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Dead Island (Xbox 360) Review

A tropical paradise overrun with zombies gave us one of the most memorable trailers in gaming history. Does the full title measure up to it’s undead greatness, or is it just a shriveled bog man.

Dead Island is one of the prettiest games on the Xbox today. The title has a beautiful range of color and the island itself is very easy on the eyes. In fact, that’s one of the most unsettling things about the game in general,  since this Eden is contrasted sharply by the undead that call it home.

Seems quiet...

The outbreak of a zombie plague has seen the pale, rotting, partially eviscerated, corpses of the unlucky infected rise up from their temporary resting places to stalk the still  living as ‘walkers’. The amount of detail work that went into the zombies is something to see. Torn open mid-sections and gaping wounds abound. And even when the skins repeat (and boy do they) it always feels like there’s something a little different about them.

I personally didn’t care for the look that the zombies had in the Left 4 Dead games. I thought they were too washed out and, other than the special variants, not nearly interesting enough to want to spend any large amount of time battling. Dead Island is another story, at least in terms of visuals- but the way they act is quite familiar. These guys and gals pursue you with a singular mindset and either do the zombie  two-step shuffle or quickly charge at you (and by the way, lopping the head off of a charging deadite is very satisfying) There are also special infected a la L4D. It’s modern zombie stuff, plain and simple, but it still works.

As you make your way across the island you’ll come upon some scripted segments, survivors, scenes of zombie feasts and some genuinely cool (and creepy) settings. For the most part, DI really does a solid job in the looks department. But it’s not completely without it’s problems- In particular, I found the texture pop when loading up saved games really quite noticeable. There should never be a time where you can effectively complete a (albeit minor) task while the game loads in texture, and there was. It doesn’t break the experience, but it’s there.

And speaking of  ‘but it’s there’- as control goes, the layout comes in two flavors. There’s a standard ‘trigger’ scheme that works pretty much how you’d expect it to for a first person action title, and then there’s an analog system that gives you much more control over the weaponry you’re swinging around. It’s nothing groundbreaking, and I personally had no problem with using the triggers (I found the idea of analog irritating), but I’ve heard from others that using the sticks to fight is the bees knees once you get used to it- so the choice is yours.

Since we’re on the subject of weaponry- it’s almost a character unto itself. The tools of dismemberment that you wield are as varied as what you’d find in real life- if real life had zombies and lots of hammers. Oars, knives… hammers… and more are extremely common and must be consistently maintained if you want to get any kind of lengthy use out of them. Fortunately, there are a number of workbenches around the island where you can not only repair, but also improve and even customize your instruments of re-death. If you’ve played either of the  Dead Rising titles, you already know how combining weapons with random items works and how much fun it can be- back in Willamette, I was always partial to the spiked bat.

Uh guys, I think he got out again.

There are firearms on the island too, but they’re few and far between and not all that great to be honest. I suppose that actually makes some kind of sense since half the playable characters aren’t really familiar with pulling triggers.

Which brings me to the one thing that I didn’t care for in Dead Island- the characters. There’s a washed up sports star, a washed up rapper, a washed up cop, and an undercover agent of the Chinese government who feels disrespected by her superiors. See what I mean? Adding to the generic feel of the base character types that you get to pick from, the writing is often not the best and the deliveries are of a hit and miss affair.

It's a trick... get an axe.

Each survivor (all four are immune to zombification by the way) has a unique skill set like edged weapon mastery or pipoint throwing ability, but it’s not enough at the outset to make a noticeable difference during play. Since this is (at least partially) a role playing game, there is a fair bit of leveling up that you can do with the quartet’s abilities, which is cool. And it’s here that you truly start to see some of the differences between them. But what I would have liked to have seen was some more blatant advantages/disadvantages. Something even as extreme as not having the ability to wield a gun at all, or to not know how to improve bladed weapons at the workbench would have made the game play out very differently depending on who your avatar is.

Once you get into the game though (really get into it, because the first act is kind of ‘meh’)  you’ll forget all about the cookie-cutter characters and iffy dialog and everything else. And that’s because throughout the entirety of the game, it’s the action and exploration that takes center stage.

I’ve already gone through the smashy-smashy part so I’ll just mention that there are a lot of side-quests on this big, bad, island. I skipped a good chunk of them during my playthrough (something I’m correcting at the moment) but they do offer quite a bit of extra challenge and extend the life of an already lengthy experience even further.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to like about Dead Island. The graphics and overall sound design (the zombies are especially well voiced/moaned) are great and the control certainly ain’t broke either. With a few tweaks here and there and maybe a tad more prep time, Dead Island could have been something truly special. As it is, it just has to settle for being a fun, scarey, action packed, and at times flawed, zombie romp.

So kick back, raise a drink, and aim for the head- because I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more post-life vacationing in the future.

About Jason

Jason's been knee deep in videogames since he was but a lad. Cutting his teeth on the pixely glory that was the Atari 2600, he's been hack'n'slashing and shoot'em'uping ever since. Mainly an FPS and action guy, Jason enjoys the occasional well crafted title from every genre.

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