Dead Island review

It's big, it's messy, it's unique - an ambitious, shaky experiment

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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

DescriptionDead Rising meets Left 4 Dead. With added suncream.
Platform"PS3","Xbox 360","PC"
US censor rating"Mature","Mature","Mature"
UK censor rating"18+","18+","18+"
Release date1 January 1970 (US), 1 January 1970 (UK)
Matthew Keast
My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.