Dead Island Review
Get your hands bloody fending off the zombie masses on exotic Banoi Island.
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Would you survive a zombie apocalypse? Think Ash didn't know what he was doing with that chainsaw of his, and that you'd be better equipped to fight off the army of the undead? Have you always been confused about why characters in the horror genre have such a hard time dealing with shambling corpses that have already started to rot away? Well, there are three things you can do to prepare yourself. You can read Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide, download the Zombie app to improve both your longevity and your cardiovascular system, or play Dead Island and visit Banoi, the exotic fictional setting of Deep Silver's exciting twist on the survival horror genre.
Choosing from one of four equally jaded and very human characters, players finally have a chance to wade into the fray, killing the undead left and right. Fans of every zombie camp will have something to look forward to, from the slow Walkers to the sprinting Infected as they try and escape from a resort that was just recently a tropical paradise. Deep Silver has made more than just a hand-to-hand version of House of the Dead, though: there's enough to do in Dead Island to keep almost any gamer happy.
A large map divided into four distinct sections offer those with a bent for exploration a chance to dive in and experience all the gorgeous and horrific settings this small island has to offer. It's populated with stunning visuals and a host of surviving humans that make Banoi feel real and alive...or reanimated, at least. There's also an extensive list of side quests and collectibles, so all that running around is definitely worth it.
Fans of the RPG genre will also discover a fairly deep upgrading system, allowing you to craft any of the four characters to suit your play style. There's also a varied weapon crafting mechanic with more basic weapon types and modifications than you'll know what to do with. Top it off with a highly accessible and balanced co-op system and you can take on the rotting masses on your own for a jump-inducing thrill ride, or take on the whole island with a group of friends for an adrenaline-filled roller coaster of blood and carnage.
Those who are interested in story may be a bit disappointed, but the alternate perspective found in the downloadable chapter focusing on the main game's antagonist should fill in that gap a bit. Also, keep in mind that this is definitely a mature game: vulgarity, tons of gore, and explicit violence all add to the game's unique flavor, but it's best to limit this one to the older set.
There is actually very little that Dead Island doesn't do well with respect to the actual hands-on gaming. Sure, menu navigation can be a bit of a pain, and there's almost too much loot to handle, but the two main components—zombie melee combat and sandbox exploration—are handled marvelously. You finally have a chance to go head-to-head and machete-to-rotting flesh with all the ease, excitement, and accessibility that any gamer could ask for.
Going against the typical survival horror grain, Dead Island places most of its emphasis on melee combat. Using the conceit that the playable character is immune to the rampant virus—so no matter how many times you get hit, you won't become infected—developers have crafted a game that allows the player to get up close and personal with the undead horde. Speaking of which, that horde is made up of quite a few variations on the rotting theme and closely follows the model set by Left 4 Dead. The most common are divided up into the shambling Walkers and the faster Infected (think Dawn of the Dead remake), with additional variations that involve flames or poisonous gas. There are also specialty zombies, including the Floater which is bulbous and can spew damaging goo, and the Ram which does exactly what it's name implies.
Luckily, blunt and sharp weapons abound, with everything from rusty pipes and sickles to baseball bats and katanas littering the island. Controls are straightforward, with one trigger used to swing your weapon and another that can administer a swift kick, an invaluable move that can push zombies away or even knock them down. Your ability to swing your weapon is determined by how much stamina you have left, which also goes down when you run or get hit. Zombies can knock you over, grapple with you (which initiates a quick-time event), and some higher-level corpses can even throw weapons at you. There's nothing quite so humiliating as being hit in the head by a piece of wood thrown with uncanny precision by a walking corpse. Enemies scale with you, so going back to visit early locations will still be a challenge; some of the undead even come equipped with football helmets or bullet-proof vests indicative of the failed survival attempts made before the victims were overwhelmed.
The combat itself feels great, with weapons dealing appropriate damage: blunt weapons can break bones, bladed weapons can cut off arms or heads, and explosives like detergent bombs and molotov cocktails create just the sort of chaos that a gamer dreams of. Each character can also unlock their Rage technique, which allows them to tap into the fury meter that builds up during combat. This gives you enhanced zombie-butt-kicking abilities appropriate to your class: Sam B, the rapper with the blunt weapon specialty, pulls out a pair of brass knuckles and just goes off on the undead, while Logan's throwing skills are represented by a string of endless knives that can be whipped at your enemies.
Any weapon aside from firearms can also be thrown, giving you a chance to kill dangerous enemies from a distance. These can be retrieved from either the ground, or sticking out of your foe's immobile body. Weapons do break over time, and your inventory is limited, but we'll deal with those issues below. The game does also include firearms, which become increasingly more prominent the closer you get to the end of the campaign; they're mostly found in the police station which has been taken over by local gangs, and in the prison during the game's final act. Embracing an element of plausible realism, they're much more useful when fighting human enemies. Regardless, getting your first pistol or shotgun can make you feel very powerful, especially when you nail some head shots. The feeling of helplessness will return, though, once you realize you're out of ammo.
Exploration and Looting
Perhaps the biggest difference between Dead Island and its spiritual predecessors is its approach to sandbox exploration. You can follow your quests from start to finish, creating a more linear gaming experience, but you can also break off and poke around. Moving to the prison and the game's final act is a clearly marked point-of-no-return, but otherwise you can just look around Banoi Island and see what there is to see. Curious about that row of huts extending out over the ocean? Go take a walk and see if there's anyone—or anything—left to find. Want to clear out the hotel's check-in area and loot some money from the massive number of suitcases lying around? Go right ahead. Each searchable item or storage container will potentially house money, new weapons, or other random items that can be crafted into more powerful tools of zombie destruction. You can also sell items for other weapons or equipment at the small trade posts set up in the survivor hubs.
The massive number of lootable containers actually turns into a bit of a drawback after a while. Everywhere you look, you'll see something you can search: trashcans, luggage bags, permanently dead bodies, bookshelves and more are found in every nook and cranny. Eventually, we stopped caring about what we found and just blew through the island hitting the applicable controller button to mindlessly loot equipment and supplies, since there was no way to know what would turn out to be useful in the long run. It can make for some interesting surprises when you make it to a work bench and proceed to upgrade your weapons, but it's almost like the strategy is taking away in favor of grinding for random stuff.
Fairly early on in the game, you'll unlock the ability to drive vehicles, making treks to the more remote locations that much easier and removes the grind for players who want to take a little break from the hack 'n slash of zombie navigation. Otherwise, certain key points provide a fast travel option initiated by interacting with an island map; load times are quite short, so using them can be rather convenient.
If you like exploration with purpose, though, the side quests offer a huge variety of tasks to accomplish. Standard fetch quests, courier quests, and escort missions abound, but the small variations in character interaction and environment exploration keep things from getting stale. The occasional quest that contains some touches of real inspiration—such as moving boxes to craft a giant HELP sign on a cliff side—are quite entertaining, and even the more frustrating tasks were enjoyable to complete. This may be because nothing was difficult as a result of stupid design choices, but rather because of the environment of the game: of course escort missions are going to be difficult, because you're running through a neighborhood infested with zombies.
The number of quests available is somewhat boggling, and only a few are required to make the story progress. You can ignore the survivors and go for a speed run, or work to help everyone you can. Quests are ranked anywhere from very easy to very hard, so you can even choose to complete simple tasks first in order to bulk up your character before taking on the real challenges. You can't fail quests, checkpoints are abundant, and death is very forgiving; the only penalty for dying is a loss of money. Additionally, Dead Island includes quests that are labeled as continuous events. One fellow at the church in Moresby asks you to bring him canned food to help feed the survivors; as is fitting with this kind of task, the need for food isn't ever going to go away, so you can keep bringing him canned food indefinitely. It's not required to complete the game, but these provide a constant stream of cash and experience for players who want to level up but are tired of just hacking away at the thousandth zombie. At one point we had over 15 quests active, including the main mission, side quests, and continues events; you'll always have something different to do if you get tired of one thing.
Item Management and Weapon Crafting
Dead Island brings an unusual sense of realism to the inventory and weapon management systems, two facets of survival horror that are frequently some of the more frustrating game elements. Random equipment has no limit: you can pick up as may pieces of rubber hose or zombie meat as you want. Weapons and healing items, however, have a finite capacity. This can be upgraded using skill points, but at the most you can hold 16 items at one time. Later on, you'll meet a character who can hold an extra 150 items for you, but we found that we never really had to take advantage of this. It's good to have for people who like to collect everything, but a 16 item limit was suitable for our playing style.
Weapons are actually quite abundant, with stronger items coming up less frequently. In addition to the typical statistics—damage inflicted, power (which determines how much the enemy will be staggered or knocked down), and stamina (meaning how much you expend in order to swing it)—each weapon has a finite amount of durability. Eventually, your weapon will either break, something common among the weakest items such as sticks or wooden planks, or will simply suffer a massive damage penalty and essentially become useless. Players then have the choice to discard the weapon or repair it at designated work benches scattered throughout the island. For a substantial amount of money, you can bring your weapon back to perfect condition, upgrade it for a stat boost, or combine it with some of your loose equipment to give it added bonuses like fire or shock damage after you acquire the necessary weapon schematics. It's an in-depth system that combines the creative element of Dead Rising weapon crafting, the horror genre's stress factor of item management similar to what was seen in the early Resident Evil games, and the looting and variety found in large-scale epics like Skyrim or Borderlands.
For such a large game with so many items to find, there really aren't that many collectables. While scouring the island, you'll come across clippings from the Banoi Herald which can be read to learn some of the background information on the island and what's going on there. Additionally, you can find blueprints, referred to as weapon mods, which allow you to craft more powerful and varied weapons at the work benches. These can also be found as rewards for completing certain quests.
We found two other items that can be collected, and each represent a small flaw with this particular game play element. In addition to the Herald clippings, you can find I.D. cards. It sounds interesting, offering a wide array of character background for some of the people on the island...except you can't actually look at them. You pick up the cards, they go into your inventory, and you don't do anything with them after that; all they add to is working towards getting an achievement or trophy.
You may also find some colored skulls during your travels. If it weren't for the internet, we never would have known what they meant. Apparently, these skulls can be brought to their appropriate alters located somewhere on the island. Returning the skull grants you a special weapon mod that allows you to create an even more powerful weapon than normal. The trouble here is that nothing in the game ever hints at any of that; finding the skulls at all was purely accidental, and we never stumbled across any of the alters.
Upgrades and Skill Trees
Your initial character selection does have an impact on your overall game experience, but the skill trees really allow you to craft your own playing style regardless of the starting bonus. There are three differing branches to choose from: one that improves your character's Fury ability, one for general combat (weapon bonuses and such), and one for survival (increased health, improved trading rates, and so on). The unique skills for each character do somewhat reflect their specialty, but they're in no way limiting. For instance, we played through the campaign using Sam B, who gets a bonus for using blunt weapons. After playing for a while, however, we preferred fighting with bladed weapons and cutting off limbs in order to cripple the zombies. Regardless of how you play, though, each character caps out at level 50. Certain upgrades will inevitably fall to the wayside, and the best bonuses require a certain level of investment in their respective skill tree.
For the most part, the controls are quite straight forward. Regular combat is very intuitive, and the actions are very responsive. The layout for running and throwing may take some getting used to, but once you get the hang of they layout it becomes quite simple. Once you figure everything out, you'll be jump-kicking the Infected and sniping off your living adversaries with the best of them.
In the grand scheme of things, Dead Island doesn't offer a whole lot to do after you finish the main campaign. There's a new game plus option which allows you to start from the beginning with all your equipment and upgrades, and your map remains open and explored. Unfortunately, fast traveling is reset, so you'll have to unlock all the locations again. Quests need to be redone, as well, and NPC's will be located based on where you are in the overall story. There are some advantages to this, however, for folks who want to play through again with some friends; we'll talk more about this on the Multiplayer page.
Two extra features are available, either for purchase on your gaming network or packaged in with the Game of the Year Edition. For those interested in the regular game, you have the Blood Bath Arena add on. This is essentially a grinding tool that can be played on your own or with friends, just like the main campaign. Your character can enter one of four arenas (it's easiest to get there using the fast travel maps) and fight off several waves of zombies with increasing difficulty. Experience and equipment gained in this mode are carried over into the regular story.
Additionally, there's a bonus chapter that puts you in the shoes of Ryder White, the fellow who turns out to be the main antagonist for the regular game. Offering some additional back story and showing you what was going on while your regular character was hiking around Banoi, this chapter is particularly enjoyable for players who wanted to use more firearms or who wanted something with a meatier story...no pun intended. Playing as a soldier with a sick wife, you'll get several hours of larger and more aggressive zombie hordes, an emphasis on shooting rather than smashing or slicing, and more emotional investment. If you liked crafting your character, however, don't bother: White is set at level 15, and that's where he remains.
Pacing & Flow
The developers have crafted an experience that is nearly perfect for the middle 80 percent of the game. Once things get going, players will experience a thrill-inducing, blood-curdling, adrenaline-pounding ride through some of the most gorgeous environments and game play sequences available today. At the start, though, things can be a bit overwhelming. Waking up in the ravaged hotel is appropriately creepy, but once you're out on the beach it can take a bit to get your bearings. The ending is also quite anticlimactic, a fault that can primarily be placed with the writing. Colonel White doesn't really reveal himself to be an antagonist until the very end when you actually fight him; the fight itself is terribly underwhelming, and the closing narration that places a heavy emphasis on an unidentified hacker named Charon (though this is dealt with in the additional content) seems random and shallow. Frankly, the lack of story in Left 4 Dead was more enjoyable simply because players knew what to expect; after all the build up in this game, the finale was a definite let-down.
It may seem strange to call zombies "intelligent," but the AI in this game was actually quite well done. Zombies will recognize you from a distance, and depending on the type either ignore you or proceed to give chase. They'll try and reach for you through fences or around barriers, getting as close to you as possible before their physical limitations prevent them from moving further. The human AI is also quite good, responding to your presence swiftly and mercilessly. If they can, they'll flank you, move from one point of cover to a neighboring one, crouching to try to pick you off from a distance. It's refreshing to see a game that can handle both living and undead AI with equal aplomb.
The title refers to the fictional island of Banoi, just off the coast of Papua New Guinea. After the entertaining (and rather explicit) introductory cinematic, your character awakens in his or her hotel room at the Royal Palms Resort. Upon exiting your room, you find that everything is deserted; just when you think you've got your bearings, a horde of sprinting zombies chases you out into the bright tropical sunshine. With that, your chosen character embarks on a roller coaster ride through sandy beaches, cannibal-infested jungles, a scientific research center, and a military-grade prison. It's an exciting, suspense-driven game that nevertheless doesn't answer certain key questions that some story-minded gamers may ask. The plot is handled in such a way that the characters you control don't really learn more or less than any inquisitive apocalypse survivor would, with the drive for escape outweighing the desire to answer questions. Unfortunately, this approach leaves some rather gaping holes that are filled only by adrenaline and enthusiasm.
The dialogue isn't at the level of cheesiness found, for instance, in the original Resident Evil, but it's certainly not Shakespeare. Some characters sound more believable than others, with a few generating actual emotional responses and others inducing fits of unintentional laughter; think Shaun of the Dead with less deliberate humor. What the writing does best, regardless of believability or thoroughness with respect to the overall plot, is create a wide-ranging group of humans that could actually be found in small pockets of survivors. They aren't bunches of highly trained solders, or a ragtag group of people with unusually applicable fighting skills (rather, that describes the set of four people you can choose to play as). Instead, you'll meet religious fundamentalists, shallow bimbos more interested in drinking and throwing one final party, criminals who plan to take over and do just as they please, and regular people who just don't know what's happening and want to get back to their families. No one is a superhero, no one acts without motivation, and everyone has their own assumption about why everything has happened. Where the writers dropped the ball was in dealing with exposition: Why are you immune? Why did everything get overrun so quickly and so suddenly? Did the disease really come from the native cannibal tribes? For that matter, whose brilliant idea was it to put a resort hotel on a prison island that was already infested with cannibals? The broader strokes aren't really dealt with, but perhaps that will come with a sequel.
With a few exceptions among the wide range of characters present in the game, the acting is actually pretty good. If you can get past the dead eyes (we'll address that more in the graphics section), the NPC's are actually really believable, as are the playable characters in the cut scenes. Body language, inflection, accents: all more or less are spot-on. The nature of the game, with its multitude of quests and lack of immediate consequences, make it difficult to really care for these characters—there are only a few major tasks that result in anything more than superficial alterations to the people you're trying to help or the places where they've holed up—but the few people who are really integral to the story are compelling to watch.
Cut scenes may not often contain anything revelatory with respect to the overall plot—they frequently show humans in crisis, or they move the action forward without explaining why things are happening in the broader sense—but they always look great. Anything with action shots or dynamic events are gorgeous, and are reminiscent of quality action films: characters move with energy and purpose, the visuals are stunning, and the zombies are both terrifying and fascinating to watch. The dialogue-heavy sections and the emotional scenes, though, don't quite match. If you were expecting the sort of emotional depth that was present in the controversial trailer, you may find yourself rather disappointed. The dramatic moments still look good, but they lack the necessary depth to make them truly eye catching.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
Taking a cue from Resident Evil 5, Dead Island eschews the traditional dark and stormy atmosphere (though there are certainly some dimly lit settings, such as the abandoned police station) for the bright sun and white sand of tropical beaches. The dichotomy set up between a locale designed to encourage happiness and entertainment—and, to a certain extent, debauchery—and the horror and decay of a zombie apocalypse is striking, disturbing, and terrifyingly effective.
While many zombie games trade on surreal or dark settings, there has been a slight push recently towards bringing horror into the unforgiving brightness of day. Resident Evil 5 may be the most prominent example, but while that franchise entry set itself in the dusty, boiling African plain, every section of Banoi Island looks like it could have been ripped out of a travel brochure. (Admittedly, it would be a rather shoddy brochure to include shanty towns and prison facilities, but the point is it all looks fantastic.) Each of the main locations—rather than making it one giant world to travel in, Banoi is broken down into four sections—show signs of life and a bustling human presence. The initial beach and resort are full of pool toys, overturned umbrellas, liquor bottles, and all the other detritus common to a Spring Break-esque bash. Moresby is a rundown skeleton of a city, full of trash, car wrecks, and slums that will put you in mind of the worst parts of urban South Africa. The subsequent jungle and prison settings are also highly distinct, yet they all have a core through-line with respect to the artistic structure: everything feels like it belongs there, and the transitions from one main locale to another never feel jarring or out of place. While realism may have been stretched to the breaking point when you consider the fact that a bio lab was only a few miles from a beach resort, artistically it all blends seamlessly.
Despite the high-end nature of the artistic design, there are a few hiccups within the graphics themselves. Character movement is excellent, and the zombies behave and react to combat and any other physical force with appropriate realism. The undead feel like a real threat, with their oozing faces and shattered bones giving the player an unflinching look at the rotting effects of whatever mysterious disease plagues the island. Human characters move with purpose and readable body language. Despite all of that, a few elements detract from the overall experience and keep Dead Island from being a perfect visual treat. The biggest issue was with the eyes: the uncanny valley wasn't surpassed here, unfortunately, with the eyes of living characters frequently coming across as being almost as dead and unfocused as those of the zombies. The movements of the mouth and fingers are light years beyond what they were a generation ago, but there's still work to be done; this game is no Heavy Rain or Mass Effect 3.
The music of Dead Island is appropriately subdued. A light, ambient sound track permeates the game, adding atmosphere when necessary. There are whole stretches where music simply isn't present, making you feel alone and overwhelmed on the island of Banoi. When the zombies attack, however, things ramp up, causing your adrenaline to start pumping without being so overwhelming as to make you think you're in the middle of an action film. It takes the best elements of having no music, ambient music, and event-specific music and blends them together in an appropriately effective score.
Zombie limbs crack with a satisfying crunch. Flesh tears from the bones of victims with a wet ripping sound. The moans of the undead float down the beach and echo from behind closed doors. Dead Island sounds absolutely remarkable. The array of sound effects that leave nothing to the imagination—or perhaps enhance it—can arguably be described as the one design element that yields the greatest amount of player immersion. It's all well and good to have a game that looks and feels great, but suspense and horror come more from the potential threat of danger rather than the physical presence of an antagonist. When embarking on a quest in the city of Moresby, we would walk rather than run, listening for the sounds of zombie clusters. Hearing the moans of the undead put us on edge far more than the visible presence of even large crowds; if you know where the danger is, it's manageable, but an unknown threat can strike at any time and from any direction. Combat also sounds great, with blunt weapons issuing a satisfying thud or—if you're lucky—the crack of a now useless zombie limb. Machetes and other bladed objects slice through rotting tissue with a clean whoosh; gunfire pops in much the same way that a loud noise does in a quiet setting, both jarring and somehow muffled at the same time. If you want to freak yourself out, stand on a tall building or platform, close your eyes, and just listen to the undead milling below you. While you may have heard something like it before on film, the fact that it's replicated in a video game makes it that much more terrifying: all those creatures are calling out for you.
Despite the presence of multiple human factions (soldier, prisoners, gang members), you won't find any traditional competitive multiplayer in Dead Island. This game is meant to be cooperative, as is evidenced by the presence of all four playable characters in the cut scenes regardless of how many are actually being controlled.
Dead Island provides a drop-in/drop-out style of co-op gaming. If you have the function turned on (people who would rather play alone can shut off the notifications in the main menu), a text will appear on your screen if someone else is playing who happens to be near you. Joining forces is as simple as pushing a button on the control pad.
It's somewhat important to note that you can't leave the area you're in without the rest of your group. For instance, say you and three friends are exploring the jungle. You don't have to stay together, and can go off exploring anywhere in the jungle you'd like...but you all have to stay in the jungle. If anyone fast travels or leaves to another area, everyone in the party will be dragged along. That limited mobility may be worth it, since any passive buffs that have been unlocked in any upgrade tree applies to everyone in the session. This means skills that increase money looting or improve trade costs apply to everyone.
Playing with others certainly alters the atmosphere of the game—a group of four will always feel more secure than a single player along—but the zombies do scale to meet the new demand. The zombie strength seems to be tied to the level of the host player, but their numbers will grow. You can also play as a group in the Blood Bath Arena additional content.
Co-op gaming is all online for Dead Island; no split-screen option is provided. What you can have, though, are people playing as the same character. You're not limited to joining matches where you selected role has already been taken: if you want to smash your way through the opposition with an army of Sam B's, or attack the undead with laser-like precision using four knife-wielding Xian Mei's, go right ahead.
You can play with anyone, but who you join with can effect how you progress in the game. If you join a game with someone who is in the same game chapter, progress will save normally. If you join someone who is further along or farther back, your story won't progress. You'll still collect money, experience, and items (which are scaled to your level—the same weapon will have different stats if a level 30 player picks it up than if a level 12 player does so), but you'll have to go back to your own campaign or join another session in order to move the story along. This can be used to help players who want to level up but are having a hard time surviving on their own.
Banoi is an island that will leave a lasting mark on anyone who visits it. Perhaps you'll be awestruck by the beautiful blue waters or the lush jungles. Perhaps you'll remember the colorful cast of characters who liven up your stay. Perhaps you'll just have to deal with those deep blood stains that won't wash out no matter how much bleach you use. Taking the survival horror and throwing it into the upbeat environment of a beach resort was just one of the many effective decisions made by the developers at Deep Silver when they made their excellent zombie game Dead Island.
Placing the components of the survival horror genre in a counter-intuitive setting has certainly been done before, but never with so much personality and immersion as this game. For the first time, gamers get the chance to tackle (literally) the walking dead. This alone is enough to make Dead Island stand apart from the seemingly endless string of zombie-based games that have hit shelves in recent years, but Deep Silver didn't stop there. Combing the RPG elements of weapon crafting and character upgrades with the sandbox elements of exploration and free-roaming, this game offers an experience like no other. Add to that a gorgeous setting with graphics to match and you have a title that will engross you for hours on end.
True, the story leaves quite a bit to be desired, and certain elements like looting become so common place as to lose their significance. With no competitive multiplayer, there's not a lot to do after you beat the game except to do it again, though the co-operative play does add a different atmosphere layer to the campaign. Play this alone or play it with friends, run past the undead to escape the island as quick as you can or slaughter everything in sight: this game offers plenty of ways to play, and may very well turn you into a zombie that keeps crawling back for more.