I could start this off with the whole “will Dead Island live up to its first trailer?” spiel, but I’m not going to be boring like that. Here’s the bottom line: Dead Island is a good game. It’s a fantastic game, even, with impressively addicting gameplay and a role-playing system that’s equally captivating, even if it’s completely unoriginal.
It’s almost certainly not without its flaws, but therein lies the beauty of Dead Island: it’s an absolute must-play, strictly because of the fact that it’s an utter triumph despite its glaring flaws.
I would normally start a review of a high-profile game like this with a synopsis of the plot, but luckily for me, I won’t have to, because Dead Island‘s plot is almost laughable. It’s not so much a narrative, as it is a way to get you from place to place so you can bash more and more zombies. You do have four protagonists, who are the playable characters you can select at the beginning of the game, and each of them has a detailed backstory as to why they’re in the resort island of Banoi, but it truly, really doesn’t matter. You start off in the resort, traverse through bustling downtown streets, and end up in a vast, lush jungle, and along the way you beat up a variety of zombies.
The gameplay structure is almost entirely ripped out of Borderlands; you find yourself at “bases” across various separate “worlds”, where you can collect quests from various important folk. These range from believable (go figure out what happened to the rescue unit) to the outright goofy (get me two juice packs!), and upon completion you’ll receive money/weapons/other gifts. Even the color scheme for rarity of weapons is taken verbatim from Borderlands, which almost seems like a lawsuit in the making.
It really doesn’t matter though, because through all of it, it’s the combat that truly makes this the most visceral, graphic, violent, and plain fun I’ve had in a game this year. When developers Techland said they’d tackle first-person melee with Dead Island, I cringed a bit; the last first-person game focused purely on melee was Zeno Clash, and that wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of melee combat. Dead Island is entirely at the opposite end of that spectrum, and provides a melee combat system that’s as fun as it is gruesome. Everything from paddles to baseball bats to katanas are an absolute joy to use in the game, thanks to the wonderful limb-slicing and -breaking system implemented for the zombies.
Swing your sword or scythe in just the right way, and you’ll end up slicing off any of the zombies’ extremities, including their heads. Do the same with a blunt object, such as a sledgehammer, and you won’t dismember them, but instead incapacitate them by fracturing one of their many limbs. The best part is none of this stops the infected from trying to feast on your fleshy innards, and results in some absolutely hilarious moments. I can vividly recall wildly swinging a mace at a zombie and fracturing their back, and while they were paraplegic on the ground, they still were damned persistent in trying to get at me. Likewise, I’ve encountered times when I’ve thrown small hand axes at a zombie and cleanly severed one of their legs, and even in their gimpy glory, remained confident that they’d be able to hop their way towards me for some heady goodness.
And yes, now that I’ve mentioned it, throwing weapons is a thing as well. In fact, it can be a lifesaver in the right situations, but mostly it’s just really freaking fun to hurl a sledgehammer at a zombie’s head and watch him try to shrug it off. The aiming in these situations is key; with the right weapon, breaking/slicing a limb is as easy as aiming and throwing, and it’s one of the most satisfying aspects of combat, as you get to hear that delicious, juicy slice, or the painful crunch of a fracture when it happens.
It’s made all the more enjoyable when you start finding blueprints for modifications to your weapons. This is where shades of Dead Rising 2 appear; upon collecting the right gizmos and thingamabobs, you’ll be able to upgrade your otherwise normal weapons into death-dealing tools from hell. That baseball bat can be modified into a piece of deadly bio-warfare, dealing poison damage to anyone in the way. Or if you’re more into electrocution, a few batteries attached to a wakizashi will create a shockingly good time for those on the tail end. Dead Rising 2′s workbench system was more about the gimmicks than the actual effects in combat, but with Dead Island, modding your weapons is an absolute necessity to survive.
The combat in the normal controls is extremely fun in itself, but if you truly want to feel like a delightful serial killer, switch your combat settings to analog. It’s set to digital by default, which means you just aim with the right analog stick and press the right bumper to automatically swing in a random direction. With analog combat, you hold the left bumper to aim with the left analog stick, and swinging consists of utilizing the right analog stick as the weapon. So if you want to swing your machete left to right, you’ll wind up your right analog stick to the left and press it to the right with force. With the analog option of combat, you truly have the decision in which limbs to cut off, and how to incapacitate your enemies in the game.
You’re going to want that level of immersion and freedom, because Dead Island is hard. At some points it can be frustratingly difficult, where dying numerous times is commonplace, and explains why death results in only a few bucks being removed from your wallet. There will be many a time when you’ll come across a seriously threatening horde of zombies, and you’ll have to formulate some sort of strategy in order to incapacitate them all. Most of this involves using your kick to stave off unwanted infected while dealing with those that have priority, and it’s an effective strategy, but it’s uncommon to see it fail more than once in every fight. Personally, I welcome such difficulty; it’s been a while since I’ve truly felt threatened by only five zombies at once in a game of this sort. It’s a refreshing experience, and incredibly effective in creating nonstop tension in a setting that’s otherwise beautiful.
That is, it would be beautiful if the graphics didn’t look so, well, ugly. I’m not sure how it is in the 360 and PC versions, but on the PlayStation 3, the graphics, textures, and overall performance was severely lacking. At times I felt as if I were looking at a late-stage PS2 game, and some of the jaggies that I encountered were straight up painful. On top of that, the facial animations for most of the characters were downright scary, as they not only tiptoed the uncanny valley line, but jumped right over it and proceeded to rub their dead, soulless eyes right into my mental state. It didn’t help that there were several points in the game where everything just chugged on and the framerate dropped magnificently. There are indeed certain points where the game will intentionally slow down to highlight a particularly badass decapitation or whatnot, but it seemed like I encountered bullet time that was more unintentional than intentional.
It doesn’t just end at performance issues as well; even a few weeks later, as of this writing, Dead Island just rife with glitches, bugs, and other oddities. NPCs sometimes won’t appear when they need to, certain events won’t trigger for some arbitrary reason, and the quests will go wonky so often that it quickly goes from hilarious and amusing to utterly frustrating. At a few points I couldn’t finish certain sidequests because the quest items would mysteriously disappear, or the people I had to talk to wouldn’t be where the map said they’d be. Additionally, weapons thrown at enemies would mysteriously merge with them occasionally, rendering it impossible to retrieve said weapon. Pumping tons of money into an orange-coded katana with the strongest fire mod applied to it, only for it to disappear because I threw it at a measly weak zombie in the chaos is the kind of rage I don’t think I will ever live down.
Through all the problems though, I still consider Dead Island an absolute must-play of this year. Sure, the glitches and graphical issues are pretty frustrating, but they’re not on Fallout: New Vegas levels of table-flipping rage. They’re most certainly worth wading through for the most refined, innovative melee combat system I’ve encountered this year; there is seriously nothing this year that’s made me more giddy than waiting, fire axe cocked, as a zombie bumrushes me, knowing that at the precise moment I can unleash the fire axe and behead the poor fella instantly. I’m not one to have a game keep me entertained for long, but I’ve already pumped well over 80 hours into Dead Island, and at least a quarter of it has just been unsupervised exploration of the vast worlds, and creating utter chaos at the hands of my trusty poison katana. The fall gaming season is quickly approaching, but do not let Dead Island fall by the wayside. For all its faults, it is truly an achievement of the year.