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Dead Island review

Solid
AT A GLANCE
  • Absolutely huge in scope
  • Fun, unique combat
  • Scary and tense in unexpected ways
  • Slightly outstays its welcome
  • Seriously problematic bugs
  • Sometimes looks very ugly

What a strange, difficult to classify game Dead Island is. It’s a zombie game. It’s first-person melee-focused. It’s in a tropical setting. It’s an RPG. Wait, what? Yes, I would classify Dead Island as an RPG. A first-person melee zombie survival-horror RPG, but an RPG nonetheless. You earn XP, build up skill trees, take quests from NPCs, and can even grind zombies to level up if you want. It’s enormous and lengthy – it took me over twenty-eight hours to complete and I didn’t even explore the entire world or do all the side-quests. It’s a sprawling, ambitious foray into trying to do something new with zombies, and it succeeds in being new, but its ambition also outstrips its execution. Dead Island is just a bit too big for its raggedy, rotten-flesh-smelling britches.

Above: A simple oar is a great early weapon because it has reach. You'll have to mind your stamina, though - heavier weapons use more stamina, and if you run out your attacks will be worthless

The setting is the sun-bleached resort island of Banoi, with a mysterious outbreak of zombism ruining everyone’s vacation. The initial tone is unusual and refreshing in its inherent contradiction: everything is beautiful and tranquil (and banal with its corny resort decorations), but danger oozes through the tranquility. Zombies aren’t exactly everywhere, at least in the traditional sense – there aren’t vast hordes of them like in Dead Rising. That’s because these zombies are not fodder for your machetes, baseball bats, and meat cleavers. Each one can deal significant damage and take plenty of it in turn, so a group of four zombies can put you in a world of hurt quickly. It means that when you’re traversing the peaceful resort you’ll be snapping your head around like a nervous deer at every moan and groan, and the zombies have a habit of hiding behind shrubbery until you’re right on top of them – a smart design element that circumvents the problem of a sunny setting revealing all before your eyes.

It will dawn on you early in the game that what you’re playing isn’t quite like anything you’ve played before. Sure, the game cobbles together ideas from numerous sources, but the whole feels new, and you always feel like you’re playing Dead Island rather than an imitator: it’s not just Left 4 Dead combined with Far Cry with a sprinkling of Dead Rising. While the basics of the melee combat may be reminiscent of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay or the Condemned series, the rhythm and pacing of it doesn’t feel quite like those other games, and there are significant additions, like weapon throwing, which make the combat truly unlike what most games make boringly familiar.

One of Dead Island’s great strengths is that it wants to surprise you, but it’s patient – it’s not concerned with grabbing you and constantly shaking you with novelty, saying “Hey! Look at me! Pay attention to the millions of things I’m throwing at you!” Not that I don’t like rapid-fire ideas: Mario Galaxy is one of my favorite games of all time precisely because it never lets up with new things to show you. Dead Island just happens to understand the satisfaction of a slow burn. It also understands that surprises increase in effect when you’re first lulled into a state of familiarity. The game takes its sweet time letting you think you know what it plans for you, and then it changes dramatically. You’ll be sure you’re going to spend the whole game in a sunny beachside resort, but then the setting changes to something much darker and more threatening (which I won’t give away). The game also gradually surprises with its character progression.

Above: Guns do exist in Dead Island, but the ways in which you acquire them may surprise you

The four playable characters seem quite similar early on, but over time they diverge until each one feels very different. Sam B, the blunt weapons expert with the most health, has a plodding, crunching, in-your-face style that becomes increasingly gruesome and brutal until you’re one-shotting zombies with a swing of a sledgehammer and watching their heads explode in a wonderful shower red jelly and brains. Xian is the sharp weapons specialist, which means she’s agile and performs ridiculously rapid stabs with various knives, so if you like the idea of turning zombie faces into Swiss Cheese, she will be appealing. Purna is the firearms expert, and due to the game’s overarching design, she has the potential to change the most in her playstyle: for many hours you won’t come across a single gun, so you’ll have to rely on melee combat for quite a while and you’ll be wondering why the hell you picked a firearms expert in a game with no firearms. The beautiful thing is that later on, guns become plentiful, so if you play as Purna, the game will suddenly change from a melee combat game to a first-person shooter – but only if you want, because you can still use a combination of melee and firearms if you wish.

While I dabbled with all four characters, I played through the game as Logan, the throwing expert, because he sounded like a particularly unusual way to play a zombie game, and I wasn’t disappointed. I mean, have you ever played a first-person thrower? I sure haven’t, so it was a great change of pace from most games I normally play: I spent a huge portion of the game throwing axes, baseball bats, knives, sickles, and even katana swords at zombies. Throwing can actually be done by any character, and is an extremely powerful and important part of your arsenal of moves, but I’ll bet a lot of non-Logan players will probably forget to use the throw or not realize its potential. Keeping zombies at a distance has obvious benefits, but throws also don’t degrade weapons, which means if you don’t ever throw weapons, you’ll be repairing them a lot.

Above: Other survivors provide quests, and some of them have interesting, funny, or (almost) touching stories to tell

A character’s skill trees change how you play as you progress. At first, I couldn’t afford to throw weapons much because I only had a few weapons and after a few throws I’d be defenseless. Each character has three skill trees: Fury, Combat, and Survival. I chose to level up Survival first, and it allowed me to start throwing like a madman early on. I purchased skills that increased my inventory, giving me more stuff to throw, but I also got the Boomerang skill, which provides a percentage chance that any throw will return the weapon to your hand. After a while, I could literally make 20-30 throws in a row before I ran out of weapons. It was hilarious after beating a Thug zombie, which takes boatloads of damage, and manually pulling out ten swords from the corpse’s face. I really enjoyed the throwing gameplay – it’s slower and more methodical than playing a shooter, it has risks (you have to pick up the weapons and even have to track them down in the environment if you miss), and it has a beautiful chunkiness to the feel, especially when you land critical hits and the game goes all slo-mo while a zombie crumples and spurts blood.

Dead Island is audacious in its scope – you may think an island means a small play area, but it is staggeringly massive. It features hundreds of weapons, plus the ability to combine various scraps of seemingly useless loot (“Deodorant? Why would I need that… oh I can make a BOMB out of it?”), and it presents sweeping changes in tone, becoming increasingly tense and scary. Yet, the scope is also a big problem in the game. Let’s go back to my character’s throwing specialty. Remember that nearly all of his skills encourage liberal throwing of weapons. I mentioned the risk of losing a weapon by missing a zombie and then not finding the weapon again. Yet there are bugs – copious bugs – which make his primary skill problematic for any player who likes to hold onto precious weapons. See, weapons can get stuck in the ground, where you can see them sticking out, but you can’t pick them up. Weapons will just mysteriously disappear, probably completely fallen through the ground. Here’s a real kicker, though: dying in the game doesn’t load a previous checkpoint – instead, you just instantly respawn and lose some money. However, there were times when I threw all of my inventory into a special zombie, died, and then all of my weapons despawned. I’m talking about weapons I collected over hours of play, then spent thousands and thousands of cash to upgrade and modify them, and poof, gone forever. This may sound like a downright game-breaking issue, but it’s really not – I was able to re-acquire an arsenal fairly easily, but it’s irritating and if you’re the hoarding type of player it could ruin things for you.

Above: Molotovs and other explosives like grenades are extremely powerful, able to wipe out groups of even special zombies in a single shot. If you save them up they can save you from situations where the bugs of the game can get you into trouble

There are more bug/design problems, and they aren’t minor. There is going to be a day-one patch that will fix many issues, but based on the notes it won’t fix a lot of them. The biggest issue the game faces is its death system. It makes sense why it doesn’t load a checkpoint – it’s to support the co-op play, but the game auto-saves over your game when you die. You can’t control it, and this leads to the aforementioned loss of weapons, but if you’re not a throwing style character, you’ll also face deterioration of your weapons, and the game saves that state when you die, so it’s possible to get into a tough scenario, wear all your weapons down to uselessness, and be totally stuck with nothing. I need to warn you about a particular point in the game where this can completely stop your progress – it happens in Chapter 14, when you are escorting an NPC (I won’t spoil the story of it). The NPC gets swarmed by zombies, and if he dies, you’ll reload the checkpoint (a rare occurrence in the game), but your weapons will remain deteriorated/lost from throws, while the zombies respawn with full health. This means unless you beat the section on the first try, it will become increasingly difficult until it’s literally impossible to beat without exploiting the AI. Note that this wasn’t a problem only I encountered: I spoke to another reviewer who had the exact same thing happen to them.

The day-one patch notes address that specific scenario by reducing the zombies and buffing the health of the NPC, but it doesn’t fix an inherent problem in Dead Island: the save system, which progressively strips you of limited resources. Then there are the other buggy problems: the graphics load slowly when you enter a new area, presenting ugly, ultra-blurry textures. The quest tracking system on your radar can get confused and tell you to go completely the wrong way. There’s a bizarre moment, hours into the game, that if you’ve been playing solo the whole time, suddenly there’s a cutscene showing all four playable characters and they talk to each other as if you’ve been playing co-op the whole time. There are also numerous other minor annoyances – some of which will probably be fixed in the day-one patch, but certainly not all of them.

Above: The special zombies are truly special events, because they take way more damage to kill than the regular guys. You'll learn to recognize their vocalizations, and they will chill your bones

The co-op of Dead Island, like the game as a whole, has strong points and weak points. Working together to beat zombies to death is hilarious. Coordinating to call out threats and use Fury attacks is quite fun. Yet there are some hurdles to enjoying the co-op. There’s the length: can you get friends to play thirty hours of a game with you? I also discovered that you need to stay relatively close in character levels, because if a low level player enters a high-level player’s game, the zombies will all be way beyond the low-level character’s power. Since it’s really an RPG, friends will have to wait possibly minutes at a time as one person fiddles around at a workbench or store purchasing, selling, and upgrading items. As long as you have patience, though, the co-op could provide a fantastic experience, but it’s not necessary if you want to play solo – the game is worth playing alone, too.

If the development team hadn’t aimed to create such an enormous game, Dead Island could have been a polished, inarguably amazing experience. As it is, it’s a difficult game to love. Yet it has brilliant ideas, unique gameplay, and a surprising sweep of tone as you realize the island is much more than a sunny resort and there are much more terrifying enemies than lurching undead women in bikinis. If you’ve been interested in this game, you should definitely play it, because it will satisfy many of your expectations, delight you with impressive twists, and obviously give you your money’s worth if you think games are too short these days. However, you’ll need to be ready for some serious frustrations and various quirks. The game’s foundation is utterly unique, hypnotically compelling, and seriously scary in weird ways horror games don’t normally pull off, and if it had been more polished I would have given it a higher score. It really is an unfinished game, though, and its problems are not minor annoyances. I really, really enjoyed playing the game for most of its humongous play time, but it also brought spectacular bouts of frustration. The question to ask yourself is: is scope and flair more important, or polish? For me, the ambition was enough to call the game good, but it wasn’t quite enough for greatness.

Sept 5, 2011

More Info

Release date: Sep 06 2011 - PS3, Xbox 360, PC (US)
Sep 09 2011 - PS3, Xbox 360, PC (UK)
Available Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Genre: Action
Published by: Deep Silver
Developed by: Techland
ESRB Rating:
Mature: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol
PEGI Rating:
18+

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102 comments

  • so|_us_|gn|s - September 5, 2011 5:46 p.m.

    hmm, maybe the next Brink, over hyped but stumbles. I'll prolly get it if it is fun. Unlike Breach its genre isn't overcrowded.
  • Lando81 - September 5, 2011 6:37 p.m.

    There seems to be a difference between this and Brink. This is actually playable and enjoyable.
  • McSpermie - September 5, 2011 5:53 p.m.

    What a disappointment... Not that this game is bad or anything, just that it could have been a contender for GOTY if it was handled correctly.
  • Tazerbri - September 5, 2011 5:54 p.m.

    HOW IS THIS WORSE THAN REACH???? BIAS!!!! Yeah, I'm still going to use that joke. Don't Hate. I'm kinda burned out on Zombie games for now, but it seems interesting.
  • Redeater - September 5, 2011 6:03 p.m.

    Your free to keep that unfunny reference alive but please don't refer to it as a "joke".
  • IChooseUAntistaMON - September 5, 2011 6:14 p.m.

    You're doing it wrong... It is suppose to be "this is better than Reach??"
  • SVC5 - September 5, 2011 5:55 p.m.

    Im getting this no doubt. I love the who zombie-RPG thing they went with in this game. On my list of games to get.
  • DaveGoose - September 5, 2011 5:56 p.m.

    Can\t wait for the Secret Island DLC pack
  • Redeater - September 5, 2011 5:59 p.m.

    I remember reading a review for this and it mentioned that it was pretty much the most realistic experience you will have for an actual zombie outbreak. I think that is enough to warrant a buy for me. I was really hoping it would turn out better though. It's funny though that this comes out on the heels of Deus Ex. That was a game that had a lot of polish to back up it's potential while this game had great potential and it was clearly a rush job.
  • Cyberninja - September 5, 2011 6 p.m.

    I may get this later.
  • Helios - September 5, 2011 6:03 p.m.

    I think that, based on this review, the good outweigh the bad. Sure, the bad things mentioned could get annoying and irritating, and they are definitely enough to knock the game down a few points, but the concept is just so awesome, I'll probably still pick this game up some day.
  • IChooseUAntistaMON - September 5, 2011 6:13 p.m.

    Only one comment, I am f**cking pumped for this after school im gonna get it with my friends
  • kingsmikefan - September 5, 2011 6:18 p.m.

    Outstanding review, Matty Keast. Very clear, concise, and descriptive. I like how you basically describe your own playthrough. Hope you're on TalkRadar to talk about it.
  • waitingforCharlietosnap - September 5, 2011 6:19 p.m.

    I'll wait a bit, I think, save my money for now, but I don't think I'll wanna let it drop off my radar (seems to be more or less the consensus, at this point).
  • MouseKlok - September 5, 2011 6:24 p.m.

    It is an absurdity that games are released with such bugs. I don't care if you miss your release date. Just make the game playable without a day one patch.
  • Gex4212 - September 5, 2011 7:38 p.m.

    Because everything is a business... You have contracts and you deadlines..minor bugs are going to push back a game. Besides they are having a Day one Patch. 90% of games dont even come out with day one patches.
  • TheCakeIsaPie - September 6, 2011 10:30 a.m.

    True, most games do come out with patches that fix bugs, but that doesn't make it OK (read Dave's article for more). Valve releases all of their games bug-free, and still makes a profit. Why can't Deep Silver?
  • ArbokDaKobra - September 5, 2011 6:29 p.m.

    Damn, well now i'm really reconsidering buying this or not, I was all pumped for tomorrow. But now i think i'll save my money and get something else down the line.
  • Lando81 - September 5, 2011 6:31 p.m.

    You know. Because 7 means it's absolutely terrible and no one should play it ever.
  • insidiousFox - September 6, 2011 11:17 a.m.

    That's not at all what he was saying. The bugs/glitches in this article do in fact sound heavy enough to be a reason to not purchase the game right away, at full price.

Showing 1-20 of 102 comments

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