Reviewed: November 20, 2011
Released: July 16, 2011
Although zombies have been a fixture in entertainment for nearly a century, the past few years have seen a veritable explosion in the genre – between the books, television shows, films, and of course games, the undead have definitely become the new chic. A quick scan of Wikipedia (so you know it’s true!) shows that in the past three years there have been over 215 zombie films, 150 zombie video games, and 17 zombie books released. Considering the fact that those three years alone rival the three prior decades combined, it is fairly obvious that zombies are a hot commodity.|
But while the undead may seem like a goldmine for developers these days, the sheer amount of competition is making it increasingly more difficult for new titles to stand out in the crowd; any new product must have a special “hook” to garner attention. Over time, we have experienced all different combinations of zombies; from slow and plodding to fast and agile, from stealthy and startling to swarming and encircling. We have played as single players and as teams – heck, we have even played as the zombies themselves. Each of these experiences has their own appeal – some better than others, but unique nonetheless.
Polish developer Techland (Call of Juarez) aims to wrap the myriad zombie experiences into a single package with Dead Island – a title that at first glance does not offer much that has not been done before, but given time it becomes obvious that the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Obviously, as a four-player cooperative zombie slayer Dead Island is going to draw numerous comparisons to the Left 4 Dead franchise – and deservedly so, as Dead Island borrows heavily from Valve’s flagship zombie title. In fact, my initial reaction to Dead Island was disappointment due to the fact that it so closely resembled Left 4 Dead, that it seemed little more than a low-budget knockoff. But once the story took legs and I began to explore the fictional island setting of Banoi, I quickly realized that Dead Island offers much more freedom and customization than Valve’s shooter, and is every bit as much a first-person RPG in the vein of Fallout 3 or Far Cry.
Like Left 4 Dead, Dead Island allows gamers to choose one of four existing characters (two women, two men) with which to play through the storyline, which can be played as either single player or cooperatively thorough the 20-odd hours. Unlike Left 4 Dead, none of these 4 characters is all that appealing; from the failing rap star to the spoiled jock, each has their own dislikeable personalities and closet skeletons that makes it difficult to align with. Each character specializes in certain abilities, that when analyzed underscore Techland’s intent for Dead Island focus more on close-quarters melee combat than on firearms.
The story follows the selected character, who after a hard night of partying on the Banoi island resort is awakened by a deep slumber by an evacuation alarm. Attempting to escape the hotel, the character is overcome by a swarm of zombies and the screen goes black. The character later awakens in a safehouse, having been rescued by hotel lifeguard and fellow survivor, Sinamoi. The character learns that he exhibits signs of immunity to the impending infection, and as so is asked to perform a series of tasks to secure the main lifeguard building as a central safehouse.
The gameplay revolves around the central storyline which has the characters teaming up with the island’s other survivors in an attempt to get to safety. I do not want to give too much of the story away, but some of the locals turn out to be different than expected. In addition to the central storyline, the game also includes countless side-missions, or what I affectionately call the “laundry list.” These fetch quests that make up a majority of the 20-plus hours it will take to complete Dead Island, as Banoi is filled with scores of seemingly helpless NPC’s who request the gamer to perform tasks ranging from the mundane and simple, to the complex and frustrating.
Admittedly, this aspect of the story is the very gameplay that has so totally worn me out on titles like Mass Effect and Fallout. Often, these long lists of “find me four of [blank] and I will give you the [blank]…” can get overly tedious, but Dead Island does a fairly good job of keeping it all in check by providing ample direction between objectives and maintaining a white-knuckle sense of vulnerability throughout the game.
Dead Island has been in development since 2008, and it shows in the visual quality which is decidedly dated for a 2011 release. The environments appear fantastic from a stationary position, but start moving and the seams begin to show. Character animations are stiff and lifeless (oh c’mon, you know what I mean…), textures delay too long before drawing in, and the environments lack any form of interaction. While these visual flaws were common in the early days of this generation – especially with multi-platform ports – they set a low-budget ambiance when compared to the current fare.
On the audio front however, Techland has done an astounding job in integrating sound into the gameplay. Oftentimes, the first indication that a zombie is stalking is the subtle grunting and rustling of bushes behind – this is not unlike other survival horror classics like Silent Hill and Condemned in which simple audible clues could send a shiver down a gamer’s spine.
While Dead Island is definitely centered on a single campaign, the entire game can be played through a unique online proximity-based drop-in drop-out system like what we saw with the recent Test Drive Unlimited titles. It is difficult to explain, but here’s how it works: gamers can play singularly in their own local campaign, yet all the while are considered persistently online when inside a safehouse. As a fellow gamer (in his/her own local game) enters the same safehouse area, both players are flagged of each other’s presence and offered to link-up for cooperative play.
Dead Island automatically matches players of similar character level and storyline progression to keep things fresh and exciting for all involved. Personally I was a bit tentative the first time I accidentally allowed a fellow gamer to join in, but was definitely helpful and we quickly became a team of two mowing through the hordes of attacking zombies.
Dead Island places a heavy emphasis on close-quarters melee combat, with weapons covering the gamut of sticks, bottles, boards, pipes, knives and eventually to high powered rifles. The weapons degrade over time so players will need to maintain constant upkeep using one of the neatest aspects of Dead Island; the workbench. The workbench allows gamers to repair, reinforce, level up, combine, and modify different items and objects found throughout the level. Nearly every corpse leaves behind some form of loot, and the environments are littered with boxes and bags to be inspected for money and items, providing gamers with ample funds and gadgetry to fiddle with.
I admit that I was not expecting much from Dead Island, given the oversaturated subject matter and the delayed development time. And while the game definitely has its share of weaknesses, it is pleasantly surprising in its own right. Dead Island may lack the overall run-and-gun intensity of valve’s classic Left 4 Dead, but it makes up for it with the unique quest-based storyline and gameplay customization options. The market may be oversaturated with zombies right now, but Dead Island definitely has what it takes to stand out in the crowd.