The game is expansive. So much so that it is impossible to discuss everything that went into the game outside of publishing a full novel to detail it. There is plenty to do and see, and all of it is beautiful and interesting. The only draw backs the game has are mechanical, and they aren't enough to detract from the over-all spendor of the title.
+Massive game with almost unparalleled scope
+Four player co-op through the entirity of the story
+Expansive skill-tree system to build the zombie-slayer of your dreams
+Ridiculous amounts of weapons/mods/upgrades
+Wonky shooting system
+Fluctuating difficulty level
I'll be honest; I went into Dead Island with very low expectations. From the very minimal amount of information I had collected about the game (glancing looks at screenshots, news articles and a couple of videos) I figured it was going to be a straight-up rip-off of Left 4 Dead. Fortunately the guys over at Deep Silver had a whole lot more up their sleeve than that. Unfortunately, Left 4 Dead is going to be far from the last comparison that I make in this review.
Let's get the prime suspects out of the way up front: The story reminds me a lot more of Resident Evil than anything else, the game-play itself feels a little more like Far Cry meets Oblivion, the leveling system feels EXACTLY like Borderlands, and the overall atmosphere of the game reminds me of Jurassic Park; strangely enough.
At the top of the game you get to select from one of four character choices: Sam B, a rapper brought to the island to try and resurrect his failing career, who winds up being the 'tank-class' of the group specializing in blunt weapons. Xian Mei, an employee of Royal Palm Resort, who is the game's 'assassin-class' specializing in bladed weaponry. Logan Cart, a once pro-athlete brought to the island to be the 'celebrity' for a blood drive, who is the game's 'ranged-class' specializing in thrown weaponry. And Puma, a former member of the Sydney Police who has now been contracted out for security for VIPs, she specializes in fire-arms specifically. Each of the four has one key feature that draws them into the group, they all are immune to the virus that has broken out on the island and is turning the living into the undead.
The story of Dead Island is so extremely slow-paced that through-out most of my first play-through it seemed non-existent.
Not unlike other RPG games, Dead Island offers a main 'story arch' along with several thousand potential 'side-quests'. The more you start to wander off the beaten path of the main story, the more you forget what it's all about. Interestingly though, this becomes the reason why Dead Island is potentially the best example of a true zombie-outbreak in video game history. Progressing through the world you'll constantly be bumping into to people that are weaker, scared, hiding out or trying to make a break for it and they all need something from you, considering you have the advantage of not being able to be infected.
Without giving anything away though, the main plot is one of conspiracy. It's obvious that the four main characters have been brought to the island under false pretenses from the jump, and through the main quest line you'll (slowly) figure out why they were brought there and why they are immune to the virus that's consumed the "small" island of Panoi.
In speaking of scale, it's important to note that I had no clue what-so-ever going in how big this game is. At about the 10 hour mark I progressed to "Act 2" of the game's main story-line, and found that, what I thought at the time was the whole of the island, that I had spent all that time exploring was only about a third of the actual island itself. To say that this game is bigger than I ever would have expected is a drastic understatement. - Not only is the island about three times bigger than I thought was it was (and originally I was rather impressed with the scope anyways) but the amount of side-quests, character archs, weapons and abilities there are to make your way through treads on sheer insanity. Eventually the game starts to feel a little less like Borderlands and a little more like Oblivion.
So with a game that big at your disposal, the obvious question becomes "can it keep your attention for that long?" - The answer is a hearty yes. My first sit-down with the game lasted eight-hours. They flew by. It was one of those classic gaming moments where you look up at the clock after you notice that the sun has now disappeared from the sky and realize that an entire day of your life has passed, and you're pretty much okay with it. The game is so powerfully addictive that at that moment of realization I opted for "just one more hour" and wound up going another three.
The combat takes a little bit of getting used to, but it is rewarding. The complaints that I have about it are minor, such as that I would have preferred the option to block incoming attacks, but if you're doing it right (which took me pretty much forever to get a proper grasp on) you're probably just stepping out of attack range rather than blocking anyways. Everything is about timing, you need to learn the weight of each weapon individually so that when you swing, you know exactly when to step forwards to make the connection while being out of the range of flailing zombie-arms in the meantime.
Along with a series of skills you can choose to unlock for your character along the way, broken into three types: fury (thrown weapon skills), combat (hand-to-hand/gun-play) and survival (upgrades, bartering advantages, and weapon durability), you have access to the ability to modify/repair/upgrade every weapon you pick up. While playing through the game you'll gather weapon mod 'plans', received through finding, completing objects and side-quests. These will allow you to do things to your weapons like adding an electric current to your machete, or building make-shift hand grenades out of deodorant (yea, I don't understand that one either). It kept the loot-whore in me happy, and brought back memories of Dead Rising. While you can't just make up gear on the fly, as you start to build a collection of weapon mod plans you can easily get obsessed with seeking out particular parts to build bigger and better weapon arsenals.
Looting is key to the game. From the very get-go, I was stopping at every locker, back, drawer and wallet I could find to 'acquire' as much money and items as possible. As far as I could see there was never a limit to how many items you could carry (parts to build weapons), but there was a limitation on the amount of actual weapons you could carry... so looting became both a game of 'pick up everything not nailed down' and 'decide which baseball bat deals the most damage'.
In speaking about the game now, I realize that it's an impossible feat to be able to list all the features that the game offers. It's scope is beyond description, and the game itself is addictive/fun enough that it becomes one of those experiences that people are going to tell you need to see for yourself. It has easily become the greatest surprise of this year in gaming for me, and I haven't even started into the multiplayer component of the game, which is pretty much the biggest reason that people will be picking this game up.
Imagine for a moment the scope of a game like Oblivion/Skyrim with the addition of being able to have up to three of your friends along for the ride. Not only is this game going to take over the role as the new 'must have' multiplayer adventure in the stead of Borderlands, but it's going to be a must have RPG just on it's single-player merits.
Having said all that, I don't feel it's a game that would deserve a perfect score, and not giving it one without discussing why would be a huge disservice to the game. So permit me a moment to explain why this game is not perfection (after doing my best to encapsulate everything that makes the game amazing for the first 80% of the review).
First of all the combat: It took forever to get used to the swing of the weapons, and if you're not timing it right you're more likely to get a face-full of zombie-claw then you are to do any damage at all. The feel of guns in particular is garbage, and it's hard to say why exactly. The game was clearly not designed as a first person shooter, and so when you're using the guns in the game everything feels just a little "off". It could be that it's more of an RPG system with a 'dice roll' for your shots, but even aiming down the iron-sights for a head-shot was pretty hit-or-miss in my experience.
Another large oversight of the game, in my humble opinion, is the lack of local multiplayer. Considering even the back of the box touts "2-4 co-op" on its own, for system link and for Xbox live, I had assumed (wrongly) that we would be able to bust out some split-screen shenanigans when I had some people over to test out multiplayer...
My third (and final) complaint would be about the difficult curve of the game. The game fluctuates between "baby's first zombie game" and "STAY DOWN" so often that I found myself getting whip-lash. For the first Act of the game I was tearing through zombies like tissue paper. I had zero deaths on my stats screen, and was starting to wonder why you'd ever want/need to get a group together to clear the story-mode of the game. Then around level 17 (character-wise) suddenly it became the most unforgiving game I've ever played.
There are multiple kinds of zombies in the game, the worst, in my experience, being the 'infected'. They behave more like the 28 Days Later rage-infected and run straight at you. When you get into Act 2 they are not only plentiful, they're pretty much never-ending. I recall spending a good five-minute stint with my back to a wall in a run-down shop just being perpetually bombarded by zombies three at a time to a point where I began to wonder if the game was broken. Not only that, but in open areas you can be swarmed by as many as 10 at a time, and then when you respawn... it's generally in the exact spot you died. So, when you start up again, you're right in the middle of a horde of angry zombies who beat you to death inside of seconds.
Having said all of that though, the game play experience as a whole is a positive one. Not only is it one of the biggest games that I've played in a while, but it's easily one of the most additive. The need to collect, build and expand borders on obsessive. The ability to terrorize zombies with all manner of concocted weaponry is insanely satisfying, and the knowledge that all of this and more can be accomplished with a group of three friends simply boggles the mind.
Dead Island is easily the biggest surprise of 2011, and a title that will be must-have for anyone that is a fan of multiplayer co-op, zombie survival, RPG titles, large open-world exploration, loot-whoring, visceral melee combat, gore, or uncovering campy conspiracy plots.
This review is based on a Xbox 360 version of the game provided by Deep Silver
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platform: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Release date: September 6, 2011