Being stranded on an island during a zombie outbreak doesn’t sound like the perfect vacation, but in Dead Island, players are faced with such a situation. We’ve seen a resurgence of the undead in entertainment lately, so how does Dead Island stack up against the others?
After one of the most successful buzz-inducing trailers in recent history, Dead Island has finally seen daylight. Contrary to the aforementioned teaser that led viewers to believe a single family was at the center of the story, Dead Island is actually an open-world action RPG presented in the first person.
At the start of the game, players must choose one of four characters, each of whom specializes in certain areas. From then on, things are mostly left in the player’s hands. You can choose to either take on quests that continue the main story or explore the fictional island of Banoi for other side quests, adventures, and scattered luggage to loot.
Dead Island (screenshots)
Even though the game takes pride in the bludgeoning of zombies at close range (which it does quite well), at its core, Dead Island is an RPG first. Players must manage everything from the upkeep of their weapons to the specific skill-tree perks that they self-assign when leveling up. Even your stamina has a meter that must be watched with a careful eye during zombie encounters.
In terms of gameplay, Dead Island occasionally feels a bit rough around the edges. There isn’t always a seamless relationship between current quests and the player map that usually paints a path to your next objective. It can be confusing at times, especially when doing side quests. Saving in the game is also an interesting issue–it happens at seemingly random intervals, but it’s usually kept current. For example, a death will result in a spawn fairly close to where your character fell.
Graphically speaking, Dead Island is a mixed bag. While the island of Banoi is beautifully rendered, running through the resort often results in screen-tearing and significant frame-rate drops.
For those looking for a gripping storyline, Dead Island doesn’t offer much in the compelling narrative department. Unfortunately this results in a lack of a sense of importance throughout the game. There doesn’t appear to be any sort of reward for continuing the main story quests, and for the most part, these missions don’t really deviate from the redundant side ones, either. The four playable characters are mostly invisible and the rest of the cast is forgettable.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Dead Island is the ability to instantly connect with other players online and team up to accomplish like goals. The game does an excellent job of seamlessly merging game sessions with random players, but we found playing co-op with friends to be the ideal scenario and a much more reliable way to progress through the story.
Overall, Dead Island is an ambitious effort with a handful of faults and shortcomings. That said, fans of the zombie genre will have a tough time ignoring the sheer entertainment provided by slicing up the undead or ramming them with a pickup truck. Though there isn’t a solid storyline, Dead Island makes its mark by creating a terrifying atmosphere that rewards the creative survivalist and forces the novice zombie killer to become one.
Dead Island is unintentionally brilliant, in the way the best B-movies are. It has camp, kitsch, and cheap thrills, but without the knowing nod and wink of the smugly self-aware. It’s one of the hardest things to find in modern horror storytelling: an earnest lack of irony.
It’s also clear that this game, in its current form, could never have come from one of the major interactive entertainment publishers. Something as simple as climbing into a
car and finding the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle is a perfect example. It makes sense, given the game’s Oceania-set island, but it’s just jarring enough to add to the overall feeling of a world turned upside down.
One can imagine the focus group or corporate marketing meeting at a big game publisher where it would be explained via PowerPoint presentation that American gamers just wouldn’t understand the right-side steering wheel, and it would simply have to be switched to the other side. Dead Island scores points for not overthinking every aspect of the game to cater to mass appeal.
We also seem to be in the midst of a cultural moment of zombie chic, from “The Walking Dead” to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” but the historical origins of the zombie myth are much different, going back to Caribbean voodoo culture. That makes the game’s island setting (even if it’s in the wrong hemisphere) all the more appropriate.
For examples of island-based zombies you may have caught on late-night television, look back at the classic 1943 Val Lewton film, “I Walked with a Zombie” (or 1932’s “White Zombie”). There are important differences, however. These are no flesh-eating monsters, but instead men hovering between life and death, turned into somnambulist slaves by potion and spell.
The other great cultural reference point for the game’s setting is Lucio Fulci’s 1979 film “Zombi,” a wildly overrated bit of Euro trash that did manage to make excellent use of its Caribbean island setting, mixing voodoo myth with the George-Romero-style zombies it was blatantly ripping off. We’ve already seen a telling homage to that in Resident Evil 5, another island-set zombie game that cherry-picks from disparate threads of undead lore. (More tangentially related, the island resort turned crisis zone in Dead Island is eerily similar to the one in “When Time Ran Out,” the last of the Irwin Allen ’70s disaster flicks.)
Dead Island’s low-budget charms are numerous, if you can look past some awkwardness and bugs (quests sometimes reset themselves, the save system is haphazard, and the voice acting is iffy). The best positioning statement we’ve heard is from MTV games blogger Russ Frushtick, who described the game as “Borderlands with zombies.” If that sounds like your kind of thing, you should book your trip to the island of Banoi immediately.