Dead Island: vacationers, bikini-clad babes, and entrails strewn along the beach. Does this sound like your idea of the perfect getaway? Oh, it does? Okay, well, let’s toss in a multitude of fetch quests without any real aim or purpose, plus a veritable cornucopia of NPCs with personalities comparable to cardboard issuing these requests without providing any real sense of belonging. Still sold? That’s what you get with Dead Island, Techland’s zombie apocalypse simulator. If you were drawn in by the heart-wrenchingly beautiful trailer that debuted so long ago (remember the plight of that little girl?) you’re likely going to be more than a little disappointed to find the game is really nothing like that. And that’s okay, but I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the end result, either.
What could have served as an addictive romp through the enormous world the game provides ends up falling flat, placing the “keep us alive” responsibilities on you and you alone.
As one of the sole immune survivors of some sort of strange virus that’s turning the inhabitants of Banoi into the shambling undead, it’s up to you to ensure what normal survivors (people who can still be infected) stay stocked with supplies, weapons, and anything else they need to stay safe. I’m still not sure how I got roped into that. I mean, I don’t really want to go out and risk my neck either, but it makes sense as I am immune to the virus and it’s just more convenient that way. Let’s just leave it at that, I suppose.
You can choose between four characters, and besides their varied backgrounds, there just isn’t much difference between each adventurer save from their specialization: throwing, firearms, blunt weapons, and sharp-edged weapons. For my game I chose Xian Mei, specializing in knives and similar weapons. Having previously been working as a receptionist at the hotel you start out in, she runs around in a long red skirt and pumps, which can’t be too practical. With that, it was off to meet up with the other survivors who immediately tasked me with going out in the midst of all of the bloodshed with a meaningless task. I armed myself with whatever weapon was available around me, which is something you quickly get used to when roaming Banoi. You’ll bash zombie skulls in with anything from a canoe paddle to a knife to a baseball bat with nails hammered into it, and everything in between.
Aside from upgradeable skill trees, the MacGyver-like way of assembling new weapons did strike my fancy – much like in Dead Space, weapons can be upgraded, repaired, or created at work benches where you will end up spending all the cash you’ve found rifling through the pockets of the various corpses scattered around the island just to keep yourself alive. Weapons degrade, and quite often, so it’s prudent to always keep an eye on what you have equipped, the tools and items you have available, and the types of enemies you may encounter. This type of constant inventory management is engaging and keeps you on your toes, so it’s a shame the rest of the game couldn’t follow suit.
The real meat of the game (apart from the rotting flesh), the actual act of massacring the abominations that seek only your brains, is actually quite entertaining, if not a bit repetitive. There are so many available weapon combinations and items to pick up throughout the island to cause havoc with that it can be a little intimidating simply sifting through them all. Each satisfying smack to each zombie feels great, though wears thin on the nerves when attempting to muddle through an entire crowd of shamblers who don’t seem to stop streaming into each area. It can be a little tough to gauge when to swing and when to attempt to dodge, but when combat works it feels great. However, it soon becomes much more of a boon to run to your destination and sidestep combat rather than face it head on after your progress is continually impeded over and over.
I want to kill zombies, I really do, but after a while you wonder how much more you can take, especially without much more drive to complete each assigned task than “we need gas!” or “we need more supplies!” – I felt much more compelled to finish each mission in games such as Fallout or even Left 4 Dead when faced with the immediacy of the situations and my desire to advance the plot further. I just didn’t feel that often here.
The environments are gorgeous, however, and huge, though I couldn’t quite say the same for the hideous character models, and Xian Mei appearing to go cross-eyed in several cut scenes. It brings me to my biggest issue with Dead Island: the co-op glitches I experienced. I should have known something was off when I read through the list of issues the day-one patch was scheduled to have fixed in my review copy. My boyfriend had purchased the game solely to play with me, and the very first night he attempted to join my game, it just wouldn’t work. NAT settings were open, we set out to troubleshoot in any known way we could, and in the end he could never join my game. He could join others’, and I ended up being able to after several attempts to join his, but to this day I have still been unable to join. I ended up using an alternate system in order to try to make the game work, which it did, but I could only join my boyfriend’s game. I had to forgo achievements or progress on my original game to do so, but in the end I was at least able to play synchronously with my boyfriend and his buddy as well.
But the problems didn’t end there. Twice we were left with the option of passing on side-quests because despite having the key item required to pass through, receive XP, and continue onto the next quest, the NPC would not converse with us. One time is an annoyance, but two times with two different NPCs was enough to discourage me from wanting to play – not to mention the initial disaster of getting all of us together to play in the first place and having to use a different system to do so. I didn’t get nearly as far as I wanted to or had intended do due to these issues, and to be honest I’m just not sure I want to fight with the game enough to do it all again after deleting my save information and trying to give it a fresh go. Not even the comical effect of the driver of a vehicle staring straight ahead without turning his neck while driving and running over a gaggle of zombies could convince me right now, at least not with friends – I’m not exactly one to want to repeat my hard work.
Dead Island is a fickle beast. It can be engaging and fully enthralling, when it works. When it works it’s actually a breath of fresh air in a somewhat stagnant genre – I’ve killed zombies many a time in the past, and everything about Dead Island initially left me ready for more. The enormous open world is inviting, and the beautiful coastal setting clashes wonderfully with the bloody mess that is the zombie apocalypse. I just wish more time had gone into polishing the game than the time spent on marketing and the silliness in the press releases. I’ll dive back into it again in the near future, but I can’t say I’d recommend actually plunking down retail price on this. Give it a bit and pick it up on sale – it might be worth the fuss, then. Come on, Techland. You can do better, and I’ve got faith in you to do so.