Dead Island Review

By Miguel Concepcion - Posted Sep 08, 2011

When a buzz-generating game trailer has run its course, it's up to the final product to prove its worth. The sad truth is that the launch-day version of Dead Island doesn't feel like a final product. Yet those who are willing to suffer through the myriad glitches will enjoy a robust zombie-slaying experience.

The Pros
  • Addictive combat
  • Surprisingly expansive maps
  • Detailed visuals
  • Superb sound design
The Cons
  • Very buggy
  • Some areas are very difficult solo
  • Underdeveloped story

Dead Island Review:

It’s only been several months since Dead Island was unveiled with overly hyped media fanfare with an arguable gimmick involving somber music and CG zombie mayhem played backwards. Now, with the game’s actual release, Dead Island joins the current wave of zombie-themed videogames where there’s a greater emphasis on action and less on traditional survival horror. Moreover, it’s an open world infested with the undead and the kind of sure-fire concept that we would have seen in a couple years had developer Techland not conceived of it first.


Undead immunity

What Dead Island might lack in gameplay originality, it certainly makes up for in shamelessly milking familiar zombie genre troupes. All you really need to know is you’re among the survivors of a zombie outbreak and you’re one of four playable characters who are mysteriously immune to the effects of bites from the infected. It’s a fine justification for why you’re the only ones going out in the open while everyone else is cowering in a lighthouse or church.

Much like the similarly-designed Borderlands, Dead Island does a great job focusing on exploration and combat with little story exposition of the playable characters. Yes, there are a few scenes where the foursome goes through the motions of dealing with the crisis, but all their backgrounds and motivation are only explained in the character selection screen.

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Chop, shoot, chop

The game emphasizes melee weapons as the primary means of taking down zombies; in fact, firearms do not get introduced until the second act. It's hard to complain when the close-quarters combat gets addictive once you get the hang of it.

There's something satisfying about fearlessly watching a zombie charge down a hallway toward you and greeting it with a boot to the face. With your enemy dazed, the zombie is at the mercy of your weapon of choice. I found it particularly gratifying when I recognized openings of attacks and took down duos or trios of the undead with a seamless four-stroke right-left-right-left motion, especially with a heavily modified and enhanced wakizashi.

Fans of Fallout and Borderlands will enjoy the element of weapon discovery when looting them from rooms and people. All weapons feature randomly-generated stats, but stays in-sync, close to your current level. There’s enough variety that I compulsively wanted to own one weapon type, from hammers to spades to pipes to even a frying pan. Yet, when things get truly serious by the third act, you might find yourself with a no-nonsense arsenal comprising of a katana, machete, wakizashi, shotgun, mototov cocktails, and other highly effective weapons.

Dead Island

The biggest motivator to stay alive is that you lose about 10% of your cash with each death, which can add up. It’s something to be continually mindful about since repairing weapons after use costs money. One curious oddity is where that money goes since it’s your character who’s doing the repair work on the various workbenches laid throughout the game.

The full satisfaction of chopping off limbs and heads could not have been possible had it not been for Dead Island's excellent use of sound. The time put into each fleshy cut or juicy head stomp is reminiscent of the meaty sword slices from Samurai Shodown and the excessive sound effects in SOCOM 4's watermelon-inspired headshots. Zombies with their heads intact also have a lot to hoarsely scream and moan about, and Techland was sure to put enough variety in undead audio to minimize the repetitiveness.

Sound becomes an important factor and an unseen ally when you’re playing alone. Imagine taking out a couple zombie cops in a sporadically-lit police station, only to hear additional undead moaning in your general vicinity. Worse yet, there's no radar, so your pulse increases as you try to take command of your immediate surroundings by making an anxious 360-degree turn, and it’s all because you're trying to figure out where that moaning is coming from. If you're an audiophile looking for an experience that takes full advantage of a $100+ pair of gaming headphones Dead Island is one of the best headphone demo games this year.

While the abundance of sound effects give you an audio detail of your impending doom, the music only appears in select spots of the game. This makes an effective way to accentuate the many parts of the game that are devoid of a soundtrack, and a nice way to put the zombie noises in the forefront. There aren’t any compositions as memorable as the piano tune from the infamous teaser trailer, but the in-game tracks work in conveying tension, sadness, and chaos when those respective moods are needed.

Dead Island

An island sized infestation

Even in 2011 we have not had that many true open world FPS experiences, especially when compared to Grand Theft Auto and the multitude of third-person free roaming games. Whereas the Detroit section of Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a satisfactory "enclosed" open world that was technically the size of a large mall, Dead Island’s Banoi is freakishly large and, more importantly, believable.

For example, the resort portion of the game is very convincing, with the bungalows sensibly situated on and near the beaches while the numerous pools and outdoor bars are closer to the hotel. Very little time is spent in the guest room portions of the hotel, which makes sense due to the potential repetitiveness of exploring floor after floor. Instead the level designers took advantage of the often-labyrinthine design of the ground floor that many hotels have, particularly with the administrative office portions of the hotel. What many preview articles and trailers fail to convey is that the resort only takes up a quarter of the playable parts of Banoi; so it's an obvious blessing that the many key areas of the island have warp points and vehicular options, but hoofing it is the best way to grind.

Dead Island

Having said that, earning the ability to wield high-level weapons like a vicious electrified katana and having the bragging rights of reaching Level 50 are the primary motivators to grind. Since there are over 70 side missions, a dozen never-ending supply-run missions, and nearly 50 main story missions, you can get to level 40 without any out-of-the-way grinding, provided you take on every zombie and hostile human in your path. And what a bloody path it can get. Time away from any non-refuge will respawn the undead in areas you’ve previously cleared, and every encounter is winnable since opponents are always around your current level. It's the groups of four or more zombies you have to worry about if you're playing solo.

In our zombie-saturated pop culture landscape, if you're going to go the route of giving zombies visible blood and gore in a video game, you're pretty much obliged to go all out. It definitely pays off in Dead Island, especially when getting the satisfaction of surviving a scrum of half a dozen undead with nary a scratch and taking a couple seconds to admire your messy handiwork.

Unfortunately, this degree of detail also extends to all other visual aspects of Dead Island, pushing the game's performance to questionable levels. The PlayStation 3 version is especially laughable, where graphical assets are still busy loading detail even after the exiting the prior loading screen.

Dead Island

Bug infection

Furthermore, Dead Island has a lack of polish. Having waited 24 hours after launch for the much publicized “day one” patch, the laundry list of bug fixes still hasn’t been implemented at the time of this review. While I didn't encounter any issues that prevented me completing the story, it was disappointing to experience statistical glitches, side missions that could not be completed, inventory issues, and respawns that would put me hundreds of meters away from my last death. There have also been reports of save file glitches, although I did not encounter this myself. The unpatched version of Dead Island is so bug riddled that there are even positive glitches such as the bug that would respawn me to my mission goal as long as I died near it, letting me bypass the zombies who killed me seconds ago.

Dead Island

Four to get ready

When it comes to the multiplayer, there's the welcome convenience of the drop-in/drop-out ease for up to three other players. This is one of those co-op multiplayer playthroughs that benefits greatly from having headset communications. For example, side-missions can be presented at a moment's notice and it’s great to quickly discuss whether to take on that new mission or focus on another previously accepted assignment.

Dead Island doesn't feature any competitive multiplayer, but there really is more than enough worthwhile content in the game as is. In fact, Dead Island’s last act might feel unnecessary to some gamers. It's the kind of added experience where had the game originally ended a couple hours sooner, it would not be knocked for being short. Dead Island is one of the reasons why there seems to be an editorial piece every month touting the virtues of shorter games.

Dead Island

So much about Dead Island feels rough around the edges that it almost feels preplanned. That’s not to say unusually large detail-intensive first-person experiences should get a free pass on quality and polish. The scope of the map design, the overall combat, and the multiplayer experience are all worth checking out. The initial version of the game demands an extra dose of patience and bit of risk taking as everyone waits for the announced patch to appear, provided it fixes the aforementioned issues.

It’s hard to blame Techland for ambitiously trying to stand out in a market that has more than its share of zombie-themed releases. What you can blame them for is in rushing a product that clearly would have benefitted from a month long delay and couple more passes by Techland’s QA team. Besides, the pre-release buzz alone would have ensured that Dead Island wouldn’t have gotten lost in the October/November holiday shuffle had it been released at that time.

Still want to play it? Why not rent it at Gamefly?