I love the whole zombie horror genre, so it’s little wonder that Dead Island would catch my eye. With its unique trailer, and RPG style game-play, it sounds like a perfect game. Does it live up to its expectations, though? In a market saturated with zombies, does Dead Island do enough to make it stand out? Well, that depends.
Dead Island’s combat feels very akin to Oblivion’s. The melee attacks, first person view, and swing style all seem to be direct copies of Oblivion. Deep Silver (the creator and distributor of Dead Island) did improve upon the animations. You won’t be seeing as many of those annoying camera lurches when your character attacks with a two-handed weapon. They also added additional animations, that activate depending on where your character is standing, in relation to your enemy.
Deep Silver also took a page out of Dead Rising with their weapon choices. While not as open-world as Dead Rising, you’re not likely to run out of available weaponry any time soon. For example, there are plenty of wooden planks and broken broom sticks abound. You’ll also be able to take out pieces of piping running along buildings, or knives straight from zombie hands. You can also kick your zombie attackers. While not powerful on its own, your kick is a good way to get several attackers under control.
As if that wasn’t good enough, Deep Silver is not afraid to get gory. As you hack away at your foe, you’ll break and sever limbs. Deep Silver did an amazing job with their body deformations. When you crack a zombies neck, the head will spin around, the flesh will twist, and you’ll see the bone trying to push its way out. If you break an arm, you’ll see the spot of the break, down, go limp, and the bone pushing away. Deep Silver also made sure to add all the nice bone-cracking sound effects, just for that extra immersion.
There are some areas, however, where things don’t quite feel real. The first time you run into a boss-type zombie called a Thug, you’ll see a propane tank next to it. I’m sure you can see where this is going. What you probably aren’t expecting, was the fact that I used a broom stick to destroy it. That simple fact alone took away the sheer thrill of blowing a big zombie to pieces. None of the other Thugs are overly thrilling, either. At one point, you’ll have to fight one to in order to finish making a sign. Now, running up to it, and hacking it to pieces isn’t much of an option, as they knock off a good chunk of your life, and send you flying back. That really isn’t much of a risk, however, when you can just pick up the crates sitting around, and continuously throw them at it.
The biggest issue, that I’ve found, is the difficulty. Even on quests that are supposed to be “Hard” or “Very Hard”, they really aren’t. A few whacks here, a few kicks here, and you’ll find pretty much any challenge easy to handle.
The leveling system will also feel familiar to RPG players. Especially if you’ve played Dragon Age 2, WoW, TOR, WAR, or Rift. It’s a simple three-tree system, one tree being focused mostly around improving the abilities you already have, another around giving you more abilities, and a third to increase your over-all survivability and drop rates.
Experience is handed out in the typical, kill thing, do quest, get exp, style. You’ll also find several repeatable quests that will give extra little bits of experience and, sometimes, weapons like the Molotov Cocktail. Even the loot system is done in the typical MMO style, with common items having their name in white, less common in green, then blue, purple, and orange.
The driving components are a lot more fun than I would have expected. While the controls feel a little clunky, it’s incredibly satisfying to go tearing down the Banoi island streets, smashing into zombies. As you crash into them, your vehicle will start to take damage and, at one point, you’ll be forced to knock out when your windshields, the windows on the doors will get broken out, and the screen will blur when you hit large things.
There are, of course, problems. One of the biggest problems is what has the power to stop your vehicle. Once, when trying to drive across the beach from the Diamond District bungalows, my truck was stopped dead. At first, I thought I had hit the ledge on the beach house, or the umbrella, so I backed up and tried again. Same thing. As it turns out, it was a tiny sand castle that was stopping my truck.
The story is a little shallow but, then, Dead Island’s story was never supposed to be its major selling point. You can choose from one of four characters: a throwing expert, a sharp weapons expert, a firearms expert, or a blunt weapons expert. During my play, I went with Sam B, the blunt weapons expert, and a sort of tank. Now, I had expected to choose my character, and get a bit of an introduction as the game started.
I was very surprised when, upon clicking on Sam B, I was given a full-VO character bio. The bio gave his background, what he did for a living, and why he was there. When you start the game, you’re lead through the hotel as zombies begin to swarm it, and end up getting knocked out. When you come to, you’re greeted by life guard that worked for the hotel. This is where Dead Island stands out from most zombie games. Instead of simply ignoring the fact that your character has, and will, get bit, Deep Silver addressed the issue directly. Your character is immune to whatever is causing the zombie outbreak. If you’re expecting a frightening story, however, you aren’t going to find it. Even the few moments that try to be deep, or touching, really aren’t. One of your quests involve you getting gas to burn zombie bodies. After delivering the gas to the quest giver, a short cutscene plays of the him lighting a pyre, covered in bodies, on fire. He buries his face in his hands as the camera pans up. While the initial intent of the scene is there, the art style, scenery, and music never deliver that effect.
That kind of effect is much better delivered by your character during and after combat. After taking down what used to be a woman, Sam B says “This is so f***ed up.” I really felt that this was a great design choice, as it gave him a real feeling of personality, and personal responsibility. Some of the other NPC’s you’ll run into have a similar effect, especially the doctor after you move all of the survivors to the lighthouse.
Deep Silver did, however, add some awkward moments. When I walked into one of the bungalows early in the game, I was truly taken back. At first, I only went in to turn off the radio, which was making my headache worse. The first thing I saw was a man slumped down, with flies buzzing all around him. When I entered the room, much to my surprise, there was a woman handcuffed to the bed, thrashing around, with cameras pointed at her.
The biggest issue I have this game is the art style. Now, it’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not really good either. It feels very similar to Oblivion, except that the characters are a bit more fleshy and grimy, and a look a lot less like plastic. That said, there are some major issues that could use some real looking into. The first, and this maybe because of where I sit compared to the size of my screen, is the hair. You can clearly see where the planes used to make the hair textures meet the body model.
Second are the mouth animations. While talking, the NPC’s mouths rarely close. The third is a bit harder to explain. Somewhere in the mix of the style of the models, the textures, the background set up, and the lighting, I started to develop a very bad headache, very quickly. I would definitely recommend that you keep as far back from your screen as you can, and still be able to read the text.
All and all, Dead Island is definitely worth the forty dollar price tag currently on it. If you’re a fan of zombies, or hack and slash, or both, you’re going to get your money’s worth out of this game. It makes for a great gift for that special gamer friend.
-Written by Shane Farrier