HIGH Getting the timing just right and lopping the heads off of two charging Infected simultaneously.
LOW Spending two hours on the same fight because of a badly-designed save system.
WTF Headshots not only don't kill zombies, they barely even do bonus damage.
In many ways, it's hard to describe Dead Island without sounding like an advertisement.
"Do you like violent video games? Do you like it when the violence in those games is visited upon zombies? If so, there's no reason not to buy Dead Island."
For anyone looking for a big fix of zombie-killing action, the game basically sells itself, delivering all the visceral slaughter that a player could ask for. Dead Island's problem is that it overcomplicates matters. In trying to become something bigger and more complex, the game stumbles and destroys much of the goodwill built up through excellent production values and engaging combat. In fact, I feel like Dead Island is seven fixes away from being game of the year material*.
A first person, co-op intensive brawler set on an island in the South Pacific, Dead Island asks the question "what if the only four people naturally immune to a zombie virus were horribly unlikeable whenever they weren't busy being ciphers?" The player gets the chance to pick one of these random people based entirely on their weapon specialization—guns, blunt, blades, thrown—and then traverse an island trapped in the throes of a zombpocalypse. The goal is to save people along the way, and eventually get to the bottom of the outbreak. The player had better pick blades or blunt, however, since guns and thrown weapons are essentially broken for anything but a support role in multiplayer sessions.
The first-person combat is—for the most part—great. It doesn't approach the high-water mark set by Condemned 2, and the lack of any kind of block/parry/counter system took a little while to get used to, but after about an hour I found the fighting to be both satisfying and addictive. The developers have a firm grasp of what both action fans and gorehounds want to see, and they've tuned the game to ensure that the brutal violence looks as beautiful as possible. Whether it's stumps that spurt copious amounts of blood, shattered limbs flailing around uselessly, or the way the game knows the exact moment to go slo-mo as a head is separated from its neck, every kill in the game feels like a prize being awarded.
The game's locations are equally stellar. The first area, a beach resort, is flat-out beautiful in perfect realization. Wading through the water, racing along the boardwalk, hiking up mountain trails—not only does it all look great, but the developers have gone the extra length to ensure that the zombies fit right into the scenery. Corpses are scattered everywhere, and while some rise from the dead to feast on the flesh of the living, some don't. This creates a situation where the player is literally stepping over fields of corpses, never sure when they'll be safe.
The second location, a besieged city, is even more impressive. In fact, it is perhaps the best-realized "monster-destroyed city" in the history of video games. The slums of the town are believably difficult to navigate thanks to narrow, debris-strewn streets and mazelike rooftop walkways keeping players on their toes as they flee from hordes of zombies. Unfortunately, the rest of the game's areas don't display the same caliber of detail or brilliant design. The jungle is meandering and unfocused, and both the endgame locale and an extended sewer sequence prove a little too claustrophobic, especially when playing co-op.
Getting back to the co-op, Dead Island generally excels on this front, but some large flaws keep it from being an unqualified triumph.
Like Borderlands, the game that obviously inspired it, Dead Island's characters are balanced with two characters (blades, blunt) devoted to combat, and two (guns, thrown) specializing in support tactics. It's simple enough to drop into other players" games, missions are designed to be playable—yet difficult—with one person, then become progressively easier with each additional partner, as it should be.
There's even a surprisingly clever matchmaking system which lets players know when there's another player at essentially the same point of progress in the game. The only downside to the multiplayer is how hard it can be to get a game going with anyone that the matchmaking doesn't preselect. What's the problem? Unless the players are within five experience levels of one another, the game is going to be either far too easy or far too difficult for someone because the damage and hit point rises that come with every level increase are so vast. Zombies are always set to the host's level, so if a level 30 player jumps into a level 5 game, she can simply one-shot every zombie in sight, but if a level 5 player jumps into a level 30 game, he’ll die continuously and never be able to kill a single zombie.
In fact, the implementation of a "leveling up" system at all is jarringly out of place with everything else in Dead Island. Conceptually, there's nothing wrong with the idea—gain experience killing zombies or helping people, unlock a new ability—that's how Dead Rising does it, and that seems pretty popular, right? In addition to wildly skewing the multiplayer experience, the rest of Dead Island's leveling-up problems include locking away access to weapons. Apart from the intellectual disconnect (how can I be too "low-level" to SWING A MACHETE?!), this decision forces the players into a never-ending grind of constantly finding new weapons based not on their aesthetics or abilities, but an arbitrary set of numbers the developers have assigned to them. Find new weapons, or be unable to keep pace with toughening zombies.
This wouldn't be so bad if there was some concrete boon to be gained by leveling-up, but because zombies level up along with the player, all zombies everywhere provide a frustratingly regular level of toughness for the length of the game. Whether I'm level 1 and hitting a zombie four times for a 100 points of damage to kill it, or level 30 hitting a zombie four times for 2400 points of damage to kill it, I'm still hitting the same zombie the same number of times. The increasing levels have no real effect on the game, other than adding a level of grind that doesn’t need to be there.
What's so infuriating about this decision is that it feels like the developers were trying to create an extra veneer of depth atop a legitimately deep product. Dead Island features three huge (and several smaller) areas to explore, dozens of quests to complete, and some of the best first-person combat around. Why did anyone think there was a need for all this scrounging and leveling nonsense? What did they imagine was being added to the game by making me struggle to find a new machete every half hour, when I could simply enjoy myself by killing zombies and helping survivors? If health and damage never increased over the course of the game, and levels just opened access to new abilities and weapon mods, how would that have been worse?
Besides the questionable design choices, there's also major problems caused by the game's general lack of polish. I'm almost loathe to write about it since patches have become de rigeur, and if this review is read a few months in the future, it’s likely that outstanding issues will have been patched and the problems might be addressed, rendering all of this moot. However, at the moment, the publishers of Dead Island are asking people to pay for what is essentially an unfinished game. There are glitches everywhere, from minor things like disappearing items, wonky menus, and bad pathfinding for objectives on the mini-map to major issues like the myriad of ways the player can kill zombies without earning experience, or a fundamental flaw in the design of the game's autosave system that led to me playing the same monstrously difficult fight for two full hours. Frankly, I'd have liked to review the finished game rather than a very late beta, but that somehow wasn't an option.
Dead Island is so close to greatness that it's frustrating. Sure, it's not exactly an original concept and the story is such a pointless, clichéd mess that I forgot to mention it in the review, but the core gameplay is so stunningly well-executed that I'm able to forgive most of its flaws. The zombies are terrifying to behold and heart-poundingly threatening in numbers, and despite any of my problems with the game, killing them never stopped being pure pleasure. Maybe this is a bizarre complaint to be making, but I wish the developers had aimed their sights a little lower and realized that they had a truly exceptional action game within their grasp. Instead, they went reached for a RPG-lite hybrid and wound up with a fundamentally flawed game that's only seven-tenths the experience it could have been.
*Would you like to know what those seven flaws are? Check out the related, nitpick-heavy blog post!
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 40 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times) and 5 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol. I have no idea how this game got away with just an M rating. Setting aside for a moment the omnipresent beheadings and otherwise excessively brutal corpse dismemberment, let's talk about what the ESRB dismisses as "Sexual Themes'. This is the first video game I've ever encountered which requires a trigger warning. There are stories about rapes in the past, characters in the game are the victims of rape during the plot, and the threat of rape looms for the entire last act of the game. Questionable storytelling choices bring an unpleasant theme of sexual violence to the game which may be more than most can bear—especially when it's compounded by the fact that, story aside, this was already a game about chopping up bikini girls with a machete. Keep your children far, far, away from it.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You will find this thing nearly impossible to play. It's a bizarre thing to see developers who understood the problems of hearing impaired gamers enough to subtitle the story but didn't notice that one of the most fundamental elements of their game (knowing when a zombie is trying to kill you) doesn't work at all when the sound is turned off. The screams of incoming zombies are the only warnings that players receive when they're about to be killed. Directional hit indicators onscreen—so popular in FPSs—not only aren't present, but wouldn't be useful if they were. The fact is, if a zombie ever runs up behind an unaware player other than in the first hour or two, they're immediately killed. The tragedy of this mistake is that it would have been a simple measure for the developers to fix, but as it stands, the game essentially can't be played by the hearing-impaired.