Zombies are popular, there's no doubt about it. From quirky, family-friendly brain-eaters in Plants vs. Zombies to the nightmarish necromorphs that are a hallmark of the Dead Space series; the walking dead are big business in video games. Little-known developer Techland took it upon themselves to take the best attributes of not only great zombie games but also great zombie movies, books, and other fiction to create the end-all, be-all of zombie games. A rather ambitious project that has taken them over five years, but one they've generally succeeded in.
Dead Island takes place in present day on the fictional island of Banoi, off the coast of Papua New Guinea. After a hard night of partying in the popular resort location, people awaken to the zombie apocalypse. You choose one of four protagonists who are immune to the zombifying virus that has struck the island. Sadly, they are all over-drawn racial and gender stereotypes. The two women (Purna and Xi'an) were police officers working in a man's world and constantly being pushed down because of it. The two men (Sam B and Logan) are overdone male stereotypes: a rapper and a former football star. However, each character has a weapon specialty which dramatically changes the skill trees. I, for instance, chose Xi'an because of her proficiency in "sharp" weapons. So while the superficial characters are picking between dull and duller, the weapons specializations really set each character apart.
Dead Island is an open world: fairly vast and littered with people, quests, collectibles, places, and zombies, zombies, zombies. From the very opening of the game, you can wander around wherever you like, for the most part. There are three sections which open up as you progress through the game, but you can easily travel backwards. The combat is focused heavily on melee, though less so with Purna, who specializes in gun combat. Still, the availability of ammunition in Dead Islandis limited, so melee will be the zombie-killing method of choice for most players. There are sections in which you take on human enemies (maybe 5% of the game), which causes issue because they always use guns. There's no formal cover system and no regenerating health, so these shooter-style sections prove to be very difficult since you need to out-shoot them. Rushing in to melee is generally suicide, even though (particularly in the late game) the melee weapons are generally stronger than the guns. For most of the game, however, the melee combat is very well done. Digital fighting is done by using one of the shoulder buttons, with the option of throwing any weapon at an enemy. There's also an analog combat method in which you use the right analog stick, flicking it in different directions for attacks. This method is very difficult, but has the benefit of finer control when you're trying to dismember, decapitate, or break a specific part of a zombie.
There are a couple things in place to balance Dead Island and prevent you from just becoming a whirling dervish of zombie doom. First is your stamina meter. Running, jumping, and swinging your melee weapons use stamina. Run out of stamina and you can't attack or run and are also more likely to be dealt a critical hit. Melee weapons also have durability and can be rendered useless after being used too much. Unlike Dead Rising, however, different weapons in Dead Island have different durability ratings, so some can last quite a long time. Speaking of weapons and Dead Rising, Dead Island borrows the modified weapons, but goes much deeper with it. Weapons are numerous and given Diablo-style prefixes like Weak, Flimsy, Dependable, etc. Any weapon can be upgraded by spending cash at a workbench. Any weapon that works in a modification recipe can be modified, this includes unique weapons. My best friend through the later third of the game was a Dependable Homemade Machete that I fully upgraded and added paralysis toxin to. Combat against zombies feels visceral, gruesome (oh so gruesome), and satisfying. It still leaves you with that survival horror feeling, as death will be a constant and recurring theme when you become overwhelmed with numerous types of zombies, losing cash each time you have to respawn.
Progression in Dead Island is done via RPG-style leveling. Killing zombies, landing well-placed blows, completing quests and completing challenges all reward you with experience points (XP) that level up your character and your enemies. Your base stats raise with each level and you can choose one skill from the skill trees. The three skill trees are: Blood Rage, Combat, and Survival. The Survival tree is the same with each character; decreasing stamina burn, picking locks, sprinting faster, and whatnot. The Combat tree is different with each character, focusing on their weapon specialization. Finally, Blood Rage is a short time boost to combat proficiency that really does turn your character into a maniacal typhoon of zombie annihilation, focusing on the weapon specialty of each character. These Blood Rage trees are relatively similar from character to character, changing only slightly for weapons proficiency. All these trees don't really lend to playing in different ways, but to allow you to put skills into things you deem more important and compensate for your weaknesses. If you're terrible at dodging, putting points into survival may be more your speed. Work best in Blood Rage? You can put points into accelerating your Rage accumulation.
It's pretty rare a game surprises me with a feature. I get a steady flow of press releases from every game A-Z. Nevertheless, the up to four-player online cooperative mode of Dead Island came as a pleasant surprise to me. This can be done through a LAN party or through the Internet. Enemies scale to the number of players in the game, making teamwork essential. Nothing like fighting a Thug zombie 10 level too high all by yourself. When the group works together, cooperative play changes the game in mostly a great way. Having other players to distract and flank the zombie horde is useful. Even more useful are human companions when you're fighting human enemies. One person can draw fire while others flank with powerful melee weapons. However, sticking together is essential, but difficult to enforce in an open world game. Quests cannot be furthered without the entire party present in one location, but there's no in-game mechanic for forcing party members to join you, only a gentle message letting you know the party is trying to do something. Dead Island is very good at partnering people up, however. It delivers messages letting you know somebody is near you. This doesn't just mean geographic location on Banoi, but progression in the story. It then allows you to quickly jump into somebody else's game or let them join your game if you allow it.
As for presentation, the story of Dead Island isn't anything new. The zombie apocalypse has struck and you're tasked with surviving, helping others survive, and getting off the island. However, the game shows flashes of the genius shown in their first trailer. There are several side-quests that really get into the very human reality of the zombie apocalypse. Husbands, wives, sons, and daughters are lost forever in such a tragedy. Your loved ones become mindless monsters; a tragedy the human psyche just isn't built for. Seeing a daughter execute her own father because it is more merciful that letting him remain a zombie is always poignant.
Visually, Dead Island is good, but not great. The environment Techland has created looks phenomenal, but the textures are very slow to load, character animations are a bit stiff, and glitches abound. Now, I expect a certain dose of glitches with any open world game and can deal with an occasional floating object or misplaced skin. I cannot abide, however, glitches that make quests stop working. On a few occasions, I had to exit the game altogether and get back into it so the proper dialog options would appear for an NPC. I also had a few instances of throwing a weapon at a Suicider (exploding zombie) or a propane tank, then dying, and my awesome weapon will have vanished when I respawned. Not cool. Now I understand there is a patch inbound to fix many of these issues, but at the time of this writing, it hasn't hit yet.
The audio for Dead Island is great. The voice actors are a very international cast and perform well. The music makes me think Techland was watching The Walking Dead, learning how to use the music to add dramatic tension when needed and to add poignancy when called for. There are soft piano parts as you roam the destitute resort section, turning to dramatic drums when you stumble upon those brain-loving zombies. The sound design is some of the best I've ever heard in a game. The weapons sound realistic (even the electric hum of a Tesla-modified weapon), the groans, screams, and gruesome dismemberment of your foes are also very believable. Even the sounds a truck makes as it rides over rough jungle terrain were spot-on, something you rarely find outside of a racing simulation game.
Dead Island is definitely worth your gaming dollars. I spent nearly 24 hours getting through the game, but was speed-running the last 2/3 of the game to get this review done, skipping numerous side-quests and challenges. If you take your time, explore the island, and really revel in the side-quests, Dead Island will easily clock in at more than 40 hours of quality game. Then there's the four different characters, which will significantly change combat and online cooperative mode to boot. Sadly, there is no local cooperative play, so you'll have to have multiple copies of the game and either the Internet or a LAN setup to play with your friends.
Dead Island is an expansive, epic masterpiece of a zombie game. It's not perfect, but it's one heck of a gruesome, well-executed first outing for a brand new intellectual property from a relatively unknown studio. It may not be the most original story, but what zombie fiction really is? It's the characters and the smaller moments that separate good zombie fiction from bad. Dead Island has those in spades, but also great gameplay. If you like zombies, great action, and/or a very deep game with lots to explore, upgrade, and do, then Dead Island is definitely the game for you.