Chances are if you are aware of, and/or interested in Dead Island, it’s as a result of the spectacular non-linear teaser that was released several months ago. The trailer, hinting at an emphasis on emotion, devastation and tragedy in a zombie apocalypse, went viral and drew millions of views on Youtube alone, even garnering some nice praise from game journalists and credible tech mags.
What you might not be aware of is that the game was actually announced 5 years ago at E3 2006, and had it not been for the sombre trailer blowing all our minds it probably would have continued to pass under everyone’s radar up to, and probably after, its release. Combine that revelation with the reminder that the game’s developer Techland had little to do with the teaser at all (they actually handed the job off to Axis, an animation studio) and we’re all left with not much to go on.
The whole teaser debacle aside, Dead Island is an open-world first-person zombie basher set in a resort in Papua New Guinea. You have the option of playing one of four blank slate archetypes who inexplicably have the good fortune of being immune to the infection that is mysteriously sweeping the island paradise. You wake up after a night of drinking and partying to find something horribly amiss; conventions! Zombie conventions everywhere! Making your way through the hotel you find blood, flickering lights and abandoned rooms, and led by a voice on a loudspeaker you’re eventually guided to a group of survivors, and through an awfully expositional conversation you’re tasked with saving the living, and killing the undead all over the isle of Banois. It’s a disappointingly uninspired introduction, especially after the amazing teaser (Yeah. I’m not setting it aside).
From then on you’re subjected to all manner of generic fetch-quests that slowly inch you closer and closer toward the endgame. There are multiple acts of the story which offer a change of scenery and new enemy types and weapon drops, but it scarcely draws you into caring for any of the inhabitants of the island, least of all your own character, who regardless of your selection has no discernable personality and yet refuses to keep silent long enough for you to infuse yourself into his or her place.
The combat system could be Dead Island’s saving grace. There is a deliberate focus on melee combat, allowing you to use, maintain, upgrade and create a myriad of blunt objects and bladed weapons, a la Dead Rising, though there are a handful of firearms you can recover and use every now and then as well. By pinpointing your swings and shots at vulnerable points, such as the neck or limbs of a zombie, you can sever or break parts of their bodies, rendering them useless. It makes cracking a bat into a zombie’s face or taking a machete to a shoulder incredibly satisfying. In addition, you have the option to throw any of your melee weapons at a zombie, and recover it from them afterwards. It’s often your only option when trying to fend off an enemy from a distance, and it’s great fun. On top of that, experience points you gain from completing missions and killing zombies build up until you level up, at which point you can enter an extremely basic skill-tree system to boost and unlock various ablities. Combining all the different ways to dispose of a zombie with the staggering amount of weapons results in a bloody joyful mess, and it should be easy to ignore the map marker and go to town on an unsuspecting zombie’s face with a nailboard, but given that you start wailing on infected right from the get-go, by the end of the first act you’ll likely find yourself sprinting past avoidable walkers whenever you get the chance.
The atmosphere on the island of Banois is far too hokey for a game of this current generation. Outdoor environments and gory zombie details are admittedly great, but character models, dialogue and voice acting make much of the overall experience feel hackneyed and incomplete. Cutscenes appear sporadically throughout the game’s set-piece moments, but they fail to add anything concrete to the world. They aren’t drastically pre-rendered or directed with any real style so they only succeed in taking control away from the player. It doesn’t make much sense with the rest of the game so focused on your freedom, and being a part of these moments would be so much more immersive and gratifying. Here’s an example (spoiler): You run into one of the first of these early on, when you’re given a mission to recover an armoured truck and bring it to the lifeguard station. To this point, you’ve spent most of your time on foot and before retrieving the truck you have to fend of a sizeable group of infected. It would be a thrilling change of pace and an empowering climax to allow the player to plough through the swarm on your way out of the garage, but instead we have to set the controller aside and watch it happen without our input. We’re allowed to drive the truck afterwards through the island but it feels no different than any of the other cars we get to use, so the impact is lost.
If you’re a video game enthusiast suffering through the last of this summer’s game drought Dead Island might look like your light at the end of the tunnel, but unless you’re desperate to break some bones I’d pass on it. It fails to deliver on almost all its promises and $60 is far too high a price for a ticket to Banois Island. My advice: While you’re waiting for the video game avalanche later this Fall, go back and watch season 1 of The Walking Dead all over again; season 2 is coming soon.