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Review: Dead Island

There are no raccoons on this island.

Dead Island is not your typical zombie game. That said, it’s not anything like the CG trailer either. In fact, Dead Island barely even touches on the emotional side of a zombie outbreak. Instead, it’s the gameplay that’s at the forefront, which provides a mixture of elements from Dead Rising, Fallout 3, Borderlands, and Left 4 Dead. As awesome as that sounds, the execution is far from perfect. This is an example of a game that’s just far too ambitious for its own good.

There are four characters to choose from in Dead Island; Xian Mei, Sam B, Logan, and Purna. Each character has their own unique skills and basic storyline. Xian Mei, who sounds exactly like Mei Ling from Metal Gear Solid, is an undercover cop that is good with blades. Sam B is a stereotypical rapper that specializes in using blunt force. Logan is an egotistical former pro-football player with a knack for throwing things. And Purna is a former police officer turned bodyguard that prefers to shoot her victims first and ask questions later. As far as the storyline is concerned, it doesn’t matter which character you use.

Once you’ve picked your character you’re thrown straight into the action. You don’t even get to see the resort before it’s turned into a living nightmare. The lack of any buildup to the outbreak is simply disappointing; it all just happens over the course of a drunken night and you’re expected to believe it.

Stomping zombies is so much fun.
The atmosphere is what saves this game from mediocrity. Right from the start there’s always a feeling of dread. This is a game that has you constantly looking over your shoulder. By the time you turn around, you most likely have a zombie gnawing at your face. Even after 20+ hours of gameplay I still found myself getting startled by crazy zombie ladies.

Melee combat is the main way to dismember the undead. You can use pretty much anything as a weapon, from kitchen knives and paddles to kitanas and frying pans. Some weapons work better than others so there is some strategy involved. Weapons also wear down after each hit, but it’s possible to repair and upgrade weapons. When all else fails, a well placed kick to the chest and a stomp of the head is all you need.

Modifying weapons is a game in itself. You can create nearly anything you want, from flaming bats to electrified axes. I modded a sledgehammer into a magical wand and it can send enemies flying across the screen after a single blow. Finding the parts necessary to create these weapons is a bit more difficult than it should be, but that just makes it all the more rewarding.

The leveling system is as straightforward as it gets. Your character gains experience points for nearly everything you do in the game. You are then given skill points that can be used to unlock new abilities. There are three different skill trees for each character – one for fury, combat, and survival.

The fury tree enables your character to enter rage mode which can destroy enemies in seconds with devastating attacks. The combat tree allows you to enhance the properties of your character’s main weapon and gives them new techniques along the way. The survival tree lets you improve things like the rate of stamina regeneration, weapon durability, and the amount of experience points you gain. It’s instantly gratifying when you level up since you’re always getting something useful.

The mission structure follows a very simple formula. Since your character is immune to the zombie virus for some odd reason, it’s up to you to do everything. The main quests range from taking out groups of zombies to actually doing something that helps you escape the island. Sure, it’s all just one giant fetch quest, but it’s still a lot of fun. The entire island is at your disposal and you’ll find yourself exploring far more than just a resort. You’ll be surprised at just how stunning some of these environments are.

What’s great about Dead Island is the overall experience it provides. The combat never gets boring because the zombies always pose a challenge. There’s something about frantically running through a destroyed city that will always send chills down your spine. It’s powerful imagery, especially when you have a crazy zombie lady breathing down your neck the entire time. At one point, you have to deal with looters and other criminals taking over sections of the island. It’s a nice change of pace that illustrates just how horrible humans can be, even in a time of need.

Playing co-op is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s clearly the way the game is meant to be played. On the other, it changes Dead Island from being a game about survival to one that emphasizes pointless combat. Some of the encountered enemies are nearly impossible to escape, so it’s not like you have a choice. Still, it’s a blast playing with friends since there is so much to do and explore. Just driving around the island trying to find rare loot is entertaining enough.

Anyone can drop in and out of your game as long as you’re connected to a network. What’s neat is that you can warp to another player’s game at the touch of a button if they’re nearby. You can also manually search for lobbies and find games that way. There are some limitations to which games you can join but it all makes sense. You won’t find yourself in the middle of Chapter 14 if you are only on Chapter 3.

For a game that’s so reliant on co-op, it’s amazing how little power you have over a session. Sometimes players will randomly go idle and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s a problem that’s usually solved by kicking them out, but no such option exists. I have had to exit out of numerous games because some people refused to cooperate. What’s worse is that another player can skip through the dialogue during missions, which really dampens the experience. It would have been nice if all players had to agree before skipping scenes, but again, that’s not an option for some reason.

After completing Dead Island, you have the option of starting a new game plus. This lets you keep everything you earned from your previous playthrough. Zombies will be tougher and some of the loot will be better, but the actual quests remain the same. You can also jump to any chapter whenever you want. The only downside is that your progress reverts back to whatever it was during that point in the game.

One of the biggest problems with Dead Island is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. At times, it feels like an evolution of the survival horror genre. Managing your resources properly is an important aspect of the game. Then all of that is thrown away with arcadey popup notifications that completely ruin the serious tone. There’s no real consequence for dying either, so it’s not like you have anything to worry about. You’ll just respawn a few seconds later with less money and that’s it.

The story is just as inconsistent. We all know a zombie outbreak is bound to happen one day and Dead Island shows us exactly how it will go down. It’s frighteningly realistic when you think about it, but it’s poorly executed at best.

The idea of someone handing you a picture of their loved one so that you can put them out of their misery has some serious emotion to it. In terms of gameplay, it’s just another mission where you chop off a zombie’s head and hope to score some nice loot. It makes no difference why you’re killing zombies, you’re just doing it because there’s no other alternative.

It doesn’t help that some of the cutscenes near the end of the game were clearly just thrown together at the last minute. There was one scene in particular with tons of visual anomalies. It’s pretty bad when all you see are flashing blue lights in the background. Even the gameplay takes a turn for the worse when it randomly decides to be a full blown first person shooter. This essentially made 90% of my equipment useless.

I hope that's not Chris' blood!
Unfortunately, the game is also a buggy mess. The most common glitches encountered weren’t that bad, but a few were a bit more serious. I lost several hours of progress on three separate occasions. There’s supposed to be an auto-save function but it sometimes just fails to work properly. Other glitches were solved by simply restarting the game. The latest patch, although it fixes several issues, completely reset all of my challenge data. While it’s not that difficult to run over 50 zombies with a car again, it’s still frustrating that such a bug even exists.

The glitches wouldn’t even be that big of a deal if it wasn’t for the performance issues. The PS3 version has some serious frame rate drops no matter what you do. Sometimes the entire game pauses for a few seconds just to keep up with the action. I have actually died on numerous occasions because of this, which is just unacceptable. Other issues include the sound magically disappearing and sometimes the game just crashes. It doesn’t make sense how any of these issues made it past QA.


  • There is so much to explore.
  • Great atmosphere with beautiful environments.
  • So many weapons to find, customize, and upgrade.
  • The RPG elements add a layer of depth not found in other zombie games.
  • Killing the undead never gets old, especially with a group of friends.
  • Tons of replay value (sidequests, new game plus, etc)


  • Frustrating glitches.
  • Performance issues on PS3.
  • The story is halfhearted and clearly cut short due to time constraints.
  • There is no real punishment for dying.

Dead Island is what you make of it. Sure, it might not be the game we were originally promised, but it’s still a lot of fun. The sheer scale of the island alone is an impressive accomplishment. There’s so much to explore, so many secrets to discover, and even more zombies to decapitate. There is no doubt that Dead Island is a good game once you look past all the glitches. It’s just a shame that Techland didn’t have more time to polish things up before its release.

Score: 7/10

  1. TSBonyman
    Since: Dec 2009

    I’ve gone from being hugely interested in this to no interest.

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 11:08.
    • TSBonyman
      Since: Dec 2009

      Well, maybe i’ll keep an eye on how the patching progresses.. but i’m out for the time being.

      Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 20:05.
  2. Foxhound_Solid
    Is a smart cookie.
    Since: Dec 2009

    Good review. May pick up one day during a game drought. Till then I’ll pass….

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 11:18.
  3. DrNate86
    Since: Apr 2010

    I’m enjoying it, but I do have the feeling it could have been a bit more than what it is. Hopefully we will see a more carefully constructed sequel.

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 11:27.
  4. DirtyHabit
    Since: Forever

    Still interested in this, mostly because amongst all the complaints, the word ‘fun’keeps popping up.

    Anyone playing the 360 version? Was thinking about getting it on there as it tends to fair slightly better on games with ‘issues’

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 11:42.
    • OneShotWook
      Since: Jun 2010

      I’m on the 360 version here and admit to not having near the tech issues i was expecting after reading the reviews,some dodgy backgrounds in the cutscenes,i’ve not experienced any save issues and i’ve been playing non stop since Friday.
      The only real problem is the hit and miss coop connection if you want to join random drop in sessions but i’m told theres a patch this Thursday and it’s not an issue if your mates are playing,plus theres a work around by accessing the hosts gamer profile.

      Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 19:36.
  5. gazzagb
    Master of speling mitakse
    Since: Feb 2009

    Nice review, I’m loving it, its so much fun playing co-op. The game maybe lacking polish, and there are a few annoying bugs, but the island, the atmosphere and the fun all make up for it.

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 12:13.
  6. skibadee
    Since: Oct 2009

    this is the first game in ages that I find hard to stop playing very addictive.

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 14:36.
  7. Severn2j
    Since: Aug 2008

    I bought the PC version of this and am loving it and doesn’t seem to have the issues advertised for me, so I guess I’ve been lucky in that respect. Although, this is supposed to be played co-op, I’m playing through it single player at first, because (as with Borderlands), I tend to play at a slower pace than most gamers, so having people race through to the next checkpoint can be annoying, so I’ll finish this my way first, then join others games later to help them out..

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 15:09.
  8. Burgess_101
    Since: May 2009

    i love this game ! my brother and i play it and its the most fun we have had on co-op since we started play minecraft a while back . I can look past the rough presentation for the fun RPG that it is .

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 16:21.
  9. RudeAwakening
    Since: Jan 2011

    Great review. The lack of story doesn’t really bother me, sure borderlands had even less of a story!

    Though the cgi trailer led me to believe it was going to be an emotional rollercoaster ride through the resort from hell.

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 20:37.
  10. a inferior race
    I'm special
    Since: Jul 2009

    I’m going to have avoid this as the bugs sound just too frustrating for me to live with. If it weren’t for the issues II probably would of bought this.

    Comment posted on 12/09/2011 at 21:51.