Having played what was a fun, yet clunky preview of Dead Island, I was interested to see how a final/updated copy would have changed. After hearing about the dev build fiasco on Steam, I wasn’t expecting too much, but was pleasantly surprised by the PS3 edition. The Dead Islanders handle a lot more smoothly and their movements are very forgiving for players. You turn quickly and accurately enough to see what’s biting you when you need, and the characters now felt like they could actually outmanoeuvre their pursuers.
The non-combat targeting is a little inconsistent, but somewhat forgivable. In a good moment, you have Inspector Gadget-like range to open and loot containers and bags, and in a bad situation, it can be extremely frustrating trying to lock on to something when you’ve got an awkward angle. And when I say “awkward angle”, I mean, you can be standing directly above a stick and still struggle to pick it up from the ground.
In complete contrast, zombie combat targeting is excellent. The auto-aiming is extremely useful if you’ve got the nerve to hold your ground long enough to acquire a lock, but when they’re in range, just swinging in the general direction of an extremity does just fine. When you play smart, it’s easy to take on a bunch of zombies with hit and run tactics or precision head shots, but if you get too caught up in the heat of the moment (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?), you can exhaust your stamina and be pulled apart by grunts. Stamina control and the need for constant awareness are slammed in your face harder than a plank of wood with nails.
When the initial fear and panic wears off and you can start to feel comfortable with the weapon ranges you can really enjoy the combat. All zombies tend to leave themselves deliciously vulnerable after an attack, so if you keep a cool head you can always make quick work of them. Sprinting infected can be destroyed by a well-timed blow to the skull, overextended zombies can be knocked down and stomped into oblivion, and even the mightier thugs and rams can be taken out with swift dodging and counterattacking. Stomping corpses, exploding heads and clearing house with cleaving or crushing swings are all extremely satisfying when you’re standing victorious over a pile of mangled cadavers, but when you start specific targeting the game gets hilarious. Aiming for arm or leg breakages rapidly disables individual zombies, leaving them helplessly prone for vicious follow up attacks, making them excellent for control crowd. When faced with a massive, bellowing thug, I found it incredibly amusing to throw a few well-placed strikes to turn it into a huge, roaring beast with Kermit the Frog arms.
The ranged combat is useful, but it’s definitely the lesser combat option. I found myself throwing weapons to trigger gas tank or suicider explosions, but I’d avoid throwing weapons at anything with more HP than an infected unless I was near death. In the early sections of the game when you’re learning and low on energy drinks, throwing items is a great way to avoid being taken out, but as you strut along the learning curve, collecting up all your rusted shivs and hammers is a little annoying. It saves on item durability, but any item really worth saving is probably going to be more useful in your hands.
The early weapon mods are all genuinely primitive, as you would expect from a recently ravaged landscape and, though MacGyver may have been a little more creative than the addition of nails to bats, they do their part in pushing your damage. At a core level, you can add bleeds, fire, poison, impact and shock damage to your weapons. Impact and bleeds range from strapping bolts or glass to your weapons, whereas shock mods give you a weapon that can electrocute zombies. The insanity of mods progresses as the game goes on, with the more potent and fun mods being available in Act 3.
I found the most useful weapon was a car. Glitches aside it was easy to handle, as long as you didn’t snag it on walls, other cars, or car-stopping blockages like a flimsy chain link fence or tree branch. Early missions were made a hell of a lot easier by just crushing your way through the masses and getting out of the car when the corpses had stopped twitching. While there are guns available from Act 2, I only really used them against other humans with guns or explosive elements. There are distinct advantages in taking a gun to a knife-fight, but they were not in line with how I wanted to play the game.
Dead Island has one of the most impressive sound set ups I’ve bothered to listen to in a long time. The music (and lack thereof) perfectly complements the ruined areas, but the sound effects control the game mood. In what would have been a deeply disturbing time in the sound studios, Dead Island’s zombie voices play a part in producing an amazing feeling of paranoia and panic to what is already completely surreal atmosphere. Huge thugs deafen you with primal screams and shouts, while the infected shriek and yell as they hurtle towards you in their inhuman, yet still too human, voices. Though infected are the weakest mobs in the game, hearing a completely believable interpretation of a human who has lost their mind closing in on you is both one of the best and worst experiences in the game. The zombie death screams have the same distinctly human element that deliberately cuts through the bestial groan or horribly modified shrill to constantly make you pause in horror and remind you what you’re destroying were, till only recently, people.
In the starting levels, armed with a dazzling array of paddles, weak sticks and ‘homemade knives’, I found myself walking around the resort with a real sense of trepidation as I had no real clue what was around. Soon enough you’ll pick out what you should expect when you hear each scream, but this isn’t much help when it comes to nerves. Knowing what’s there is handy, but not as informative as knowing “where” it is, as the telltale sounds aren’t completely accurate in reflecting distance.
I feel Dead Island’s downfall is in keeping the mobs scaled to the level of your character. As you become more comfortable with taking on bigger zombies and start using tactics, the challenge and atmosphere starts wearing a little thin. The zombies go from an unending mass of inevitable death to a slight inconvenience between your waypoints. Even overwhelming situations are easily escapable if you keep your head. Scaling the mobs meant that you would never have an area where there wasn’t at least a bit of a challenge or areas that were basically feasible to explore, but it also removed the real drive to complete side quests. Each time you level up, you get a point to push into one of 3 talent trees which offer some really impressive skills and abilities, but if the opposition is always around your level, it never feels like levelling up is that much of an advantage. I found with any skill increases I was more reckless in my tactics, but I still wasn’t actively seeking fights or trying to clear the map because I wouldn’t ever be an unstoppable character, too powerful for the area, nor would the map be cleared because the areas respawn their zombies over time to ensure there’s always a source of danger.
As if the side quests weren’t losing their appeal quick enough, the actual tasks you’re asked to complete are awful. Act 1 can see you tracking down juice boxes from heavily infested gas stations (though you have can have plenty of water and canned food), a teddy bear, jewellery left on night stands and alcohol for someone with a hangover. There are monetary rewards and the occasional blueprint, but nearly every quest turned into a fetch mission of some sort, and ploughing through the same zombies you’d just cleared to return to the same spot gets boring quickly. The blueprints are definitely worth the effort, but even then, the better mods are available through main quest chains.
The NPCs themselves are extremely hard to work for. Apart from their requests being made in some of the most horrible accents imaginable, when you haven’t gotten around to finding their favourite sock from the middle of a shambling undead swarm, some actually have the nerve to ask what’s taking you so long. After throwing a more than a few hours into the game and fetching an array of trinkets and food to sustain the finicky survivors, I found myself only 8% into the main quest chain. I decided I didn’t care enough to find any more items left on bedside tables and started pushing the story quests and within another few hours I’d ticked over to 40% completion. With the level scaling, I didn’t really feel like I had been missing out on much by avoiding the tedious quests, but after becoming familiar with each new area, I found myself playing just to see what else was around instead of following the story.
I found Dead Island to be a very fun and enjoyable game, but one that couldn’t maintain the same level of interest in the long term. The first stages of the game were utterly unnerving and brought about a real sense of fear and paranoia I’d not expected to experience from a game involving bikini-clad zombies being mashed to pieces by a rapper with an oar. As the game progressed, I started really enjoying myself. I pushed my character to use skills more suited to my style of play, I got the hang of ranges, knew my enemy and could keep the dry, cool calculation of an action hero when things got rough. It was FUN. It was exploding, dismembering, face-crushing hilarity. As I ground through to the finishing content, the appeal had well and truly worn off. I wasn’t particularly into the story, and was getting a little tired of the same old combat. Deep Silver did very well in making Dead Island a creepy, disturbing and fun atmospheric smishfest for the most part. It’s a gorgeous game and I really love the focus on combat, but without in-depth character development and immersive storyline, it doesn’t have enough substance or depth to push it beyond being ‘fun’.