I walked, slowly, down the long, winding beach, sun setting in the distance, feet dragging in the sand as I creeped past a rotting corpse. It was useless. Within an instant, I had been spotted from across the shore. Without wasting any time, a hideous silhouette bolted at me, and I did the same… in the other direction. Stamina bar began to run low, I needed to take the opportunity to finish this monster before it finished me. With just enough energy left, I span half-circle, thrusted my leg into its chest. It fell. No chance to recuperate, I drew my blade, and with a swift, panicked motion, decapitated the poor bastard.
I had arrived on Banoi; ‘Dead Island’.
Techland’s Dead Island sees you take the role of one of four characters, searching the island of Banoi for survivors, food, weapons, transportation, and basically everything you need to survive. Starting with a choice. Once you press ‘start’, you’re given the selection of the games four characters: Sam B, Logan, Xian Mei, and Purna, each with their own unique traits and abilities. Making the right choice is vital at this stage, and you want to pick the character that most suits you as once you enter the fray, there’s no going back unless you’re willing to start the game over. But the choice isn’t sparse at all, you can be better with using blunt or sharp weapons, or have a rage mode which, when activated lets you slaughter all that stand in your way. If anything, at the first screen you’re spoilt for choice, and it’ll take some deep thinking before you move on.
After selection, you wake up in a hotel room, bottle of whisky lay by your side. At first, all seems well, but as soon as you take a step outta that door, it quickly becomes obvious that a lot had changed since last night.
Walking down the previously luxurious corridors, you begin to notice the signs of a major disaster. Suitcases, abandoned in the halls, clothes strung across the floor, flickering lights, and moving shadows.
The opening section of Dead Island really sets the mood for the entire game to come. You’re panic stricken throughout, with only a torch to guide your way, completely unaware of what’s around the next corner. A truly horrifying experience, and one that never seems to fade.
The atmosphere Dead Island creates each second of play is absolutely incredible. I don’t think that I ever took a step without being terrified. Never has a game made me feel such penetrating terror that just seeped from the screen. The beautiful island backdrop is only a distraction, somehow, even beautiful beaches and glorious green waters become a chilling plane of horror.
However, as I mistakenly assumed at the start, there are way more areas to the island than just the beach. On your quest for survival, you’ll have to explore many different areas, ranging from the derelict punk-ridden city, to the seemingly remote jungles of Banoi, your eyes are kept fresh throughout. And each area manages to maintain the same level of fear, don’t even begin to think you’re safe; ever.
The zombies’ interaction with the player is just perfect, Techland have nailed the classic zombies to a T. ‘Walkers’ as they are known in Dead Island shamble towards you, whilst furiously groaning in pain, and you’ll even get the occasional sprinting walker, screaming as it charges full force for your blood. Then comes the slapping, flailing their undead arms, walkers slap, smack, and bash all life out of you even mixing it up with the odd gnaw on your chest. There’s plenty of variation in the zombies’ models, with realistic people you can actually imagine having a past life: bikini-clad women, middle-aged men, and many more all longing for the taste of flesh.
As you progress in the game, new ‘special’ zombies are gradually introduced. Now, before anyone begins to accuse Techland of copying Left 4 Dead, these zombies are much more detailed, much more realistic and imaginable in a real situation. Heck, even some of them have a backstory. The ‘Ram’ zombie is probably one of the most threatening you’ll encounter. A towering beast, arms locked away in a straight jacket, and mouth clamped shut with a Hannibal-style mask, this former psychopath escaped during the apocalypse after being bitten himself. His only means of attacking, charging head-on into you. When you come across the ram, you have to think on your feet, he’ll waste no time pummelling you to the floor if you hesitate for even a second. A decent weapon choice, and nimble movements are a must. Ram, along with the other special zombies mix up the gameplay a little, and whilst not obscure at all, like L4D’s Charger, they do not take away from Dead Island’s realism at all.
Zombies however are not the only enemies you’ll encounter on your travels, as the game progresses, you begin to enter new area, including the derelict city which is populated by thugs. Like any survivors, these are all locked up safe in police stations, houses etc. so if you want to get inside, beware. These Punks add a new dimension to the battle, as you both fight zombies whilst also trying to fight each other. A great three-way battle. You can ever use zombies to your advantage, guiding the clueless undead into the thugs as you pop their heads. Always wielding guns, if you don’t have one yourself, it’s a tough fight, but you can always grab theirs once you’re done. I didn’t find a game until atleast 15 hours in, so it really goes to show how rare they are, and boy, you’ll treasure them.
At its core, Dead Island is an RPG, so as you can imagine, you’ll come across many many people looking for your help around the island, and the quest system doesn’t let you down. There’s a massive spectrum of quests to complete, most are found in safe houses, but some are even hidden, having to find people by interpreting their location from a radio broadcast they sent. They’ll take you into every corner of the island, you name it, you’ll go there: supermarkets, churches, sewers, beach houses, everywhere. The main questline is segmented off on the menu, so you won’t be left searching through a giant list of quests, and believe me, it’s giant. Completing only the essential quests will take you at least 20 hours, and there’s easily another 30 hours of side-quests on top of that, and you could probably add another 5 hours just for looting. You’ll be constantly occupied on the island.
Getting your first weapon in Dead Island is an experience in itself, getting to grasp with the combat system can seem at first a little challenging, but once you know the ropes, you won’t be able to imagine playing in any other way. It’s not the most perfect system, I’d describe it as ‘rusty’, which if a design decision, is damn brilliant. Dead Island is a pure survival game, and it really feels like you are the character, as weird as that may sound. Something I’ve never actually felt with a game before. An inexperienced hotel worker shouldn’t know how to wield a weapon, and playing Dead Island really feels like they can’t. Choppy movements and ‘pathetic’ weapon swings make the game’s realism even more convincing. Getting your hands on that perfect, legendary weapon is the key to success.
The weapon drop and usage system in Dead Island is somewhat ‘intimidating’ to the player, coming across a decent weapon is very rare, as you’ll see tossing countless broomsticks and wooden planks aside, you really have to be desperate to lower yourself to that level. Every once in a while, you’ll come across a metal chest, which often contain the best weapons you’re able to find, always of a higher rarity level. With such a broad spectrum of weapons, bladed, blunt, explosive etc. you’ll be constantly wanting to find an upgraded variation of your favourite weapon. These boxes unfortunately come few and fare between, but what would you expect in an island looted to its bones? There is another option to get that ‘Ungodly Meat Cleaver’ however. As you might expect, a select few people are using the apocalypse to their advantage, exploiting money out of any survivors that pass by. Stationary traders are a last resort when you can’t find anything to put to use, or if you see a crazy-good weapon you really like the look of. Their prices are extortionate, but again, realism shines through making the events that much more relatable.
Dead Island incorporates two very interesting mechanics into the game: weapon deterioration, and stamina. Both of which, at the right times, strike you with fear. As you fight, your weapon will begin to lose condition, becoming more and more ineffective. Dealing less damage, and moving a little slower. All depends on the weapon’s durability rating, for example, a military machete will fare better than a wooden paddle in battle. Another reason why finding that perfect weapon is key, hardly having to worry about being left with a defective weapon. As you explore, you’ll come across various work benches, for a cost, here you can repair, modify and upgrade your weapon, and even create new ones as long as you provide the blueprints and materials. Upgrading is essential, and brings previously garbage weapons up to a usable level, and makes good ones, even better. It’s a great system, and one that allows players to pick and choose what they like to use, plus, yet another addition to Dead Island’s epic realism.
Stamina affects you in every way possible. Jumping, running, slashing and pounding will all decrease your stamina bar, and once it’s out, you’re helpless. As in real life, beating the shit out of something with a heavy bat is rather taxing on your energy, and to emphasize how realistic Dead Island is, the stamina bar implements that tax. As the bar gradually decreases, you begin to even hear your character become out of breath, and you slow down, becoming lethargic. Once fully empty, you’re stuck for a few seconds as your character takes a breath or two to recuperate. Leaving you open to the zombie wrath. So the stamina system forces you to be tactical about your moves, you won’t find yourself unnecessarily swinging your weapon, or jumping all around, and you’ll be pretty angry if you miss that vital hit. A damn intriguing concept, and one that is pulled off exceptionally well.
One of Dead Island’s main focuses was its co-operative gameplay. Four players can explore the island in its entirety, without having to worry about one another. But sticking together comes in handy during a horde standoff. But, even playing with your friends and not separating doesn’t make you feel any more safe, fear runs through your veins at every second, and Sam B with his baseball bat ain’t gonna help that. The co-0p works perfectly smoothly, there’s even a trading system in place, so you can make some hard bargains with your friends. Any characters can be played with four people, four Purna’s if you’d so desire. A well structured team can help greatly, and having one of each specialist will make progression much faster. Co-op is a great experience, and whilst playing with your friends the terror and laughter are unending.
Dead Island is the most perfect, realistic, and goddamn astounding zombie game I have ever had the pleasure of playing. It creates the perfect blend of open-world RPG with deep survival horror, a combination I never thought could work. Its raw gameplay, and pure survival elements make for the closest experience to a zombie apocalypse you’ll ever get. Dead Island has set the bar for all future zombie games.
The age of humorous zombie slaughter is over; it’s time to get real.