Zombiephiles the world around have had their eye on Dead Island since the fantastic official trailer was released seven months ago. Now that we’ve finally have had a chance to sit down and really sink our teeth into Dead Island, we’ve got mixed, but generally positive, feelings. On the one hand, Dead Island’s open, “sandbox” style gameplay is incredibly liberating, as compared to other popular zombie games like Left 4 Dead. That said, the game falls short of its “Fallout 3 with zombies” billing, losing points with us for several small disappointments which, cumulatively, weaken the gameplay and believability of Dead Island, transforming what could have been a great zombie game into just a good zombie game.
Dead Island is an open-ended zombie game, meaning that players don’t have to travel through a “level” like most other zombie games. Instead, from the minute the prologue ends, the player has immediately access to large sections of the island. As the player progresses through the game’s main plotline, other sections of Banoi Island, the fictional tropical resort where the game takes place, open up for exploration. The game is primarily quest-based; the player interacts with various survivors around the island, performing (sometimes ridiculous) tasks for them in exchange for cash, weapons, weapon modifications, and other rewards.
Herein lies the game’s first problem: the quests are, for the most part, fairly repetitive. Both the main quests, which drive the plotline forward, and the optional side quests, fall into a very predictable set of buckets. Users are asked to fetch an item, find a character, clear out a building, activate an environmental object like a generator or a loudspeaker, etc, etc. The first few times you play through these quests, they’re fairly interesting, but as the game progresses and the side characters keep piling them on, they can start to get tedious. Fortunately the side quests are entirely optional, and players who don’t want to max out their experience points can simply skip them and stick to the main storyline to move through the game faster. Still, some of them are so completely ridiculous (the “find my teddy bear” quest springs to mind) that they ruin the general feeling of the game and make the player feel like he’s just being made to jump through hoops.
The game also features some light role-playing elements, including a somewhat bare-boned skills tree that allows players to customize their character’s abilities and enhance their stats. Leveling up gives players a single skill point to spend on their skill tree; once one skill on a particular level of the skill tree is maxed out, the next level becomes available. These skills are specific to the character that the player chooses to use; one character specializes in blunt weapons, another in bladed weapons, one in thrown weapons, and one in firearms. Most players will wisely choose to play the melee characters, since firearms don’t become widely available until about halfway through the game, and ammo capacity remains small, leaving ranged players at a disadvantage early on.
These characters are also the source of one of my biggest gripes with Dead Island, and one that would have been the easiest to fix. Two of the characters are male, and two are female. However, whenever NPC’s discuss the player, they invariably use the words “him” and “he,” even if the player is playing a female character. It’s a tiny detail, but a significant one: nothing kills believability faster than a game that allows users to play characters of either gender, then assumes that the player will choose to play a male. All Dead Island needed was to record to versions of any dialogue that involved your character, substituting female pronouns for the male ones.
One of the game’s more controversial elements is the weapon degradation feature, which sees melee weapons weakening over repeated use, dealing out diminishing damage until eventually they break and will need to be repaired at tool benches which are scattered around the island. Repairing items requires the user to spend some hard-earned cash, which the user can acquire from the bodies of zombies, by selling items to other players, or by searching around the environment. The speed with which melee weapons can degrade is often cited as a frustration for many players who don’t plan ahead by carrying multiple weapons with them. Personally, we Zombiephiles enjoyed this feature; it added an element of believability to the whole zombie scenario.
That believability, however, is shattered to some extent by the game’s weapon customization feature, which allows players to enhance their weapons, improving their stats and adding special attributes like electricity, fire, and so on. Players can use modification blueprints to create custom modifications for their weapons, combining their existing weapons with items found around the island in cabinets, trash cans, and other “boxes.” This has a couple of negative effects. First, it turns Dead Island into a box-breaker, rewarding players for searching every single possible place in each area, a process which, although fun at first, can eventually become quite tedious. Second, the effects that you can impart on your weapons are often completely ridiculous and unbelievable. I’m simply unclear on how one can combine some batteries, some wire, some electronic scrap and (of course) some duct tape to create a weapon which delivers high-voltage shocks to enemies. Furthermore, repairing these customized weapons doesn’t require any of the original components, further removing this feature from the realm of believability.
One area where Dead Island absolutely does excel is in the way the designers use the combination of high-quality graphics and excellent ambient sounds to create a legitimately scary, nerve-fraying atmosphere. The eerie sounds of zombies in the distance are made even scarier when you realize that they’re not entirely ambient; the only thing scarier than hearing the sound of a zombie howling in the distance is turning a corner and running directly into him. The lack of firearms early on and the fact that equipment degrades enhances the fear factor, creating the first zombie game in years that can be, at times, legitimately terrifying.
Then there is the topic of Dead Island’s baffling multiplayer functionality. The game can be played in either single player or multiplayer modes; multiplayer mode is entirely cooperative, meaning that multiple players can join together to complete the game’s quests. At first glance, this sounds interesting, but in reality, it’s confusing and difficult to deal with. If users don’t pay attention, the game will default to multiplayer mode, meaning that other players can join in on your game with absolutely no warning. If you’re the type to press ESCAPE and eat your dinner with the game paused, it can be extremely confusing when you return to the computer and discover that three perfect strangers have been completing your quests while you’ve been standing around like a robot. Players receive a notice on screen when another player is nearby, allowing them to jump into other players games, but there’s very little notification when players join your game. Furthermore, quest tracking in multiplayer mode is confusing and difficult and players for the most part simply run to the nearest objective and kill stuff.
All in all, Dead Island is a good zombie game, one that’s worth playing. If you do all the side quests, the game can be quite long, so it’s worth the price tag. Replay value is improved by the fact that you can play together with your friends, but the game loses points for its repetitive quests, poor voice acting, and the various tiny issues that can start to get frustrating after a while. The studio has said that they’re focusing on bug fixing instead of rushing out the upcoming DLC, so users can hope to see some fixes to the various issues plaguing gameplay.
Final verdict: 7 moans out of 10.
Oh, and one final item of note: Deep Silver, the team who designed the game, is British. This has led to a constant complaint by players in the United States: consistently climbing into the wrong side of the game’s various vehicles.