- Street Date:
- September 6th, 2011
- Reviewed by:
- Thomas Spurlin
- Review Date:1
- October 20th, 2011
- Game Release Year:
- Xbox 360
- Deep Silver
- ESRB Rating:
- M (Mature)
It started with an announcement teaser: Deep Silver and Techland unleashed a three-minute stretch of CG-footage depicting a family being ravaged by quick-footed zombies, with stirring orchestral music and slow-motion movement emotionalizing a young girl’s transformation into one of the mindless monsters. The trailer invoked deep feeling, mixed artful subtlety with over-the-top gore, and, put bluntly, didn’t actually represent the game’s attributes themselves; no in-game footage and nearly none of the actual story elements were present, leaving it as little more than an effective animated horror short not even created by its engineers. What it did, by design, was draw attention to the game, one that has suffered a handful of delays that stalled its release. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dead Island isn’t more deeply-involving or restrained, like the trailer suggests. Shrug that off, though, because what it does end up being – a melting pot of zombie-media influence, quasi role-playing depth, and sandbox freedom – still delivers a viscerally engrossing experience, threadbare and one-dimensional as it may be.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
Whether Dead Island will jibe with the gamer or not will depend on the controls, the fierce isolated environment, and the intensity of the bloody rough-and-tumble combat, and not with the almost nonexistent story. Instead of something stirring, like the family-based intensity in the trailer (or something akin to Fallout’s desperate crawl across a wasteland to find someone), we’re given the choice of four characters with their own individual back-stories, and the storytelling does nearly no leg-work behind the exposition. Essentially, it forces the user to cook up their own interest in the characters based on what they know about them: an undercover Asian woman with blade-wielding skills, a washed-up rapper, etc. Whoever you choose, they wake up in a trashed hotel room on the island of Banoi after a night of boozing, only to find out that the paradise locale has been infected with an illness that transformed the affected into zombies -- and anyone bitten also turns into flesh-eaters. You’re not really searching for anyone specific, just trying to survive and help people at locations across the island.
But you’re in luck: your character – again, no matter which one you choose -- has a specific, rare blood-type that makes them immune to the zombie illness, putting you in the unlucky position of having the ability to move from place to place, take damage, and not turn into one of the monsters. While it’s an easy way to essentially ensure immunity as you tear through hordes of zombies that others cannot, you’ll soon discover that Dead Island rewards you with going along with that easy plot device, and that you’ll be glad the threat of infection doesn’t enter into the picture. Because you’re going to fight a lot of zombies. I mean, a lot; sure, one or two will run, walk, or lumber towards you, but so will seven, eight, ten … a full-on wave of them. And you’ll either want to take them on with whatever weapons you have in-hand, which will beef up your level (more on that in a bit), or you’ll want to toggle the run button and bolt away as fast as you can. You can still die, mind you, if you don’t stumble onto energy drinks or protein bars for nourishment (that MUST be used at that particular location, and cannot be saved for later), but you won’t turn. And when you die, you’ll simply pay a death tax and be resurrected at a nearby checkpoint. With the means, you’ll keep on kicking.
Several types of zombies come to mind when thinking about the creatures, from mindless Romero walkers to the frothing-at-the-mouth marathon runners in 28 Days Layer, and you might be wondering what kinds you’ll be dealing with here. The answer: a mixture of all of them. Deep Silver and Techland culled influence from a slate of sources – from movies and TV to other video games, like Dead Rising and Resident Evil – to breathe life into Dead Island’s horror elements, and the balance they’ve stricken creates a ruthless, varied, on-edge atmosphere that will likely get you to jump from your seat a few times along the way. What’s interesting is that the size and style of the zombies don’t necessarily dictate difficulty; muscling through a pack of slower, weaker ones can be just as volatile as confronting one or two brawny “brutes”, and you even get a bit of an advantage when dealing with the voracious runners (especially if you’re using a bladed weapon). Instead, the difficulty of the zombies hinges on the character’s level, and at times the aggressiveness of a pack of high-level zombies leads to overwhelmed, painful deaths. And they respawn, so prepare for that the next time you roll through an area.
Dead Island can be tough, but it’s not because of the unresponsiveness of the controls. Depe Silver and Techland stick to common first-person shooter mechanics as the standard control option; one trigger button as an attack, one button as a pick-up toggle, thumb-stick for running, and so on and so forth. Gamers versed in the first-person field will feel right at home with the controls, which are just as reactive as they are standard in their mapping. There’s another control trick up their sleeves, however: analog controls. Instead of simply mashing an attack button – say, with a blade – the analog controls enable the user to ratchet into a “combat mode” and use the thumbstick to swing their weapon in an applicable direction. Analog controls are give-and-take: it does offer a great deal more control and accuracy, especially when attempting to aim for zombie heads, but it takes a lot of acclimation and it’s not as versatile for those with slower reflexes or difficulties disseminating controls to their fingers.
You’ll need to tailor your character’s skill-set to combat the zombie advances, which Dead Island handles within a streamlined skill tree that revolves around the “type” you select. There’s no Bethesda-like character creation or skill / class customization, unfortunately, which limits the immersive effect that the game could have, as you can only select one of the pre-established characters and their accompanying specialties (firearms for one, blades for another, etc.); but once you start earning experience points and upgrading your attributes, there’s an enjoyable degree of depth to be found. The upgrade tree branches into a few categories: Fury, which pertains to what your character does in dire situations (rage, regeneration, etc); Combat, which obviously upticks strengths with your specialization (weapon integrity, improved fatigue, etc.); and Survival, which ranges from health improvements and loot discovery to lock-picking. You earn experience points both by completing missions and killing zombies, and the points pile together at a moderate pace – so there’s not a ton of time spent selecting options, but enough to give the light-RPG customization some variety.
Trekking across the island becomes the bread-‘n-butter to the Dead Island’s experience, which proves to be stunningly immersive with the island’s vast, lush appeal and, at the same time, genuinely harrowing while scrambling towards, away, or through the scattering of zombies. At first, the game mostly centers on cabanas, bars, and towers that are on or just a few clicks off the island’s shore, which looks out on the idyllic environment overrun by chaos. Techland and Deep Silver make it worth the time to explore the full breadth of the locations, because they all have suitcases and tables that carry needed loot – money, nourishment, and either weapons or gear to create/repair weapons. But once you’ve ventured from the island and into the streets of the main town and through the sewers, the game gets much tougher to navigate, in a challenging and good way. Visibility shifts with the rain and darkness that occasionally shroud the atmosphere, which allows the environment to always feel fresh. You’ll see some roughness in shadows and some hard-edged aliasing in foliage and contours, but the art design’s lighting and sculpting keep you engulfed in the naturally-beautiful anarchistic layout. And if huffing from place-to-place isn’t your thing, don’t worry: you’ll be able to drive cars to get a few places, and quick-travel maps are scattered about.
Once you dig into the locations across the map, you’ll discover plenty of things to do in Dead Island in terms of both primary missions and side-missions. Sure, the variety can be aggravatingly mundane and uninvolving – fetch a necklace or a bottle of booze, accompany an obnoxious non-fighter somewhere, do an extremely slow and intensive activity that puts you in danger, etc. – but it’s forgivable due to the sweat-inducing experience in weaving through the zombies while accomplishing them. Most of the missions are, at first, short and not all that extensive, but when you get to later points in the game, the missions grow more byzantine and connect more dots, such as flipping on speaker switches at varied points across a ramshackle, zombie-covered town. While bits and pieces of a survivalist narrative propel some of these sub-missions, such as finding food, they’re mostly just wedged into the mix to offer Point Bs while you’re jolting through Banoi. Of course, you’ll pick up on some strange game design anomalies, like: why does a group of people really need a few boxes of juice, found in gas stations at widespread points on the map, when a seemingly endless supply of energy drinks and protein bars (read: your health) can be found on the corner of every desk and atop every storage container in their hiding spot?
There’s a lot of inventory to thumb through, and not really of the interesting variety. First things first: it’s tough to not have cash in your pocket, because it’s everywhere across the island – on the zombies you kill, in luggage, and as rewards for completing missions. It’s used either to purchase merchandise at vendors or expend at the weapon repair stations, where you can bring your fatigued weapons up to 100% or create new weapons with schematics. Here’s where things get a little messy: there’s a large number of components across the island that are used primarily for weapon creation, but since the blueprints to assemble them are required, you’re often left with junk in your inventory waiting to be used “at a later date”. Eventually you’ll have access to a storage unit (actually, a person), which helps, and you can sell off components for extra cash if you don’t want to lug it around. When you’ve created your first weapon, though, it makes it pretty obvious that gathering the supplies together is worth the haul (the first I constructed was an electrified cane knife that did wonders in the rain). It does prove frustrating, though, that you can carry heavy-ass batteries and other components around, yet you can’t pocket spare cans of cola or protein bars for health, only med kits.
Have patience with the fickle selection of weapons, because it does get better than what’s originally available on the beach front. At first, there’s not much beyond a few sticks, weak machetes, baseball bats, oars, and other odd-and-end weapons, but eventually they grow more varied – hefty brass knuckles for hand-to-hand combat, smaller-sized samurai swords, and even the electrically-powered blade here and there. Even though the character might specialize in a particular style of weapon, each and every weapon across Banoi can be wielded by all the characters, and it’s wise to carry around a few of each variety just in case they break – blades shatter a lot quicker than blunt weapons. The on-screen display shows what degree of integrity your weapons are at, and your character clumsily verbalizes whether the weapon’s about to break. Picking up weapons can be a bit of a pill, though: it’s easy enough when you’ve got spare weight to carry, but if you’re nearing capacity, you tend to drop whatever weapon you’re physically holding to grab the new one (there’s no over-encumbered feature).
Similarly to Dead Rising, killing zombies in unique ways becomes a big draw to Dead Island. Can you simply run around hacking, slashing, pummeling, and shooting the zombies? Sure, but it’s a lot more satisfying to become a calculated predator, and you get rewarded for the control and inventiveness (in achievements, mostly, but also in some experience points). Like humans, the zombies have weak anatomical points, where slicing at the arm or leg with sever and, in tandem, weaken their advances; it’s wholly possible for one of the brutes to mosey over with no arms and still try and devour you, while, on the strategic side of things, aiming for the legs can slow them down. Of course, aiming for the head is a far-quicker means of killing them than simply attacking the torso, and Dead Island has its own visceral rewards for doing so. Environment also plays into it, somewhat similar to Bioshock, where electricity fries zombies when they’re wading in a pool of water and canisters of flammable/explosive fluid can be shot and exploded. Whether the thrill’s going to last will, largely, depends on how much the game’s demeanor has you wrapped up in a tense tizzy.
That’s Dead Island’s ace-in-the-hole, as well as the element that makes it worth playing: it’s occasionally scary, often extremely bloody, and kinetic from start to finish. You’re constantly going somewhere (when there’s not a cut-scene going), and the camera’s frantic movement while running around through the zombies lends an exaggerated degree of veracity. Does that make it fun? It depends on what you’re looking for out of the experience itself. Again, the story that strings everything together is a limp noodle, which leaves all the grueling events without a heart and soul encompassing them. But that’s a similar issue I have with horror films: if there’s not an underlying purpose behind the bloodiness, it’s not as successful. Gore-hounds and fiends for survival-horror will likely relish the grueling components without batting an eye, but those looking for a more complete experience in Dead Island – a lengthy experience at that, clocking in north of twenty hours for one play-through – will be left hacking-‘n-slashing and tearing across Banoi without discovering much of a narrative. The viscera and the environment, however, pick up that slack.
Describing the multiplayer component for Dead Island can be done with one adjective: seamless. When online mode is active and you’re playing through the game solo (you can toggle turning the activity on or off from the main menu, but not in-game), indicators arrive on-screen at any given position on the island that tell you what online players are available and nearby, whom you can physically see, and all you do is press a directional button to sync up with them. From there, you and your partner can throw down for as long as you like, replicating the experience of synching up with another survivor for a time period – and there’s no lobby menus, waiting period, anything. It’s fun to scramble around with a second player, and you’ll get some achievements out of the deal for associating with another person, but it’s not the all-drawing experience that the Left 4 Dead games offer.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
There are so many positive things to talk about with Dead Island’s 720p graphical presentation – and Techland’s Chrome Engine -- that it’s almost a buzzkill to also mention any roughness around the edges. From a pure design standpoint, the island of Banoi looks phenomenal. Lighting effects against water and other glistening textures responds brilliantly against movement on the surface, while sparks, electricity shards, crashing glass and falling rain compelling spatter into the environment. Free-moving trees, rushing water, and other island elements react well with the climate and exhibit incredibly seamless draw distance, creating a paradise location that’s deceivingly idyllic – especially with the nimble sun flowing down onto the surface.
But what about the zombies running through paradise? Yeah, they look pretty badass themselves; the caking of blood, the wear-‘n-tear on their faces, and their tattered clothing – if they’re wearing any – supports grimy, nasty texture. And it gets even better when you’re cutting through ‘em, allowing the red stuff to spurt in a bunch of different directions upon attacks. It makes some of the glaring, frayed-edge graphical burps unseemly: you can see the main character’s awkwardly-moving arms in the shadow, some heavy aliasing in foliage, and a handful of the facial rendering that look way too plastic. Aside from that, however, Dead Island is a well-composed visual experience that has all its innards in-place.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
I'm willing to concede to the notion that several of the sound effects – the snarling, screaming, and tearing of zombies – made my skin crawl on more than one occasion within the Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. A big part of the game’s experiential properties comes in waiting on the sprinting or full-on running zombies get to you for a well-placed attack, so you're constantly hearing their shrill yells growing closer and closer from the front-end of the stage, and it’s deliciously unsettling. There’s plenty of punch to be found in the sound design, as well: the crashing of vehicles claps with high-end force and some moderately-satisfying LFE digs, while the zip of electrical currents and the showering of rain rattles against the higher-end side of the design with plenty of crispness and natural balance. Some of the subtler sound effects kinda lackadaisically get the job done, like the slicing of a knife blade or the splashing of water in an echoic space, but the vigor at-work here delivers a hefty skin-crawler of a sonic experience.
Three factors play into the replay factor of Dead Island, first of which boils down to the four different characters. Simply, you have the option of working through the game with different skill-sets – blades in one play-through, blunt weapons in another, and so on – which forces the player to think about each style of attack in different ways. Blades and lengthier blunt weapons, not to mention firearms, make for different fighting styles, and hammering through the skill-tree with different styles in mind offers unique experiences. Secondly and somewhat tied into the first, the creation of different super-weapons using scattered schematics across the island will yield different powerful components while fighting through the hordes of zombies, and collecting and assembling these all-powerful instruments of horror might be enough to re-enter Banoi for a second round. Third is, of course, achievement progression, though obtaining those largely hinges on raching certain milestones – character level, kills with specific weapons, etc. – in one go-around.
Aside from that, it’s all going to depend on how much fun you have attacking zombies in clever and often vicious ways, and how much the sensation of simulated out-of-breath movement towards and away the monsters will excite you. As has been mentioned ad nauseum, the story ain’t any great shakes and really isn’t worth experiencing a second time, so a second play-through purely rides on the visceral components coursing within the game itself. And, on top of that, how much exploring the multiplayer will really deliver enough excitement for a return scrape through Banoi – though, those who have muscled through Left 4 Dead will find this an enjoyable-enough multiplayer diversion. Personally, I think that cranking through the game once, thoroughly exploring the nooks and crannies of the island, and throwing together a few steam-punk weapons would be enough.
Boiling down Dead Island to “Fallout 3 on an island overrun by zombies” is a lot more accurate than it probably should be, only replacing the intriguing underlying story in Bethesda’s game with fearsome, hair-raising horror. The key to its success lies in executing its signature element, and the Deep Silver / Techland crew have combined light-RPG elements, tight first-person controls, and a brutal sensibility around killing multifaceted zombies into a unnerving and bloody experience. There are elements lacking that restrain it from being a more complete game, namely the anemic story that actually propels the character to keep on surviving. Yet there’s a free-flowing property about the lack of a firmer narrative that still supports the survivalist intents of the game, which should be enough to ensure a lower-level cult status for the game’s visceral offerings.
- Dolby Digital 5.1
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