Ah zombie games, how we all love to destroy and rip apart hordes of the undead and don’t publishers and developers know it! The Xbox 360 has enjoyed several retail zombie games, spin-off XBLA games and a zombie mode (including a very lucrative DLC package) for a certain FPS game – but the world of destroying these mindless creatures has been somewhat lost on me, don’t get me wrong I enjoy fending off hordes of the undead as much as the next guy, but I guess I’ve just never ‘got it’, becoming bored and looking to the next game before long. When news of another zombie game was announced I couldn’t have been any less excited, that was until I got some hands-on time with the game at PAX and wow did that change my mind.
Dead Island is set in the tranquil holiday island of Banoi, so the first thing that made me happy was Dead Island’s colour palette which is bright and vibrant as opposed to the rather dull and bland colours that zombie games usually come with. The game begins with a first person perspective of your character staggering around drunk through a party, which soon turns nasty as all hell breaks loose. There is nothing you can do because you pass out on your bed and it’s here you start the game when you regain control after selecting which of the four characters you would like to play as.
You can select to play as either Logan, Purna, Xian or Sam B. Each has their own back story about who they were before arriving on the island, which is narrated to you by each of them. Each of the four also have their own unique expertise which comes into play during ‘Fury’ mode (more on that later). Before heading out to play the prologue – which only needs to be played once, when starting a new character you can skip this – take a look at the online options. You can opt to play the game as a visible player and can join or be joined by other players, you can add private slots to reserve spots for your friends or you can simply play the game solo.
The storyline is focused around this outbreak and a character called “the voice”, he is responsible for guiding you out of your room and to the first bunch of survivors. Who is he? Why is he helping you? Well that’s what you are going to find out, as well as helping other survivors along the way. The voice initially reveals over the radio that the four of you are immune to bites and that he knows a way to help everyone off the island, this main storyline can unfold quite slowly but that’s due to the amount of side quests there are to explore, unless you are focusing solely on the main quest which if you are, takes around 12-15 hours to complete. The story twists and turns as it unfolds and at times feels uncomfortable with itself but it’s enjoyable nonetheless and besides we are here to bust zombie skull!
Just because you are immune to bites and therefore won’t become a zombie, who are called “The Infected”, you can still take damage and a depleted health bar means death. Health can be regained by using health packs, drinking energy drinks and by eating snack bars or fruit. You can increase the amount of blocks in the bar by gaining XP and ranking up your level and by investing skill points into the health icon on the skill tree, yes this game has the famous skill tree. So what happens when you die? Well not much really, you have a few seconds to revive yourself with a health pack or you wait and respawn which costs you money, the amount of which is taken from you depending on how much you have, quite simply the more money you have the more money you lose if you die so spend it when you can!
So what do you have at your disposal to fend off the infected? Well Dead Island is heavily focused on melee combat, sure there are weapons but these aren’t available until later in the game when you come across groups of hostile humans. Just about any item can be used as a weapon and those that can’t may be salvaged for parts so you can craft new weapons or add elemental effects. These can be made at workbenches using blueprints that are either found or awarded for completing quests. You also have to maintain your weapons by repairing them at the benches, bashing in zombie skulls can take its toll on a wooden oar! Each weapon you come across has specific stats that are visible to you as you look at them, so you needn’t have to pick up each weapon to find out what it can or can’t do or if it’s any better than those you are already carrying. Although you can carry multiple weapons and items in your inventory, only eight may be mapped out for you to select during gameplay. Once you unlock all the slots you can select up to eight weapons on the fly through a radial menu. By pressing and holding RB and using the right stick, you can select from one of the eight weapons which can be remapped at anytime. Pulling up the radial menu will not stop gameplay, likewise when playing online if you are within the inventory menu remapping your radial menu, gameplay will also continue whereas in solo it will pause.
The combat is extremely satisfying especially if you roll with the analog fighting controls (selectable in the options), digital mode is a one button press to attack affair whereas analogue control means you need to use the right stick to punch and swing – like a more simplified version of the control system in the Fight Night series. You can also throw weapons at the infected, but be warned there is a small chance you will lose that weapon – it is however extremely satisfying throwing a knife through the air for a one hit takedown.
All this swinging, punching and jumping uses stamina, which is limited by a gauge, once depleted you need to take a short breath for it to refill, thankfully this doesn’t take long and you will be back to cracking heads together. If you get swarmed taking hits will also deplete the bar, thankfully you can also kick which not only pushes the zombies away, but doesn’t cost any stamina to use. Sometimes things can get too much or you may have neglected to take enough weapons with you, well running doesn’t make you any less of a man but it will drain your stamina. It may all sound like a burden but it really isn’t and you only need to use a small amount of discipline to ensure that your never out of stamina when you have zombies up in your face.
There are several infested types of zombie in Dead Island the majority of which are known as walkers, often slow with small bursts of speed, these guys are vicious but can easily be outrun should you need to. Similar to walkers there are some that will charge after you and should they get up in your face they will try to tear you a new one unless you boot them away and give them a swift smack in the face, running away from these guys really isn’t worth it and your only prolonging the inevitable. As you progress in the game there are also several stronger infested types which take a lot more than a few hits to dispose of, some are quite simply brutish monstrosities, others will explode or belch acid over you, co-op play easily puts these types on the back foot, solo play will give you a challenge and you will need to rely on good weapons and accurate use of dodging, which is done by pulling a direction on the LS and the jump button. Best of all, they can be dismembered, you can literally shred the flesh from their skin revealing internal organs, or cut off their arms, legs or even chop off their heads and be treated to a squelch as pulses of blood flow out and over the landscape – brutal, bloody and oh so satisfying!
The island of Banoi is massive, initially all the action takes place at the resort by the beach but later in the game you delve a bit deeper into the island and get to explore the city, the jungle and finally the prison which is just offshore. With the immense size of the island and the masses of missions available its great that there is a very helpful map on hand which you can manually set waypoints onto. Hitting the back button takes you to a detailed map showing important landmarks that you have revealed while exploring the island, but more importantly you also have a mini map on your HUD which plots out a dotted white line guiding you to the objective you currently have selected. Quests are listed and detailed in the quest menu and can be changed at anytime, you can also accept new quests from survivors at anytime during the game, however unless you are playing in a group online, accepting a new quest will make this the currently selected one and therefore your destination and plotted course on the mini map will change and you need to jump back into the quest menu to make the one you were previously doing active. Quests are given to you as you progress the main story and side quests can be found and given to you from other survivors on the island. These are handed to you on scraps of paper and list what the quest is, the difficulty and the reward for completing it, you can then either accept or decline. Each quest you accept is listed in its own sub menu and has all the information you need to complete it.
The island of Banoi can be traversed not only on foot but also by car. While it’s fun to run over zombies, the controls of the vehicles aren’t great – crying out for a hand brake for those tight corners or a third person view is a gaping hole in the game, but thankfully you won’t rely that heavily on them because going on foot and taking the fight to the infested is that much fun. There are also several fast travel spots over the island which can be selected when using maps that hang up on the walls of key locations.
Completing quests awards XP points, which can also be gained by killing the infected, for some extra amusement there are also some challenges to complete which also reward you with XP points. These range from killing zombies with guns, or setting them on fire to playing co-op for a certain amount of time, there are 26 challenges and each has 4 levels to complete. In return for gaining XP you increase in rank which rewards you with more health and a skill point which can be invested into the skill tree. The tree is broken into three attributes: Fury, Combat and Survival and investing in the upper levels of the tree unlocks the lower parts for purchase. Some of the skills are passive and some give you direct abilities such as being able to stomp heads into oblivion on infected that you have knocked over.
Fury mode can be activated once you have filled up the gauge by killing the infested. Each character has a unique fury mode which once activated will give one hit kills or increased damage to special infested types, Fury skills can be further explored and the duration prolonged by infested skill points into the Fury attributes on the skill tree.
Graphically I really liked Dead Island’s art direction, textures look nice and there is plenty to look at and explore in detail, interiors seem to be slightly less interesting and the water in the sewers doesn’t quite look as real as the water by the beach but all in all the game looks great especially the dismemberment of the infested. I did experience several texture pop ins as levels loaded and a few other graphic glitches like hands going through character models or doors, pop up was dramatically reduced by installing the disk to the hard drive. The lighting is particularly nice, dark areas are really eerie with only your flashlight to light the way. The bright sunshine of the beach is nicely complimented by some stormy dark days which can be experienced when visiting the city, why though is it then that there is no night/day cycle? I really would have liked a Far Cry 2 style day system, it really would have been the cherry on top of a “trying to hold out and survive” scenario.
The sound is exquisite in Dead Island, lots of ambient noises will keep you on your toes and should you be a headset gamer then this is extremely heightened. Just as music heightens and a nearby infested howls as you break into a blind panic run, the hairs on your neck and arms will stand as you shiver – its exhilarating stuff and an experience that I cant wait to step back into.
Co-op is one of the standout features of Dead Island, throughout the game messages will flash up when a nearby player can be joined. Tapping left on the d-pad will place you into their game, these players are recommended based on how well you are matched to their game progress. You can also search manually for games but often joining these players will either result in a bit of backtracking to the main story or you may miss a small chunk of the story or side quest. Even though there are only four characters to choose from, you don’t all have to be a different character, although there is an achievement for playing in a group of four with each of you as a different character. Multiple slots for new character saves means you should be able to keep pace with your friends, after all you don’t want a level 30 character rocking around with a level 1 player? I joined a game with another two guys that were both level 1 and I was level 30, as it was their game the infested were at their level and not mine so my hits were instant kills which pretty much ruins their whole experience of the game with me being able to run around like I had God mode switched on. This actually got quite boring for me too and besides I was only getting 1 XP per kill so it all seemed a bit pointless. Joining other players is based around location in the game so a level 1 character wouldn’t be able to join me as a higher ranked player on the last section of the game. Hopefully this may be made easier in the future with an update to make co-op play more accessible to players by utilising the way Borderlands handled players of differing skill levels and progress in the game?
I’ve had such fun with this title that I’m immediatelty jumping straight back into it again, I’ve also noticed that in the extras menu there are three pieces of content, one of which is a campaign piece, so I’m really happy to see that we will also be receiving more content to expand the game and maybe tell the story from someone elses point of view. The content is listed as Ryder White’s campaign, Bloodbath arena and Ripper mod – big clue is that Ryder White will be a new campaign and possibly a new viewpoint on the story, maybe how the virus broke out. The bloodbath arena is probably a wave based mode and the ripper mod is a blueprint for a new weapon. When you do get to the end, there is no turning back once you go over to the prison, although once you complete the game you can start over with all your abilities, character levels and weapons.
Fans of the walking dead will particularly enjoy Dead Island and I would also recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Borderlands, Dead Island reminded me particularly of this game, but more so of Fallout – just less intense, more like a RPG lite. Dead Island’s zombie survival action with an arcade twist will tick boxes for Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead fans and for me it really is the definitive zombie game on the Xbox – I think it’s even been the most fun I’ve had with a game all year, mainly because I went from having no interest in it to being completely obsessed with it. Go on and take a walk around Banoi and tell me you that you didn’t have fun!