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Ever dreamed of a vacation on a tropical island paradise? Ever dreamed of a vacation consisting of bludgeoning, shattering, stabbing, slashing, shooting, burning, electrocuting, and exploding hordes of bathing-suit clad zombies? Well, then Dead Island is the place for you!
Dead Island, the latest from Polish developer Techland defies simple classification. It is instead defined by the many games it seems to lovingly, if not shamefully, pull inspiration from. The survival horror themes borrow heavily from Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, and latter-day Resident Evil, the setting is reminiscent of Far Cry in climate, detail, and scope, whereas the game's structure and core mechanics are drawn from Borderlands with a dollop of Fallout 3 mixed in. Essentially it's an open-world first-person survival horror action RPG. Yeah, it's a mouthful.
The game begins with its own version of Spring Break gone wild. Unfortunately, the wildness exceeds the typical MTV-style hijinx (concerts, drunkenness, regrettable orgies, etc.) when a full-blown zombie outbreak is unleashed upon the unsuspecting bikini-clad denizens of Banoi (henceforth known as Dead Island). Your character, one of four possible zombie-slaying warriors, is immune to the zombie scourge. While the "heroes" each have a brief introductory bio, it’s essentially irrelevant—they're are defined by their combat abilities, not their (nonexistent) story and depth. This is hardly a fault, as Dead Island isn’t really a game about story; still, even after playing the game for upwards of 50 hours, I can barely remember the character names and instead think of them by such monikers as Shrill Sword Lady or Cocky Jerk Throwing Guy. There is one thing the characters have in common: they're all annoying, and you'll be sick of the three or four repeated reaction lines they spout non-stop within minutes.
While a first-person experience, Dead Island is kind of a bizarro FPS. Where in most games shooting is the focus and melee combat feels tacked on and clunky, Dead Island is the exact opposite. You'll spend the majority of the game using a plethora of melee weapons, from commonplace items like sticks, oars, and wrenches, to tricked-out electrified machetes and flaming baseball bats. You'll use these homemade weapons of mass destruction to dispatch your zombie foes in truly brutal and gory fashion.
Melee combat feels weighty and substantial. The weapons have a very tangible heft, and the speed, range, and swing style are different enough from weapon to weapon to make each type feel distinct. Edged weapons are quick and can sever limbs, but tend to have short range, weak durability, and minimal ability to stop and knock down enemies. Blunt weapons tend to swing slower and can't sever limbs, but generally have greater range, durability, and impact, plus they can break bones—not severing limbs, but making them equally useless.
All weapons can also be thrown, which is also a key form of inventory management to get rid of the otherwise worthless fodder weapons that you'll find littered all over the environment. Thrown weapons can thankfully be recovered (they don't flicker and fade away 90s brawler style), but occasionally if you wander too far away, the area will reset and the item will disappear. While throwing is a useful mechanic—and the primary combat strength of one of the playable characters—it leads to some head scratching situations—like how a thrown baseball bat will do more damage than a swung one, or how explodable fuel tanks and gas canisters can be detonated by throwing a stick, but not by powerful melee attacks.
Firearm failure aside, Dead Island's action is simple, brutal, and satisfying. Whether it’s smashing a zombie’s ribs with a crowbar or stomping through the skull of a downed infected, impact feels heavy and real. Zombie limbs are liberated with geysers of glorious gore, and shattered bones and mangled intestines are on full display as you flay the flesh from your undead foes.
The game's non-gore related mechanics aren't quite as successful. While looting and leveling serve as the primary carrot-on-a-stick mechanics to keep you drawn in, these aspects often feel synthetic, contrived, and video game-y in a game that otherwise aims for the usual survival-horror style of gritty realism. Much like other loot-based games, the loot uses color-coded rareness indicators and procedurally generated descriptors. This works well in fantastic settings where the items are imaginative implements of destruction with whimsical design and effects that match their gaudy names. It doesn't work quite so well in Dead Island when you're finding a Level 12 Dependable Homemade Diving Knife or a Level 34 Tiring Flimsy Wrench.
Also, while smashing zombie brains continues to be fun for many hours, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Dead Island is a long game. Too long. Playing through the game without getting sidetracked will probably take a good 25-30 hours, and you can easily put in double that if you want to explore every inch of Dead Island. Act I, the resort section, is the highlight of the game, as the area is beautiful, detailed, and strikes a wonderful balance between combat, survival, and exploration. The game's focus gets narrower and narrower as it progresses, and once you've come up with a go-to gameplay style (kick, slash, stomp, repeat, etc.) and found your favorite weapon(s) you'll find yourself just running from quest marker to quest marker, largely ignoring everything in between.
The game does offer a decent amount of replay value, not really by playing as the other characters (as they're not compellingly different enough to warrant a whole new playthrough), but mainly through its multiplayer. Dead Island supports a streamlined hop-in, hop-out cooperative gameplay, where an onscreen prompt will pop up when a potential multiplayer companion is nearby. Jump in and you can accompany 1-3 other players through their own zombie misadventures.
Multiplayer is a vicious and violent good time, but it highlights some of the weaknesses of the game as a whole. Difficulty is very uneven throughout, with some areas being very slow with multiple players, and other areas being almost impossible to survive solo. Playing multiplayer also inherently changes the gameplay, becoming less about survival and exploration and more about non-stop fighting, looting, and trading. Also, while hopping in to a multiplayer game is easy, hopping out? Not so much, as there's a good chance your quest progress won't be saved.
And, unfortunately, multiplayer progress not saving is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the technical problems of Dead Island. The game is beset with serious performance and stability issues, from terrible tearing and microstuttering to random crashes, and save deletion. Many users have reported unplayable framerates—and clipping, lighting, and collision issues are present in many areas—and particularly noticeable in multiplayer. Nauseating motion blur, stick figure shadow maps, extreme light bloom, and a muted color palette also diminish the otherwise nice looking Dead Island. To make it worse, most of the graphics options, even simple ones like FSAA, are only changeable through altering archived game files in notepad.
Perhaps the most damning sin, however, is Dead Island's extreme case of consolitis in its UI and control design. The game supports mouse and keyboard or controller, but it's clearly designed with controller in mind. The analog swing control method—the preferred style of melee combat—is not even usable on mouse and keyboard without file modification. Targeting uses a non-toggleable auto-aim-like reticle that snaps in on specific enemy body parts—not terribly noticeable in melee, but horribly consolized when throwing or shooting. Inventory management and the radial weapon-switching menu are infuriatingly slow and unwieldy with a mouse and keyboard. And, some of the game's quick time events, like shaking off zombies or smashing through doors are goofy with mouse and keyboard controls.
Ultimately, Dead Island is a lot like its own weapon degradation system—it hits hard at first, but eventually falls apart. There's a lot of fun to be had, particularly for those partial to stats, numbers, loot, and multiplayer co-op, but—perhaps to be expected from such an ambitious, genre-defying mashup—not everything quite comes together. Much like the shambling, limb-dragging zombies you'll face by the boatload, Dead Island is an always-gory, always-brutal, cobbled-together mess that could use just a bit more brains.
$50, www.deadisland.com, ESRB: M
Brutal, satisfying combat; huge, detailed world; tons of loot; fun co-op multiplayer.
Poor UI and control; numerous performance and stability issues; gets repetitive.