Review: Dead Island (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Dead Island
Genre: FPS/RPG
Developer: Techland
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: 09/06/11

From the first moment of its announcement, Dead Island has been generating a fairly large amount of hype for Deep Silver and Techland, and it’s not hard to see why, as the promotion of the game has been nothing short of masterful. From the original teaser trailer that was absolutely inspired in its presentation to the announced game elements that could have been described as “Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, and Borderlands stuffed into a blender set to “ËœAwesome’”, Dead Island has come from out of nowhere and become a hotly anticipated title for 2011. But Dead Island also has a solid pedigree behind it, thanks to developer Techland; while Call of Juarez: The Cartel wasn’t well received, the prior two games in the series did quite well for themselves, and Nail’d was one of the best racing games released last year, so while Dead Island is certainly ambitious, there’s also reason to believe that it can be a success beyond the appreciation of its concept. Well, the wait is over, and the game has finally arrived, and the good news is that it mostly pays off its hype. Dead Island is a very ambitious, very fun game that, if you can adjust to it, is easily going to eat up a lot of your time. The bad news, on the other hand…

Dead Island takes place on the island of Banoi, a tropical island with its own functional resorts, cities, economy… and shady underground. As the game starts up, some sort of outbreak has occurred that has turned a sizable amount of the populace into violent undead nightmares, and you’ll be put into the role of one of four characters who are trying to survive this nightmare and find an escape, help the remaining survivors, and try to figure out what in the heck is happening in the first place. The four characters you can play as all have a distinct personality and reason for being on the island, which you’ll discover from the character select screen, though in the game this doesn’t come up as often as you’d want, as the game focuses more on the story of the world more often than that of your characters. Still, what story is in the game is generally capable of carrying things along nicely; while there’s a good amount of story elements that focus on saving people and trying to survive, there’s also plenty of the standard “people are stupid and selfish” plot points one would expect to give the player some variety. The story mostly takes itself dead serious, though there’s a little bit of humor here and there to keep things from degenerating into pure dramatic misery, and while the plot isn’t quite as developed or well resolved as it could be, it is generally well developed and written, and it’s enjoyable enough to carry the game along. One thing that is very good about the game is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of making the characters buddies like Left 4 Dead did; the characters pretty obviously don’t like each other at first and slowly kind of come to terms with each other as their plot points come up, which is very important and gives credibility to the plot.

That said, though, the ending really undoes a lot of the goodwill that the plot might otherwise generate. Without getting into specifics, the last hour or so of the game’s plot just feels simultaneously illogical and mean-spirited, and is both unsatisfying and unpleasant in a lot of respects. It’s not that the ending events are bad in and of themselves, either, so much as it is that the elements are either cliché, out of nowhere and nonsensical, or just simply upsetting in a way the developers likely didn’t intend. That’s really a shame, too, as the plot actually had some pretty solid ideas sprinkled around in it here and there that, while not masterworks on their own, actually came together well enough, but it feels like there was a sort of race to get to an ending here, and instead of developing the plot in the direction the writers wanted, they just hammered the ending into place. The writers could have done that ending and gotten to that place in a way that wasn’t as frustrating as it is, and at the end of the day the plot isn’t going to be the big seller of a game like this, but the plot as it stands is about ninety percent solid and ten percent disappointing, but it’s the last ten percent that’s the disappointing part, which really kind of hurts in the end.

Dead Island is the sort of game, visually, that is more concerned with the variety of things than the technical aspects of the presentation, and as such, while there are some visual hiccups, the game is certainly impressive. By far the most interesting part of the visuals is the sheer variety on display; there are numerous large environments for you to traverse that are all quite diverse and interesting in their design and presentation. There’s also an excellent amount of variety to the things you’ll see and find, as you’ll find all sorts of weapons and such that are different from one another even late into the game, depending on the modifiers associated to the weapon. The various zombies and NPC’s you meet are also rather solid looking and animate well enough, though both tend to repeat a bit and the zombies can have some glitching issues on death. The game’s special effects are also a bit odd at times, especially when looking at fire or smoke effects, and there are the occasional rendering hiccups where the game world can take several seconds, or even minutes, to fully load, and sometimes textures or even enemies will load into the game late, though this is infrequent enough to be tolerable. Aurally, there’s a lot of personality to the game, thanks to a generally well cast and developed voice acting group and some well assembled musical tracks, from the amusing title track to the various powerful scores that pop as you’re playing the game. The sound effects are also exceptionally well done, between the general ambient noise and the more obvious and direct combat effects and such, and they add to the experience in a way that’s pleasing and obvious.

Dead Island plays, at first glance, like most standard FPS titles, so anyone with genre experience should have little difficulty getting the hang of the mechanics. The left stick and right stick control your movement and aiming, the left trigger aims guns and allows you to throw melee weapons, and the right trigger fires guns and attacks with or throws melee weapons. A jumps, X is your context sensitive button for interacting with things, B heals you (if you have healing items) and activates “Fury” when held, Y drops weapons or reloads, the left bumper kicks, and the right bumper changes weapons. You can also click on the inventory by pressing up on the D-Pad and click on your flashlight with a press of the down D-Pad directional. Pressing in the left stick runs, pressing in the right stick ducks, and pressing back brings up your menus for looking at the map, spending talent points, investigating your inventory and more. In a nice touch, the game also offers analog melee controls, at which point you can hold down the trigger to go into combat mode, then pull the right stick on one direction to prime an attack, and finally push in the opposite direction to attack, which allows for more control on how an attack will land. Granted, it’s harder to deliver fast strikes with this mode, but it also allows for more control of how to land a head slash or what have you, and if you can learn how to work with it, it’s well implemented. Otherwise, you’ll more or less have the basics down inside of the first hour, and the game isn’t too hard to learn even for new players.

However, Dead Island adds some RPG elements to that FPS base, which is where that comparison to Borderlands comes in. You’re given four characters to choose from, each with their own positives to work with. Each character has their own obvious benefits statistically from the start, whether it be that they have more health or stamina or whatever, and each character gets bonuses to specific weapon types. The game basically has you go on quests for the various survivors of the zombie attacks to try and help them out and/or help yourself out, and by successfully completing these quests, as well as by killing zombies and human thugs and such, you’ll earn experience points. Earning enough points gives you a level up, which in turn gives you a point you can dump into one of three skill trees. You can upgrade your Fury skills, which are skills you can use when the Fury meter is full to give your character some big damage attacks for a brief period of time, and by upgrading them, you can in turn get more benefits when you kick Fury on. Alternatively, you can upgrade skills from the weaponry tree or the survival tree, with the former giving you added damage options and benefits in battle, while the latter allows you to get better loot, increase health and stamina, get more stuff from crafting, and other useful perks. The trees are massive and you’ll likely get through the game with several skills under developed, so it pays to pay attention to what you want to get out of your character. Do you want to develop Purna’s ranged combat skills, or make a rush for her ability to potentially auto-resurrect? Do you want to focus on Logan’s throwing abilities or dump points into his melee bonuses? There are a lot of really great skills on each of the characters, so you can mix and match as you see fit and build a character that works best for you without having to pick one character and hope they have everything you want, which is honestly refreshing, given how narrow so many characters in similar games can be.

It wouldn’t be an action RPG without sick loot, however, and Dead Island has that in spades. There are various types of weapons you can find, and while the beginning of the game will see you grabbing anything you can get a hold of and hoping for the best, later on you’ll start really paying attention to weapon stats and levels to make sure you get the best possible weapons. Ranged and melee weapons are both ranked in different categories, with melee weapons focusing on durability and handling and ranged weapons focusing on reload speeds and accuracy in addition to the obvious damage stats for each. As you progress through the game you’ll find new weapons that are scaled to your level, and while that means that you’ll be finding a level 25 wrench, for example, and that might seem a little odd, it makes sense mechanically so you’ll get used to it pretty quickly. You can also spend time working on your weapons at the different workbenches you’ll find throughout the game, and for a good long while you’ll be doing exactly that, as repairing melee weapons is mandatory to keep them in good shape. Both weapon types can also be upgraded up to three levels beyond their base, which you’ll also want to spend a lot of time doing to keep new weapons competitive against enemies, though guns are a bit more expensive to do this with, presumably due to their lack of repair costs. As you play you’ll also come across modification schematics that allow you to mod weapons to deal additional damage or carry elemental effects by way of, say, wiring a battery to a police baton or a buzzsaw to a baseball bat, so long as you have the cash and the random stuff to make it with. The game puts a big emphasis on searching random stashes around the island to find little consumable doodads, partially because island residents might need them, but mostly because you can use them in the modification recipes that make some of the best weapons available.

You will want to do this thing, of course, because the enemies are no joke. While there are plenty of your normal shambling dead, there are also plenty of upgraded enemy types who will attempt to hunt you down, be it by racing after you and fat-kid-windmill-punching you to death, charging straight through you, attacking you with their filed-down bones, or what have you, all of whom scale to your level, meaning they’re always a challenge. You’ll also find yourself taking on looters and thugs of various sorts who have no interest in anything but your loot, and often wield the same sorts of weaponry you do, making them as much of a challenge as the undead you’ll face. Of course, aside from the neat gear and skills you get, you can also draft friends and strangers to back you up if you’re looking for some help. You can jump into a friend’s game easily enough, and vice-versa, but the game also will pop up a small dialogue box to let you know that someone else who is playing solo and is around your area is playing, if you’re playing with the option to do so turned on. Thus, you can jump into games with anyone who is playing publicly, or someone can jump into your game, to give each other a hand as you wish. Dead Island allows for the sort of jump-in, jump-out online play that isn’t obtrusive and doesn’t kick players to the menu when someone wants to take their leave or jump into a game with someone else, which is very much convenient and very much welcome in a game where every helping hand is a big plus.

If you focus on the storyline missions, you can probably complete the game in about ten to fifteen hours, but if you spend your time really focusing on the side missions, of which there are many, you can bring that up to twenty five to thirty hours in one playthrough, easy. There are over one hundred and twenty missions in the game to take on, from simple collecting missions to involved, multi-stage assaults on locations, and each mission adds to the backstory and rewards you with new toys or cash as well as lots of experience points, making all of them worth taking on, alone or with friends. There are also plenty of Achievements to earn and Challenges to plow through, the latter of which reward your characters with bonus experience for completing them, making them worth taking on. You’re also given four noticeably different characters to play as, as well as a fully functional New Game Plus mode that lets you carry over your awesome character for another go, so there’s plenty of reasons in the game alone to come back to it multiple times over. On top of that, there is DLC planned that will add a new scenario to the game as well as an arena mode for friends to take on legions of the dead outside of the main storyline, which only adds to the long term value of the game.

So it’s something of a shame, then, that Dead Island shipped in the condition that it did, because while the game has lots of great ideas and content in it, it also has lots of bugs that need patching. Deep Silver states there was going to be a Day One patch available for the game, but said patched released 9/14, over a week after the fact. That’s a shame, too, because a lot of the bugs, just from what I’ve experienced, are really, really game-breaking. Now, granted, there are minor issues that won’t affect people much, like kicking beach balls into players and killing them; if anything, that’s a minor issue and it’s kind of amusing until someone griefs you with it. But when you boot the game up and see your save data deleted, twice? That becomes seriously problematic in a hurry, and that’s not even the beginning and end of it. I’ve thrown weapons into enemies and had them simply disappear (in single player so I know it wasn’t someone stealing them), been bum-rushed by infinitely spawning enemies that I need to progress past to proceed, and had NPC’s I need to talk to disappear entirely until I fast-travel away and come back. I’ve died and respawned right in the middle of multiple violent enemies who sent me back to respawning, died and respawned a hundred meters away from my point of death, loaded into a zone only to be INSTANTLY assaulted by enemies at the zone point, and loaded a save game to find myself in a completely different part of the island from where I left. The patch has resolved some issues definitively (items scaling to your level in a New Game Plus, respawn points being horrid) and not resolved others (truck noise is still low, visual loading is still obvious at times, load point is still not definitely where you last saved), and still others, like save game deletion, are still questionable at this point, so there’s still a ways to go yet. It’s good that there is some work done on the product, but the fact that it launched in the condition it was in is highly disappointing, and the game still desperately needs further patching to be the good game it wants to be instead of the game it is.

Not that patches will resolve all of the issues with the game, of course. Now, obviously Dead Island takes some of its inspiration from numerous action RPG’s, and saying “Dead Island takes its cues from Borderlands“ would be a fallacy, but in some respects, Techland could have learned a lot from that game. For example: why is there no armor anywhere in the game? Your characters gain increased health as you play, but the enemies ramp up in power too, so it all balances out, and you basically die in the same amount of hits no matter what you do. Adding armor into the game, however, would mitigate that somewhat, and it’s sensible in context. Late in the game you start seeing zombies in SWAT armor, which makes them harder to kill as a result, and you’re just left saying “Hey, why can’t I get some of that”? This becomes further problematic because you will want some of that often, as the game is not at all kind. Now, death isn’t particularly punishing; you lose about ten percent of your cash, then respawn to fight again, so, fine, not the end of the world. However, and this is important, there are times where you WILL die because of the enemy spawning and placement, and because you can basically die in anywhere from two to five hits, depending on the enemy. Yes, the game can be played online with friends, but, and this is important, making a game with a single player component that forces you to play with others because of the enemy saturation is a bad idea.

Balance is a key component of any game, and Dead Island doesn’t always showcase the best balance ideas. You cannot get armor, you cannot block, kicking only helps so much, and there are not always tactics that are going to save you from enemies spawning out of nowhere, charging at you and windmill punching you to death before you can even turn around because you were focused on something else. The entire City section of the game is a testament to this, as is a late sequence in the Jungle section: you will either have to get VERY GOOD VERY FAST, buddy up, or die a lot, full stop, because there are no other options. Difficulty in a game is fine, absolutely, and anyone who loves Demon’s Souls or Monster Hunter as much as I do will agree with that, but being swarmed by violent, powerful enemies and having no way to respond isn’t difficulty, it’s a design flaw. Oh, and speaking of Monster Hunter, lets talk about the stamina system here. Much like in Monster Hunter, your characters have stamina that depletes when they run, jump, dodge, and attack with melee weapons, and much like Monster Hunter, it regenerates when you’re inactive. Monster Hunter strikes a very fine balance between these elements, however, putting you into a situation where you can, with practice, manage these things together with managing the stamina system and be successful. Dead Island will have you walk into an area with six enemies in front of you, then spawn three more charging enemies behind you who can follow you to higher ground, and leave your well-intentioned plans withering in the dirt as you eat a death because of the nature of the random spawns. It’s not that the stamina system isn’t a fine idea, it’s that the way this game works makes the stamina system a detriment.

Despite the above complaints, Dead Island is, to a point, a good game, but it’s a good game that is held back from being a great game by questionable design choices and is dragged down to being an okay game by multiple bugs that need to be fixed. The story is mostly solid, save for an out-of-nowhere ending that is unsatisfying, and the game looks acceptable and sounds great. The gameplay is simple enough to learn and adjust to, and the various additional elements and RPG styled concepts the game makes use of are very well implemented. Further, the game offers a lot of good reasons to come back to it again and again, both immediately on the disc and promised for later in DLC form, and as such, based solely on the good elements of the game, Dead Island easily justifies its asking price. However, the game launched with a whole lot of bugs, many of which make the game a lot more frustrating than it should be, such as save game deletion, infinitely spawning enemies, disappearing NPC’s, and poor respawn behavior, that need to be fixed before the game can aspire to the level of goodness it deserves. On top of that, the game also has some noticeable mechanical miscues, such as a lack of defense options, a stamina system that hurts as much as it helps, and poor spawning metrics, that make the game a lot more frustrating than it should be, and more attention should have been paid to making the game one that was challenging, not annoying. Once the game is patched to fix the technical flaws, Dead Island will be a more enjoyable, if not perfect, experience, but as it stands right now, it’s a game that needs some work done, and it’s one you can probably wait on for a bit.

The Scores:
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: POOR
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS

Short Attention Span Summary:
Dead Island is a game that has a lot of lofty ideas and goals, and it’s very impressive in that it manages to make many of them work, but some obvious balancing issues combined with some serious technical flaws make it a game that’s a lot harder to love than it should be. The story does a good job of carrying things along, save for a less than satisfying ending sequence, the graphics are serviceable, if somewhat technically hampered, and the audio is generally quite good. The gameplay should be instantly familiar to FPS fans and easy to learn for new players, but there are also some useful additional gameplay mechanics, as well as some well implemented RPG elements, that make the game its own thing. There’s also a lot of replay value to the game, between the large amount of content and variety on the disc and the promise of DLC, that make the game seem like it’s one that’s worth investing in. However, the game also comes with an assortment of noticeable and painful bugs, such as save game corruption, item deletion, infinitely spawning enemies, and more that really need to be patched before the game can be considered “complete”. Additionally, the game has some balancing issues, between a lack of defensive items and blocking abilities, a stamina system that feels like it’s fighting the player, and spawning metrics that drown the player in unwinnable battles at times, that make it hard to recommend to anyone but the best players. With some patching and polishing, Dead Island could be a really worthwhile experience sooner or later, but as it stands, there’s a lot of work to go yet, and until that work is complete it’s a hard game to recommend to any but the most patient of gamers.



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8 responses to “Review: Dead Island (Microsoft Xbox 360)”

  1. […] fun moments of mowing down Nazis (Hell, change Nazi to zombies and I would’ve just described Dead Island). The second game managed to do more with the combat, but it was also a bug ridden mess, had […]

  2. Thomas Avatar

    I’m almost through it and have to say I agree, while it feels great when you manage to curbstomp multiple zombies at a time it feels less great when two zombies come rushing out of nowhere and beat you to death in seconds. So I asked myself yesterday – “Why is there no armor?”
    (I managed to get through escorting Yerema down the mountain without dying but I have no idea how, was one of those times you get everything right.)
    Only thing I disagree with is the bland writing, none of the characters felt sympathetic and the story was one big cliché (SPOILER: When I reached the jungle I thought; “Please no cannibal natives”). Also, why is everyone british when the developer is polish? It’s bloody bollocks mate all over the place.
    But it’s a blast to play when you don’t get rushed by six zombies at the same time from multiple directions. Can you even survive that as less than four players?

  3. Mark B. Avatar
    Mark B.

    I didn’t, mostly because the AI got confused halfway down, turned around and ran back into the zombie hordes, so I ate that death with pride.

    I’d imagine the island was a British colony or something like that, but I never thought about it much. And there are elements of the story I do like; I like that, unlike Left 4 Dead everyone’s not all buddies from the word go, I like that the scientists you meet have no idea what in the hell is going on either, and the cannibal natives at least had a reason for eating people, so I wasn’t too offended about that.

    J. Rose, Shawn PC and I managed it as a three-person group but they were a good ten levels above me by that point, so I don’t think that counts. Not that being higher level helps much, but you get better weapons at least.

  4. Thomas Avatar

    Haven’t played L4D but it doesn’t strike me as they even tried making a cohesive story there. But now I’m whining from the get go!
    I accidently saw something about Port Moresby in a newspaper, apparently it’s the capitol of Papua New Guinea which indeed was a british colony. So I suppose people calling each other bloke and brattah is a point in favor for the game.
    And yeah, that the scientists were a bunch of tools too was nice.

    A interesting thing with all these kind of games is that they’ve skipped the illusion of freedom. None of the NPC’s are doing anything except standing around and waiting for you to solve their problems. Not bashing DI in particular, all MMO’s ever made suffer from the same thing. But I’m playing Fallout: New Vegas currently where you in comparison can do whatever the f*ck you want. The linearity is kind of off-putting when DI has this big overworld where you can fool around. I can’t remember, is GTA the same?
    Don’t know how much theu could have done about it without changing around a lot of things, especially since it’s co-op and all.

    Also I was a bit shocked when I suddenly had to kill looters. I’m fine with jumping on zombieheads but bashing in the skulls of humans when you’re trying to survive a zombie apocalypse was a bit too much at first but eventually I started headshotting them with wild abandon. Had there been more of choice i.e you could decide you wanted to be a asshole and there was some sort of effect from it it’d have been better. Now I’m just another heroic massmurderer.

  5. […] way right from the get go: after having spent much of the last few weeks playing Gears of War 3 and Dead Island, Battlefield 3 is visually unimpressive by comparison. All of the trailers EA had been pumping out […]

  6. […] HD and Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection were released with noticeable issues and lag. Games like Dead Island and Catherine were decent, but unable to live up to the massive amount of hype surrounding them […]

  7. […] were a handful of games that I eagerly awaited the release of this fall, such as Dead Island, Gears of War 3, and Dark Souls. But I don’t think any of them measured up to the […]

  8. […] a year and a half ago, after much hype and build up, Dead Island was brought to us by the folks at Deep Silver and Techland, and to say that it was a far reaching, […]

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