and cheaper, to simply pick up another one as they are scattered around plentifully. Early on in the game, you'll be able to start using some of the cars that are still functional. They are cars on the outside only, as they are actually zombie-slaughtering tanks in disguise, allowing you to plough through any zombies in your path seemingly indefinitely without any damage caused to the vehicle. Whilst clearly designed to allow you to get between safe-houses, in my playthrough I ensured I was never far from a car and it almost felt like I was cheating the system, as I was heavily dependant on it for protection. On top of this, you're also graced with a melee attack, but curiously it doesn't appear to have any form of stamina bar. A common tactic is to therefore spam the melee button until the zombie is on the ground, at which the point they are effectively useless until they get back up again. A curious design choice as it eliminates a lot of the challenge in combat (provided you're up against small numbers of zombies, of course).
As the game progresses, you'll also begin to find much better ways to protect yourself. An upgrade system bestows a number of abilities upon you which will help you to survive on the island. Much like the quest system, the RPG influences are everywhere, from the ability that increases the number of items you can carry to improving your lock-picking skills. There are four characters to chose each with their own back-story and abilities. I went for Purma, a firearms expert, whose main ability 'Guardian' allows her to draw her handgun whenever her fury meter is high enough. Curiously you never need any ammo for these shots. The other characters have their own tree of upgrades that relates to their speciality; there's the aforementioned firearms experts, a sharp weapons expert, a blunt weapon expert and a throwing weapons expert.
There's quite a range of improvised weaponry
Unfortunately, Dead Island does fall for a few gaming clichés. Due to the sparse nature of the zombies, the game will often respawn them time after time in order to make a quest more challenging. Whilst we can understand the need to bump up the zombie population at times, the game ends up in the pattern of making them appear in the same locations every time. At times this can be downright irritating, particularly when you're attempting to break into a building or trying to navigate a platforming sequence (which mainly involve stacking things to reach high ledges) "Oh look, here comes that flaming zombie out of the tunnel yet again." Unfortunately there are deeper problems beneath the covers as I experienced a number of bugs, including zombies walking through scenery objects (such as vehicles) and save games not restoring you anywhere near where you'd expect. Little niggles could be patched out but more jarring are the problems with the engine. On the Xbox 360 version the colour depth was atrocious in some sections, most notably in the menus and some of the darker, internal areas of the island. Even when it isn't suffering from these specific problems, it does have texture and object pop-in issues and generally low-res textures. Granted, it can often look nice and you can get immersed enough into it that you manage ignore those issues, but a lot of the time the visual quality is a little poor.
Dead Island is an interesting game, with an intriguing take on the zombie apocalypse theme. When Dead Island works, it works really well, managing to create an atmosphere of tension that makes exploration a tense yet exciting adventure. It even supports drop-in, drop-out co-op that allows you take take on the island with up to three of your friends. Multiplayer co-op was clearly a focus here as the lot of the action is geared towards having an ally to back you up and many of the menu options have multiplayer-specific hooks. Unfortunately, the game's occasional bugs and the patterns that it can fall into reflect an overall lack of polish. It feels like Techland was in such a rush to get this out the door that some things were missed out the way out. However, if you can ignore these faults then what you'll find waiting for you is an intriguing and unique first person zombie game.