After releasing a rather excellent debut trailer, Dead Island rapidly built up a surge of hype for it's September release date. With promises of 4 player co-op, combined with an idyllic island setting and plenty of gruesome zombies, there was already enough reasons for players to get excited about it. The trailer may have already successfully heightened expectations, but now that the game has been here for a few weeks now, was this hype justified?
Well, to put it shortly, mostly. Whilst the majority of the game is excellent, it just does not feel completely polished. Dead Island follows the same fun co-operative gameplay that has been seen in Borderlands and Left 4 Dead respectively, but thankfully, it is not a straight forward copy. Sure, inspiration has definitely been drawn from other RPG titles, but Dead Island thrives frantic survival element. Combine this with great combat, and a variety of intriguing missions, and you've got a well-packaged game here.
The storyline is simple enough. A zombie outbreak has hastily spread through the idyllic island of Banoi, leaving a trail of distraction in it's wake. Many of the inhabitants have joined the hoard of walking dead, but thankfully there are some who were lucky enough to avoid the virus. You play as one of the four key survivors, who, somehow, is immune from this infectious disease. The game follows your chosen character as he or she help out the fellow survivors, whilst searching for a way off of the island. The story is prone to predictability at times, but the story is not what matters here. What matters is the gameplay itself.
Combining the typical elements of an RPG (levelling up, looting items, etc) with the type of frantic and intense game play found in other zombie games such as Left 4 Dead, Dead Island's gameplay is incredibly fun. Bashing in decomposing zombie brains is satisfying, to say the least. What works the most is the feeling of survival being held constantly by a tether. Weapons constantly break, leaving players searching for more, first aid kits (which are very similiar to Fallout 3's Stimpacks) are at times very sparse, and other factors definitely add to the "fight or flight" format that is being adopted here. This survival element is what makes Dead Island so appealing. It adds a touch of realism, as even though your chosen character is immune, this does not stop them from being taken down by the intense infected.
Players are free to explore the island as they wish, and the map adds a little structure for this exploration. The game is broken up into a series of maps, which divide the island into different explorable areas, such as the resort, city and jungle. Each area allows the player to discover new survivors, who, for the most part, have a few missions for you to complete. Players can stick to the structured storyline only if they wish, but the real fun comes in the exploration. Several surprises lie in exploring, so missing this opportunity seems like a real shame.
Missions range from the typical collecting quests which so many RPG's have dealt with before, to clearing zombies in particular areas, helping the survivors to rig up explosives or communicative devices, and then, unfortunately, there are a few escort missions. I for one have never been a fan of escorting missions, and I know there are many that agree with me here. The escort missions provide a few frustrating moments in the game which tarnished the experience a little for me at times. NPCs have a habit of getting stuck during journeys at times, and refuse to follow the player as they are guiding them to their destination. I had to restart a mission due to one of the characters I was supposed to be guiding refusing to climb a flight of stairs, for no particular reason. Upon researching this, it appears that the escort missions seem to provide the same frustrations to many people.
Dead Island's combat is primarily melee based, which forces the player to get up close and personal to the undead. Melee weapons are found all over the island, and there is a large variety to choose from. Players will start with the more basic weapons of paddles and broomsticks, but they will gain the ability to combine or create weapons as more objects are collected. The challenge comes in the constant need to repair or replace melee weapons. You cannot go through the whole game holding the same broomstick you picked up at the very beginning. Due to this, players will constantly be on the lookout for new weapons. Weapons breaking during a fight with a bunch of zombies creates an incredibly intense, and at times, scary game.
Those who are used to blasting zombies away in games such as Left 4 Dead will be surprised to see that firearms are overshadowed by melee weapons here. Guns and ammo are available, but they are much more sparse, and tend to deal damage much slower than most of the melee weapons do anyway. Taking on the role of a blades specialist, I found the game to be much easier when relying on knives and sharp melee weapons than the handguns and shotguns found later on in the game.
Unfortunately, where Dead Island suffers a little is in the single player mode. It is evident that this game is aimed more towards co-op players. The missions seem far more challenging when played alone than when completed with a friend or two. Also, the fun gets a little stale after a while when beating it solo. This lack of split-screen single console co-op is also a downer, as playing it on the same TV screen as a room-mate, friend, partner, etc, would have been excellent.
As previously mentioned, there is a feeling of Dead Island not being completely polished. The graphics can at times be a little poor, especially during the cut-scenes, where the characters look expressionless, somewhat lifeless. Zombies or NPCs often get stuck on scenery (something which makes completely certain quests a complete challenge at times). It is hard to ignore the glitches when they hinder the completion of a quest. I had to reload my game several times over the course of the game in order to complete a quest. The game also suffers from an anti-climatic ending, which is a little disappointing, especially as the game builds up to what should have been an action-packed crescendo.
Dead Island can be fully completed (achievements and all) in around 30 to 40 hours. Playing it solo may be a little boring by the time these hours rack up, so it's definitely recommended to find a friend or two to plow through it with. There is no denying that Dead Island was designed as a multiplayer game first and foremost, which successfully manages to be an enjoyable and satisfying experience. The mission related glitches sour the experience somewhat, so I only hope that these are patched up soon enough, but overall, the game is a joy to complete.
I am currently reading the Dead Island novel. Stay tuned for a review soon!