After spending hours and hours with Dead Island over the past few days, it’s been difficult for me to put my feelings for the game into words. Why? Because I’m not sure I really feel anything for Dead Island. All of the building blocks are there – relatively comprehensive RPG systems, competent combat mechanics, and a metric boatload of quests. That’s all that they remain, though, as no single segment of the game stands out. What’s frustrating about this is that I should love this game, but I don’t. The combat is visceral with a focus on melee weapons and dismemberment of opponents. The characters have the potential to be incredibly funny, and there’s a wealth of great environments on the island of Banoi. Nothing ever comes together, though, and Dead Island ends up being a mediocre mess.
Now, that’s not to say that Dead Island doesn’t have its spots of glory. First-person melee titles aren’t entirely common, and this one matches up well with games that encapsulated the genre like The Chronicles of Riddick and Condemned. Combat is fluid and visceral while still maintaining a tactical bent. Much like Mass Effect 2, the game focuses on your ability to get things done on top of statistics. Take a sickle and slice at a zombie’s head, and they’ll end up killed instantly – aim at a limb and you’ll end up committing non-surgical amputation. That doesn’t mean there’s not a swath of numbers involved – every enemy has hit points, every weapon has attack damage, and every quest gives experience points.
Beyond the visceral parts of the combat, though, things don’t hold up nearly as well. Unlike Borderlands, which had an amazing variety of weapons through randomization, bullet spread, and other elements, Dead Island’s weaponry is all fairly basic. Baseball bats, cleavers, and other improvised weaponry all slot themselves into different classes, and they can all be improved by leveling up and modification at a workbench. Upgrading does nothing but simply change the item’s base statistics, and the modifications also find themselves fitting into categories. It’s unfortunate that the system isn’t a little bit deeper; I would’ve loved to see the game do what titles like Dead Rising did in giving players truly creative ways to put weapons together, but it’s simply not the case. The modifications are certainly effective – they’re just not imaginative. Dead Island also features gunplay, but guns aren’t particularly effective against zombies, only human foes. It ends up being a good thing, though, because the gunplay is imprecise and frustrating, so I was happy to swap back to my flaming baseball bat whenever I could.
The quests are just as unimaginative as the weapons, which is unfortunate. Much like many other action-RPGs, you move from quest hub to quest hub taking on one story quest alongside a slew of fetch quests and requests to clear a particular place of zombies. It’s true that there doesn’t really need to be much to the quests in an action-RPG of this type, but a bit of variety – or humor – would have been a very welcome addition. Still, because combat itself is fairly fun, the lack of unique quests doesn’t sting quite as badly, and enemies thankfully show some variety. Taking a page out of Left 4 Dead’s book, Dead Island features several types of unique zombies, like the Thug and the Floater. Some, the Thug included, are simply more powerful versions of the standard zombies, but others, like the Ram and the Floater, have unique abilities that you’ll have to watch out for. There’s also good variety in the playable characters, as well.
That’s not to say that they’re exactly star-studded quality; every characters feels like they’ve been ripped almost directly from bad horror films. You have Purna, the exiled police officer; Logan, the washed-up football star; alcoholic rapper Sam B; and Xian Mei, a hotel worker with a secret. Each of the characters has unique skill trees and fury skills, and while they don’t change the core of the gameplay, there is variation between what each of them can do. Being able to bowl over enemies and then curbstomp them became a quick way for me to take down enemies in my playthrough as Sam B. Therein lies one of the problems with Dead Island’s controls, though – it requires immense accuracy for some of its abilities. Even after upgrading the skill to its fullest, I usually had to knock over an enemy and place myself directly over his skull to perform this kill – not really the most ideal situation when being faced with a hoard of enemies.
The game is quite fun in multiplayer, though, which is one of its saving graces. Enemies scale to the level of the game’s host, so playing with underleveled friends won’t be the best plan, but for the most part it shouldn’t be an issue. Dead Island allows you to jump into open games of players who are located near you in the game world so you’ll easily find someone else who’s working on the same quests that you are. It’s a nifty addition and one that makes completing quests a little bit easier.
There have been many games with mixed-bag gameplay, though, that have gone on to greatness because they’re surrounded by a bright sheen of polish. Dead Island is not one of those games. Banoi is a gorgeous island filled with varied environments… when they load correctly. The game is filled with absolutely awful texture pop-in, odd bits of character clipping, and human characters that come straight out of uncanny valley. What’s interesting, though, is that the game’s zombies look absolutely fantastic. Depending on where you are in the game, they have different getups and they’re all fairly unique. Techland clearly had a ball filling out these character types, and it’s a pleasure to rend them limb from limb. Still, it’s clear that Dead Island isn’t a title with AAA production values, but with a little more time or polish, things could have been a lot better.
The game’s sound is far from the best in the world, but it’s not quite middling, either. The voice acting falls to the lower end of the spectrum, but that simply might be because the core of dialogue that it’s working on is absolutely abysmal. With a plot of, “get off the island” filled with a mysterious voice on a radio to rival groups with different ideas of how to escape, there’s not much to be excited for. The story exists as a backdrop for quests and it’s obvious, especially considering that there’s some decent talent on the VA list. Phil LaMarr of MadTV and Futurama fame voices Sam B, but the character still feels lifeless and dull because of his completely generic lines. Maybe if the game had gone for a significantly sillier bent, it would have been worthwhile, but as it stands the writing seems as if it’s supposed to be serious. Taking it seriously, though, just means that you’re going to be disappointed.
I wish that I loved Dead Island more than I do – there are core aspects in almost every game system that would appeal to most RPG fans. Without polish or a feeling of completeness, however, things just end up feeling dull after only a short while. The game’s great melee combat ends up being a wash because of the mediocre gunplay and repetitive questing. Dead Island is filled with good concepts and potential, but it can’t stick the landing. As it stands today, sadly, it’s nothing but wasted potential.