Deep Silver and Techland’s collaborative efforts on Dead Island have lead to an abnormal amount of attention being placed on a comparatively smaller production than the modern AAA line-up. With many publications citing the game as ‘one to watch’, expectations have been raised as to what gamers should expect of their visit to the isle of Banoi, and yet Dead Island still manages to surprise and entertain in equal measure.
For a game that’s considered by many to be a less important release than the likes of Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead, the quality Dead Island’s production values is of a welcomingly high calibre. The intro sequence before the player even presses start is impressive: clearly inspired by the video for The Prodigy’s 1997 hit Smack My Bitch Up, the footage introduces each of the leads and begins to build a character for them immediately. It’s a presentation that grabs you and doesn’t look like it’ll be letting go.
This fantastic delivery of the character continues moments after pressing start for the first time. Four playable characters are presented, each with some basic statistics – Logan is talented with throwing weapons, Purna firearms, Xian knows her way around a knife and Sam B is your blunt weapons expert – and after selecting your embodiment a lengthy narrated story offering each a background, perspective and motivation for having visited Banoi plays out. It’s a touch of class that other games may overlook in favour of a big flashy cutscene, but Dead Island uses the technique in an exemplary fashion.
This seems to be the ethos of Dead Island. Once in-game things look a little different and it quickly becomes apparent that the game doesn’t have the budget that some of its contemporaries are blessed with, but that’s not any knock on the quality of its delivery. Dead Island may not offer an immaculately realised location like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, nor may it have the depth in construct of Mass Effect 2, but what it does have is expert timing. It’s a case of choosing where your strengths lie and delivering on them: a quality which Dead Island has in spades.
As a survivor at the holiday resort things aren’t as lonely as you might be expecting. While in the single-player mode you will rarely venture out with comrades, there are plenty of additional characters to meet along the way, some of which are just as well drawn as the four leads. Crossing the landscape as your mission objectives command, the player will find locations ranging from the beach to swimming pools and bars, cliffs and outposts, petrol stations, caves and tunnels. And that’s just in the first few hours, beyond here there is so much variety you might just forget about the supposedly once idyllic resort.
The missions that carry you between these locations come in three flavours: story missions, side missions and continuous missions. The story missions are the key structure that mark your progress (the game displays a percentage completion of the main plot at all times on the pause menu) and will take you to new areas, while the side missions generally revolve around that which has already been accessed by way of the visited safehouses. Missions typically involve reaching a location, finding an item or person or assisting with another character’s objective. There are deviations from the formula, but even in those basic staples there’s enough dressing to make each feel unique.
Where Dead Island’s character system falls apart however, is in the lack of a conversation system. The player has no affect whatsoever on their relationships or the outcome of the missions handled to them beyond win or lose. There have been many comparisons to Borderlands and Left 4 Dead throughout Dead Island’s development, but in truth the closest comparison would be Fallout 3: a game with which Dead Island shares many traits, though here with it’s lack of dialogue options and also it’s levelling system, Techland’s effort is telling regarding the difference in budget. It paints over the cracks well, but there’s no denying Dead Island comes up a little short without the option to tackle things from a questionably moral position.
One area in which Dead Island does excel beyond Bethesda Softworks’ open-world magnum opus is in that of the weapon creation system. Though following a similar pattern – requiring the player to locat specific items to combine them with a weapon and subsequently create something more powerful – the system in Dead Island feels much more open ended, almost as if every item you locate may at one point come in handy. Given the lesser restrictions on your inventory, exploring every container can become an obsession.
The comparisons to Gearbox Software’s Borderlands are arguably based on the inclusion of four-player co-operative gameplay. Limited to online only, up to three players can join your game at any point, no matter what level, bonuses or statistics their character might have. An incredibly entertaining addition, Dead Island’s multiplayer turns an already intriguing game into a playground for zombie massacres. While in single-player the zombies prevent a challenge, with each new encounter possibly spelling death, things become considerably easier with the addition of more knives and baseball bats. It’s only the tougher enemies that still impose a threat, but when in combat with the horde players may still find themselves occasionally in need of revival.
Dead Island also features trucks to allow players to drive across the extensive landscape, practically the whole of which is presented each time you begin playing without loading times. This extends to the multiplayer gameplay, which allows the four players to put some considerable distance between one another before encountering connection issues. Indeed, while the visual depiction of Dead Island may be a bit rough around the edges – occasionally poor lip-synching, delayed loading of textures and regular repetition of character models – it’s clear that the immediate presentation has taken a back seat to the creation of a vivid, uniquely oppressive world, a quality for which Techland should be commended.
An altogether impressive game, Dead Island is likely to suffer the same problems finding an audience as Dead Rising. It’s not a game that’s simply about killing zombies, it’s a game designed to challenge the player, offering rewards for continued progression by way of new options for taking down the enemy ranks. It’s a game that throughout its extensive campaign will compel those so inclined to complete its many tasks, unlocking new abilities, creating new weapons and making new friends. It’s a game that promises so much and asks so little, and it’s a game that has clearly earned the attention it has garnered in the run-up to release. Dead Island isn’t flawless, but there’s enough quality here to make you wish that every smaller budget title could offer so much evidence for the need to play a wider variety of titles.