Dead Island has to be the biggest surprise of the year. It comes from a developer with a less than stellar track record, it has been in development for six years, and it has the unenviable task of living up to a very memorable trailer. And it does. Maybe not as well as it could have, but Dead Island is a smartly designed, intense, action-RPG that never loses focus on its emotional center.
The first surprise is the rich back story for each of the main characters. Each person is a unique class: Logan is the throwing expert, Purna is the firearms expert, Xian is good with blades, and Sam B prefers blunt weapons. Each of them has a reason for being on this island, though none of them really want to be there, and they narrate their past when you select them. Which brings me to the second surprise: the voice acting. While some accents sound forced, most of the acting in Dead Island is quite good. Since the facial animations are not so good (to say the least), it falls to the acting to sell the more dramatic moments of the game, and the actors succeed.
The island itself is quite big, so much so that vehicles play a pretty large role in getting you from place to place, and there are more large maps in addition to the resort. Just when you feel like you’ve become familiar with one area the game opens up another; this constant exploration and discovery are some of Dead Island’s biggest successes. It strikes that perfect balance between danger and temptation: Even normal zombies can kill you quickly if you’re not careful, but there’s so much loot to be found, ranging from crafting items to weapons, which makes the risk worth it. You might also stumble across lone survivors who will reward you with money, items, or XP if nothing else.
The combat systems are also a big success. This is not a shooter game. You do get guns but only after several hours and even then ammo is so limited that you can’t go shooting everything that staggers. First-person melee combat can be awkward, but Dead Island pulls it off surprisingly well. You can attack specific limbs to break them or cut them off. An armless zombie is still dangerous, but it’s also kind of funny. Thankfully, the targeting system doesn’t require perfect precision. As long as you’re aiming in the general vicinity of a limb, you’ll hit it. This makes it easy to target a specific arm in the heat of battle, or to just go straight for the head. Decapitating a “Runner” with a single swing as it charges you is incredibly satisfying and never gets old.
This also isn’t a fast paced game. Combat is slow, every swing requires a wind up, but in exchange for this slow pace, your weapons hit with shocking force. You’ll cringe the first time that you crack open a zombie’s head. It feels like your character puts all her energy into every swing. The game certainly doesn’t skimp on the violence, yet it also never feels gratuitous, thanks mainly due to its serious tone. Dead Island is out to horrify you, not titillate you.
There is also a large crafting component in the game. Weapons break over time and must be repaired, which encourages you to switch up what you use. Your weapons will come to act like a time limit for your excursions into zombie territory: When you’re down to one good weapon, maybe it’s time to head back to base. Along the way you’ll find blueprints for modifying weapons. And there are no downsides to modifying weapons. For as good as a plain old machete is, a machete that electrocutes is always better. Modifying takes money, but you’ll find more than enough cash on bodies and backpacks. Carrying all of this is quite easy since the inventory system is cleverly managed.
You get 12 slots for useable items like weapons and medkits. It’s a perfect number: Enough space for important supplies and favored weapons but not so much that you can pick up everything you see to sell later. Even after leveling up you can only carry 18 of such items, a pool that quickly fills up. However, items to aid in crafting don’t count towards this limit, so you can carry an infinite number of duct tape rolls, wires, scrap metal, etc. Many popular RPGs make crafting components count towards an overall encumbrance, and in those cases, I find myself ignoring that entire system in favor of carrying more heavy weapons. Dead Island doesn’t make you choose, so its crafting system is genuinely important and plays a large role in how you progress.
The co-op is well integrated: If you set your game to “cooperative” then you’ll get a little message when other players at your same progression and level are nearby. Just hit left on the D-pad and you’ll join in their game. The same can happen to you, and it’s very strange to suddenly see yourself fighting zombies, like an out-of-body experience, but that’s just another player using the same character. Things are definitely easier with two people, and you also have a tendency to move faster through the game. The island is so well realized that it’s good to slow down, however, every now and then (despite the danger) in order to check some boxes and take in the ambiance. It all depends on what kind of game you’re looking for: a moody and intense single-player experience or a fun and challenging multiplayer experience. Dead Island works both ways.
As an RPG, Dead Island is an odd beast. You level up and put upgrade points into skills and all that, but you don’t unlock any special abilities, mostly just more damage with your preferred weapon. And since the enemies level up as well, you never reach a point where you can relax. You’re always in danger, which is good for suspense but bad for those expecting to level up and mow through the undead. This is not Dead Rising, and that’s a good thing.
Despite all this praise, Dead Island is not without some serious rough patches. There’s no practical reason to play as Purna, the firearms expert, because it takes so long to find a gun that you’ll be stuck using ineffective weapons to the point of frustration. NPCs refer to me as a “he” even though I’m playing as a female character. When I’m in a single-player game, all playable characters show up in cut scenes and talk as if they were never apart fromone another. Some missions get reset when I leave the area, forcing me to go back to the quest-giver to reactivate them. Some skills I know that I’ve unlocked appear grayed out on the menus, but I can still select them. A game update reset my Trophy and in-game Challenges progress—not to mention all the graphical hiccups.
It’s certainly not the most polished game on the market, but it succeeds where it matters. The fighting, looting, crafting, and acting lift the game above its many technical issues. Forget all the mutated monsters from Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil, Dead Island proves that regular, run-of-the-mill zombies are still scary.