Co-op games run a fine line of balancing the game between the single and multi-player experience. You see whilst it’s great to be able to bash out a game with mates (as I often do) I can’t rely on all my friends being available when I want to play. Borderlands suffered somewhat because of this as their support for drop in/drop out co-op left a lot to be desired, leaving many to simply not play the game at all if they couldn’t get their original crew together. Dead Island, a game I picked up on G2Play to play with mates at a recent LAN, is a cross between borderlands style RPG play but in a setting much more like Left 4 Dead and it seems to have gotten this balance between play modes figured out.
You get a choice of 4 different heros: Xian Mei, Sam B, Logan Carter and Purna. The game starts out with you waking up to find the resort you’re staying in being overrun by zombies (from an unknown source) leaving you to fend for yourself. The game then centres around finding pockets of survivors on the island and helping them out, travelling between different locations on the island. Part way through a mysterious voice appears over the radio who starts helping you out in the hopes that you’ll be able to help him save his wife who’s become one of the infected.
Each of the 4 main characters represent a different character class, each with their own distinct set of advantages. I choose Purna, mostly to round out the team of 4 I initially played with, who’s a firearms expert. The character classes all have 3 talent trees that unlock new skills and perks as you level up and they’re each unique to the character in question. Depending on which skills you go for the way in which you play Dead Island can be wildly different to others, which gives the game quite a bit of replayability. I for instance didn’t put any skill points in the “Fury” tree but as a result I was devastating with melee weapons and I buffed my entire party with an aura, making some situations quite a lot easier.
The single/multiplayer balance in Dead Island is done absolutely brilliantly. I joined the game about 30 mins after my mates had started (since I was bashing out a couple StarCraft 2 games with another friend) and I was placed nearby so they could find me. I was worried about many quests showing up saying “This will not be recorded in your profile” but as it turns out side quests aren’t saved during co-op sessions, but main quest progress is. So upon jumping into single player I was greeted with a bevy of side quests to complete should I feel the need. Jumping back into multiplayer synced you up with the person who was the least progressed with the main plot, a godsend compared to Borderlands. Dead Island also takes out some of the more laborious aspects of questing, planting the objectives on the minimap so you don’t spend hours looking for that one last thing to complete that quest.
Dead Island also implements a system whereby you can join up with other people who are in a similar place in the game as you are. This will appear as a message on the right hand side of the monitor and after one key press you’ll be joined up with them. Whilst my experience with this was mixed (quite a few people simply left the game after I tried to join with them) it’s a really nice touch and can make some of the more challenging areas far more easy and enjoyable.
Not all of the quests are that well done however. The escort quests, of which one is pictured above, are extremely tedious as the NPCs don’t follow you. Instead they follow their own path (completely unknown to you) and will often throw themselves right into the middle of a horde of zombies, requiring you to fish them out. They also feel needlessly long at points, trapping you for a good 15 minutes or more in a game of follow the leader. Why this kind of quest was put in Dead Island escapes me as they feel quite out of place compared to the rest of the quests in the game.
Dead Island’s loot and inventory system is a mixed affair of getting some aspects completely right whilst others just utterly wrong. You have limited inventory slots (which can be upgraded, typical RPG affair) but crafting materials don’t take up any space in it. This is fantastic because there’s just so much crafting crap around the world that balancing an inventory around it would be nigh on impossible and ensures that when you find a vendor with that key ingredient you never find you can stock up on it for future use. Crafted items and upgrades are also very useful and, in the case of weapon mods, visibly change the weapon that they’re applied to.
Finding good items however is somewhat of a crap shoot. Early on in the game I read a tip that said “the best items are always in chests” or something to that effect. With that in mind I upgraded my lock picking still to the max so I could open up all those chests. Throughout my entire play through I found only 1 solitary non-white item (an orange level sickle) in the chests. All my other good weapons were either rewards from quests or bought from the vendors and there were maybe 5 or so blue level items that dropped from zombies. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’re better off not bothering hunting for loot and instead just using quest rewards or vendor items.
Combat in Dead Island is visceral, over the top and thoroughly enjoyable, once you get past the initial hump that is. You see that blue bar in the screenshot above? That’s the stamina bar and it limits how much you can run, jump and attack (except for guns, which have ammo). When that runs out you can’t do anything except for one thing: kick. The kick attack, which every character has, is an unlimited attack that interrupts all attacks and can’t be interrupted itself. For the first 40% of the game or so there’s really no reason not to use this attack and this attack only as you can knock down every zombie and then proceed to pummel them to death on the ground. Playing this at a LAN with all my mates in ear shot made this a rather fun experience, naming our band of heroes the Kick Squad. It was quite hilarious to see one zombie go down and then be repeatedly kicked to death by 4 people, but it made weapons in the game rather redundant for a while.
One thing that Dead Island doesn’t deliver in is the plot. Now the trailer for Dead Island was actually quite well done as it depicted a game that had both thrilling action and also a deep and meaningful plot. Honestly I was sold on buying the game after seeing that trailer, being able to play it with mates at a LAN was just the icing on the cake. However all the characters are completely unrelatable, either through being complete dicks or being horribly voice acted (my wife referred to Purna’s voice as sounding like it was done by someone in Play School). There’s also a few attempts to pull on the heart strings at various points through the use of cut scenes but honestly they don’t fit in with the environment at all. It’s made even worse by the ending, which taken into context makes little sense and is cheapened by a last ditch effort to make the ending feel bitter sweet.
Overall though Dead Island is a solid game that’s enjoyable both as co-op and as a single player experience. It’s not without it’s flaws however and whilst none of them are entirely game breaking they can be enough to make some of the time you spend in Dead Island rather tedious. Still the game looks like it could be a LAN favourite for a while to come as the 4 character classes and 3 skill trees per character gives enough variety to make sure that each play through is unique and enjoyable. If you liked Borderlands and need another fix of zombies in your life then Dead Island won’t disappoint you.
Dead Island is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $49.99, $89 and $89 respectively. Game was played on the PC with around 15 hours of total play time (8 of those being co-op) and reaching level 38.