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Dead Island (Windows)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168579)
Written on  :  Oct 28, 2011
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars

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Zombiciously zombastic!

The Good

Zombies are one video game-related cultural phenomenon that continuously failed to fascinate me. I could see how it was possible to dig vampires, werewolves, skeletons, Duke Nukem, and other mythological creatures. But I couldn't understand why anyone would spend his time fending off slow-moving chunks of flesh with the intelligence level of an average Shanghai Music Conservatory graduate.

And then Dead Island came and changed it all. Now hacking zombies is one of my main leisure activities; I greet on-screen zombies like dear old friends. This game turned mindless undead-bashing into a very addictive (albeit fairly simple) open-world RPG that suits many of my gaming preferences.

Perhaps I came to this game from a different angle than most other people: my initial interest was evoked by the perspective of a genre hybrid. I'm a staunch supporter of free-roaming 3D shooters, especially when they have RPG elements and driving. Granted, shooting comes in pretty late in Dead Island, and the game is generally more inclined towards melee; but the premise of an open world and role-playing on a tropical resort hooked me right away. So I initially viewed the whole zombie issue as a mere nuisance.

But the combat gradually grew on me. Once you grasp the mechanics and learn to exploit the strengths of your character and the weaknesses of the zombies, the battles become very satisfying. Melee combat is intense, yet requires good planning and understanding of the situation. Rushing headstrong into a crowd of Walkers with two Thugs supervising them will get you killed in no time. Luring zombies out one by one, liberally using kicks, throwing weapons, and finely balancing ranged attacks with melee are some of the tricks you can pick up to deal with the undead. Throwing a molotov cocktail into a pack of zombies and watch them burn out and collapse just when they extend their hands to strangle you can be a rather thrilling experience. Once firearms enter the picture, things get even more interesting. The satisfaction of getting your first gun after having dipped your cleavers and machetes in zombie blood countless times is incomparable.

The game also captures the horror atmosphere quite well. The contrast between the sunny, peaceful, lush tourist resort and the walking corpses mutilating everything in sight is something to behold. Later, when you reach the decaying, demolished city, the atmosphere becomes even more intense. Dead Island also keeps throwing at you scary scripted events; you never know when a horrid gory face will appear out of nowhere, when the roaring of a Thug will suddenly chill the blood in your veins as you anticipate a devastating blow and turn around in fear, waving your axe and kicking frantically.

Dead Island is set in a vast, open environment. It is not entirely seamless, but the few areas it is divided into are very large. You can just run around, admiring the many spectacular views, or get a car and drive wherever you want: I highly recommend running over zombies with the car, merrily counting incoming XP. I love sandbox action and driving games; I will be eternally grateful to GTA III for popularizing the genre. Now Dead Island proudly joined the row with its own walking dead thematics. It's always nice to take a break from the fight for survival and just enjoy lovely panoramas, exploring the generous playing area.

When I first heard about the game I didn't think much about its RPG aspect. In reality the game turned out to be much more of an RPG than I thought it would be. It has an addictive quality of urging the player to gain "just one more level". The thing is that every weapon has a level requirement, and you'll want to be at a particular level to gain a particular weapon. You will always encounter weapons that are just slightly beyond your reach; this constant, tireless pursuit of power is part of what makes the game a successful RPG.

Weapon management is one of the game's strongest aspects; in fact, I've seen only a few games that did it so well. You have to manage your weapons all the time, because they will easily break or run out of ammo; you'll also want to carry several types of weapons with you (melee weapons for the usual undead; guns for humans and particularly tough zombies; molotov cocktails for big crowds, etc.), so building up your arsenal becomes a pleasant, exciting activity that will thoroughly occupy you. Workbenches are liberally scattered around the world, and you will need them no matter where you are. Weapon-building is a very interesting addition; hunting for ingredients all over the island turns the game into a deeply satisfying scavenger hunt. Add to this a well-balanced, tricky money management (you'll have to pay for new weapons, repairs, and even your own resurrection), and you'll get a game in which exploring every corner, rejoicing at the sight of a pile of abandoned suitcases or a couple of cellphones that can be sold for a nice sum, becomes a very addictive experience.

There are four possible protagonists in the game, each with a different proficiency. In the beginning it all looks the same, but the more you advance, the more you begin to understand how the choice of a protagonist affects your playing style. Each character has his or her own skills; leveling up allows you to learn them, subsequently compelling you to adapt a playing style that reflects the character's strengths. For example, choosing Xian will invariably put you on the path of sharp weapons, because she gains her own unique abilities and bonuses connected to that particular weapon type. This grants the game additional replay value, and deepens its already considerable role-playing angle.

The game is hardly a masterpiece of storytelling, but it has a few surprisingly well-made scenes. The tragedy of seeing your own relatives and friends turn into monsters is carried across rather convincingly. Perhaps they could have done more with the terrible moral ambiguity (should I kill my brother before he turns into a zombie?), but what they did was more than I expected from a campy zombie-killing simulator. The overall plot and the ultimate explanation of the events have been done many times before, but the theme never really gets old.

The Bad

It takes a while until the game picks up the pace and shows you everything it's got. Unfortunately it takes a really long time until you start getting firearms. The first quarter or so of the game restricts you to melee weapons and molotov cocktails. It's certainly a matter of taste, but for me shooting has always been more attractive than melee, especially in first-person 3D games.

Dead Island is all about atmosphere, addictive scavenging, and satisfying combat. People looking for great writing or deep role-playing choices should turn elsewhere. The quests in the game exist purely for the purpose of building your character; they don't provide any interesting ethical dilemmas. You'll be asked to rescue person X or find item Y pretty much every time. It's still better than in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., though: at least there is a compelling gameplay-related motivation to do those quests.

The constant zombie-killing can get tiresome. There are a few other types of enemies in the game, and the zombies themselves are fairly varied, but sometimes you just want to take a break from all those moaning, blood-covered, hygienically hazardous creatures. You want to go and shoot some normal bad guys who shoot back at you. But zombies are everywhere, and they respawn. I didn't really mind enemy respawning in this game, since the world is open and you can always avoid or outrun them; but I was missing the feeling of clearing an area. You'll never have this satisfaction here.

Same applies to the dubious level-scaling system. Granted, it works better here than in Oblivion, because leveling up is more rewarding generally, but I'd still prefer the old-fashioned way of getting stronger, going back, and beating the crap out of enemies that looked invincible a few hours ago.

My biggest problem with the game is the saving system - or, should I say, the lack thereof. You can't save your game at all and must rely on auto-saves. That would have been half the trouble if the game saved itself, say, right at the end of each mission. Instead, it auto-saves pretty much everything you do. This includes getting killed (you can't die permanently, but you keep losing money if you run out of health) and doing other stuff that I would rather take back. I remember meeting the first Ram, panicking, getting killed several times, and finally throwing my best weapon at him out of desperation. Never mind, I thought, let's just reload. I did, and was taken to the exact same spot, without money, and with my best weapon gone. To be fair, there was something in this system - I learned to be genuinely careful, knowing that everything is for real here. But I would still like to have normal reserve saves that would allow me to replay a larger portion of the game.

For some reason, cutscenes always show all the four main characters together, as if you were controlling them as a party. I played this game alone, and I wanted to identify myself with one character, the one I chose. This game is perfectly enjoyable in its single-player form, and I don't quite understand this obvious catering to co-op enthusiasts.

The Bottom Line

I think this must mean a lot coming from someone who is not at all interested in zombie games: I enjoyed Dead Island very much. Of course I liked it primarily because of its RPG system and free-roaming action and driving; still, its biggest strength is probably its visceral, addictive zombie extermination. Despite its flaws, the game managed to draw me in and kept reminding me to revisit it. Even if the first few hours may seem slow, it certainly picks up later and provides a one of a kind experience.