Dead Island finally saw the light of day after years of delays and developmental hiccups. The game had been bounced around between several studios before finally being resurrected by Deep Silver. However, so much uncertainty had shrouded the game that had begun to slip under the radar. It wasn’t until February that the game made it back into the mainstream when Deep Silver released arguably the best video game trailer ever made. The 3 minute clip, played in reverse, swept across the gaming community creating a huge stir. The trailer not only generated a surge of preorders, but it also drew the attention of several Hollywood studios. Earlier this week it was announced that Lionsgate films finally reached a deal with Deep Silver that includes, but is not limited to, a theatrical release. It has been said that the big screen adaptation will center around a single family on the island much like in the trailer as opposed to the actually story in the game.
The game starts off at the beautiful Royal Palms resort on the fictional island of Banoi, but after a night of heavy drinking things take a turn for the worst. The next morning you wake up to find yourself in a George A. Romero film with bikini clad zombies as far as the eye can see. Players then assume the role of one of four survivors that are somehow immune to the virus that’s turning the other hotel patrons into slabs of walking meatloaf. While trying to get off the island you run across other pockets of survivors that will send you on various missions. Some missions will add to the overall story and some will send you on side quests that require you to retrieve jewelry from a bungalow. The island is a sandbox environment so missions can be completed in any order with the main ones unlocking additional quests. The further you progress into the story the more learn about the outbreak and your immunity. Your quest for knowledge and ultimately an escape from the island will take you from the sun soaked beaches to waste filled sewers.
The game itself is a remarkable achievement despite its shaky production. And although the concept behind the plot isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, the tropical setting where it takes place is certainly a new twist. Contrasting the horrors of a zombie apocalypse with the serene tranquility of an island resort makes for one of the most interesting gaming experiences in recent years. Players expect gory survival horror games to take place in caves and dilapidated mansions, but seeing the white sand of a picturesque beach splattered with the remains of a bellhop is truly jarring. The unique approach of confronting gamers with death and destruction set amidst the backdrop of an island paradise makes for an unforgettable experience, but that’s not to say the game is without problems. The concept is great, but with the games’ massive scale combined with the hiccups in production, it almost seems like the developers bit off more than they could chew…no pun intended.
These days it’s hard to find a massive RPG without the nuance of bugs, but Dead Island has more than its fair share. At times the game feels incomplete and unpolished. Textures load at an alarmingly slow rate and players are often greeted with blocky geometry while waiting for materials to pop into place at the start of each mission. While this may seem minor since it doesn’t affect the gameplay directly, it does create a serious disconnect for players. It’s difficult for players to get lost in the experience when they are constantly reminded they’re playing a videogame. The psychological tension of survival is one of the game’s strongest assets, but that can be hard to achieve when it takes several seconds for yellow paint to appear on a fire hydrant.
By far the game’s biggest flaw is the unbalanced nature of its gameplay. It’s still unclear if the title “Dead Island” refers to the reanimated corpses sauntering about or the fact that the average life expectancy for gamers is around 45 seconds. While fending off the hordes of zombies players should expect to die… a lot. There are several types of zombie classes with varying degrees of “difficulty”, but that almost seems superfluous considering that all of them are overly capable of making a meal out of you in seconds. Dispatching the flesh eating foes does become easier once you’ve acquired better weapons, but until then, you’ll spend more time on your back than a cheerleader with father issues.
One area where the game does shine is its use of weaponry. Most games that throw tons of enemies at you usually make sure you’re armed to the teeth with oversized shoulder cannons and plasma rifles, but Deep Silver took a refreshingly different approach. Armed to the teeth in Dead Island usually means you’re carrying an abundance of boat oars and lead pipes…maybe even the occasional coat rack. Guns are few and far between with ammo being even sparser. The emphasis on using found household items as weapons adds to the believability that you’re in a desperate situation for survival. When you do find guns, they usually work themselves into the story in a somewhat realistic manner. The only thing unrealistic about acquiring weapons like guns is that after you do find them, you probably won’t be able to use them without leveling up first (…the wonders of RPGs).
After finding schematics throughout the island, some objects can even be combined to create zombie-slaying super-weapons. This concept is remarkably similar to that of the Dead Rising series, but the weapons created here are arguably more believable than ramming oversized umbrellas into leaf blowers. In addition to the schematics you will also need piles of money to turn your ordinary items into finely tuned instruments of zombie destruction. The only problem is repairing and upgrading these items will bankrupt you in a hurry. Coming across money on the island is a frequent occurrence, but being slapped to death in a mosh pit of undead is even more common. Every time your character dies you hemorrhage more money than blood which makes building your nest egg difficult.
With that in mind it makes far more sense to spread the wealth by leveling up several cheaper, but reliable weapons. These weapons are usually collected as a reward for completing missions or found in the locked metal boxes scattered about (an upgraded lock pick ability is next to godliness in the land of the RPG). This strategy is especially important since weapons can be lost and broken so easily. Leveling up several weapons simultaneously will save you from spending all your money on a machete just to have your blade of doom disappear through the floor when the game glitches.
The weapon mechanics function surprisingly well considering the game suffers from several other control related issues. Aiming down the sight of a gun feels more fluid and natural than most RPGs. Although the gunplay is fun, the game’s real focus is on melee combat. Thanks to Deep Silver’s detailed dismemberment system the combat is as satisfying as it is sickening. Weapons with blades will lop off limbs while heavier items, such as wrenches and pipes, can break bones with a few well placed swings. This adds a whole new element to melee combat that will encourage gamers to strike with strategy. Often times there are too many enemies for you to fight one on one so crippling a few will give you a few precious seconds while you dispatch the others.
If there isn’t enough strategy in playing through the game solo, you can team up with three friends online. This adds a lot more depth to the game and definitely helps with the overwhelming number of rotting corpses that are determined to eat you at the next luau. While it’s certainly more fun with friends, Dead Island has something to offer everyone. Stunning visuals, great sound design, and non-stop action make for a great romp through the bloody island of Banoi. Although the game doesn’t quite live up to the hype and a slew of technical hitches hold it back from being one of the best games of the year, it’s definitely a must play for fans of RPGs and survival horror games alike.