The zombie trend has been inescapable, particularly in video games. Dead Island, from developer Techland, is the latest in a long line of survival horror games featuring zombies that only really shines during co-op gameplay rather than attacking the island infestation by yourself.
The story is as derivative as one would expect from a game featuring zombies. A zombie outbreak has infected everyone on the island resort of Banoi and the remaining survivors must fight off the undead to stay alive.
Dead Island features an open-world sandbox environment filled with hostile zombies, though the horde won't stop intrepid players from exploring every inch of the game's beautiful landscape. There's plenty to see throughout Banoi and exploration is heavily encouraged, as players can often find new items, side quests, and camps containing other survivors.
Dead Island's quests fail to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the open-world environment. There's hardly any variety in the large number of missions and the game often assigns dull delivery missions and fetch quests. Players are given ample opportunities to fight off hordes of zombies; however, the adrenaline rush of clearing out an infested area is quickly quashed when one of the survivors hands out another mission involving delivering a message to a remote destination on the island.
I played through hours of the game's single-player and it felt like a chore. Quests go by painfully slow and killing zombies is a long, arduous process. Upgraded weaponry speeds up the process later in the game, but killing many of the game's "special" zombies is a careful and long process when flying solo. Rushing special enemies like "Thugs" and the "Ram" head-on is suicide, so clearing out higher-tier zombies can take several minutes. The issue is not that the game is difficult so much as that it can get boring alone.
Upgrading weapons often involve increasing both its strength and its durability, as default weaponry normally wears out fast. Players can also use items like tape and belts to modify and combine weapons to create a deadlier object. Why hit a zombie with a machete when you can use a machete that also electrocutes its targets? Finding various ingredients to create unique combinations helps Dead Island feel more enjoyable, especially when players have friends with whom they can trade items.
Despite my boredom with the single-player aspect of the game, Dead Island's appeal shines through when playing co-op with friends. Up to four players can drop in and out in order to band together for a zombie slaying party. Dead Island feels like a richer experience with co-op, as friends can craft strategies, trade weapons, and fallen players can respawn instantly (albeit with a small cash penalty). The missions still feel monotonous, but I no longer had to take several minutes to carefully dissect each zombie.
During my time with the Xbox 360 version of the game, the online co-op experience was hampered by some technical glitches. When attacked by a large number of zombies, the game's performance took a big hit and slowed my party to a crawl. It happened several times throughout our playthroughs and it started to take away from the fun.
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One other aspect of the game that annoyed me was the level up system. Tying together the types of weapons a player can carry to their current level feels silly. Why do I have to be level three to carry a baseball bat, for example? Logically, I can carry and swing a baseball bat just fine. Why would I need to "level up" in order to equip common weaponry?
The other reason I bring this aspect of the game up is because it penalizes newer players looking to jump in with their friends. During my first co-op session, I joined in with friends that had already been playing Dead Island for several hours. They decided to help bring me up to speed by passing me some of their weapons that they were no longer using. Imagine my surprise when I tried to equip these weapons, only to find out I wasn’t allowed to use them until I leveled up. This was beyond irritating. The leveling up system in Dead Island is good for assigning attribute points to qualities such as stamina and money drops, but the level limitations of certain objects was an unnecessary annoyance.
As a solo experience, Dead Island feels mediocre. It's an average zombie slaying game that falls back on lazy ideas in the face of a great, open-world sandbox setting. With friends, the experience is richer. As long as no one minds the occasional technical issue and as long as veterans are willing to help their beginner buddies along, groups will find some fun on their trip to Dead Island.
[The Dead Island review is based on a retail Xbox 360 version of the game, provided by Square Enix.]