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Review: Dead Island

Game: Dead Island
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: ~35 hours
Buy If You Like: A melee-focused Borderlands, killing zombies

Wha… who… wow. Why didn’t anyone tell me how good this was?

My initial expectations for Dead Island were low. All that I knew beforehand was that it had one of the best videogame trailers of all time, and that the game itself had nothing at all to do with said trailer. Somehow, hearing that the trailer was misleading was enough for me to imagine the game itself would be bad, since “misleading = bad.” Plus, I heard someone somewhere mention the 4-player co-op had traditional RPG roles like tank, rogues, ranged, and thought “Eh?”

What I was not expecting was for Dead Island to be one of the most interesting games I have played this year.

A “melee Borderlands” really is the best way to describe how Dead Island plays. You start out as one of four character classes whom all have three-branch talent trees, you pick up random weapons with random stat spreads, and you smash zombie face in an almost entirely open-world environment. While it is all done in first-person, all the traditional trappings of action RPGs are there: life bars, damage stats, gaining XP, picking up and completing side-quests from other survivors, and gaining levels. Much like Borderlands (again), the experience feels incongruent at first (“Headshots aren’t instant kills?!”), especially when the default weapon in most every other zombie game is a gun, not a police baton you modified with nails or a machete heated to 200° with laptop batteries, wires, and duct tape.

Dammit, Sister Mary. I just upgraded this metal beatstick!

But after a while? I was hooked. Want to explore the beach? Explore the beach. Want to drive back and forth in a truck, running down zombies and trying to navigate the the debris-strewn roads? Do that. Loading screens are few and far between, zombies are everywhere, and randomized loot ensures that even if there isn’t some kind of specific secret hidden in that forgotten corner of landscape, your time wasn’t exactly wasted. All enemies level with you, with the end result being that you can (and will) die to 2-3 standard zombies as easy at level 1 as at the level cap, if you aren’t careful.

There are really only two major negatives to Dead Island, or just one depending on how much of a curve you grade zombie games. If you are looking for a zombie game that really shakes up the narrative conventions for the genre, A) you will be disappointed here, and B) really? Stop me if you have heard this before: zombie outbreak occurs, you are inexplicably immune, your travels take you to a hidden bio-corporation working on unethical research (may or may not have involved creating zombie plague), race against time to stop/avoid entire site being nuked from orbit. Cliches aside, and excusing the sort of unresolved micro-stories various quests represent (bitten guy wants you to bring insulin to trapped brother, who you never see again anyway), it was unquestionably refreshing to have gone from that special form of insipid RPG questing to doing things that actually make sense. Collecting three crates of food might be superficially similar to collecting 10 bear asses, but at least the former makes sense.

Is it, ah, still necrophilia if she’s a zombie?

The second negative is not as easy to handwave away. You see, the entire first half of the game consists of exploring the beautiful, open-world resort and city areas doing things that make sense to do in a zombie apocalypse. Inexplicably, the developers decided to switch gears and start feeding you through the cramped, repetitive hallways of sewers, a City Hall built by M.C. Escher, prisons, and abandoned hospital wings. Could we please, like, stay outside? You know, leverage the one feature that sets Dead Island apart from nearly every FPS zombie game ever made? The indoor zones are not bad – aside from the piss-poor decision to not include maps for these areas – but it definitely starts feeling like “more of the same” and “Resident Evil did this better in 1996” after a while.

I would be remiss if I did not briefly talk about the co-op. While I only actually ever played with one specific friend for 2-3 hours, I can definitely see the appeal. It simply feels good to be surrounded by zombies, knowing that you are severing limbs and curb-stomping back-to-back. And for what it is worth, the developers definitely want this to be the way you play Dead Island. You will frequently get little notices that “ThugLife4Life is Nearby” which means that jumping into his/her game is a single button-press (J) away; dropping out is just as easy and non-disruptive, and you keep all the goodies you might have gotten. Plus, as I alluded to at the beginning, a lot of the various talents Skills you can pick benefit your fellow players too – from buff auras, to higher Medpac healing, to straight-up MMOish Threat mechanics (Sam B has +30% Threat via Decoy, Xian Mei has -15% Threat via Spectre and can get bonus damage from backstabs).

I love the smell of 150 damage/second Molotovs in the morning.

Ultimately, I found Dead Island to be a perfectly good and oddly refreshing FPS zombie experience, with friends or by oneself as I did for the last 32 hours of gameplay. The visuals are drop-dead (ouch) gorgeous, the loot system way more satisfying than Diablo 3, the melee-focused combat surprisingly satisfying (1-2 seconds of slow-mo when a zombie head is liberated from its zombie neck never gets old), the constant threat of death kept me on my toes, and I had a good time overall. While there is not much in the way of replayability beyond a New Game+ mode, the four characters do end up playing quite differently if one is looking for an excuse to run around Banoi again.

And, hey, it looks like Techland is working on a sequel titled Dead Island: Riptide. So maybe sometime soon we won’t even need an excuse.