Dead Island Review
Dead Island is the type of game that epitomizes the “close, but not quite” label. On the one hand, there’s a lot to like. The island is large and filled with a surprising amount of variety for an isolated paradise location, the action is almost always entertaining, and the added RPG-like depth is appreciated. On the other hand, the pacing seems off, the characters are either boring or annoying, and the technical presentation is competent without being impressive. If you can get into the intense survival element – which is evident – you’ll love it. If not…
As you may have seen in various pieces of footage, the visuals aren’t quite up to par with elite productions. There are a few graphical imperfections here and there, and this colorful and gory palette doesn’t exactly scream polish and refinement. However, I don’t wish to sell the game short, because there are plenty of highlights. The environment is nicely detailed and the special effects are comical and downright awesome in some instances. Many of the more hectic encounters are jammed with blood and severed limbs, and the frame rate rarely (if ever) stutters. As I just said, the graphics are competent but beyond that, don’t expect anything special.
The audio suffers from the same sort of unevenness one finds with the visuals and overall pacing. While the effects once again stand out – and complement the graphical gore – the voice acting is mediocre and the soundtrack is hit or miss. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by fantastic soundtracks in the past week (Driver: San Francisco and Resistance 3) and I’m not giving the music in Dead Island enough credit. That’s possible. And the selected tracks are pretty damn good for certain situations; they just don’t play a big enough role for my tastes.
The best way to describe the gameplay is as follows: think of an open-world action/RPG, one that blends Far Cry 2, Resident Evil, and Borderlands. …okay, that might be a little difficult to picture, but I think that’s accurate. We start at the Royal Palms Resort on a picturesque island; it’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and lolling by the pool. But that vacation is short-lived, as a nasty plague quickly sweeps across paradise and turns humans into ravenous killing machines. To survive, you need to grab whatever’s handy. Be creative, but be fast.
Along the way, you’ll come across intrepid groups of survivors who have resisted the zombies, and some of these NPCs will hand out quests. From here, the RPG elements come into play: leveling up, the level designation and crafting for weapons, and a damage system. The story isn’t anywhere near as fleshed out as I would’ve liked, but that’s okay, because the gameplay quickly sucks you in and keeps you riveted. Accepting quests, striking out on your own, and exploring an area where monsters hold sway is a pulse-quickening experience. In some ways, the developers do this right; the style and artistry will give you chills.
For instance, zombies aren’t always running after you. They’re often just wandering about, feeding on corpses or shambling around. So it’s sort of like being in a little world dominated by things that want to kill you, and the fact that you’re cut off from the rest of civilization…well, it works. The combat itself isn’t perfect but I have to say, this is the first time I’ve really enjoyed going melee in a first-person perspective. Hacking away with machetes, swinging wildly with baseball bats; it’s all implemented quite well, and you don’t necessarily feel overwhelmed. You’re just frightened.
Ironically, when you finally do find some weapons, you realize that the first-person shooter aspect of the game is the least appealing. Furthermore, the pacing starts to get a little irritating, as there are several lackluster quests that feel uninspired. You can spice things up by using the vehicles to destroy marauding groups but even that starts to feel a little tired after a few hours. But despite the weak FPS element, the erratic pacing, and the one-dimensional characters, the weapon upgrade and crafting system helps save the day. That, and it’s always wicked fun to test out your new creation…hell, that’s the most attractive part!
Using a workbench to modify a simple knife, for instance, can be very entertaining. There are many possibilities and options and the more you search, the more insane your creations can become. The only problem is that weapons degrade over time and unfortunately, you often don’t have long to enjoy your crazy slicer or basher. Still, lopping off an arm or good old-fashioned decapitation is strangely satisfying, and keeping an eye on your stamina adds to the strategy element. I suppose it’s no big shock that I liked the RPG elements, and the action stuff was fun, too. But the flaws, although minor, continued to pop up.
Perhaps the best way to gloss over the drawbacks is to play with a friend. Much like Resistance 3, the co-op is a huge benefit for this product, and somehow, the action and drive for survival is amplified. And because the campaign is quite long, you can really get quite a few days of buddy/buddy entertainment out of the deal. You’ll both revel in the atmosphere, take twisted pleasure in mowing through the undead hordes, and even trade weapon customization and upgrade ideas. In so many ways, I think this game works best when played with other people.
Dead Island might be called an action/RPG and in that respect, it’s both fun and fulfilling. It’s not a full role-playing experience, the first-person shooter parts are a little blasé, and the pacing seems off, but the combination of in-your-face action and strategy works nicely. On the flip side, I never really care about any of the characters, the technical presentation isn’t exactly breathtaking, and there’s some repetition in the quests. In short, the game has more ups than downs but it’s impossible to ignore the downs. That’s easier to describe than the genre of this title, by the way.
The Good: Atmosphere and environment pulls us in. Hand-to-hand battling is gory fun. Weapon upgrade and crafting system is a big plus. Control is solid. Co-op action is great.
The Bad: Graphics lack refinement. Voice acting ranges from mediocre to average. Characters are clichéd and boring. Pacing isn’t quite right.
The Ugly: There’s ugly everywhere. Just start chopping.
9/8/2011 Ben Dutka