Game Reviews

Dead Island Review

by William Schwartz
Dead Island

What do you get when you take one massive and beautiful resort destination, fill it to the brim with flesh eating zombies, then set a player loose on a quest to escape with their life?  You get Techland’s latest in Dead Island. This genre mashup takes familiar gameplay mechanics and sets them to the tune of the zombie apocalypse.  Put your finger on the pulse of Dead Island and you’ll find that the game is many things.  It’s a horrifyingly violent game, filled with enough blood and dismemberment to last you a gaming lifetime.  It’s a game that’ll have you scouring your surroundings looking for things to aid you in your survival and defense, as any good zombie game should.  It’s a role playing game, a survival horror game, a first person hack and slash, and a shooter.  Dead Island is unlike any zombie game I’ve ever played, this is certain.

Dead Island is a strange game in the sense that it is extremely deep.  There are heavy ties to the RPG genre, with the game asking the player to manage many resources.  This includes upgrading and managing weapons, inventory, and facilitating  these activities by looting the island for everything and anything you can get your hands on.  It’s a game where you can go anywhere and do anything you like within reason, but it’s also a game that will provide you with enough questing to keep you busy for the greater part of thirty hours, and quite possibly more.  A zombie survival game has never had this sort of depth before that’s for sure.

In it’s basic layout, these quests are your main ticket to earning upgrades, new weapons, cash, and other goodies that help you strengthen your character in a number of ways.  Quest givers can be found throughout the island, and they’ll range in difficulty as well as reward.  The mission structure of Dead Island is fairly straight forward.  Accept a quest, and a series of way-points will show you exactly where the points of interest are to be found, this will then leave you a trail of bread crumbs on your mini-map to help you get there.  The game isn’t quite linear, so you can pick and choose which missions you want to play, and which survivors you want to help according to preference or reward.  Like many RPG’s Dead Island will allow you to travel down multiple paths to get to the same result.  A main quest line is offered, but there are plenty of side missions to perform in the process, even if they do little to further the narrative of the game.

For the most part, these quests are simple fetch quests,  whether they take place within the confines of the side missions or the main plot line.  They almost all feature you taking down an assortment of zombies on your way to grab an item, locate a person, or complete a task.   Where you find zombies, you’ll be in for a fight.  The combat will have you dealing with swarms of zombies that are loitering in most areas that you need to access for quests. Many of the games missions are structured very similarly with multiple zombies and a mini-boss style fight with a more formidable zombie known as a Thug.  Simple button presses (or mouse clicks in my case) will have you flailing whatever weapon you have equipped, and these weapons can be anything that is deemed usable by the game.

In your travels you will find many things that can be used as weapons.  Busted pipes, broom handles, diving knifes, hat racks, there are plenty of things that can be used to fend off the zombies that have infested Banoi, but they don’t last forever.   You’ll constantly need to be mindful of your weapon’s condition as the more you use it, the weaker it’ll get. At which point you’ll need the necessary cash and workbench to perform repairs to said item before it will regain effectiveness.  Preparing for a mission, it’s usually a good idea to repair your weapons and perform any upgrades that you can afford to give your weapons more power or durability for the tough fight ahead.  Whether you are on a specific mission or not, zombies can be found throughout the island just hanging out, eating people, and groaning.  Taking them down will earn you XP, as well as any drops they might leave behind, which is usually cash.  Between looting these zombie corpses and rifling through the remnants of Banoi pre-zombie apocalypse, you can keep a steady stream of cash coming in, and you’ll need it to keep your weapons in good enough shape to handle the increasingly difficult zombies that level with your character.  The XP system is quite familiar.  With each of the four characters having a unique skill progression, you’ll spend points on a talent tree to upgrade your character to best suit your playstyle. Points are earned each time you level up and can have a big impact on what you can and can’t deal with in the heat of battle.

Combat itself will have you at many times fighting off one slowly moving zombie at a time.  There’s a very methodical pace to the combat, one that gives you time to target specific body parts of your enemy in many circumstances.  When you do, you can manage critical strikes which injure the zombies by breaking bones and rendering a limb inoperable if using a blunt force weapon.  If using a bladed weapon, you can hack off arms, legs, and even heads for a quick kill.  There’s plenty of gore in the combat of Dead Island, whether it be the cracking of a zombie’s arm and watching it flail around like a noodle, or the dismemberment aspect, which can be brutally violent to perform.  Getting a critical head strike will see a zombie’s head slice clean off, or erupt into bits and pieces of what was once a skull.  This solo style combat happens alot, because it’s best to avoid fighting the zombies off in large packs, but there are times when you can’t avoid fighting a group of them.  Careful placement in these crucial moments when being attacked by a group is helpful in staying alive, but not easy to do because of some weirdness in the controls, which I’ll get to later.

The island of Banoi is massive, and in your adventure you’ll come across hundreds of non-playable characters that will all need your help in one form or another.  As mentioned there’s no shortage of content in content or characters in Dead Island.  Quests will take you to remote locations on the resort, and as the game branches out, so does Banoi.  The starting area for the game is big enough to be a game in itself, and as you progress through the acts of the story, you’ll open up areas that range from the lush environments of the resort, to infested city streets. For the most part Dead Island’s environments are a pleasure to look at, they set a great atmosphere for the game.  The multiple areas of the island give the game’s acts a distinct feel in each.

Putting it all together, Dead Island has plenty of memorable moments for the zombie killing aficionado.  Crafting the ultimate zombie slaying tools and using them however you deem appropriate is fun times indeed.  There is plenty of fun to be had in Dead Island, the zombie killing sandbox aspects will have you dispatching the undead in more ways than you ever imagined, if you decide to get creative.  These fun times can double for those of you who choose to utilize the game’s co-op gameplay features. There you can play with up to three other players.  If you were a fan of the way Gearbox implemented co-op in Borderlands, then you’ll be extremely pleased with the way Deep Silver has handled it for Dead Island.  It’s drop-in, drop-out so you’ll always have people to play with, but do note players will need to be at the same point in the game to use the save features.  Without the saves, you’ll still get to keep any loot or XP earned in the co-op mode.  Drawing the Borderlands parallel, it looks like Dead Island didn’t learn from the mistakes that Gearbox made with that co-op masterpiece, so it’ll be in your best interest to play with a group and try not to race ahead.

With so much to do in Dead Island, so many systems to navigate, places to see, and zombies to kill, Deep Silver had a tall order to make all of these things gel into a cohesive experience that is ultimately fun to play.  The game’s sheer size and scope is something to marvel at, but unfortunately when you get down to business in Dead Island, the game just isn’t very fun.  In fact, it can be quite tedious, mediocre, and at times very boring.  There is one distinguishing trait that zombie and survival games share that make them fun to play.  The overwhelming experience of fighting the undead as they inch their way closer to their overall goal,  killing you.  In Dead Island, the action sequences simply aren’t intense enough to really even raise an eyebrow.  In most circumstances you can actually avoid combat for the most part.  The zombies that have taken over the island don’t seem to do much but stand in their pre-determined places, eating the same corpses whether you are on your first play-through or 20 hours in.  With areas containing what is likely a pre-determined population of the creatures, each glorified fetch quest mission never really feels all that important.

I suppose that Deep Silver figured that to add in degrading weapons and stamina, players would feel more desperation, but it doesn’t really end up working in that way.  Workbenches where you can repair you weapons, and upgrade them whenever needed, usually seem to pop up if you ever run into the problem. It just makes the whole upgrade and degradation system pretty pointless in my opinion. With the real substance in Dead Island being the combat aspect, some more variety would have also been nice.

At the onset of the game, and likely for the first five to six hours, Dead Island is kind of fun if just for the combat.  As you progress, you find that the game never really expands on itself, or rewards you for getting any better.  You will be fighting the same types of fights, against the same types of zombies, throughout the whole game.  As you level your character, you will face harder enemies, yes.  But, the combat never really turns into any thing more than a point and click affair, with some added strategy to conserve weapon durability. This strategy is basically making the painfully boring choice to kick  zombies while they are on the ground, instead of using your weapon.  The combat is literally hit and miss.  The game gives little explanation as to why you just completely whiffed with a zombie standing right in front of you.  On the other hand, there are times where you’ll get a lucky shot on an enemy that was seemingly out of reach.  These unpredictable results in the combat can lead to plenty of restarts in the game, which thankfully are quick and painless.  I found in my playthroughs that there were many times when I would get stuck in an area only to be teleported to my destination after dying.  It felt kind of cheap, and to those engaged by the game,  I could see that being a big tension breaker.

The game is ambitious, there’s no doubt about that.  The dullness in the quests, mediocre characters, and fairly light story development,  just leave you wanting more from the game.  Techland’s proprietary Chrome Engine which is responsible for the graphics in the game, renders a beautiful island.  Although,  there are quite a few texture and animation uglies that rear their heads from start to finish.  The minutiae of the game is what really stands out as bad in Dead Island.  The thousands of little things that go into a game as massive as Dead Island needed a lot more polish in my opinion.  On a macro level Dead Island is fantastic, the game has features and depth that you wish for from more games.  On a micro level, Dead Island can be downright preposterous.  There’s literally a list of hundreds of things that I can say that I didn’t like about Dead Island, and wish could be better.  Ultimately, it’s the lack of polish on Dead Island’s many features that hold the game from being great.   It’s just staggering that so many things can go unattended to, especially when the game is so good in some aspects.

The Verdict

Dead Island is a game that tries to do too much and pays the price in the end for not doing anything exceptionally well.  Resources that were spread far and wide across the game’s many systems and  nuances, probably could have been better used to focus on at least one aspect of the game in which Techland could hang its hat.  Sadly, this is not the case.  Busted systems, questionable combat, and a storyline that can lull you to sleep times, left me wanting more from the game.  That’s not to say there isn’t some level of enjoyment to be had with Dead Island.  The character progression and the creative aspects of the game do offer some reprieve from the monotony, it’s just not enough to overcome some of the game’s glaring deficiencies.

- This article was updated on:December 4th, 2017

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Dead Island

  • Available On: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
  • Published By: Deep Silver
  • Developed By: Techland
  • Genre: Action RPG
  • US Release Date: September 6th, 2011
  • Reviewed On: Xbox 360
  • Quote: "Dead Island is a game that tries to do too much and pays the price in the end for not doing anything exceptionally well."
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