Deep Silver’s action take on the zombie game sub-genre received many raised eyebrows with its unique and emotional reverse-timeline trailer earlier this year. Immediately, fans of the undead began eagerly anticipating the game, sweaty-palmed and salivating, while those who had had their fill of shuffling/sprinting corpses shook their heads in quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) capitulation. Regardless of which camp you have sworn allegiance to, Dead Island comes through with flying colors, delivering an intense experience that’s as gritty and frantic as it is beautiful to behold.
Dead Island gives players a choice of four main characters to control: the undercover Hong Kong cop Xiang Mei, the washed-up rapper Sam B, has-been NFL football player Logan, or police-office-turned-bodyguard Purna. The characters effectively function like quasi-classes, with each individual having slightly altered base stats and each specializing in a certain weapon type (blunt, sharp, firearms, etc) with matching skill trees.
Stats and skill trees are two examples in how Dead Island combines RPG elements into its action-driven gameplay. The core gameplay revolves around picking up and completing quests, which are typically centered around either survival on the island or escape from it. Completing quests, killing enemies (or maiming them in creative ways) net experience points, which serve to level your character. Along the way, a wide variety of weapons and items used for trading or creating new items can be found; weapons come in different tiers familiar to the RPG crowd (standard whites, greens, blues, and purples) and can be upgraded at special workbenches to receive even higher stat boosts. In short, the game design shares many similarities with 2009’s acclaimed Borderlands. This is an important point to stress; if you’re not comfortable with playing Borderlands set on an island paradise with zombies, then you may want to look elsewhere for your undead fix.
A Kodak Moment
On the graphical front, Dead Island simply looks amazing. The fictional resort island of Banoi lends itself beautifully for lush and vibrant vistas. During the early stages of the game that take place on the hotel grounds with its tiki bars, beaches, secluded bays and swimming pools, the color palette frequently alternates between two extremes. On one hand, the luxuriant greens and blues of an island paradise, drenched with the deep and vivid reds of blood and gore. On the other, the game has, at times, a kind of washed-out, sun-bleached effect. Even during later parts of the game, when you leave the beach-side jungles behind and head all over the island, the graphics remain admirable, even if for no other reason than the attention to detail in the environments.
As impressive as the outdoors look in Dead Island (during Act I, there is a distant storm often visibly and sometimes audibly brewing; during Act II the weather actually introduces a rain cycle with abrupt starts and stops – very tropical!), it’s a shame that the same cannot be said for the (once)/ human denizens of the island. You’d expect zombies to have a pallid, gray and generally unhealthy glow to them, but even those without a hunger for flesh and brains often sport a mottled, plastic complexion, and in some cut-scene close-ups are just horrid to look at.
Banoi is a huge, decaying playground ravaged by an unnatural catastrophe, and signs of human struggle are evident everywhere. During your exploration of the island’s nooks and crannies, you may stumble upon a secluded and fenced-off shack that served some unlucky soul as a last stand, or a hastily constructed scaffold that leads to a few abandoned picnic chairs and stacks of bricks where some poor bastard had a few rounds of undead target practice not too long ago. As a true sandbox game, Dead Island encompasses miles upon miles of terrain, and large tracts of it are available right at the game’s outset. Loading times are few and far between; for the most part, you’re free to just go where you wish without hassle. But be warned: the zombie hordes are everywhere, and a miscalculated step around the wrong corner can and will land you in a world of trouble.
What You Can’t See…
It’s hard to say much about the music in the game, because there is (wisely) so little of it. Generally, unless near a radio, you’ll spend your time listening for the shuffling and groaning of walking corpses, or the sound of a few of the poor devils who are making lunch out of a fresh kill. This ramps up quickly, however, in Act II, when the low grunts are and growls are shattered at constant intervals by rage-filled screams that echo off the walls and fill your world for a few heart-stopping moments. It’s times like these when you realize that this isn’t just your average, run-of-the-mill zombie infestation; there is real menace here, and it starts to saturate the game, turning it into a more and more unsettling and uneasy experience. There were a few particularly terrifying moments where my character, running at full speed and panting heavily, was trying in vain to summon the strength to clamber up a couple of dumpsters and over a brick wall to safety, all the while hearing the piercing shrieks of an approaching swarm of zombies hot on my tail and scrabbling at my heels (and some, like the newly-turned Infected, do move fast as hell!).
The voice acting in the game, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. Being an international resort, the survivors on Banoi speak in all manner of accents and dialects. This sometimes leads to some unintentionally over-the-top moments, particularly from the game’s four playable protagonists. For example, Sam B’s urban take on the southern drawl can be a bit much to stomach, to say nothing of the foreign accents of some of the others. A welcome counterpoint to this are the (very few and far between) audio recordings you stumble across, featuring the unmistakable tones of Cam Clarke as a reporter who was on the trail of some mysterious (possibly related to the zombie outbreak) happenings on Banoi, and ends up caught up in the early stages of the outbreak itself. It’s well-produced moments of horror like these where you can really see how much fun the team at Deep Silver had with the game!
Friends? Who Needs Friends?
I would be amiss to not give a mention to the game’s multiplayer system. Moving away from multiplayer game modes and specialized maps, the game instead lets you team up with others in your current campaign. Removing the need for a separate match-finding lobby screen, the designers have opted instead for a message displayed on-screen anytime another player with similar story progress as you is nearby, giving you the option to join their game with a simple button tap. While a streamlined and incredibly simple system, I found getting into multiplayer groups to be disadvantageous for my enjoyment of the game. On multiple occasions, after exiting a co-op group, I found my quest log to have changed without my knowledge, either adding a quest or two I didn’t pick up, or fast-forwarding me through another quest that one of my partners had apparently already finished. Even worse, you do not get a say in whether another player joins you or not; at one point, being in a safe place away from any possible harm, I left my spot on the couch to visit the facilities for a few minutes. When I returned, I found that in my absence someone had joined my game, completed the quest I had been about to embark upon, and left again, leaving my character standing in a completely different place, and me having not a clue as to what plots points I had just missed out on.
Death Ain’t Pretty
Dead Island does offer up a seedy underbelly beneath the beautiful gloss of its environments and its frantic fight-for-survival combat. One offender is its respawning system. Should you fall in battle (and you will!), a few seconds will see you placed back near the spot where you expired. Unfortunately, this isn’t always reliable, as a few times I was made to trek for quite a while to get back to the site of my demise, and other times I was dumped unceremoniously at the exact same spot, right amid the same gnashing and clawing horde that had just torn me to shreds seconds earlier. Needless to say, within a matter of moments I was once again ripped to ribbons, and this cycle repeated a few more times until I was finally able to run far enough away to escape.
Another, more unforgivable, flaw is the design of some of the game’s side missions, especially early on in the game. The main story missions are usually interesting and revolve furthering the cause of Banoi’s survivors in some meaningful way. But it was laughable to get mission after mission early on in the game that revolved around finding a misplaced necklace or fetching some alcohol to treat a hangover. One mission went so far as to send me all over the place to retrieve a lost teddy bear! I’m sorry, but aren’t we in a fucking zombie apocalypse here?!
Finally, the game has very limited legs to stand on once it’s completed. As mentioned before, the four playable characters have different weapon affinities, stats, and skill trees, but apart from what weapon each prefers to use they play essentially the same. The story does not change one bit depending on who you choose to play as; in fact, in many of the game’s cutscenes, all four characters show up, and it is implied that, while you control one, they travel together as a group. Even the game’s introduction, when your character wakes up in his or her hotel room, is exactly the same no matter who you’ve chosen to play as. It really seems that this was a lost opportunity on the part of the developers.
The Final Verdict
Dead Island proves to be an incredibly entertaining title full of gorgeous scenery and intense action. While it treats some zombie-outbreak tropes with a tongue-in-cheek mentality, like a lack of any rhyme or reason to why the dead have suddenly begun to reanimate for much of the game, it instead succumbs to other equally common complaints with the genre, like many survivors wanting to stay alone in their shelters instead of joining the larger group and some facepalm moments in mission design. However, it provides a large open playground, and offers a world that I look forward to revisiting again and again, much more than Borderlands ever did (kicking a zombie to the bottom of a swimming pool and watching it drown because it’s too stupid to hold its breath underwater and too slow to get back up quickly never gets old!). Despite a rocky start on the PC with the wrong version being released, reports of some questionable developer attitudes, and a multiplayer system that I’ve learned to avoid, the single-player campaign is well worth a visit to the island of Banoi.