Dead Island (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
Developer: Techland
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release: September 6, 2011
Price: $59.99
 

Those of us who are zombie fans have been hankering for a solid open-world zombie game. We basically wanted Left 4 Dead, but with a deeper story and the freedom to wander and explore. Dead Island may not be everything we ever hoped for, but it certainly hits the spot.

HOLLYWOOD LIFE CAN BE HARD SOMETIMES

Off the coast of Papua New Guinea, you’ll find the Palms Resort situated on the fictional island of Banoi. Life on this expensive resort entailed parties and women in bikinis. Until, that is, some people started falling “ill.” After the outbreak of infection, you play as one of the few survivors left on the island. You can choose from an ex-cop hotel employee, a famous rap artist, an ex-police force badass chick (that was this reviewer’s choice) or a former NFL star - all with their respective specializations in combat.

A FANTASTICALLY FUN COOPERATIVE EXPERIENCE

Playing Dead Island co-op is how you will experience the game at its best. In fact, most games that rely on a mission-system are best played with others. Sure, you may be on your 5th run for water for the lazy chick that constantly whines at you, but you’re taking that trip with someone else.

Playing co-op also helps you overlook much of the game’s frustrations in combat. Don’t get us wrong, the combat experience is incredibly fun; but for what seems to be an aim towards realism from the developers at Techland, it often translates into annoyances.

Efforts for realism work when you’re wandering a fairly desolate beach, and soon after being bombarded by populated areas of zombies. The feeling of trying to survive on an expansive island is reinforced by that aspect of realism. Zombies will sometimes creep up from behind you, forcing you to rely on listening for heavy breathing and threatening screams (pro-tip: this is even better with headphones on). Your enemies don’t feel as transparent as many other games will have you noticing. Dead Island can be terrifying, as a game of this nature should be.

THE DISADVANTAGES OF REALISM

But other realistic mechanics works to the game’s departure from the aforementioned fun. You’re often at a disadvantage when going up against your enemies. Wielding your melee weapons feels sloppy when your hits don’t quite land as appropriately as you know they should have. Then again, how realistic would it be that any one of us could maintain precision in our attacks when wielding any one of these clunky (and undoubtedly heavy) melee weapons? Regardless, it does put you at a huge disadvantage when going up against multiple, very aggressive enemies.

You can create a slew of weapons that inflict other, beastly damage to your enemies. We’re talking nailed police batons, saw-equipped baseball bats, toxic-laced knives and more. But we’ve all too often had many of these newly crafted weapons backfire on us, when our favorite electrically modified machete will actually electrocute us to death. Definitely a fault.

Your attacks are largely close-ranged melee based, so it seems odd that you’d be facing enemies that have both a projectile advantage as well as a close-range one. The Floater who can both swing at you and vomit in your direction is the perfect example. Or the gas-damage inflicting enemies who, upon going near to attack them, will unavoidably and continuously be damaging you.

A good game is supposed to encourage you to play, while still maintaining a level of challenge to keep your interest locked in. But Dead Island has so many factors working against you that it can feel like a fight against the mechanics. You have to gauge your health, durability of weapons, stamina; there are many hindrances to your enjoyment of the game. Playing scavenger and searching for energy drinks or other snacks to boost your health gets old very fast, as well. Money is as easy to find as it is to lose. You’ll lose wads of cash upon creating, repairing and upgrading your weapons (on top of payment for dying). One of Dead Island’s best qualities is being able to experiment with the weapon mods you fine along the way. But they’ll also burn huge holes in your pockets.

AND YET, CO-OP REVIVES IT

With a few friends helping, these issues becomes less noticeable. You will certainly no longer feel as frequently overwhelmed. It’s also incredibly fun to gang up on zombies who have fallen to the ground while you beat him/her mercilessly together. You feel like a bit of a bully, but it’s your small moment of triumph and so it’s only expected for you to relish in it. Maybe you even exchange a few cackles with your co-op buddy.

Very unlike the game it so resembles - Borderlands - Dead Island encourages players to play cooperatively. It’s fairly easy to join games with your friends, even if you’re on completely different chapters. You’ll also periodically get alerts when there is another player online who is close to your progression of the campaign. You can easily transition into their game by following the alert’s directions. It’s way more fun to take on huge zombie swarms when you’ve got friends to help keep them at bay, particularly when the quests are mundane (if we have to fetch another package of juice, we’ll have to kill the NPC ourselves).

Interestingly, although cut scenes reflect all the characters interacting with one another, you won’t actually be playing with the characters in AI form if you’re going single player. This was a disappointment, since it’s a hole in your feeling of immersion. It also makes co-op even more pertinent; it feels like a loss when playing solo after you’ve experienced the game cooperatively (yes, we just said “once you go cooperative, you never go back”).

PLAYING SMART

The emphasis on realism does lend itself to some benefits in Dead Island. This game isn’t about smashing your way through everything. It’s really about orchestrating a smart attack. You kick one zombie in the face to knock him down, and charge at the second zombie to swipe at their head with your home-made electrified machete. Then you can get back to curb-stomping the previous zombie that you knocked to the ground. Playing smart will keep you alive.

Tactical play also converges when picking a skill tree to level your character under. If your emphasis is on your unique Rage ability, you can decide to maximize its power and accessibility as you see fit. Purna’s (our character’s) ability was, as a weapons specialist, drawing her very powerful sidearm to quickly target and shoot enemies. The swiftness with which she’s able to down her enemies made it an easy choice to focus on first leveling her Rage ability. Of course, other players might be more akin to healing and survival bonuses, and Dead Island covers you on that RPG front, as well. Hitting another similarity to the open-world, RPG Borderlands, you’ll recognize the basic three categories of skills instantly.

You’ll also be spending a portion of your time driving in vehicles. Hit a few too many zombies while in your rig, and your character will punch out the shattering windshield to see more clearly. Your passengers can shoot out the windows to take out any particularly threatening enemies that you can’t road-kill, another instance in which co-op is preferable.

Driving outside the bounds of the resort, you see a drastic change of scenery. If you’ve been to many resorts overseas, you may have seen that some are just around the corner from the slums of the country itself. Dead Island hits the nail on the head in this sense. Palms Resort is shrouded in luxury, but you’ll travel into the poor areas of Banoi, meet local tribesman, and even venture to other dangerous areas whose threats include more than just the zombies themselves. You spend a good chunk of time in each of these places, even moving back and forth to complete other missions. This RPG-esque game doesn’t let you forget about the other locations and people you’ve provided support with.

AN EXPERIENCE NOT TO MISS

Dead Island isn’t the dramatic, heartfelt experience the initial trailer would have had people believe. But that doesn’t mean that, all things considered, it’s not still an enjoyable game. Particularly when facing so many enraged enemies in such large landscapes, co-op flourishes. So if you’re into zombies and like the idea of them floating around an open world, grab a few friends and get in on the visceral, fun experience we found in playing Dead Island. Even if it isn’t the open-world Left 4 Dead we hoped for, we’re certain you’ll still love slicing those damned zombies’ heads off.

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Score: 7/10