As anyone with a TV set knows, there’s a new zombie game in town, Dead Island. The commercials certainly were effective. Like many, I had some trouble downloading from Steam, but www.gamersgate.com worked better for some reason (and sells it a tiny bit cheaper). By the time the game was finally downloaded and installed and ready to play, I was nigh drooling with anticipation.
The premise of Dead Island is simple as befits a game with mindless enemies. You’re on a lush tropical island, and some sort of zombie infestation has taken over the island, starting last night. Your goal is to escape the island.
First order of business is to pick a character. There are four characters, each with a specialization (blunt weapons, sharp weapons, throwing weapons, and guns). Characters gain experience through killing zombies and questing, gaining skill points to spend as they gain levels. Although the characters look and speak differently, there is much overlap in their skill trees. While this is usually annoying in an RPG, Dead Island is a survival game, so it’s not so bad that any character can learn to pick locks or stomp heads or the like. You do what you need to get by, and even the most specialized blunt weapon character will nevertheless use guns and throwing knives from time to time.
Your character wakes up in a hotel room after a night of hard partying with only dim memories of zombies and people dying. The first few minutes of the game cover your escape from the hotel, and serve as a painless tutorial for everything you need to know about how to interact with the environment. Right after your rescue, you get forced into choosing a weapon and learning combat, and then the “real” game begins.
Dead Island uses a quest system, with other characters denoted by an exclamation point when they have a quest for you. You can have as many quests as you like (and you should take them all), and there’s no time limit on any quest. Most quests are impossible to fail, and those few that can be failed give you an option to restart the quest. There’s no stress to questing, as an auto-map system even tells you what path to take to complete your quest (although sometimes it goes wonky and directs you to brick walls, making a few quests more difficult than otherwise). These little glitches are about the only annoying part of the game, but they’re plenty annoying: I found using Brady Games’ strategy guide (which has maps) is the best way to figure out what to do, rather than try to bumble my way through arbitrarily impenetrable foliage and rocks. While I’m on the topic of stress, I’ll mention death isn’t much of a factor here, either. If your character runs out of hit points, he/she goes unconscious for a few seconds and respawns nearby. The only penalty is a loss of money, a fairly plentiful resource in the game.
"This is a game about killing zombies, lots and lots and lots of them…"
Dead Island takes place in a big map, and you’ll be fighting on the beach, as well as in a hotel, a city, and a jungle. The many maps are fun, but often come across as a bit sterile; there are no fish or birds at the beach, for example, and likewise the jungle and city are void of non-humanoids (except for the occasional fly-ridden body). This is a game about killing zombies, lots and lots and lots of them, so the designers are justified in focusing on the zombies and humans, despite in-game hints that other types of enemies exist somewhere. Guns and ammo, especially in the early game, are in short supply, but other weapons are surprisingly common. There is a ridiculously wide variety of blades/knives/machetes/bats/maces/cleavers/pipes and other things, and all are capable of making your enemies die gruesomely. Weapons can also be modified at a work bench, for example adding weights to clubs or live wires to blades, to add further damage. The eternal quest for a slightly better weapon adds to the fun of the game, although it’s regrettable there’s not much else in the way of equipment available.
Multiplayer is fairly limited. There’s an automatic system where the game checks if any other players are basically on the same quest as you, and if so, you get the option of playing in the same game. There’s no forced reason to play with others, as the whole game is easily completed in single player mode. The cut scenes all assume you’re playing with a full group, which can be rather jarring at times.
Dead Island clearly is taking its ideas from another franchise, Dead Rising, so a comparison at least to Dead Rising 2 makes sense. In addition to the overall ease of play, Dead Island has more character choices, a much larger play area, and highly detailed zombies. DR2 forces you into playing one character to make a more intense story, while Dead Island has a more legitimate role playing system, but there’s enough overlap in how the characters play that this isn’t quite as big a plus as it might seem. The larger map area is a true plus, although DR2 puts much more detail in its smaller maps; the shopping malls, arenas, and casinos have a realism to them that is simply lacking in Dead Island’s vistas. Finally, there’s a steep price for those detailed zombies: you seldom fight a horde like in DR2, with half a dozen zombies being the maximum you’ll see in Dead Island (and usually it’s just one or two).
DR2, on the other hand, totally dominates when it comes to weapons; many weapons in that game have very unique and fun ways of killing zombies (such as liquefying a zombie by dropping a modified lawnmower on it, or sticking dynamite in its mouth, among many other ways), and there is also a wide range of barehanded attacks with no equivalent in Dead Island, wherein zombies all die in about the same way, splattering blood and gore everywhere as their skulls are split open which gets old eventually. DR2 also has minigames and special bosses that must be beaten with special tactics; Dead Island simply doesn’t, beyond a handful of big zombies that, you guessed it, die by getting their heads bashed in.
"Whether the much easier play in Dead Island makes a better game is a matter of taste."
Whether the much easier play in Dead Island makes a better game is a matter of taste. In DR2 you can actually fail most quests or even die (forcing replay from an earlier save), but failing quests leads to multiple endings, whereas games in Dead Island all end in the same inevitable way.
Dead Island is absolutely a fun and very playable game and worth the money, even if it lacks the incredible detail and more serious challenge of Dead Rising 2. Dead Island may lack new ideas, but it makes up for it with simple playability, and often that’s all anyone wants in a game.