Summary: Despite the fact that it's not lived up to expectations set by its beautiful announce trailer from earlier this year, open-world zombie beat-'em-up Dead Island has finally arrived. It makes no apologies, however, and in fact is very unlike most other games set during an outbreak of the seemingly undead. Its focus on melee combat fought using anything you can find laying around is in direct opposition to the norm, which dictates the player be given ample supplies of firearms and ammunition with which to defend himself. This up-close-and-personal style of survival mixed with various RPG elements is the crux of Techland’s design gambit, but did it pay off? Find out in today's review!
This cinematic trailer was the first glimpse most people had of Techland’s new first-person zombie beat-‘em-up, which takes place on a tropical resort in the heart of Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia. It’s beautiful and heart-wrenching, but in the grand scheme of things it had very little to do with what the gameplay turned out to be like. Unfortunately (if unsurprisingly), this had a negative impact on many early opinions of the game with many anticipating an emotion-fueled survival horror experience, as opposed to the “Borderlands with zombies” vibe actual gameplay footage gave off. And no, undead children do not make an appearance.
Mounting expectations and nerd rage in the wake of that announcement earlier this year notwithstanding, Dead Island has finally arrived. It makes no apologies (except for sexist jokes, apparently) and in fact is very unlike most other games set during an outbreak of the seemingly undead. Its focus on melee combat fought using anything you can find laying around is in direct opposition to the norm, which dictates the player be given ample supplies of firearms and ammunition with which to defend himself. This up-close-and-personal style of survival is the crux of Techland’s design gambit, but did it pay off?
Despite its rocky start on Steam last week, the best way to experience Dead Island is definitely on PC. By spending at least $10 less than you would on the console versions, you get a choice between using keyboard/mouse controls or a gamepad, higher resolution graphics, the opportunity to tweak the game for even better visuals than the developer intended, and the ability to mod the game however you see fit. Indeed, the PC community has already figured out how to tweak the game files to do all sorts of things, but we’ll get to that later. First, I’m going to tell you about how it plays vanilla, so read on!
Following the game’s opening cinematic that depicts the early stages of zombie panic setting in at a hotel night club, you’re given the choice of playing as four very different characters, the token strangers that are immune to the infection and must band together to survive. They each have slightly different base statistics for health, speed, and stamina, as well as a unique combat specialty: guns, blades, throwing, or blunt. Experience is awarded for combat and questing, and leveling up earns you a point to spend in any the three skill trees.
Most of these skills are similar or shared between classes, save for the bonuses applied to specific categories of weapons. (Despite your chosen specialization, you are allowed to use any weapon you want, provided you meet the level requirement.) Most abilities are passive, but each class has a unique Fury skill that can be activated after it’s charged by killing enemies, which will greatly increase your combat ability for a short period of time.
As previously stated, the weapon selection in Dead Island is unique in that it initially consists of picking up various objects from the environment, such as broomsticks, kitchen knives, boat paddles, pipes, or wrenches. As you progress through the game, however, you’ll come to rely on more sophisticated implements of violence attained through quest rewards, random loot dropped by enemies, or [sometimes locked] chests scattered around the environment. These range from machetes, maces, and revolvers to katanas, sledgehammers, and automatic rifles. The selection is not nearly as varied as it is in a game like Borderlands, but you’ll see plenty of variation on several dozen distinct weapon types.
You can use a workbench to upgrade any weapon and increase its base stats (damage, force, durability, handling), or modify it with salvaged materials to add special damage types including electricity, poison, fire, and bleeding. Melee weapons must be repaired frequently, as every hit will damage them. The appearance of the weapon in your hand will degrade over time, and if they’re allowed to break completely, they become virtually useless in combat. If you wait until that point, it becomes much more expensive to restore it working order than it would have been to maintain it regularly.
Gameplay revolves mostly around killing zombies, of course. Technically, they’re the type that results from a horrific virus causing extensive mutation in humans; they’re not actually the resurrected dead. For the sake of diversity, there are two basic types of monsters --slow, shambling, moaning “Walkers” and running, screaming, flailing “Infected” -- as well as several unique mini-bosses that seem to have borrowed behavior from other popular zombie games. Among them are the extra-strong but slow-moving “Thug” that knocks you down with powerful swipes, the exploding “Suicider,” and poison vomit-spewing “bloater,” along with a few others.
While you will never normally encounter any group of enemies large enough to be called a horde, there are enough common threats around that you may often find yourself surrounded. In times like that, you’re forced to keep your wits about you and keep an eye on the slower-moving targets as you dispatch the ones you wouldn’t be able to simply run away from. This is also where the ability to throw any melee weapon comes in handy, so it’s wise to always carry extras so as not to leave yourself empty handed. One of the coolest things to do in Dead Island is to chuck a machete at a screaming infected as he runs toward you, beheading him, and watching his lifeless body be carried by momentum to land at your feet. Then you can retrieve the weapon and use it on his friends!
Dead Island’s combat is some of the most visceral and immersive I’ve ever experienced, which is achieved primarily through the implementation of some more realistic elements. For instance, your character’s movement is much more tactile and inertia-based, such that you move more slowly when walking backwards, sideways, or uphill and it takes some time to change directions. You are able to sprint and jump/dodge, but only so much as your limited stamina will allow.
Stamina is also drained whenever you swing a melee weapon or perform special moves; this forces you to put even more thought into how you conduct yourself around the enemy. If you spend all of your energy running and jumping around or swinging your weapon haphazardly, you will exhaust yourself and increase your chance of being overwhelmed or knocked down if you get hit. Luckily, you are always able to perform a basic kick attack to create some space and give you time to recover.
Though melee combat is Dead Island’s primary focus, you will find and use a variety of firearms, especially in the second half of the game. In a refreshing change of pace, ammo is scarce enough that you will actually have to think carefully on how you use it most of the time. Even when you get to the point where you are able to purchase bullets in quantity, or even craft your own from spare parts, you’ll never be able to make a gun your primary weapon because of how little reserve ammo you are allowed to carry.
Your tactical options are further broadened by the fact that zombies have limited stamina, too. When tired, they can be knocked to the ground just like you, leaving them vulnerable to a skull-crushing stomp attack. You can also specifically target the limbs in order to break or dismember them using blunt or bladed weapons, respectively. Obviously, attacking the head is the most effective way of doing damage and bringing down enemies’ health, but that task becomes much easier if you cripple them first, particularly when dealing with bosses. Depriving the Thug of his primary swipe attack, for example, will result in much hilarity when his broken arms swing about like limp noodles as he tries to headbutt you, instead.
One of the most hotly-debated combat possibilities in this game (as far as “realism” goes) is that of drowning zombies in the various swimming pools, sewers, oceans, and other water elements in the game. Obviously if these creatures snarl and growl as they attack, cry out in pain, bleed profusely when injured, and can die without any trauma to the brain, it stands to reason that they still need oxygen… Either way, it’s highly effective, not to mention amusing, to jump-kick an enemy into a pool and watch them die because they’re too stupid to hold their breath.
There’s actually something of a story in Dead Island, but also like Borderlands, it really takes a back seat to the loot-filled bloodbath. Ultimately, all quests including the story-related ones serve as little more than a reason for you to travel to different areas around the island, slaying monsters and bandits along the way. It starts out very open-ended, with your main goal being to stay alive and help other scattered groups of survivors do the same. Eventually, you start to see the bigger picture and are more driven in your objective, which is to escape the zombie-infested hellhole (of course). The volume of side-quests never dwindles, though, so you’ll have plenty to do, provided you don’t mind that most of them are fetch/kill assignments.
The island of Banoi is huge. There are three major, fully-explorable areas including the beach-side resort, an impoverished, overpopulated city, and vast tropical jungle, along with at least a dozen other interior and exterior quest locations. When you’re out in the open world, you are often allowed use of a vehicle to navigate the environment more efficiently. These pick-up trucks have seating for up to four people, as well as room for a load of special quest-related items such as gasoline cans or food rations. The latter is good news for most of the fetch quests as you walk very, very slowly when carrying such things, and you’re often tasked with bringing them across large distances. There are also maps in various survivor hubs that you can use to fast-travel, which happens almost instantly if your destination is in the same level.
Though gameplay handles just fine using the keyboard and mouse for the most part, there are a handful of quirks. Spend two seconds at the main menu and you’ll know there’s something wrong: the mouse cursor moves across the screen very slowly, regardless of how you set the sensitivity in the options. Even if it’s right where you want it as far as the in-game camera goes, all menus including the inventory, vendor, and workbench screens require some compensation in hand movement. There is also some auto-aim action going on that dictates where your melee weapon strikes the enemy (the cursor snaps to their body) and the only way to hit anything when throwing is to have your target locked on.
That’s not as bothersome as the fact that you must select equipped weapons from a radial menu, though even that gets easier with practice. There’s also an option for analog combat that is greyed out unless you’re using a gamepad, which means you’re left using digital with KB/M. Analog involves holding down the attack button and then moving to swing your weapon in whatever direction you choose, as opposed to simply pressing the button to swing in a randomly-chosen motion. Granted, that’s more of an advanced immersion thing, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t do that with the mouse as well as you could with an analog stick.
Though most of my time was spent playing solo, Dead Island was made for co-op. Whenever you start the game, you can adjust your visibility settings to public or private, internet or LAN, and the game’s dynamic matchmaking will allow you to seamlessly join up with other players with the push of a key/button. It even checks to make sure they’re of a nearby level, at a similar point in the story, and around the same area of the game world! These matches will show up as messages on the screen, but if you don’t want to play with others and would like to avoid that annoyance, simply set your game to be offline/single-player. If you do decide to play in a group with up to three other people, you can enjoy more challenging enemies, better loot, and the ability to be revived when downed, so you don’t always have to take the 10% hit to your cash reserves and respawn at the last checkpoint.
Dead Island runs on Techland’s Chrome Engine 5, which like the rest of their engines is very heavy-handed in its use of bloom/HDR lighting. Though a pet peeve for some, I don’t take much issue with it except on the rare occasion that it combines with volumetric dust clouds to exponentially reduce visibility in a way that I’m not sure was intended. Overall, I think it actually makes the tropical island setting a more idyllic location to look at, enhancing the juxtaposition created by the infestation of undead fiends. Whether you like the lighting or not, the darkness is sure to thrill, with many areas requiring the use of your flashlight and dynamic shadows playing tricks on your mind. Otherwise, the visuals are technically about on par with what you’d expect from a console port, including the underwhelming draw distance -- object pop-in is probably the worst thing about the way the game is presented.
In terms of characters, they did a much better job making the zombies look gruesome and terrifying than making the survivors look human. Enemies are bloodied and decaying, some with chunks taken out of their torso and ribs sticking out… The gore rivals what Valve did with Left 4 Dead 2, but I think Dead Island takes it a step further by including big, ugly fragments of skull in the shower of blood and brains that results from bashing a head in. I wouldn’t say that the humans in the game are quite that disturbing, as many of them do look normal enough. It’s just that some of the faces are strangely-shaped, deformed even, and a select few have that sort of comical appearance similar to what you’d expect to see from one of Jim Hensen’s muppets.
It’s also possible to alter many of the settings found in Dead Island’s video options configuration file, if you’re not satisfied with the way it looks after cranking everything up in-game. It’s located in your Documents folder, under DeadIsland/out/Settings/, and the file is called Video.scr. You may need to rename the extension to .txt in order to edit it in Notepad because Windows will think it’s a screensaver executable, or else use a third-party editor like Notepad++. Once you’re in, you’ll see several parameters, along with developer comments explaining what the values mean. The most useful tweaks here would be to enable anti-aliasing or V-sync (which you can’t do in-game), or even to increase the resolution of the shadow maps, making them crisper and more detailed. I highly recommend you at least bump up the shadow resolution to 2048, provided you have the GPU power to spare. It actually looks best when set to 4096, but unfortunately it seems only Radeon cards can support going that high, not to mention the hefty performance hit that results from doing so.
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