Experience a tropical paradise overrun by zombies.
PC Release: September 6, 2011
By Ian Coppock
About five years ago, a heart-wrenching, beautifully rendered trailer was released from a Polish developer called Techland. The trailer depicted a young family, having embarked on a tropical vacation, trying to keep a horde of zombies out of their swanky hotel room. It plucked the heartstrings with its morose music and the climactic death of a small child. The game for which this trailer was advertising, Dead Island, came out in the autumn of 2011 and…. felt completely different from what the trailer had stirred. Of all of the examples why the E3 hype train is 99% bullshit, that trailer is perhaps the most prominent.
But what of the game? Even if its feel differed from that of the trailer, is it any good? A complicated question. One that I’m prepared to answer.
Dead Island launched amid significant fanfare and amazed audiences with its combination of eye-catching tropical environments and gory, gory zombies. The game starts off as a zombie virus ravages the tropical paradise of Banoi. A washed-up football player, a shitty rapper, a Chinese concierge and an Australian bodyguard are forced to team up and combat the threat after inadvertently discovering that they’re immune to the virus. Players spend most of the game helping enclaves around the resort fight off the zombies, all the while trying to discover the outbreak’s murky origins.
Dead Island is at heart a co-op game, but I decided to go it alone as Purna, an Aboriginal ex-cop. The game’s main narrative assumes that all four characters are present, but you won’t see your compatriots in the actual game unless you’re in multiplayer. For her part, Purna is an expert with firearms and with creatively swearing in an Australian accent, so obviously she’s the best choice.
Dead Island is an open-world FPS game with a mix of melee and ranged combat. You’ll start off from humble beginnings wielding cricket bats and paddles, but take heart; revolvers and AKs are just around the corner. Dead Island‘s focus on melee combat allows for some head-bashing, zombie-smashing fun as you take the fight to them with anything at hand. The game’s hitboxes are surprisingly decent, allowing for fluid melee attacks against any body part you happen to be facing, rather than general damage. You can even decapitate charging zombies if you time your strikes right.
Dead Island‘s gunplay is decidedly more pedestrian than the melee combat. It’s easy to see why the game focuses on melee, as all zombies will go down in 1-2 head shots. Human enemies out to scavenge your stuff make the occasional appearance, but their AI is so poor that they’re little better at dodging bullets than their undead counterparts.
Even the most badass baseball bat, though, will give you only so much power against the zombies. Dead Island is presented in an open-world format, and you’d better believe that the whole resort is crawling with the undead. There’s something comical about a gymnasium douchebag zombie lurching at you in pink shorts, but do you focus on him, or on the bellboy zombie lurching at you with a cart? Melee weapons degrade over time, but this challenge is mitigated by the sheer number of them lying around.
As is common in video game media these days, zombies come in different types and options. You’ve got your typical “walker” zombie, your “infected” runner zombie whose viral strain had some Sriracha added to it, and your hulking “thug” zombie that acts as a mini-boss. I appreciate the variety here, but some zombie variants are flat-out weird, like the “ram” zombies bound up in straightjackets. That’s a terrifying foe, but why are there so goddamn many of them? Is this resort right next to an insane asylum?
Anyway, special zombie silliness aside, the combat in this game is satisfying and reasonably well done, though a bit broken if you master the kicking ability. You can kick zombies away to keep yourself from getting mobbed, but the game inadvertently lets you kick multiple foes and makes showdowns with one enemy a breeze.
Besides zombies, the other thing Dead Island‘s open world has in plentitude is quests. Talk to the survivor, go to the store to get some some gasoline and Capri-Sun, take it back to the survior to hand the quest in, get some money and trinkets, repeat ad nauseum. Seriously, every goddamn quest in this game is a boring, ho-hum fetch quest. Even the story missions: talk to this dude, drive over to this power station or lesbian bathroom or changing station or wherever the shit the shit is, get in, get out, get your reward, and move on.
Lots of quests means a lot of, you guessed it, RPG elements! Kill a sufficient number of zombies and level up for even more ridiculous zombie-killing! It’s so zombielicious you’ll zombie your zombie.
Facetiousness aside, it doesn’t take very long to get the long view of how Dead Island works. Once you’ve gone on a few missions to fetch breakfast cereal, or the necklace that hot tourist’s secret boyfriend got for her, you’ve gone on them all. Each quest is also named after a pop culture reference… for some reason.
I suppose it’s only fair to dive a bit more into the main story of this game since the side quests are trivial time-wasters. For a start, the game’s dialogue is ridiculous. You know how people who are insecure about how tough or masculine they are will try to compensate for it by swearing as much as possible? Listening to this game is like having a conversation with a dozen of these people.
Swearing is an art, not a science. You put swearwords in places where it makes sense, where there’s a flow. The phrase “I’m going to go get the motherfucking goddamn truck” does not take heed to this lesson, and instead of inspiring fear or resolve, inspires laughter.
I suppose that the game’s unspoken background information is pretty interesting. It’s becoming more difficult to find original zombie outbreak concepts as the undead saturate our media, but this one takes a little bit of Pacific islander folklore and a little bit of obscure science to come up with something surprisingly workable. I won’t spoil it, but I’m glad the developers understood the word “subtlety” at SOME point during development.
To be honest I’m having a hard time coming up with what else to expect in this game’s narrative. Everything is basically a long line of fetch quests culminating a single battle atop a building and the threat of impending doom to light a fire under your ass. This game’s characters do not budge one iota out of their predetermined niches. The black guy is of course a rapper who grew up on the streets and the Chinese waitress speaks in the same stereotypical overtures we’ve seen in the media for years.
I was also disappointed to learn that Techland, the studio behind Dead Island, referred to Purna as a “feminist whore” during development. Here we have perhaps the only Aboriginal character in the whole of gamedom and Techland treats her like trash. But, I shouldn’t be surprised; this is the same studio who thought that THIS would be a good item to ship with their games:
Techland. They won’t make a decent game, but they will ship you something they found in Errol Childress’s sex dungeon.
As long as I’m giving this beautiful-looking but utterly derivative game the indictment it deserves, I should warn PC players about Dead Island‘s plethora of bugs. I played the Xbox 360 version of this game almost half a decade ago and got through it no problem. The PC version, by contrast, has dozens of bugs, lots of them game-breaking.
The first bug I noticed was one that stopped the game if you got all of your fruit juice from one gas station, instead of half from one station and half from another as the quest suggests. I tried to hand the quest in but the fruit juice paradox kicked in and caused the game to crash.
The second and most God-awful bug was one that teleported me from the end of the game’s first chaper into somewhere in the third. After poking around inside a Russian cafe during a late evening, I booted the game back up the next day after work to find that I’d been teleported to a jungle with a cell phone and no guns. That bug was what prompted my first test of the Steam game removal system.
Dead Island includes a prequel DLC that follows an army colonel’s efforts to save his wife, but the entire affair is so linear and buggy, that it’s barely worth mentioning beyond this sentence. Except perhaps to mention that it’s packaged into the main game.
So, let’s review real quick: what have we learned? First, we learned that great E3 trailers can be used to advertise shitty games. Second, we learned that gorgeous graphics that look competitive even five years later aren’t enough to save a game. And third, we learned that Ian wasted his time on Dead Island and hopes to prevent his fellow PC players from doing the same. I’m told that Techland did nothing to fix Dead Island‘s bugs in the game’s direct sequel, Dead Island: Riptide, and I therefore have very little interest in playing that or the upcoming Dead Island 2.
Dead Island 2 also seems to be under the impression that California is an island.
You can buy Dead Island here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.