Imagine escaping life’s troubles by leaving for an island vacation, enjoying a day in paradise, having too much to drink and passing out, then waking up in a zombie invested sanctuary. This is the curse placed upon the characters of Dead Island, a 2011 first person action role playing game from Techland.
Arriving on the island of Banoi for various reasons connecting to a hotel resort party, the characters in Dead island are a desperate bunch. Each with mistakes, regrets, and other various catastrophes littering their backstories, by the time the characters reach the island, they are broken and bitter against the world. Logan is an ex-football quarterback that killed a little girl in an adrenaline junkie’s street race leading to the end of his career. Sam B has an uninspired rags to riches rapper cliche, growing up in a dead beat neighborhood to a crack addicted mother, with dreams to rise to the top. Purna is a half aborigine ex-cop from Sydney that was fired after assaulting a child molesting politician with high connections. I ended up choosing Xian Mei, because she seemed the least desperate in her backstory; becoming part of an anti-Triad police task force after her father was murdered by the illegal syndicate. Underutilized by her superiors, she is sent to Banoi as an informant disguised as an hotel receptionist. Each brings a special talent relating to their background when challenging zombies: Purna utilizes her police firearm training, Logan is excellent at throwing things, harnessing his former quarterback skills, Xian is fluent with blades due to her martial art background, and Sam is an expert with blunt weapons, I’m not sure for the pun, or to suggest an underlying anger problem.
Mostly uninteresting stereotyped misanthropes, they aren’t the bunch you’d typically root for, making me tend to not care for them or try to save them from the circle of hell that life has deemed them, knowing none of them appear to have anyone hoping they live beyond this zombie apocalypse. The backstories luckily don’t have a huge impact on the game besides leaving a very loose context for reaching the island, becoming instantly ignored after choosing your character. Casting context aside and using them as a vessel for enjoyment appears to be the goal, as Techland choses gameplay over story.
Taking the mission structure, cooperating hero classes, and arsenal similar to Borderlands with a weapon fatigue, modification systems and zombie setting akin to Dead Rising (go figure) and you’ll get a feel of what you’ll be doing with most of your time in Dead Island. Embracing the stranded island theme, Dead Island has a melee heavy focus, relying on things that you would encounter in the locale. Oars, kitchen cleavers, divers knives, pluming pipes and the occasional well hidden firearm, everything you should be able to find on a tropical hotspot. It feels authentic, since there’s no reason a military armory would be scattered throughout a peaceful beach retreat. There are various out of place items inserted for fun such as sickles, frying pans, katanas, and various homages disguised as weapons removing seriousness, though it was never its quite its forte anyway. Allowed several slots for holding weapons and a designated kick button, fighting zombies is simplistically fun! Animations make every move fluent as well as entertaining, jump-kicking then pummeling a zombie to death is exhilarating and disturbingly realistic. Keeping the authentic feel, a stamina bar restricts you from flailing endlessly against your opponents. As your energy level depletes by attacking enemies, you’ll begin to notice a dip in your effectiveness, witnessing your character slow down, unable to adequately defending themselves, and become visibly winded, causing you to step back and catch your breath. The stamina system makes fights more believable, as zombie run-ins quickly become desperate struggles as you kick back your aggressors, recuperate, reposition, and continue a defensive assault.
There is quite a bevy of zombie types, each needing to be tackled in a particular fashion. The most common zombie breed is the Walker, which is exactly what you’d expect, clumsily lumbering around like the brain dead creatures they are. Thugs are gigantic walkers, capable of dishing out substantial damage as well as withstanding more than enough punishment. Similar to the walker but without the ignorance, the Infected, which are fast, aggressive and merciless, reminiscent of 28 Days Later’s undead, and should be well feared as you hear their warning howl. There are also some less conventional enemy types like the criminally insane Rams, the bile drenched Floaters or pus exploding suicide bombers, as well as more advanced hybrids of aforementioned breeds, each add interesting changes to the combat. Facing groups of walkers is challenging alone as they develop a hive mind in numbers, making their individual ignorance insignificant, but when suddenly a Infected’s cry signifies their proximity, shifting tactics is a must since the more aggressive Infected charge past their slower cousins to tear through the nearest edible meal. Thugs are pretty uninteresting, as the stand and lumber around, only attacking once you are in reach, merely needing to be remembered and avoided with other assailants around and ignored when alone. Thugs are mostly used as moveable barriers to important objectives, creating an annoyance rather than challenge.
Since you’re the only person immune to the infection, the other survivors come to you before risking zombification. You’ll spend most of your time rescuing stranded civilians, reuniting lost loved ones, and there’s plenty of remedial tasks that the insane need accomplished before being rescued, like returning lost jewelry, and looking for booze or a retrieving a lost teddy bear. Some quests have you searching for items without any bearing of where to locate them, leading to some of more boring content, as you explore the world aimless searching for items that give no visible blip until your basically standing on top of them. Wandering across the expansive maps to achieve these tasks takes some time, since theres dozens of weaving tunnels and pathways forged out of hedges and various shrubbery making exploring on foot similar to escaping a maze. Cars make travel distances much easier and bring along the realistic touches from the rest of the gameplay. As you hop inside your scavenged vehicle, it’s not instantly started, something that becomes apparent once your character looks around the cabin as you jostle the joysticks looking for an expected response. Even stranger if you’re to enter the passenger seat, as you’ll have to shuffle seats before achieving any progress in traversal. While traveling down the roadways, humanoid zombie road-kill scatter the passageways; I considered dodging rather irrelevant, preferring the proper thunk left beneath the vehicle as you continue along.
Unfortunately Dead Island’s fun does wear down eventually, since it doesn’t spice things up as you progress, leaving you to the same devices and mechanics that kept you alive early on without very much reason to change tactics on a regular basis. There’s plenty to do in Dead Island, there’s just not much reason to do it, since the game seems more like a mere time killer rather than anything meaningful. Littered with fetch quests, some that actually never end, there’s nothing exciting enough to keep you coming back after the initial high of zombie survival. The extra zombie traits are welcome when they appear but are too rare a sight to warrant constantly being on edge of what’s around the corner. Dead island suffers from giving you an initial ability to survive but never adding anything new throughout the experience to keep you interested, hoping the beginning lump sum will suffice you. I enjoyed the silliness implied by the setting and polarizing arsenal, but the writing seems takes itself too seriously, dragging down the pleasurable cheesy zombie beach retreat party that the rest of the game suggests. This is a problem with its zombie motif, which needs a desperate feel to match the status quo of the genre. If your looking for something to kill some time in your day before moving away from the couch, Dead island might appease you, but if your looking for something to steal enormous amounts of hours away from your life, it probably won’t hold your interest for more than several visits.