At long last, a zombie game with braaaaiiiins!
There’s a popular theory among the button-mashing faithful that the recent rise in undead obsession in the development community has lead to an unnecessary flood of zombie homages, but after a lengthy vacation on the fictional island of Banoi, I humbly submit that the issue’s not the number of brain-bashing games on the market, but rather the lack of flesh-feasting escapades that keep pace with the open-world awesomeness that is Dead Island.
While there were more than a few questions going into this one—Techland’s shaky pedigree, a new engine, and the ambition typically associated with a game of this ilk to name a few—I can happily attest that this effortlessly engrossing love child of Valve’s Left 4 Dead and Bethesda’s modern Fallout titles is exactly what you’d hoped it’d be. A classic RPG in a modern wrapper, Dead Island grabbed me in its chilling embrace from the opening exodus from the hotel—and hasn’t let go since.
This is due largely to the game’s incredible design sense, which oozes out like so many brains on the floor of a crowded corridor in nearly every facet of gameplay. The island setting naturally lends itself to the typically fetch-questing one would expect in a RPG of this type, and the team pulls no punches when it comes to mature, engrossing storylines that echo the game’s famous trailer that transfixed the Internet back in February. The island’s in chaos, heroes are in short supply, and each mission sits somewhere between salvation and self-preservation, conveyed brilliantly by a host of credible voice actors who do a great job of representing the unfortunate lot caught up in the fires of a paradise on the fast track to hell.
This transition’s surprisingly elegant, focusing less on a progressively painful pounding and more on empowering your crew to handle larger waves of enemies while losing yourself to the trials of a zombie outbreak firsthand. Credit’s also due to Techland’s design team for an exemplary effort on the AI front. There’s about a dozen different fleshsacks to contend with, each with their own attack patterns and weak spots, and the team does a great job with enemy placement and encounters such that each new mission has you on the edge of your seat, knee-deep in series of s***storms—and each slightly different than the last.
But you’ll be well-equipped to face these undead onslaughts, as the Condemned-style combat and weapon variety is also a high point, borrowing from the likes of Dead Rising in its utilitarian leanings. While I was somewhat annoyed with the looting interface’s need for constant button presses, there’s a ton of rewards for those who like a good treasure hunt, and items found are often extended by a robust mod system that offers dozens of ways to up the ante.
Between these two elements, the game encourages constant exploration and a genuine sense of identification with one of the game’s four core characters. Each specializes in a specific combat style, punctuated by an addictive leveling system that does a solid job of unfolding the game’s skill trees. More importantly, you’ll have the pleasure of leaning on each discipline offered thanks to the game’s bold insistence on 4-player co-op throughout. While titles like The Elder Scrolls have shied away from the notion, Dead Island dives in headfirst, delivering one of the most important multiplayer experiences in the current generation—and after you’ve enjoyed a gore-soaked romp from the bloodied beaches of the resort to the foreboding bowels of the untamed jungles, you’ll have a hard time imagining an open-world adventure without a few friends in tow.
And that’s the thing. Dead Island had some lofty goals, but Techland brought it all home in style. It’s hardly a shot-for-shot re-creation of the epic trailer, but this isn’t just another zombie game, either. It’s a once-in-a-hardware-generation gauntlet tossed confidently at the feet of sad storytellers who seem incapable of exiting the traditional notion of what gamers want. It may not have the big-budget backing of other open-world adventures, but Dead Island’s every bit as deep, more than capable as a multiplayer experience, and surprisingly polished in places most games stumble. If you’re looking for a viable alternative to world war, wizards, or warriors, this is definitely it.
SUMMARY: This engrossing love child of Valve’s Left 4 Dead and Bethesda’s modern Fallout titles is exactly what you’d hoped it’d be.
- THE GOOD: 4-player Co-op, the power of Chrome 5, solid design
- THE BAD: Loot system’s unnecessary button presses
- THE UGLY: The average zombie on the wrong end on my sledgehammer