Note: Due to technical difficulties, That Bloke in the Beanie was unable to play Dead Island’s online multiplayer co-op. As this is a major part of the game which adds more gameplay and variety, this review should be treated solely as an evaluation of the single player mode.
I never saw the trailer for Dead Island. I had heard the hype but never been embroiled in it myself. So going into it my only expectations were for a zombie game with beautiful environments and solid combat and, for the most part, Dead Island delivered. The game has taken many aspects from various other games such as Borderlands, but it takes its inspiration from the majority of the zombie game spectrum.
The action takes place on the fictional tropical island of Banoi, located just off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Banoi is popular holiday destination for the rich and famous as well as the usual tourists. The beaches are large and expansive, the booze is cheap and plentiful and the trend less is more is almost enforced by law. However there is the problem of the sudden zombie infestation. Where did it come from? Why was it made? Why are the four main characters immune to it? Most of these questions make the main plot and motivation of the game, alongside surviving and aiding other survivors.
You have the choice of four playable characters: Xian Mei a Chinese national working on the reception desk at the resort that specialises in bladed weapons, Logan a former NFL superstar who pissed away his career ending in a car crash that killed his passenger. He now travels to the island as part of a marketing deal, he specialises in thrown objects, Purna a former Australian cop who quit after shooting a child molester who was unable to be prosecuted she became a bodyguard for VIPs all over the world leading her to the resort, she is a firearms expert and Sam B, a one hit wonder rap star seeking to get back on top after being booked to perform at the resort who is handy with blunt objects. Unfortunately, that is as far as most of the characterisation goes. I’m trying to avoid spoilers but we are left with many questions unanswered about our chosen avatar.
After choosing your character and weapon of choice, you try to escape the hotel, only to get caught by a zombie and bitten only to find that you do not turn. Saved by some other survivors you are hold up on the beach with only a wooden oar and your mighty boot or stiletto to start cracking skulls. The environments of the island are huge and varied, but the best is of course the beach resort: the sun, the sand, the half made sand castles and the sound of the sea, wind, birds and the screams of the dead occasionally punctuating the air. It is beautiful, even on a non HD TV. However, there are moments of pop ins and outs graphically. There’s also the problem of emptiness is some areas. What do I mean by that? Well, I went on a merry trip off the beaten track to a non-essential exploration area where there was precisely one and only one hut to explore. Call me picky but I prefer my open world exploration with suitable rewards, not just a lot of pretty scenery and dead zombies.
The plot and other game events are pushed forward by coming into contact with other survivors who, as soon as finding out you are immune immediately task you with some form of fetch quest ranging from the banal but vital task of getting car parts or fuel to burn bodies, to the weird and stupid like searching for some nutters teddy bear and necklace. You generally need to do these quests in order to get modification recipes for your weapons, lump sums of cash or just a decent weapon or xp boost to power you along. The voice acting is mostly solid with some big names behind them but there are some truly atrocious readings as well which bore into your skull as they repeat the vapid phrases at you while you’re working.
You spend most of your time in Dead Island when you’re not kicking/beating zombies to death scrounging for various supplies and money needed to repair and buy new ones. While some shops do exists, most of your money will be spent on repairs at workbenches where you can also craft and upgrade new or better items. The items you pick up seem to have a use but it wasn’t always clear. I ended the game with two dozen bars of soap and no mod to use them in. While the mods you pick up are useful and fun, it is a bit of a shame you can’t experiment by trying a will it blend approach like in Dead Rising.
But the key, crucial question, is whether or not the combat any good? After all, the meat, if you’ll excuse the pun, is a key part of the game. A lot can be forgiven if the action is solid and enjoyable. Unfortunately the answer is only mostly. The quantity and quality of zombies is generally satisfying but when it isn’t it is more frustrating than it is tense. More than once I was killed by a zombie somehow spawning behind me and one-shoting me. The variety of weapons and killing methods are varied and substantial enough to entertain, even if the majority can be brought down with a kick and smack with heavy blunt or sharp object approach. Severing heads and limbs, crushing them, exploding them setting them on fire running them over and even drowning them are all suitably cathartic or amusing. The firearms you come across later have limited ammo capacity and are best saved for boss zombies. There is also the addition of a frenzy mechanic. In my game playing as Xin, the world went into slow motion; she pulled out a knife and proceeded to cut up every poor basterd in her way.
However, this sometimes clashes with the tone that Dead Island is trying to show. For example, early in the game I came across a pool filled with blood and bodies with a poor man in it crying saying how he’d just killed his entire family. It was suitably horrific and drew me into the game that much more because of it. Then I come across a hut where an impromptu porno was being shot with the woman still chained to the bed and I stomp her head in. This leaves me amused and bemused. The problem is the combat lends itself to frantic kick and slash fun/frustrating which can give you a good laugh but everyone else is scared, freaked out and depressed by the situation.
So in short, the combat in DI is serviceable if frantic and frustrating at times. The setting unfortunately loses something of interest in the later levels and the plot and characterisation are thin on the ground. I would recommend it for zombie fans but rent it if first if you are unsure.