Techland's Dead Island feels, in many ways, like a version of Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas with zombies. Or, more zombies, anyway. It's a first person open world survival horror game with RPG elements, with lots of looting, bashing heads in and talking to people as they stand still and the camera zooms in on their face. This may not be what people were expecting after the game's famous announcement trailer but it certainly sets the stage for a potentially deep and fun undead experience. But after many years in development, does Dead Island live up to this potential?
Dead Island's admittedly rather poorly told story can be almost completely inferred from its title. There is an island upon which there are the undead, who strike during a party and promptly begin infecting its inhabitants, tourists and employees. Your character, selected from a group of four who are luckily all specialists in a certain type of weaponry, wakes up in the island's holiday resort to find the zombie masses champing at the bit to, well, chomp at your bits. After learning you're immune to the infection, you're soon taken in by various survivor groups around the island as you plan your escape.
Cutscenes are few and far between, and your chosen character rarely has anything worthwhile to say. The supporting cast of quest-givers fare slightly better. The fictional island of Banoi (said to be near Papua New Guinea) has a very multicultural citizenship, but when you're not cringing at the Aussie or Kiwi accents you'll be questioning why the island's mechanic is from the American South. The story itself moves slowly, but if you largely stick to just completing it you'll probably have the game wrapped in 20-30 hours.
Most of your time in Dead Island is spent in side-quests. There's a huge number to complete, with survivors around safe houses handing them out at the drop of a hat, while others can be found by the road or in the island's jungles as you're exploring or in the middle of completing another mission. You're forced quite early on to complete side-quests to progress in the main story, making it clear that there is a big focus on them. This may appeal to you or annoy you, but just know if you're looking to barrel through a game for the story alone, this is probably not the game for you.
With that said, it can be a very pretty looking game at times. Most of the picturesque locations are found at the start of the game, which Sam B himself proudly declares, "looks like a motherf***ing postcard!" Texture pop-in regularly occurs, and there are some presentation niggles (an oddly static title screen is one), but overall, for an open world game of this sort, Dead Island is impressive visually, from the bleached colours of the resort to the aging town that's down the road. There's a wealth of places to explore, if you've got the constitution for it, seeing as any venture outside of a safe house is soon met by zombies wanting to eat your face. When you're out and about, you never really feel safe, as although the slow-moving Walkers can be dealt with rather easily, there's always a sprinting Infected type, or an overpowered Thug or Rammer waiting to ruin your day.
Dead Island's RPG elements include a levelling system, as you gain experience from killing zombies, as well as skill points, which can be spent on a skill tree. This tree only has three paths, one to level up your 'fury' (a mode that gives you super one-hit killing powers), one to level up your chosen character's specialty (blunt weapons, sharp weapons, etc) and one is devoted to all other skills, such as regenerating health, lockpicking, and so on. It's good to have these specialisation options available, but it's annoying that many skills are lumped into one of the tree's branches. You can't get into lockpicking (a useful skill) straight away unless you level up something you may consider less useful a few times, like a % bonus to the amount of money looted from corpses. The zombies' levels appear to scale along with your own, meaning as you progress you'll always be fending off monstrosities around your own level rather than being able to find an area of easy-picking lower-level zombies.
Weapons are found strewn around the island, sticking out of corpses and popping out of the torsos of characters as rewards for side-quests. They range from paddles, hammers and kitchen knives to firearms; although the gunplay isn't quite as satisfying as getting up close and personal (making Sam B, the blunt weapon specialist, a favourite choice of ours). They can all be damaged or broken, and you can upgrade all of these by spending cash, or upgrade them by getting the blueprints for various mods, then collecting the necessary ingredients and combining them. A simple example is collecting a wooden stick and some nails to make a nail stick weapon thing. It's a fun inclusion, although you may find yourself tiring of repairing your favourite weapons again and again, and opt to throw them away and try something new.
One of the big attractions to Dead Island's gameplay is that the entire experience (excluding a short prologue level) can be played in four player co-op. Feeling a bit like Left 4 Dead, although with play sessions that can last a whole lot longer, the multiplayer works very well. It's much easier to take down crowds of zombies when you're working with others and able to get several angles on a scenario, especially since you rarely have any AI helping you out when you go single-player. To accommodate this, death in Dead Island only knocks you out for five seconds, before respawning you close to the action to continue on. The save system also works purely on checkpoints, not allowing you to make your own saves, which can be annoying when you encounter glitches.
We encountered a few glitches during our time with Dead Island, some of which almost prevented us from continuing. In one mission, a trigger for an event was supposed to occur, but never did, thus making the location we were meant to get to inaccessible. It was only through some canny positioning of vehicles as jumping platforms that we were able to make it to our objective and continue on in the game. The quest remained active in our questlog all the rest of the way through the game, which was annoying although not problematic. Your personal radar/map also has a tendency to spaz out, sometimes re-routing you in completely different directions on the fly, and having icons that sometimes aren't clear as to what they are. Finally, it only shows zombies in your range some of the time, when it's necessary to complete a quest, and not all of the time which can feel a little cruel as you get jumped by an Olympian Infected.
Dead Island clearly has some issues in its presentation, and if you're a fan of a good story well told, it sadly doesn't live up to the simple effectiveness of its announcement trailer. That said, the gameplay is solid and there is a great amount of quests to complete, cool sights to see and zombie brains to liberate from their skulls. You could spend a great deal of time with this game and have a lot of fun, especially if you replay it in co-op which in itself adds a great deal of enjoyment to the campaign. Check it out if you've got a hankering for skill trees, weapon optimisations and enjoyably brutal violence and gore.