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Game Review: Dead Island
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Dead Island

Dead Island
Xbox 360 I PS3 I PC
DEVELOPER: Techland
PUBLISHER: Deep Silver
RELEASE DATE: September 06, 2011

Ever since the release of that incredible first cinematic trailer, fans of horror video games and the zombie sub–genre have been frothing at the mouth to get their hands on the latest title from developer Techland (Call of Juarez and its two sequels, Bound in Blood and The Cartel) and publisher Deep Silver, Dead Island.

The game takes place on the island of Banoi at a beautiful vacation resort. Unfortunately, the beauty is quickly diluted by pure hell when a plague breaks out, turning most of the tourists on the island into bloodthirsty zombies and leaving you to fight to survive and try and escape the many horrors you’ll encounter.

But does the game live up to all the hype created by that first trailer, or does it fall a little short?

First of all let me just say I never allow my anticipation levels for a game to elevate over a cinematic trailer (apart from Skyrim, perhaps). It’s a silly thing to do. Cinematic trailers can be fantastic to watch, but until you see some solid gameplay footage it’s in your best interest to remain unassuming. Judging by online reactions, however, I feel that a whole lot of people had absurdly high expectations for Dead Island for this exact reason, and that may have come back to bite them…both literally and figuratively.

The game begins with a cinematic of someone getting beyond drunk at a local club before passing out cold. You see the four main characters you can play as throughout the opening, so it’s unclear if this is meant to be you or not, but nevertheless, you then choose who you want to play as and start off in your hotel room. Leaving the room you’ll notice right away that something is very much wrong, and after a little exploring a voice will guide you to a safe place where you’ll learn a little about what’s going on from a group of other survivors.

It’s here that you also learn that you are somehow immune to the disease, and can survive a bite or scratch without turning into one of them yourself. Obviously you can’t run out and play shuffleboard with the walking corpses, but it opens the door for you to assist these survivors with tasks like clearing an area, locating missing loved ones, and finding food and water, and also possibly help save them.

Your character being immune is clearly necessary as a plot device because things would be a little complicated if you turned to a zombie every time you got attacked—and you will definitely be attacked—but it does also affect the gameplay. It’s still pretty terrifying when a zombie pops out of nowhere or when you encounter some of the harder and more intimidating ones, but it would be a hell of a lot scarier if you had that fear of catching the disease embedded in your brain. Again, it was necessary for the game to work, but sacrifices to the fear factor were made as well.

As for the zombie killing, to be perfectly honest, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. One of the things Dead Island has going for it (that some people disliked, for some strange reason) is that it does take place on an island resort and there are very few guns available. This forces you to grab whatever you can find—a boat paddle, a bat, knives and machetes and cleavers, just to name a few—and make the best of it. The result is a ton of Shaun of the Dead–like head bashing and skull cracking, and some of the bloodiest, goriest gameplay I’ve ever experienced. On top of that, you can pick up mods along the way that allow you to create fun and unique weapons for all your zombie–killing needs, such as deodorant bombs, nail bats, torches, and electrified blades. Guns do come into it more as you progress through the game, but there’s nothing like a melee kill.

The first few hours of your game won’t be easy, as you’ll be inexperienced in battle. But as you move forward you’ll gain XP and can upgrade your character to suit your playing style. I immediately maxed out my kicking ability (you can put a boot to an attacking zombie to gain a little distance from them or even put them down on the ground where you can spring a full–on attack on them) and my one–handed weapon damage to increase my chances for re–ending their lives quickly.

But though the zombie–killing is a lot of fun and well–worth checking the game out for (if you’re into these sorts of games, of course), there are plenty of not–so-good things about it as well.

The RPG elements are fairly minimal; you’ll have conversations with people but they will be very brief, consisting of them telling you to go and do something or get something or clean out an infested building or location, and you don’t choose what you want your character to say apart from “yes” or “no.” Sadly, this makes for some painfully annoying NPCs (non–playable characters) who repeat the same lines over and over and over for as long as you can bear to stand in their general vicinity. To make matters worse, the voice acting is poor and can be a little distracting.

You’ll also find your fair share of head–scratching moments in the game. There’s one mission where what’s assumed to be a young girl wants you to fetch her all–important teddy bear for her, leading you to take on a number of vicious flesheaters on the way, but she looks exactly the same as all of the other female NPCs: in their late 20s to early 30s or so, wearing a bikini. It’s borderline creepy. Or another quest that sees you going to some bungalows set on some docks in the shallow part of the ocean over just a few feet of water. Attempting to avoid the zombies on these docks after completing the quest, I jumped into the water and headed for the beach. But this “open world” doesn’t allow that, and will put you back at the last checkpoint, forcing you to stay on the docks and deal with whatever beasties are there.

And speaking of checkpoints, I’m someone who thinks that every single game should allow the player to save wherever they want to save at this point in time. There’s something so frustrating about a game that saves when it wants to save, so when you come super close to completing a mission but die after fighting through a swarm of undead, you’re forced to do it all over again. Perhaps that’s just me—some people thrive on that challenge—but I play games for story above all else and do not want to have to keep doing the same things over and over again. Always let players save whenever they wish to.

Then there’s the workbenches, where you can repair your favorite weapons or make special new ones. These are incredibly useful in the game (weapons become damaged and useless way faster than you’ll like them to) but in order to repair your weapons, you’ll be charged a significant amount of money you collect along the way from luggage and bodies (hundreds of dollars to completely repair something). Now, this makes sense in theory, but these are random workbenches in the middle of a massive plague. There’s no one around to pay this money to, you just have to pay it. It seems to me like a workbench would be a place where you should just simply be able to repair your broken down weapons and save the money for buying and selling various things from the traders you’ll encounter.

I’m someone who could never get into the other big zombie games out there: Left 4 Dead had little appeal to me and Dead Rising is fun for a short time, but grows old quickly. I’ve always said that the best possible zombie game would be one where these walking dead exist, but are not the primary focus. Much like something along the lines of a Fallout 3, where you’d get a great story in an open world that would see you move from safety zone to safety zone, and if you ventured out of those areas for exploring or quests, you’d have to deal with the zombies that roamed. Going into Dead Island I had hopes that this might finally be that kind of game I’ve been craving, but, sadly, it was lacking in a little too many areas to pull it off.

All of that said, I still had fun with the game just in terms of pure zombie carnage. There’s just something about killing zombies that will always be fun to certain people, and apparently I am one of those people. It’s also worth mention that playing the game with friends is supposedly even better. I was unable to try this option out, unfortunately, but do hope to try it in the future.

The way I look at Dead Island is that it’s like a good B–movie. It’s not going to score big box office numbers or swarms of fans, but it is going to be a new favorite guilty pleasure for a lot of people, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I do wish it had more to offer, especially in the RPG areas so it was easier and more enjoyable to inject yourself into that world, but I still enjoyed the things it did do well and, if you’re into zombies, you might too.

Trailer

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