I am slowly but surely falling in love with Dead Island, developer Techland’s wannabe RPG. After having spent what feels like an eternity traversing the game’s virtual tropical paradise I’m not quite sure how to catagorise this experience, but one thing I know for sure: I had a hell of a lot of fun playing it. Sure, the game itself is riddled with glitches and the melee combat takes a while of getting used to, but there is such variety in the mission structure that any issues the game has are quickly diluted by its sheer scope and length. This is Fallout with Zombies, and you’re going to love every single bit of it…if your guts aren’t ripped to shreds first!
What Dead Island Got Right
Four Characters, Four Experiences – There are four main characters in Dead Island, each with their own deep skill tree and gameplay style. How you wish to approach the experience should be replicated in your character choice, so choose wisely when you first start the game up. Take notice of each character’s strengths and weaknesses, because Dead Island holds nothing back in the zombie department: they are relentless, quick and aggressive, and won’t stop while you’re in sight. (Don’t forget to check out our Dead Island Skills Tree Guide.
First up is Logan Carter, an all-rounder that is probably the most accessible of the four survivors. He isn’t especially skilled in one area more than another, which makes him both “valuable and a liability”. Then there’s Purna, the gun-wielding weapon specialist that will satisfy your gunplay cravings. Sam B is the tank of the group, physically powered enough to take out raging zombies with his bare hands. Then there’s Xian Mei the assassin that is particularly impressive with melee tools.
Each character controls in a specific way, offering four very different experiences. With such a wide range of weapons to use and zombies to attack, having this level of variety is welcomed, although expected.
Character Progression – All four characters have three skill trees: fury, combat and survival, although Xian Mei has a ‘Blood Rage’ tree in place of fury. These trees can be upgraded using XP earned throughout the game. Most skills within each tree have 3 different levels, with each upgrade improving a particular skill. Upgrading Sam B’s ‘Big Stick’ rating, for example, will see him cause more damage when using two-handed weapons.
This level of player progression adds a layer of depth simply not present in contemporary first-person shooters, and this is ultimately what separates the experience from others in the genre. The game’s RPG elements put a strong focus on planning, as the ways in which you approach combat should influence how you improve your character’s skill tree. It makes for a considerably more personal and structured experience, taking the game away from the mindless combat, instead blending it with deep character progression that drags you further into the world.
Massive Map – The map in Dead Island is large and lush, with a variety of different landscapes and landmarks to traverse and experience. The design of the world really does compliment the pacing of both the story and gameplay, and there is a really nice blend of tropical agriculture and eerie, dark interiors to venture through. The size of the map thankfully doesn’t compromise the intense and claustrophobic feel of being attacked by zombies in a virtual setting, as the zombies seem to converge in large groups around the map, meaning it’s essentially impossible to venture into an area without seeing, hearing or running-away from a ravenous zombie.
Lengthy Campaign – With such a large world comes a ton of exploration and thankfully Dead Island has you covered in the mission stakes. There are a seemingly endless number of side quests to tackle alongside the main missions, and after having put in close to 20-hours, I feel that there is still a lot more to find and see in the Dead Island universe. You’re looking at close to a 30-hour game and there is a stack of content to work your way through. Even if you don’t follow the mission structure directly from the get-go, you can simply roam the map and kill zombies with all sorts of different weapon variations. It is truly an open, free world for you to explore.
Focus on Survival – The zombies in Dead Island are relentless. They never, ever let up, and they’re absolutely everywhere. You will not be able to get away from them. Surprisingly, the game doesn’t really punish you for dying – a death will simply see you respawned with no money and minimal consequence – but that doesn’t really compromise the pacing or suspense the zombies create in the world. Rarely did I ever just give up and die, because the world just doesn’t call for it. Sure, dying can be the easy way out, but the tone of the experience is very reliant on a feeling of survival, making death essentially a non-option. The game doesn’t want you to die: it wants you to survive and fight your way to the end for as long as possible.
If you take that direction on board you’ll find the experience to be considerably more rewarding. Techland has done a superb job in creating a world that constantly has you on your toes. Whenever a zombie is nearby, your heart will start pounding as they mercilessly attack and lunge at you. All you’ll want to do is run away and get as close to the next objective as possible. As far as making a tense, suspenseful and scary zombie experience goes, Techland has nailed it.
Accessible Co-op – Dead Island is not as reliant on cooperative gameplay as what you might have thought. There’s enough to do in the game on your own to justify playing it without a friend, but the co-op experience is definitely worth checking out. It’s easy to drop-in and thankfully a level system has been implemented so as to match players with others close to their skill level. It does make moving your way through the island considerably less challenging, and what you’ll find in playing with a friend or two is that you can focus more on objectives and less about killing zombies. With a team of players there to help you, sprinting through zombies and missing out on valuable XP is no longer a necessary direction to take as the load can be shared among your teammates. The pacing is considerably different to that of Left 4 Dead, as Dead Island is quite obviously more driven by story and exploration, but it shares a similar level of addiction and enjoyment with Valve’s classic shooter series.
What Dead Island Got Wrong
Melee is hit-and-miss – Melee isn’t terrible but it’s far from perfect. It takes quite a bit of getting used to, but any gamers familiar with games like Fallout or even Sega’s fantastic Condemned series will feel right at home with the controls. Perhaps not quite as refined as what’s on offer in the latter, frustration can set in when multiple zombies are attacking you. Gunplay is solid and a little more consistent, but the melee really is dependant on the skill level of the character and the weapon you’re using. This unbalances the experience a bit, as it can take quite a while before you’ve worked your melee stats up to the level that you would like.
That said, the fact that you can interact with pretty much every loose weapon makes the environment your toy box, and there really is nothing better than kicking a large beach ball into the head of an unsuspecting zombie.
Presentation Issues – While Techland is planning to rectify a bunch of presentation and gameplay issues, that doesn’t justify some of the game-ending issues that plague the experience. Some missions can’t be completed later in the gamer for whatever reason, clipping occurs often with fists, weapons and characters mysteriously disappearing into walls, and textures sometimes don’t load at all. As for the cutscenes, well, let’s just say that Dead Island has some of the most awful, insulting Australian accents ever recorded. They’re simply terrible.
Dry Story – It’s a shame that the scope of the game world and the length of the experience aren’t complimented with an engaging and interesting story. The idea is sound – a small island off the coast of Papua New Guinea is now home to the walking dead – but there isn’t much actual depth to the narrative, nor any real commentary on human behavior, as is often a theme in zombie survival films (the remake of Dawn of the Dead perfectly touched on the human condition).
The Final Verdict
Dead Island is an addictive whirlwind of action, blood and gore, set on a gorgeous tropical landscape packed to the brim with content and, most importantly, zombies. And boy do those zombies hate your guts! They are relentlessly sinister and aggressive, and the game does a fantastic job in keeping survival the number one core objective. Unfortunately, some pretty serious presentation issues hamper the game, and the melee system is hit-and-miss in the game’s opening acts. Those issues aside, Dead Island has too much going for it to be overly hampered by those concerns, and its addictive character progression and mission structure make it a holiday destination well worth saving up for.