Review: Dead Island

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With its debut trailer, Techland set itself the impossible goal of living up to self-generated hype on a massive scale. The video, which showed a family beset by zombies while a hauntingly beautiful refrain played, led one to believe that Dead Island would be an emotional roller coaster that touched on the human side of undead apocalypse. 

Well, it’s not. 

Those with even a small degree of cynicism could have guessed Techland would fall short of its conceptually ambitious opening gambit. Instead, Dead Island almost completely abandons narrative in favor of unadulterated violence, co-operative combat, and roleplaying elements. Whether or not this was a wise decision depends on one thing … how awesome you think poisoned katanas and exploding knives are.

Dead Island (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Techland
Publisher: Deep Silver/Square Enix
To be released: September 6, 2011
MSRP: $59.99 (PS3, 360) / $49.99 (PC)

Dead Island gives players control over one of four characters — Xian Mei, a Chinese ex-cop who specializes in bladed weapons, Purna, a bodyguard with a predilection for firearms, Sam B, a rapper who uses blunt objects, and Logan, a former football star who’s deadly with throwing weapons. The cast represents a vague collection of “classes” with their own unique skills and upgrades. Which character you pick depends more on your playstyle as opposed to whether or not you’re interested in the rather flat personalities. 

In stark contrast to the game’s marketing, Dead Island isn’t much for exposition. Although there’s a somewhat basic story, punctuated with occasional cutscenes, the vast majority of time revolves around a single motivation — you’re trapped on a resort island full of zombies, and you have to kill them all, while completing inane quests and looking for a way off the rock. Every now and then, Dead Island will try to tug at the heartstrings with an “emotional” moment, but the characters are so one-dimensional and the dialog so forced that these serious sequences are laughable at best. Those looking for a decent story will have to go elsewhere because Dead Island‘s writers make only the most token of efforts. 

What we’re left with is a game that is, essentially, Borderlands with zombies. The class-based leveling system, implementation of upgrades, mission structure and level exploration are ripped wholesale from Gearbox’s critically acclaimed game. It’s a strange experience that attempts to blend realism and roleplaying together. On the one hand, your characters have low defense and are forced to fight with weapons that easily break. On the other, you’re ransacking treasure chests for loot and creating axes wreathed in flame or rifles that shoot toxic bullets. 

Combat in Dead Island is similarly two-faced, since it’s both fun and frustrating at once. There’s a very real joy to be had in taking zombified opponents apart with increasingly powerful maces, swords, and molotov cocktails, but at the same time, this enjoyment is undermined by severe player weaknesses and unfair advantages given to the zombies. For instance, while your attacks are easily broken, most zombies shrug off blows and cannot be stopped once they start their assault animations. Later levels also spawn endless amounts of fast “runner” zombies that can demolish a player within seconds. If you’re playing solo, expect to die a lot, because Dead Island is fond of spawning fast-moving enemies in groups of five, which are impossible odds for all but a four-man group. There’s a reason why death in this game is punished only with a percentage of cash loss — it would be impossible if you had to restart at checkpoints.

Player attacks frequently miss as well, sometimes due to the unwieldy attack animations, other times thanks to the inherent difficulty of melee combat in a first-person perspective. Other times, your attacks will harmlessly pass through zombies as they happily pummel you into paste. The “kick” move, for example, is meant to push enemies back, but sometimes they’ll run through your leg to get their hits in. The lack of transitional animation also works in the undead’s favor — many is the time I’ve tried to sneak up on a zombie, only to have it instantly face me with no animation in between its two positions, allowing it to score a cheap hit first. 

Zombies are prone to grabbing players, resulting in a brief quick-time-event that surrounding enemies will gleefully exploit to score more irresistible hits. Even things beneficial to the player indirectly help the enemy — poisoning, electrocuting or burning opponents, for example, make them more dangerous to fight due to their ability to transfer the damage. While it’s useful to electrify a zombie, if it dies at your feet, you’ll be the one to take damage. Don’t even get me started on the bizarre spawn points — several times I’ve respawned right back in the middle of the same group of enemies that killed me, giving them a chance to do it again and again. The name Dead Island is very, very honest — this place belongs to the living dead, and they’re damned if you’re going to get one over on them.

This all sounds rather negative, but I must stress that Dead Island is a fun game — it’s just fun in the most frustrating way possible. The focus on loot and acquiring power is most compelling, especially once you acquire modifications that can be added to weapons at upgrade tables. These mods, which turn ordinary weaponry into devastating electrified blades or spiked torture implements, are insanely satisfying to use. Modded weapons will also inflict special status effects when a critical hit is scored — for instance, a toxic sword can cause zombies to bend over and violently vomit, rendering them immobile and doing intense damage. These are the moments that keep one playing, and they always deliver. 

Weapons take damage as they’re used and require constant repairs at upgrade tables. This can be quite galling, but the weapon degradation can prove tense and it encourages players to keep a healthy range of equipment on hand. Weapons can also be upgraded to deal more damage, although quite why players need cash to do this is anybody’s guess. Money is already easy to lose with frequent deaths and expensive weapon purchases, so it’s rather annoying to need to spend it on repairs and modifications, especially as mods also demand players to salvage various ingredients from around the world. Despite these hangups, however, the weapon system is still enthralling, and once the really powerful weapons are discovered, the effort feels truly rewarded.

Once you get used to the combat system’s intentional and unintentional quirks, there’s a lot of sadistic glee to be found. Caving in skulls with sledgehammers or lopping off arms with cleavers never stops being devilishly amusing, and the brutal animations coupled with deliciously squicky sound effects seals the deal. So long as one is prepared to buy a lot of medkits and die often, jumping into the combat can be intense and rewarding — even more so once the “boss” grade zombies start showing up, such as the towering, straitjacketed “Ram” that charges like a bull, or the horrifying “Butcher” that lacks hands and attacks with sharpened forearm bones. These creatures are intimidating, often scary, but so very rewarding to beat. 

Interestingly, the most engaging battles aren’t against zombies, but humans. Once players get through the opening act, they encounter looters and soldiers who will attack anything that moves. These ranged battles are of a slower pace and feel far more tactical, especially due to the high damage that enemy gunfire can deal. These battles switch up the gameplay a considerable amount, and are frequently among the standout moments of the whole experience. 

Each character has three skill trees, with useful abilities that are unlocked and upgraded with each level gained. The first skill tree is for the character’s unique “Rage” power. Rage is a lethal, temporary character state that allows one to attack quicker, deal heavy damage, and see enemies rendered in red for easy targeting. The second skill tree governs combat ability, conferring bonuses on the character’s weapon-type of choice, increasing critical hit chances, and buffing status effect damage. The final skill tree concerns itself with survival, offering abilities that make medkits more effective, or weapons more durable. Entirely copied from Borderlands, it’s nonetheless an adequate skill system that encourages players to rack up their XP and gain evermore crucial powers.

Dead Island is at its most fun when played in co-op. Mitigating some of the frustration and cheapness of solo combat, having three friends to join in on the action makes the game feel far more playable and the combat a lot more action-laden. The drop-in/drop-out co-op works rather well, especially thanks to the fact that it tracks players who are at the same point in the game as you. An icon tells you when a player is “nearby” and allows you to join their game at the press of a button.

There are some downsides to co-op, though. Firstly, you can only join players who are on the same chapter as you, or on a chapter you’ve already cleared (unless invited by a friend). Secondly, progression in co-op is rather broken, as missions and world travel requires all players to be near each other in order for things to proceed. Already, I’ve been in several games that had to be stopped because one player was still in the session but seemingly abandoned their console, meaning nobody else could continue a mission or travel to a new map. It would be very easy for trolls to exploit this, and it requires that all players agree to do the same course of action. Anybody who tries to just do their own thing will likely stop the rest of the team from doing anything. It’s a shame that such an open co-op experience would have such limitations, and it’s rather annoying for my progress to be interrupted by a player who has no interest in whatever I’m trying to accomplish, and causes me to drop out of my own game.

Dead Island‘s biggest problem, however, is that it’s just not a finished game. No matter how fun it can be, there are so many irritations caused by poorly implemented features, or features that weren’t implemented at all. Some instances involve zombies using what are clearly stand-in animations, the kind of stuff you’d see in a game’s alpha build — just watch zombies in any level with windows, and watch as they walk toward the glass and it stutteringly shatters upon the briefest of contact. One character, Xian, has the ability to pick locks, but throughout my playthrough, I found only two locked chests, right at the beginning. It’s almost as if the developers simply forgot to include more, and thus I feel like I wasted three skill points in leveling what I thought would be a crucial ability (edit: I’ve since found out that locked chest just show up as unlocked when skill is active. I was given no indication of this). Dead Island‘s getting a day-one patch with a staggering thirty-seven fixes, but the issues that really stood out for me aren’t listed among them. This is a game that’s likely going to get patched a lot, because it just isn’t complete.

Ultimately, this is a Techland game that looks just like a Techland game. The glitches, the low quality graphics, and the bizarre gameplay issues that are hampered by broken animation and temperamental collission detection scream of a game that needed at least a few more months of development. To say Dead Island is rough is to be diplomatic. It is, in many ways, a severely broken mess. 

Yet … it’s a fun broken mess, at its most ultimate conclusion. So much about Dead Island doesn’t work, but its ambitious concept is so earnestly presented and its loot-heavy character progression so addictive, that it somehow manages to get away with a laundry list of problems that ought not to be forgiven. I hate Dead Island, yet I adore it at the same time. Its combat irritates the shit out of me, yet I created a knife that has a 75% chance of making heads explode with one stab! Co-op is obnoxiously restrictive, yet I can’t help jumping into games because taking out zombies in groups is so cool. Its story is inane and pointless, yet I found a bonus enemy in the jungle with a hockey mask — called Jason — who had a secret chainsaw in his cabin. Dead Island is the kind of game that mercilessly punches you in the gut with one hand and gives you a slice of birthday cake with the other. 

They say the bumblebee is a creature that shouldn’t fly, due to its body mass and wing span making it a physical impossibility. The same can be said of Dead Island. It’s something that shouldn’t succeed, and often doesn’t, yet it does something to make it all click together. This is a game I foresee playing extensively beyond completion, because it has an inherent magnetism and a vicious charm that cannot be denied, even in the face of so much aggravating game design and buggy roadblocks. 

There’s a lot of content to be found, as well. With at least thirty hours of gameplay and a lot of secrets to uncover, Dead Island is a huge title. Depending on your mileage, that means a lot of entertainment to make up for the exasperation, or a huge amount of unhappiness interspersed with moments of gratification. Whatever your disposition, Dead Island throws enough crap at the wall to ensure some of it sticks. 

Is Dead Island good? Yes it is … but it isn’t at the same time. It’s inspired, but turgid. Brilliant, but flawed. Fun, but infuriating. Like the living dead itself, Dead Island is a contradiction from beginning to end. However, I feel you need to play it, because despite copying so much from infinitely smoother games, there’s nothing quite like it on the market. That, itself, is yet another contradiction in the confused, conflicted, often completely beautiful mess that is Dead Island

Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.

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