Dead Island PC Review
Sometimes, the best gaming experiences come from titles that you either didn't expect to be good, or simply didn't even know existed until a few months before release. Heading up into Dead Island's release, this is what many of us were hoping for: a big, pleasant surprise of a zombie action-RPG where we go in with low or no expectations and come out satisfied. Console gamers can almost get behind that idea after playing the 360 or PS3 versions, and it almost happened that way on PC, too, but a series of technical missteps has at least partially ruined the fun for many of us.
Dead Island shamelessly cribs from a number of successful games over the last few years. It's got the FPS-RPG format of Borderlands' loot and levels combined with the four-player cooperative zombie-smashing action of Left 4 Dead - all set on an island in the South Pacific that transitions from beach resort to city and on to jungle. You start out almost exclusively with melee and thrown weapons, but eventually get your hands on guns, albeit with limited ammo so you'll always need to keep a machete or hammer handy.
What you'll quickly realize with this game is that the combination of formulas can often work extremely well: you traverse a huge chunk of the island at a time, picking up and completing quests, getting new loot, upgrading, modifying, and repairing your favorite weapons, and fighting off zombies that range from your basic stumbling, shuffling, haymaker-swinging variety all the way to the huge guys who bowl you over with one charge and agile little guys with their hands cut off and sharpened arm-bones for weapons. Get ready for zombie respawns, though, because in Dead Island, you can leave an area for fifteen seconds and have the whole place repopulated with zombies by the time you turn around. (Sometimes this can happen without you even leaving an area.) Zombies are a constant threat in this game, and they can get tedious to kill sometimes, but at least they all bestow XP and it's generally pretty fun to bash, slice, and dismember the hordes as you go.
Actually, that's a really unique and interesting part of this game: dismemberment and bone breakage. All zombies can have any of four limbs broken or chopped off, and bladed weapons can take heads off as well. Go in low to put zombies on the ground permanently, or take away their weapon arms to limit their attacks. This is pretty useful when it comes to fighting the game's boss-type characters, especially the Thugs, as you can break their arms and leave them left only with a bite attack that has a much shorter range. On top of that, having the ability to shock or poison the hordes, set them on fire or cause bleeding damage, and even drop them off of tall places is what a good zombie game should be all about, and seeing all the damage numbers and XP pop up as you do it makes everything more satisfying.
But at some point you're going to realize that stopping to take out every zombie you see is futile. Some time shortly after your arrival into Banoi's main city of Moresby, the hordes will get so thick that you'll be mobbed by a half-dozen at once around nearly every corner, and you'll have so many quests in your log, you'll start just driving or sprinting right past them. Sure, it's a good idea to stop and get maximum XP from a mini-boss-like zombie (if you can handle it without getting killed, that is) or to finish off any fast-running Infected that are close behind. There's a plot here for our four intrepid disease-immune warriors and many cutscenes show all four characters arguing over what to do - even if you're playing alone - so the story winds up disjointed and strange. The acting and cutscene animations are generally awful, but in a game like Dead Island, it's hard to really dock the game much in the way of points since the story is not why we're playing.
What does make a good zombie game great is the tension, the furious combat, and making it through by the skin of your teeth. And Dead Island does have those moments, but in some ways it just goes too far. Take, for example, the Ram mini-boss. You pretty much can't fight him in melee because his kick has huge range and is guaranteed to take a good third of your health off each time he tags you with it, and if you're playing a melee-focused character like Sam B, you're better off skipping these guys if you can. Yeah, if you die you will respawn nearby with a percentage of your cash gone, but it might have been better to make these enemies just a bit easier and then increased the penalty for dying a bit more.
Once you beat Dead Island, you can start over with the same character, with your level along with all talents and loot in place, and keep fighting. Since all enemies and loot are pretty much always scaled to your level (well, other than the rusty pipes and broomsticks you find lying around), it was fairly trivial for the developers to implement this. I don't know how the long-term hunt for loot would really be like, but I don't expect many players will bother. Simply put, Dead Island can be a damn fun game, but it's not so addictive that you'll still be playing it in two years.
Visually, Dead Island on PC makes a few missteps, but it can otherwise be a very good-looking game. First, this is one of those games where you can see your own feet in first person mode, and zombie head-stomps are done through the game's adaptive animation rather than with hard-coded movements, so these actions often look wonky, but sometimes it adds to the game's silly charm. The island itself is full of over-bright bloom effects and inconsistent texturing, but the lighting is great and the artists and designers did build a wonderful-looking little South Pacific island - or, at least they when they were putting it together during development. The final product seems to make strange concessions for memory and processing power that don't always seem to be the most sensible.
There are quite a few technical issues to deal with, too. The game is missing a few vital settings like antialiasing, VSYNC, and control over the game's motion blur or massive amount of bloom-based lighting. Multi-monitor support is mostly non-existent, and the controls are kind of a mess, where at least one rebound key keeps some of its original functions even when you assign a new function to that key. Some of these issues have been corrected and adjusted with a deeper look into the game files, so if you're interested in some fixes, see this third-party utility as well as this WSGF forum thread.
The one thing I expected to have issues with was multiplayer, but Dead Island does a great job of finding players for you that are at your current quest progress level and partnering you up with them. The game does support voice chat right out of the box, but unfortunately it's like the old days of Borderlands PC - the mic is always on and many people I played with had no idea their mic was active until I told them. Some even didn't realize I had joined their game, and were a little surprised to see another player appear, but that probably has something to do with the fact that by default, your game is join-able by anyone on the internet. Unless you poke through the options before you start playing, you probably wouldn't expect random people to just magically appear in what you probably would have thought was a single player session.
While Dead Island is fun in a four-player mode, the cooperative mode is set up in such a way that you'll usually only have two people together in online sessions - you'll have to get together with friends to play with four people regularly. I jumped into quite a few games during my 20-ish hours through the campaign, and each time it partnered me up with someone that was doing the exact same quest I was, or at least, that's what they were doing at that moment; sometimes we had to part ways after finishing only one quest, and other times I'd have a partner for a half hour or more. It's a little jarring to join a game, see a short loading screen, and get physically moved in-game to your new buddy's side, but it's worth it to play together in a lot of cases. Other times just aren't worth the trouble, like when you find players who are constantly running off to do their own thing or just sit there doing nothing while you wait for them to come to an NPC so the story can advance. (Not that you can possibly know in advance when you press 'J' to join a game.) None of that is the game's fault, of course, but it goes to show that sometimes, "open-ended" and "cooperative" don't always go together, especially when you find players that seem to be purposely rebelling against working together. As I often suggest with games whose multiplayer mode only consists of coop play, Dead Island is at its best if you find friends to play with.
Finally, I should mention that LAN support is included, but Steamworks limits it so much that it can only really be used to restrict what players are getting into your game. Everyone needs their own Steam account and their own copy of the game to play, and since the cooperative mode is hosted on clients' machines rather than dedicated servers, direct connections are created between players no matter whether they're on a LAN or the internet. If you want your buddies to jump in and play with you on a LAN, you're still going to need multiple copies of the game and a working internet connection (for communication with Steam) to play.
When Dead Island is firing on all cylinders, it's an absolute blast to play, but sadly, this game will have people running into quite a few technical and gameplay-based frustrations before they get even a couple of hours in. It's probably worth the purchase if you're not sick of zombie games yet and you've got a PC-based crew of four in total to play together with, but if not, watching your gaming budget this fall might be the better idea. Dead Island is ambitious and at times pretty brilliant, but it might take some work and patience getting there. Either way, if you just feel like your day doesn't include nearly enough zombie curbstomps, then Dead Island, problems or not, is a must-have.