Board shorts, washboard abs, men up all night and hungry for flesh and an island paradise are what make Dead Island a riveting play (you thought I was talking about a West Hollywood pool party, didn’t you?). Banoi has white sand beaches, four-star accommodations and a zombie infection. You are one of the few somehow immune to the whole mess, so, of course, survivors look to you to do shit for them. Finishing your vacation alive is probably a good idea, too.
The island is beautiful and a blast to explore, especially in the early levels, where not everything is trying to eat you. Beaches, jungle, strange bunkers, and life that just stopped in the middle of everything. The whole place is filled with atmosphere, whether it’s the abandoned houses in the slums, the tiki bars or posh bungalows. What the place was, just 12 hours ago, is evident and now juxtaposed with the horror that has exploded in its midst.
Dead Island manages to capture tragedy in its environments by allowing them to be what they are, beautiful, vivid, bright, welcoming and letting the zombies bring the scare instead of relying on skulls, creepy statues and darkness. The day is sunny and perfect, and the beach is filled with lovers in bathing suits who, a few hours ago, were people. It’s all so beautifully terrible.
While exploring, you will come across survivors dealing with seeing their friends and family eaten in front of them or trying to kill them, and these survivors are not going to ask you to find their hat; many will not even acknowledge you, as they are lost in their grief and fear. The art direction is fantastic, giving you amazing vistas and a variety of zombies with different body types and in various states of decomposition.
The story is about survival and how people deal with the end of their vacation and their world. It’s about the husband who wants you to tell his wife that he is dead, while he gets wasted with girls in bikinis; the woman obsessing over water and never getting enough; the crazy merchant charging you a bunch for weapons that can save him and everyone else who thinks aliens must have caused this. It’s a tapestry of survival. You’re not trying to find out what happened or somehow make it all better, you are trying to get your ass out of there and maybe help others do the same. The characters you play have great backstories, and all of them are independent and headstrong, but dead inside. The outbreak, exploration and battles somehow fit them well, and seem a liberation. Society has left them behind, and the story of redemption is the compelling one here. Unfortunately, their cut scenes are bland, and actually much less interesting than the story I was making for them, and it often made me dislike the character I was playing.
Online multiplayer is possible, but to date, there have been some serious bugs with saving and connecting on different platforms, although they say a patch is coming soon. When you are playing, you will be alerted if another player is nearby, and you can choose to join their game. The characters are varied enough and work well together. There is a role-playing aspect where you can upgrade and choose skills, and the system is varied, deep and fun to move through.
Later levels seem to require you to have other players with you, as the zombies come fast and furious, and there is less room to maneuver. It is easy to quickly be surrounded by the undead, as some make little to no sound, which adds to the creep and frustration factors. I found myself wishing for the ability to sneak, hide, block or in some way bypass large groups, but instead I got swarmed or had to pull some Sun Tzu strategy out of my ass (where I keep it and my keys). Weapons degrade and come in large varieties which can be upgraded or modified, but packs of zombies can really wear down your electrified machete and flaming baseball bat, and soon you’re left exhausted and defending yourself with a tin can and a stick.
Dead Island is a great horror/survival game. It’s damn long, fun to play, a pleasure to look at and chock full of atmosphere. It has its problems, but zombie relationships are going to take a little bit of work and you knew that going in. C’mon, you’re an adult.
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Frag Dean is a podcaster on Silly Frags, available on iTunes, Sticher and sillyfrags.com.