Review: Dead Island (PS3)

Title: Dead Island
Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: September 6, 2011
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Techland
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M

I am a fan of all things Zombie.  I always have been.  From classic movies like Dawn of the Dead and Return of the Living Dead (Do You Wanna Paaaaarty?), to small screen adaptations of the incredible graphic novel series The Walking Dead.  Throw in some of the more recent video game releases like Left 4 Dead on the Xbox 360 and Dead Nation on the PlayStation 3 and I’ve got myself a little slice of Undead Heaven.  I’ve never been able to explain this fondness for one of the more gruesome Hollywood monsters.  I think it has something to do with the pervading sense of helplessness that comes with it; of being completely outnumbered . . . always.  You may be able to run while they shamble toward you but no matter where you turn, there they are.  Waiting, with nothing but hunger left in those cold dead eyes.

You can imagine my excitement when the initial trailer for Dead Island surfaced.  You know the one.  How could you not?  It was one of the best CGI trailers for a video game I have ever seen.  In a few short minutes you experienced terror, desperation, extreme violence and emotions for a family’s love.  Like most big-budget CGI trailers it was unlikely that the game would – or could – ever live up to such a presentation.  If for nothing else, it put Dead Island on the radar of many a gamer.

Dead Island kicks things off during a late night party on the tropical resort island of Banoi.  From a first person perspective you drunkenly stumble your way through a crowded bar and onto the  stage of the resort’s rapping musical act.  As one would expect the alcohol gets the better of you, you’re thrown from the stage and kindly asked to leave; but not before getting a glimpse of the chaos that you will inevitably wake up to.  As the bouncer of the bar is helping you up from the ground he is jumped on and attacked by a woman who just doesn’t seem quite right.

After waking up from the events of the preceding night the player is asked to choose a character.  Your options are: Xian Mei, an employee of the resort; Sam B., a rap star from New Orleans; Logan, a failed NFL star and Purna, a former police officer.  (What’s strange is that the opening cut-scene includes all four of the playable characters, so whose perspective were you viewing it from?) Although your options may seem unique and interesting at first glance with their respective back stories you’ll quickly realize that the only thing that really matters – and the one thing you all have in common – is that you are immune from the “disease” that has ravaged the island resort.  What may have started as a dream vacation has quickly turned into a nightmarish fight for survival.

Dead Island, presents the player with an open world to explore and navigate while progressing the storyline through various main and side missions.  Throw in a moderate-to-high amount of RPG elements and you’ve got yourself a game that can last dozens of hours.

Although the somewhat bland main story should be the focus – how did this happen and what can you do to survive – you are continually provided opportunities to complete side missions.  They can become slightly repetitive but, for the most part, they seem relevant to the bigger picture: gathering food and supplies for the survivors, turning on generators to power a lighthouse to signal for help or obtain enough gas to burn the dead that have been piling up.  Then, every so often, you’re afforded the opportunity to perform a mundane and out-of-place side mission.  When it appears the world may very well be at an end the developers at Techland still had the inclination to add unnecessary fetch quests in the vein of retrieving a survivor’s jewelry that was left behind when the chaos ensued.

Mundane or otherwise, the great thing about these missions is that you know up front their level of difficulty as well as the reward for their completion.  For some of the more absurd the reward might be a good amount of experience points as well as a better than average weapon.  However, the level of risk might be more than what it is worth (i.e. you’ll be walking into a nest of the undead).  Either way, choose or decline, you know up front if the juice is worth the squeeze.

Leveling up is what Dead Island is all about.  Not just with your character’s combat and survival skills, but with the weapons that you carry.  Over time, even the most solid of weaponry will eventually break down and be rendered useless.  Thankfully, scavenging from every available piece of luggage, corpse – undead or otherwise – trash can and hotel room will result in items (initially thought to be garbage) and money that can be put to good use as the game progresses.

Scattered about the island are repair tables.  These provide you with the ability (for a cost) to either repair weapons back to 100% effectiveness, upgrade their overall power or modify and create all new weapons with the aforementioned “garbage” that you’ve been collecting.  Weapon creation is accomplished through mods found during exploration.  They instruct you on how to create a more effective and brutal arsenal.  A simple bat, combined with several nails, can become a death dealer taken from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.  How about some explosives?  Locating half-empty cans of aerosol deodorant might be just the thing needed to burn out a group of the undead in one shot.  With Dead Island the old saying is true: One man’s  junk is another man’s treasure.

Finding, repairing or creating the multitude of melee weapons available in Dead Island is only half the fun – wielding them is most certainly the other.  The Techland developers stepped things up a notch when they added the option to use analog melee control.  They advertise that analog combat will further immerse the player into the game.  Although I can see how some gamers would take a real shine to this combat functionality I found the analog control scheme to be cumbersome and slow.  The right analog stick represents your left and right hands.  Swing a round house with your right arm requires that you first push the analog stick to the right and then back left.  The same can be said for an upper-cut or a strike from above.  Overtime I’m certain I could have gotten used to this manner of combat but it didn’t take me long to opt for the L1 and R1 action buttons instead.  Adding in the ability to  kick zombies away from you or completely to the ground and the combat felt good.  Just be sure to monitor your stamina gauge.  The heavier the weapon, the more you swing it, the quicker you will tire.  In that respect it was fairly realistic.

The visuals of Dead Island are a mixed bag.  The moments of calm before the inevitable storm provide for some stunning landscapes with impressive lighting details.  Taking in the views of the ocean, the palm trees and the white, sandy beaches make the island of Banoi a place I would want to visit.  The sites can be so engaging you can almost smell the salt in the air.

Contrast this with some stiff character animations and and high number of texture popping and aliasing and you’re quickly brought back to reality.  Still, none of these visual impairments were enough to detract from the overall experience of Dead Island.  In fact, there was very little that bothered me about any of this.  I wasn’t there for the lush landscapes and believable representations of the few remaining survivors.  No, not at all.  I was there for the gruesome depiction of the Zombie infestation and Dead Island did not disappoint.

There is no question that Dead Island is an M rated game.  During and the aftermath of combat blood is spilled by the bucketful.  Men and women are represented in all manner of zombie degeneration.  They lie scattered about in piles or huddle together to feast on whatever, or whoever, crossed their path.  Limbs are hacked off with cleavers and heads are caved in with rusty pipes.  The mastermind behind the Zombie infatuation, George A. Romero, would be proud (and probably is).

One event in particular continues to resonate with me long after it was first experienced.  During an early mission I stumbled upon a rather horrifying scene.  A small outdoor lounge area is littered with bodies floating inside a blood-filled pool and along its edges.  In its center a man, on the edge of madness, quietly weeps for the dead that surround him: his parents, brother and girlfriend.  All dead by his own hands.  This scene, short and unassuming, gets to the very heart of what the developers at Techland were probably shooting for.  It’s unfortunate that they weren’t able to achieve this same level of  emotion through the entire game.


Not much can be said about the audio of Dead Island.  The voice acting is competent and the soundtrack is nondescript.  Just coming off an incredible co-op campaign experience for Resistance 3 where every battle was fought with an epic soundtrack and every emotional cut-scene was strengthened by the musical score, Dead Island’s audio seemed to fall a bit flat.

Still, that’s not to say that it didn’t have some high points as well.  With Dead Island it’s the little things that really make the most impact.  The crashing of the waves, the bizarre screeching of wild birds in the jungle (those things freaked me out a number of times) and the rattling and creaking of the various vehicles you use to run down scores of zombies really immerse the player that much further into the game.

Let’s not forget the detailed audio representation of broken bones, battered skulls and severed limbs.  I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall of Techland’s sound studio to see how they arrived at these horrific and stomach turning sounds.  I’m certain many a melon was destroyed to give the ghastly inhabitants of  Dead Island that loving touch of brutality.

The majority of my time on the dead island of Banoi was spent in single player mode, but with 3 other playable characters available the game just screams online co-op.  Unfortunately, no one else in my friends list was currently playing this game.  Still, the options menu allows you to open up the co-op to the public and assign a number of available slots – in my case, I opened it up to 3.  When continuing from my last save the game looks for other players that are “in the area” and that have achieved the same character level or below.  A prompt will display when that criteria has been met and you can then choose to try and join that player’s game in progress.  I can only assume that others would have that same option to drop into my game.  I say assume because trying to get this online co-op feature to work was somewhat ridiculous.

More often than not, when I would try and jump into another players game-in-progress I was rejected due to unavailable character slots.  That’s fine.  I understand that it’s limited to 4.  But the problem is that when you make this decision it takes you out of your game, into a loading screen and then, after checking everything, advises you that the other person’s game is filled up.  This was both annoying and poorly designed.

Eventually, after several more failed attempts, I was able to jump into another player’s game.  This experience was short lived.  Not because of the gamer I was matched up with but because the game’s performance dropped off significantly.  The lag made it nearly impossible to play.  It didn’t start immediately but it became bad enough that finally, after what took 3 times longer than what it should have, we completed the mission and I dropped off.  I can only hope that establishing a private round of co-op play among 4 friends would be better, but after that experience it’s safe to say that I quickly resumed my offline, single player story.

Anyone thinking that Dead Island is the PlayStation 3’s answer to Left 4 Dead will be sorely disappointed.  I have enjoyed both versions of the Zombie apocalypse but for varying reasons.  Left 4 Dead is a fast-paced FPS while Dead Island has aspirations to go much deeper.  The developers at Techland didn’t necessarily succeed with this depth in terms of an immersive story, but it certainly wasn’t a straight up shooter by any means.  Its graphic visuals and engaging RPG elements are not without its share of bugs and my taste of the online is in need of a major facelift.  The game may have been meant for a 4 player co-op experience but the single player experience certainly has its merits and should not be overlooked.


Written by Bill Braun

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook