By Daniel Murtha
Entering Dead Island, I had very few preconceived notions about what the game would be like. I hadn't watched any gameplay trailers or read anything about it, and it generally just flew under my radar. Sometimes it's fun to play these types of games, as one can be pleasantly surprised or find something you despise with a passion. With a lot of the larger release games, watching trailers or reading previews can color your impression of a game before you even play it. I had none of these issues with Dead Island. Just a few minutes of conversation with some of my fellow co-hosts was the only information I had on the game previous to playing it.
In Dead Island, you play as one of four different characters, each with their own unique abilities. I chose Xian, the bladed weapons expert who is a receptionist of the Royal Palms Resort on the island of Banoi. After a night of partying your character wakes up in the morning hung-over, and the Hotel seems to be ransacked. You make your way out of the hotel with the help of an anonymous stranger, and out into the beauty and brutality of zombie-infested Banoi. I won’t divulge more of the story, but it's a pretty standard affair for an open world, first person action RPG. Many of the missions involve fetching things, or collecting things, or escorting people to or from a location. Not ground breaking by any means, but enough to keep you interested and feel more as a means to an end, which would be gaining levels. The main story missions involve helping the survivors and investigating the cause of the zombie outbreak. Again, not ground breaking, but interesting enough.
The setting, which is broken up into four main areas: resort, city, jungle, and prison, is probably the best aspect of the game. All four areas have plenty to explore and are vastly different from one another. So as to not give anything away, I'll only talk about the first of these areas, the beach and resort section. By far my favorite area of the game, the resort is a gorgeous location with white sandy beaches, crystal blue water, lush green vegetation and…dead bodies everywhere. It's a rather striking contrast to be walking along a quiet sandy pathway towards some straw bungalows and see a pool filled with bloody water and shredded bodies lying everywhere. Most of the zombies in this area are wearing their bathing suits, indicating they were tourists on vacation, a bad thought for anyone who likes to go on vacation to relax and unwind, only to end up dead. The whole first area makes the game worth playing, as you run into many shocking and sad stories of the tourists and inhabitants of the island who are looking for lost loved ones or ways to get out.
The graphics of Dead Island are pretty good, as I said before the settings are really well done. All locations are fully fleshed out and feel both alive (metaphorically) and lived in. The zombies look good (for being zombies) and people look fine, with no weird animations. There is some screen tearing when the action gets frantic, especially while wildly swinging your weapon at groups of zombies. Not too noticeable, but a minor annoyance.
Anyone that listens to the podcast has an idea of what my feelings are on the gameplay. While the controls are pretty straightforward, the combat can feel sloppy at times. As I said before, I picked the character Xian who is the bladed weapons expert, but I didn't feel like it helped at all. Unless you are touching the zombies, I felt like whether you hit or miss an opponent was completely random. I could swing at two zombies the same distance away and behead one of them and the other wouldn't even be hit. This normally wouldn't be too big of an issue, but the zombies scale to your level and get more powerful as you do. You never really feel like you can get an advantage on the zombies. There is a skill tree with abilities that you can pick, but they didn't feel like they helped all that much. I put most of my points into the survival tree because I felt those abilities, like losing less money when you die, actually helped. At the beginning of the game, it takes four hits from a walker to kill me, and at the end of the game it takes four hits for a walker to kill me. I can understand upping the difficulty, but that felt like a cheap way to make the game more difficult. In Dead Rising, they made the game more difficult by putting a ton more zombies between point A and point B. Dead Island would have been better served doing the same, but maybe was limited by graphical capabilities.
The infected zombies are also ridiculously overpowered. They are the fast ones that chase you down and attack you. If you can see them, a well-aimed kick can stagger them, and a quick blow will dispatch the infected without much trouble. Most of the time however, they came out of seemingly nowhere, and got four or five hits on you before you even knew they were there. In the jungle, I did actually see one spawn right next to me out of thin air, again a cheap way to increase the difficulty curve. I wouldn't have minded seeing the floater, ram, suicider and thug class zombies increase in level, as they were more rare and tough combatants. The infected and walker zombies should have stayed at least approximately the same level throughout the game or the controls should have been tightened up. Either or would have made Dead Island much better. Dying constantly kind of took me out of the game a little bit as you really didn't feel like you were surviving at all. Tough to put yourself in a character that dies five or six times in quick succession fighting the same battle.
The skill tree, other than the survival skills, doesn't really seem to help. The weapons themselves seem like a MUCH larger factor in combat than the skills. Getting the best weapons possible is the best way to keep you competitive against the super powerful zombie attacks. This brings me to my second favorite part of the game, and a main reason to keep playing, weapons customization. I had a blast seeking out the schematics for new weapon modifications and building them. Finding the components to build said improvements is an important part of the game, and the better the improvement the more rare the component. Seemingly every weapon in the game could be upgraded with electricity, fire, poison, even entry level sticks and pipes can be made into deadly weapons with upgrades. You can even make a grenade out of deodorant and duct tape......awesome!
Dead Island's shortcomings weren't enough to keep me from enjoying this game. The setting and weapons upgrading alone are worth the admission for this game, so the decent story and missions make it a solid entry in the zombie survival game market, better than Left 4 Dead, and not quite as good Dead Rising, this game is a definite rent or borrow. Try it out before you buy it, I was able to look past the frustrating controls, as I can imagine a lot of other people did. If you have friends that have it, all the better, because a little help goes a long way.