The lights are on
Yeah, I know, the game's been out for a long time. Some of us are broke, it takes time to work up the courage to finally drop your entire savings account into buying a game (that's an exaggeration, of course, Dead Island was $40 at the time which is thankfully only 80% of my savings). Long story short I bought it and all was good in the world.
The first thing I noticed about the game after starting up my first run was that it was the first time, since I wasn't gaming back in the Resident Evil days, that zombies felt like a threat. Now I may be spoiled on the Left 4 Deads and newer survival horror, but the first enemies you encounter (the spry and quite irritated Infected) instantly make their point- run. You can't mow down hordes like a John Deere over a half-dry lawn, the world is brutal, unforgiving, and it just doesn't care about your feelings. It likes to keep its relationships strictly professional. As I ran down a dark hotel corridor with three disgruntled guests trailing behind, demanding a refund from my blood bank, I agreed with the game completely and sat back in my desk, dismissing my earlier thoughts of fraternizing and shenanigans.
Mechanically, the game is as simple is slicing and bashing zombies can get while still being engaging. Aim whatever big stick that happens to occupy your inventory at the head, and the head will eventually be in pieces or rolling on the floor. Aim it at an arm, it'll break or drop off, as will the legs. Dismemberment even becomes a tactical option with certain enemies. One particular type has a tendency to swing its hefty appendages and knock you back a few feet. The key operator being appendages, and having none of those makes for an easily won battle of big stick versus head. The combat overall feels satisfying and intense. Each swing is deliberate, having to balance the timing between dodging and attacking, your stamina meter, keeping other enemies at bay with the wonderfully versatile kick, and the swings themselves. Firearms are useful in tight situations, but the RPG mechanics make a headshot from a rifle as effective as whacking them with a frying pan.
The story is standard zombie fare- you and your action survivor buddies are immune, you're looking to get off the island, and you help lots of people and break down lots of doors along the way. There are no considerable twists, or really any memorable moments other than the finale, but surprisingly high-quality voice acting and decent writing keep most characters interesting, helping the player get past their usually flat personalities. I actually have some praise I wasn't expecting to give, as the plot manages to stay away from zombie movie clichés. It all wraps up predictably but without disappointing, still definitely showing that Deep Silver's focus was more on the world than the story.
The most you get out of the game is from questing, of which there is enough to satisfy anyone coming off Borderlands or Far Cry 2 or really any open world. Characters are looking for their siblings, for medical supplies, maybe some booze (although in certain cases I'd include that under medical supplies, and I don't mean rubbing alcohol). You come across tragedies like walking over cracks in the sidewalk, and each one gives you something new to do. I left the first area of the game with maybe a dozen active quests, and I hadn't even meant to talk to any side characters. That said, the side characters and the aforementioned tragedies are quite well done. I found myself getting all misty-eyed after stumbling on a young man crying over his dead brother, with the exceptional acting and crushing atmosphere buttering me up much harder than I expected. The actual quests are mostly straight-forward fetching and escorting, and while it feels slightly tedious, any excuse to hack up more zombies and get bigger sticks is good in my book.
Of course, the game has its flaws. The long development time shows behind the seams, feeling unpolished but never broken, and not once that I can remember becoming more than a minor issue. I could nitpick about the unreliable steering and hit detection, occasionally restrictive linearity (relatively, of course), a terrible final boss, and some annoying insta-deaths, but nothing brings down the rugged and endlessly entertaining core of the game- killing lots of things with successively bigger sticks. I definitely enjoyed killing things, and I plan to spend many more hours finding even bigger sticks and killing even more things in co-op. To put it simply, Dead Island is $40 well spent if you can get past a somewhat crude exterior. Deep Silver has brought us most of the zombie simulation we've all been wanting, and with a bigger budget and this game under their belts, a (completely hypothetical) sequel could bring an Elder Scrolls or Zelda-level experience that I guarantee would become a classic. Trust me. I'm a doctor.
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