My first impression of Techland’s Dead Island was that it must be one of those plucky independent games that shows up on Steam or other digital download services from time to time. (My second impression went something like, “Oh, great, another zombie game! I was almost out of sleeping pills.”) Simplistic premise, silly title, basic, non-evocative advertisements—surely these are all the makings of a game banged out in a garage by a couple of part-time developers looking for moderate indie recognition, right?
Apparently, I was wrong on both counts. Techland may be a relatively small-time developer (the Call of Juarez series being their closest equivalent to a big deal), but Dead Island is a huge game that comes out swinging and rarely lets up, proving that the zombie genre is not quite dead, and in fact still has a lot to offer when in the hands of a competent developer.
On paper, Dead Island looks like a quick cash-in, at best a ripoff of seemingly random elements of other, similar games. Set on a fictional resort island somewhere off the coast of Australia during the lead-in to a localized ghoul incursion, Dead Island on the surface is an open-world cooperative first-person brawler with a heavy emphasis on mission-based plot mechanics and strategic enemy swarm management (read: running away a lot).
But when you get nice and elbow-deep into its entrails, Dead Island ends up being what would happen if Dead Rising 2 came upon the giant corpse of Borderlands in the middle of a field somewhere and figured out a way to scoop out its brains, hop inside its head, and rampage across the countryside like it was piloting a giant meat mech. Freed of the inane fetters that plague its immediate spiritual predecessors, Dead Island is fast and frenetic, playing like a game in which you’re fighting for your life instead of one in which you’re already dead and just don’t know it yet.
Keep in mind, though, that zombies—even the most engaging of them—are a relatively monotonous opposing force. There are really only so many things one can do with the zombie to differentiate the members of one’s horde. Speed them up a bit, beef up a couple of them, skin their arms up to the elbow and hone their forearm bones to razor sharpness, but in the end, the entertainment value of the protagonist’s journey will inevitably be fixed upon the application of blunt trauma to the heads of several hundred corpses.
Dead Island addresses this, again, by going back to the Borderlands-plus-Dead Rising formula. By collecting spare parts and schematics littered about the game world, Dead Island-ers are able to turn their normal, mundane improvised zombie-killing weapons into normal, mundane improvised zombie-killing weapons studded with nails, or inset with extra blades, or attached to a makeshift taser.
This adds another layer of novelty and helps offset Dead Island’s other misstep: the lack of permanence of its weaponry. Just like Dead Rising before it, Dead Island “features” a system by which weapons degrade through use, as though a seaside resort done up like Beach Blanket Bingo of the Dead somehow needed more of a sense of impending doom. Certain character skills can partially offset this, but if you want to survive, you’re going to end up spending a lot of time and money at your local magical weapon-healing workbench.
The system is a fine addition in theory and makes sense if you’re going for that early Resident Evil feel where bullets were treated like firstborn children, but in practice it occasionally approaches absurdity. For every weapon flimsy enough to warrant careful attention, two or three find their way into the arsenal that have no business being so shoddily made. I’m not an expert on the density difference between the human cranium and an aluminum baseball bat (at least, not in any way that I’d admit in court), but I’m pretty sure that bats are designed to withstand more than 20 consecutive cracked skulls before requiring a few hundred dollars’ worth of repairs.
But this detracts little from the final product, and perhaps even adds to it, considering that surreal frustration falls right behind abject terror as names of the game in the zombie world. I can hardly believe I’m doing it, but I have to wholeheartedly recommend Dead Island, a game that somehow transcends a genre I wrote off completely.