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Dead Island review: In need of brains

Justin McElroy

Dead Island is probably the most realistic depiction of the inevitable and oncoming zombie apocalypse in video game history. It's typified by desperation, sacrifice, frustration, terror and an overbearing sense of hopelessness.

But there's a catch. Though the zombie apocalypse may occasionally be grimly satisfying or fleetingly triumphant when you survive another night, there's one thing it almost certainly won't be.


Gallery: Dead Island (8/1/11) | 8 Photos

You're one of four survivors on the island of Banoi, already under siege by the undead when the action starts. (Bizarrely, the other three characters you don't select will always appear by your side during cinematics, though never in the actual game). The four survivors find themselves immune to necrotizing zombieitis (or whatever it's called) and do the only responsible thing: set out across the island looking for (1) a way out and (2) people to help.

Helping people in Dead Island is pretty much always a mission to kill your way to a certain item or person, retrieve it, then kill your way back. So since I just spent a good 20 hours or so killing an infinite number zombies (statistically speaking), allow me to share my expertise.

At first you'll have only a paddle to defend yourself, but as zombies get bigger, faster, angrier and explodier, you'll scavenge everything from machetes and knives to hat stands and sledgehammers. You can spend cash to upgrade your weapons as well as modify them with odd components you pick up around the island like batteries and tubing to give them the potential to paralyze zombies, set them on fire, etc.

You'll find and make a lot of great weapons in Dead Island, but none of them will make you feel particularly safe. For starters, every weapon degrades really quickly and the cost of repairing the really good weapons is extremely prohibitive. So the joy of chop-shocking a zombie with your electro-katana is tempered by the knowledge of how much you'll have to pay to fix it.

The game encourages you to throw weapons, but doing so risks accidentally tossing your prize into an area you can't retrieve it or under a pile of bodies where it's similarly inaccessible. Plus, when you're on the run from too many zombies to handle, throwing a weapon is basically saying goodbye to it forever. Another whole system that should be fun, but isn't.

While throwing weapons is cool yet too expensive, the melee combat that will be your stock-in-trade is just annoying. Encounters with single zombies are pleasant enough for a while, especially when you're lopping off limbs and heads. But the far, far more common scenario is getting attacked by several zombies at once and dying -- a lot. No matter what number you're facing, the strategy is always the same: Hammer on the right trigger. Just keep swinging, for hours. There's a "kick", but it only works on one enemy at a time and frequently misses, so it's not a reasonable way to buy yourself some space. The melee system is desperately in need of some depth or flow. A block button, for instance, would have gone a long way.

Hoping that firearms will spice up the monotony? Don't. Zombies never have guns, so you won't even see one until a few hours in when you start to occasionally battle clumps of unzombified people. Since zombies never have ammo (and gun-toting humans will slaughter you if you use anything but) an opportunity to apply firearms to zombies is exceedingly rare.

No, you'll almost always use disintegrating melee weapons and the only way to stay ahead of the curve of weapon loss and degradation is by being thorough with your looting. Entering pretty much any room in the game presents you with 10 to 15 areas to search, usually yielding a bit of wire, deodorant (or some other random trinket) or a couple of bucks. When you do find a weapon -- since your inventory will almost always be full -- you'll have to meticulously compare it to every other weapon in your possession. When entering any room is marked by rifling through seven trash cans and comparing the durability stats between two hammers, pacing is ... a problem. Oh, and did I mention the searchables replenish themselves, so you get to frequently repeat this banal dance? Whee!

At least you'll be scrounging through trash cans in some really gorgeous environments. Techland's proprietary Chrome Engine 5 is putting out some stunning stuff, particularly in the jungles which are so lush and detailed you may find yourself instinctively reaching for the DEET.

I only wish that level of care had been applied to polishing the rest of the game. Little signs of neglect -- less substantial than the balance issues with the weapons, but no less irritating -- pop up all over.

Your occasional AI partners are beyond stupid, thinking nothing of walking into a Molotov cocktail fire, for example. At least twice I had to restart because an AI guide had lost his pathing and couldn't complete the mission. In another instance, my partner wanted us to run from the zombies, only she wasn't running fast enough to outpace them, so we just kept getting eaten.

The online system has its own problems. On the one hand, it's a lot more fun to play along with a friend (or three) by your side. No argument there. But if you want to play solo (as most will) know that the game defaults to co-op without warning when you start, a fact you'll be made aware of when a stranger joins your game. If you want to keep flying alone, you'll need to quit all the way out to the main menu to turn on solo and even then you'll get constant prompts telling you there's some stranger playing the same part of the game as you and their game is just a button press away. Nothing says "immersive" like being constantly updated on the progress of "PeterGryffin420x."

These are issues that should be blatantly apparent to any halfway decent tester, so I have to wonder if the game was rushed to shelves to take advantage of the heat generated by February's well-received teaser trailer.

There's so much content in Dead Island, it's a real shame the work wasn't done to take it from functional to fun. Some of it works: There's a beautiful world to explore here, some genuinely neat ideas and cool weapons. But the end product too closely mirrors its antagonists: Shambling forward, but only just.

This review is based on 360 code of Dead Island provided by Deep Silver. A day-one patch of the game is being released but does not, to our knowledge, address any of the specific issues cited in this review.

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