Like a rancid corpse baking in the summer sun, the survival horror genre is in serious need of some refreshing. And zombie games in particular are guilty of rehashing the same old sights, settings, and situations.
Dead Island is different, though. Instead of your typical dark and dreary zombie outbreak scenario, it places you in an exotic paradise surrounded by lush tropical greenery, beaches with crystal clear blue water, and tiki bars.
Seeing packs of putrefied people in swim trunks and bikinis shamble down a beach is something you don’t often encounter in zombie fiction, either.
But Dead Island isn’t an original horror game simply because a large chunk of it takes place on a brightly lit, beautiful island. The way in which the game incorporates the survival aspect of the experience is really where Dead Island shines.
Survivors trapped on an island, struggling to work together, or resorting to tearing each other apart, are at the heart of most zombie stories. And while braining zombies with baseball bats and tire irons is certainly a large part of Dead Island, scavenging the island (and the bodies of the flesh-eating vacationers you slay) for supplies is where the game really feels like you’re a part of a world overrun with the undead.
Don’t get me wrong, though: there’s a tremendous amount of carnage and zombie-bashing to be had. But what makes Dead Island deeper than just “Whack-a-Mole” with zombies is that you must work together and use your wits to survive.
Helping out your fellow survivors isn’t limited to your A.I. allies, either. There’s a wealth of side and main quests you can take on, all of which you don’t have to face alone. At any point in the game (if you have an online connection) you can hit a button to join up with other players who are exploring the same part of the island in order to complete quests together.
And while you can technically play through the entire game by yourself, Dead Island has to be played cooperatively with people you meet online to be fully enjoyed. And as you might expect from getting to live out your own zombie outbreak fantasy, sometimes those people aren’t worth helping. Thankfully, you can drop in and out of co-op quests at any time, which doesn’t penalize the player. With Dead Island’s multiplayer, you don’t have to deal with hassles like matchmaking menus, either.
But Dead Island isn’t all sunshine and rotten roses. The game’s missions become repetitive and somewhat of a chore the further you progress in the game — and the more you play, the more you realize how many of the quests you’re tasked with are little more than going from point A to point B with scores of zombies obstructing you from your target destination. Mediocre mission design is a problem that a lot of games with large, open-worlds encounter. And Dead Island has this shortcoming, too.
Another issue I have with Dead Island is its characters. Yes, there are a lot of them, and yes, you’ll join forces with everyone from Aussie lifeguards with face tats to Catholic nuns, but unfortunately all of them come off as one-dimensional. It’s tough to give a damn about the fate of your fellow survivors when they feel so lifeless. In one situation, for instance, a mechanic named Earl must say farewell to his daughter since he’s become infected and will soon turn into one of the walking dead. It comes off as laughable when Earl gives the painfully trite “go on without me” speech. It’s one of many examples of how Dead Island is chockfull of characters you won’t care a whole lot about. Thankfully, the action and bloodshed makes up for a great deal of what the game lacks in fully-developed characters.
Dead Island probably won’t redefine the survival-horror genre, but it’s putting a fresh spin on things by demonstrating how online multiplayer can be used to make a fantasy world really feel inhabited by those with a common goal: survival. And the freedom to explore, exist, and eviscerate the undead the way you want is what makes Dead Island worthwhile.
PROS: A fresh spin on the survival-horror genre; engrossing cooperative multiplayer; ravaging the undead is a lot of fun; overall level of gruesome detail, decay, and design of zombies is superb.
CONS: One-dimensional characters; missions become increasingly tedious; occasional graphical glitches.