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Zombies have managed to claw their way back into popularity over a few short years, and now, just about every platform boasts a catalog of zombie games, ranging in genre and target audience. Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising were two pivotal titles in the zombie revitalization, and for many “core” gamers, all other contemporary zombie games are practically influenced by or total copycats of the two.
So when Dead Island kicked its way into the spotlight with its emotionally retching debut trailer, we were determined to compare this newcomer to the games we already knew so well. All the while, Techland insisted this would be unlike any zombie game we had ever played and pointed instead to Borderlands as the closest comparison.
Turns out, they were right. Dead Island brings something entirely new to the zombie-killing table by embracing the RPG elements so prevalent in its design. Underneath the first-person zombie-killing shell is an experience more complex than what we’ve come to expect from this video game sub-genre.
These complexities lie in the game’s RPG structure, such as the open world exploration and character progression system. Players begin the game by choosing one of four playable survivors: Xian Mei, Logan, Sam B, and Purna. Every character comes with a unique backstory and combat style, though very little of their personalities are shown during the game. Additionally, your character choice bears no impact on the overarching story, just how you engage enemies.
Each survivor’s play style coincides with a generic class type that determines their specializations. Xian Mei, for instance, is considered an “assassin” and shows greater expertise with sharp weapons than, say, Purna, who prefers firearms. As a tradeoff for her heightened agility, she cannot sustain as much damage as Logan or Sam B.
Survival & Combat
The folks behind Dead Island have never called their entry for the zombie sub-genre a shooter. Guns are extremely rare on the island, meaning players must scrounge up whatever weapons they can find, be it a boat paddle or kitchen knife. As such, the combat in Dead Island is deeply visceral, constantly pushing you into the thick of battle where the lumbering undead are only an arm’s length away. To offset the perpetually hostile environment, health items are found just about everywhere on the island. Health can only be restored by using consumables like food and medical kits; no, you can’t just sleep your injuries off.
This does force you to carefully consider your actions. Running straight into a group of zombies with only a hammer in hand never ends well, especially once you encounter special infected like Thugs and Suiciders (that name says it all). Thankfully, you start off with a few vital, basic moves like kicking and dodging, even before learning your first skill. Don’t expect to begin the game as a zombie-killing machine. Your survivor evolves over time, and quality weapons are a rarity until the end of Act I. On the bright side, you will never find yourself short of nourishment. Like zombies, items respawn once you leave an area, so it’s fairly easy to farm cheaper recipe materials, energy drinks, and even collectible quest items.
Skill trees are split into Fury, Combat, and Survival, regardless of who you’re playing as, but the specific skills within these trees differ by survivor. Note that the three trees and the skills listed are preset, so character customization is somewhat limited. Weapons, on the other hand, offer up way more options and a deeper level of customization. Workshops located around the island let you repair and upgrade weapons you’ve picked up or purchased around Banoi, but the real fun factor lies in Dead Island’s weapon modding feature.
Blueprints earned through quests or found around the island greatly supplement an already dangerous arsenal by making it possible to mod your weapons or create new ones. These modifications start simple, like nailing tacks into a baseball bat for extra damage, and then grow increasingly outrageous over time, as you begin finding blueprints like Toxic Mod, Shock Mod, and so forth. Several hours into the game, and you’ll be swinging around flaming maces and poisonous machetes.
As you might imagine, the weapons make combat seriously enjoyable, and the way Dead Island does combat is unparalleled by any other contemporary zombie game. Different types of weapons inflict damage differently. Smack a zombie in the arms with a blunt object, and you’ll break its limbs, while a sharp weapon cuts those clean off. Going for the head tends to earn you an instant kill, but more creative players will undoubtedly prefer experimenting with alternate methods. The zombies react accordingly; break both arms on an undead, and it’ll come at you with its teeth, no less determined than before.
Single-player or Co-op?
Dead Island can easily transform from survival horror to action shooter, depending on how many players are present. In single-player, you’re pretty much on your own, with the exception of an occasional NPC for escort missions. The other three survivors won’t show up except in cutscenes, and the game doesn’t offer AI partners like Left 4 Dead. Don’t worry about being overwhelmed, because difficulty is scaled to the number of people in your game. If you’re playing solo, the number of zombies is decreased, and their health bars are significantly shorter. Both factors are increased incrementally with each additional player.
Despite the scaling system, Banoi is no walk in the park for lone wolves. Tackling the outbreak alone transforms Dead Island into a survival horror experience, where every little sound and errant shadow can trigger in you that fight-or-flight response. In co-op, the answer is almost always “fight”, but as a lone survivor, you don’t have a team to watch your flank or distract the enemy for a coordinated assault. Even if you thought ahead and chose one of the beefier characters, taking on three of the weakest zombie types can still kill you.
Couch co-op isn’t supported, so if you’re looking to make Dead Island a group experience, you’ll need to look online. Still, the drop-in/drop-out system works seamlessly, without any noticeable lag or glitches. While in-game, messages pop up in the upper right corner, alerting you to nearby players, which you can join by pressing a single button. The only drawback is, of course, ending up paired with someone who skips vital quest dialogue and hoards all the loot from dead bodies. Quest rewards and XP are retained, however, and any missions you finished in another game will also be completed in your own file.
Questing & Exploring the Island
RPGs often involve helping people who are too lazy to help themselves, though for the NPCs on Banoi, their reluctance is slightly more justified, what with the zombie apocalypse and all. NPCs in every area beg for your aid, handing out quests like searching for missing family members or retrieving supplies for a base location – thematic clichés, for the most part. Primary quests tend to offer the most useful rewards and guide you toward new areas of the map, although side quests do come with their own payoffs. The number of side quests in Dead Island is surprisingly manageable, with enough to keep you occupied but not overwhelmed.
As you discover new locations and regions, fast travel becomes an increasingly useful tool to have, and story progression won’t restrict you to a single map. This means you can always revisit a previous section of Banoi, even after moving on to a new Act in the story. The island is actually split into multiple maps, broken down for the player’s convenience, and you won’t be able to fully grasp the scope of Banoi until Act II. Vehicles act as viable means of transportation, and the driving mechanics in Dead Island are surprisingly smooth; and hey, cars make excellent battering rams against even the toughest zombies.
Bear in mind, you will encounter a few annoyances while out and about. Practically every door you come across will be jammed, and opening these doors brings up a needlessly tedious quick time event, involving a fast-moving meter, your analog stick, and excellent timing. Failing the QTE still allows you to break through a barricaded door, though it eats up more time. After sitting through this process five or six times, it’ll start to test your nerves, and doors you’ve previously broken may be locked again when you revisit.
Unlike the overhead map, Dead Island’s mini-map and array of menus aren’t nearly as polished as they could be. The mini-map is a must-have, but the quest guides displayed in it are confusing to follow. Indicators along the circular edge do little except provide a general direction, and the breadcrumb trail leading to your destination can easily lead you astray, resulting in regular detours and aimless wandering – it’s not like you can stop and ask the locals for directions. As far as menus go, we’ve all seen worse, but the inventory would greatly benefit from clearer categories and better organization.
Visuals & Audio
Dead Island effectively captures the beauty you’d expect from a tropical paradise, which should tell you everything you need to know about the game’s aesthetic quality. Textures can run on the plain side, especially when simulating synthetic materials like plastic and metal, but the game is mercifully free of pop-in textures. For the most part, the environments are properly – sometimes beautifully – rendered, though rampant clipping can be a major eyesore. Leaves tend to encroach upon indoor spaces from the outside, and bodies start overlapping with objects once they begin piling up.
Dramatic lighting does wonders for the overall atmosphere and can easily distract you from whatever other visual shortcomings the game suffers from. Dimly lit spaces and eerie shadows keep you focused on the dangers around your survivor, and you’ll likely be too busy searching for useful items to dwell on any visual flaws.
The sounds of Dead Island also deserve a special mention, because of how brilliantly appropriate they are. While exploring the island, you’ll rarely hear anything more than your own footsteps, occasionally interrupted by a tropical bird or the approaching storm clouds. Then the zombies come, and you will often hear them before actually seeing any; low, steady moans or a sudden howl yanking you from another peaceful lull. The background music is just that, creeping beneath the sights and sounds of Banoi, yet its presence is integral to the entire horror experience. Most players will probably never consciously acknowledge its effects, but that’s the entire point. Unfortunately, dialogue is mostly lackluster.
Although lacking a bit of polish, Dead Island offers an unbelievably robust experience for zombie fans. The amount of content Techland has crammed into this gorgeous island paradise is staggering, ensuring hours upon hours of gameplay. You could easily pour 40-something hours into a single playthrough, before diving into New Game+ for additional entertainment.
On their own, the gameplay elements supporting Dead Island are far from original, but as with many cross-genre titles, originality is born from the artful manner in which these elements are combined. The premise of the game is one we’ve heard many times before, and the story lacks significant narrative impact. The open world and character progression pales in comparison to true RPGs like Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age: Origins, but Techland has essentially cannibalized parts from such titles and integrated them with the frenetic action of a zombie game. This doesn’t necessarily make Dead Island better than its competitors, but it’s definitely unlike any zombie game you’ve ever played.
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