Dead Island review

Last year there was an interesting trailer for Dead Island that caught the attention of gamers worldwide. It showed us a short yet horrifying tale of a family desperately running away from a horde of blood-thirsty zombies. It was a brief, gory and best of all – played backwards. Now after having finished the game I can safely say that the trailer may have been great marketing, but it sure didn’t give us a real idea of what the game really was. I don’t know about you but I wasn’t expecting a cross between Borderlands and Left 4 Dead.

Whilst the year of the zombie has long since passed, Dead Island has hit the ground running and been a massive success. This just goes to show that if there is a new way to kill the undead, people will pay money to experience it. The introduction movie and tutorial doesn’t tell us too much and yet reminds me quite a bit of a music video from The Prodigy; as this is a family friendly site I can’t give you the real title here, but what I can say is that it rhymes with ‘Smack my witch up’.

Dead Island is set in a fictional location called Banoi which is located somewhere near Australia. By all accounts this tropical island is a perfect paradise for tourists. Your character (who is clearly drunk) is stumbling around a disco, all attempts at making new friends are failing and you are soon pushed over after invading the stage. Shortly afterwards a member of staff offers to assist you to your hotel room. Feeling a bit sleepy you probably would have taken them up on this offer if it wasn’t for the fact that just at that precise moment, a wave of zombies enter the disco and start eating everyone. Some time later you wake up in what we suspect to be your room and all is quiet. Perhaps it was all a bad dream or a hallucination, yes that would explain it wouldn’t it? Sorry but no. This is all too real, as soon as you step outside into the hallway you can instantly tell something is wrong.

Now if you were wondering why your character wasn’t part of the undead tribe by now, well it turns out that you’re somehow immune. Before you go thinking ahead too much, no this doesn’t mean you’re invincible, you just happen to be able to withstand a few zombie bites – that’s all. By chance you manage to get rescued by a group of survivors, it turns out that three others are immune to the infection and that is very handy for two reasons. Firstly this means that if push comes to shove, it should be possible to repopulate the Earth. Secondly four is the perfect number of people that can play Dead Island in coop via Xbox Live.

As mentioned, the game feels very reminiscent of Left 4 Dead and Borderlands. Not only do you get to slaughter zombies in cold blood with a nice selection of guns and melee weapons, but you’ll also be completing RPG style quests, looting treasure, gaining XP and building new weapons as you go.

The idea of using a first person engine to deliver an RPG like experience is nothing new after you’ve played Oblivion, Fallout, Mass Effect and Borderlands. What’s different here however is that Dead Island feels more like a JRPG. Non-playable characters are almost static and seem to exist only to give you a new quest. Upon return they’ll usually reward you with something cool; this could be cash, a weapon, or a set of Mod blueprints (more on those later).

You’ll encounter dozens of characters that all want your help in some way; this could literally be anything from collecting an asthma inhaler from a drug store, to filling gas tanks or finding cartons of orange juice. These quests are split into three categories of importance.

  • The Main Quest is compulsory and moves you further along the game’s storyline from the very opening moments in the hotel to an exciting climax at a prison complex.
  • Side Quests are optional but provide you with plenty of XP and cash, if you want to upgrade your weapons and skills then you’ll need to trek through plenty of these. Consider it grinding, only fun.
  • Continuous Quests are optional and never end, their function is to provide you with small but relatively quick boost of cash or XP when you’re most in need. Ideal for those times when you’re very close to unlocking a new skill point.

As soon as you take on a quest, the Rockstar-esque map will be updated with a dotted line which guides you to your destination. You have a choice of following the line very closely or going off the beaten track a little and exploring the area for the chance of more (and possibly better) loot. Either way; your task is to get to the highlighted location, complete the objective and then most likely return back to the quest giver to receive your reward.

Of course during your journey is when you’ll encounter the undead foes that blight this once gorgeous landscape. Every enemy you kill (or assist in killing) gains you XP; which eventually allow you to level up. Doing so allows you to use new and more powerful weapons that will help you defeat the more powerful zombies. When you reach a new level you’re awarded a single skill point to spend, this gives your character a chance to improve their abilities, everything from better weapon management to lock picking skills and enhanced RAGE. What is RAGE you ask? Simple, it’s what you and I know more traditionally as bullet time.

After a long killing session your RAGE meter will be full and ready to be activated, enjoy the spectacle as the graphics go into black and white and everything slows down to a snails pace – this is your chance to whip out your pistol out and clear an area of zombies with one hit kills (with bonus XP awarded too!).. The downside to RAGE is that there is no downside; if you and your teammates are very coordinated in unleashing this power then there will be very few moments when you’re overcome by the hordes. Sweet.

Unlike Left 4 Dead, the melee weapons in Dead Island aren’t able to withstand unlimited usage. Every strike upon an enemy weakens the weapon you’re using, be it a stick, sword or police baton; it WILL get damaged. The greater the damage level the less effect it has on enemies and the more it will cost to repair…when you eventually find a workbench to fix it on. Ideally you want to carry a selection of good melee weapons and rotate them well before they get too decrepit.

Dead Island’s RPG mechanic is fun and surprisingly deep once you get a hang of it. You will come across crates, bins and bags which more often than not are stuffed with goodies, these can be weapons or useful items such as; Batteries, Rags, Wire and Scrap Metal, which can help you mod your current weapons to new extremes…providing you’ve found a blueprint.  Why would you just slice zombies with a machette when you could electrocute them at the same time by adding a few bits of wire and some batteries? Exactly! Weapons can also be bought and sold via a number of shady looking dealers, however my advise is do more selling than buying. If you’re clever you could become very rich by flogging unneeded items when your inventory is looking full, just make sure to repair/upgrade them beforehand to get a decent profit.

Heading back to similarities to Left 4 Dead for a moment. Dead Island features several types of zombies for you to overcome.

  • Walkers are the most common, slow and unintelligent but dangerous in large numbers.
  • Infected Walkers are the next stage up. They can run, dodge and use weapons.
  • Floaters are large and blubbery and spit acidic vomit at you. A cross between a Spitter and a Boomer from L4D.
  • Thugs are 7ft tall and are able to knock you over with one hit, luckily they are very slow and aren’t too tough to defeat in a coordinated group.
  • Rams are similar to Chargers from Left 4 Dead; big, tough and will run towards you with the aim of sending you flying.
  • Butchers are fast moving and can quickly deal a deathly blow with their karate moves. Don’t let them get a hit in or you’ll be on your back in no time.
  • Suiciders remind me a little of Smokers from L4D, instead of a long tongue they are able to explode causing massive damage.

You know I just realised Dead Island is a very big game and I can’t possibly go into everything here right now. Let’s just have a quick run down on what’s good and what’s bad shall we? That way we can both get back to gaming.

The Bad.

I hate to say it but Dead Island does have its flaws, firstly the game does feel sluggish compared to the smooth experience of Left 4 Dead. I like the additions of stamina and weapon damage which stop you from slashing your weapons around endlessly, but combined with sticky and slightly unresponsive controls and you could end up feeling frustrated at times. Gun play is also lacking in clarity, aiming doesn’t feel right and the guns seem underpowered in your hands but very strong in the hands of surviving gangs.

The game itself feels like it’s a few years old underneath; character models, scenery clipping, character & facial animation (lip-syncing) all looks very last gen. This doesn’t affect gameplay but does take the shine off somewhat.

But my biggest gripe with Dead Island is the voice acting and cut-scenes. Quite frankly they’re awful. The script, dialogue and acting is totally unbelievable – watching them was sometimes enough to churn my stomach.

The Good.

Dead Island is a feature length first person zombie RPG. The main quest should take you around ten hours on your first play through. Interrupting with all of the optional side quests can easily add a further ten hours on top of that. The action is fun and furious with plenty of gore and there are more than enough weapons to please even the fussiest of psychopaths.

Online coop is brilliantly designed and is almost seamless, joining othersplayers that are online in the open gameworld is as simple as a press on the DPad. Leave your game open and players can come and go as they please, no need to reload or go back to a previous checkpoint. If you have three friends ready to play then you’ll not be disappointed, just make sure you’re prepared to play long into the night. Oh one major difference between this and L4D is that your team will not be auto-filled by CPU controlled teammates, if you play singleplayer then you are truly on your own.

Graphically Dead Island stands well enough in terms of design, the locations are detailed and for the most part nice to look at. Exploring the sunny resort and jungle is a refreshing change from the rather samey city and swamp locations seen in L4D. The level design features a mix of wide open areas, enclosed spaces and more than a few dark corridors. Randomly spawned enemies give each area a different feel every time you walk by, an important touch considering how much backtracking you’ll do while fetch questing.

For the most part the game runs smoothly with little slowdown even when things get very busy, the compromise of course is always lower-res textures and some pop in here and there, nothing major though. Dead Island is well worth a punt in my opinion. It’s a great coop experience which will last you a good amount of time. Yes there are graphical bugs and glitches but remember; the game is focusing on gameplay first and presentation second. Spend a bit of time with it and you’ll soon overlook the small flaws, just make sure to skip those cut-scenes. 8 out of 10.

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Dead Island review screenshots

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