Dead Island: The Kotaku ReviewS

This is the part where I'd try to artfully describe how I meticulously took apart a zombie with an electrified fire axe on a pristine beach, sky-blue waters lapping at my knees.

I even took notes.

I'd probably explain that on my second play-through of Dead Island I switched from the Xbox 360 button-pushing attacks to the game's analog fighting. This more precise form of control requires you to plant your character with a trigger pull, set up a swing with the thumbstick and then follow through with smooth movements.

I'd explain how my first swing neatly cleaved off the zombie's right arm, but that it still sucker-punched me with the other fist. How I moved toward the zombie, blood now jetting from the stump a few inches under its right shoulder, and kicked it in the chest, knocking it slightly off balance. And then I swung again, cutting into its chest, exposing bone. A third swing took off the other arm. Kicks knocked it to the ground and a short hop-and-stomp crushed its head like an over-ripe melon.

That's how I was going to start my Dead Island review, but I realized it doesn't describe a unique moment in the game, it describes nearly every moment in the game. When you're not in one of the half-dozen or so safety zones on the island of Banoi, you're dismantling zombies, carefully, tactically, often awash in copious amounts of blood.

I didn't play Dead Island as much as I survived it. That's not a dig. I love this game. It's got its teeth sunk deep into me and won't let go. In fact, in the middle of preparing to write this review ( a process that involves wasting lots of time not writing a review) I decided I better go play some more just to make sure I hadn't missed anything.

Dead Island: The Kotaku Review

Which is absurd.

Of course I missed things. Dead Island is an unbelievably large playground of hunting zombies, zombies hunting you, scavenging, making weapons, finding survivors, unraveling not just one plot but many stories and exploring a resort, a jungle, a sizable city and elsewhere.

I beat the game in about 17 hours. Then I went back and played another three hours. I've completed more than 60 quests. But I've still missed more than I've seen.

For instance, in the game you can find, upgrade and make your own weapons. I've made a few, but I have plans for dozens of weapons I've never made. And there are quests where you are awarded many more. One quest, for instance, gave me Gabriel's Hammer. Another time, while marauding through the zombies in a cemetery, I discovered a knife called Assassin's Greed. I suspect there are many more amazing weapons to find and make.

And then there are the characters. There are four characters you can play as in Dead Island, each have special skills. Sam is about the blunt weapons. Mei is an expert in sharps. Purna specializes in guns and Logan, who I played most, is a throwing expert. Each has a unique branch of the game's skill tree that allows them to unlock very specialized skills and bonuses.

Even if I had played all four characters, I only played with two so far, I wouldn't have seen everything. The skill tree is big enough to require at least two play-throughs, I suspect, to completely unlock. I haven't for instance, unlocked the ability to pick locks, which means there are a slew of containers I never opened.

And the stories. I figured out the main story because I played through the game. But I still don't know what happened to that commercial airliner. Or that diabetic brother. Or that trapped husband. I'm genuinely interested in finding the rest of the lost recordings made by the journalist.

So I keep playing. But still just alone. Dead Island has cooperative play. At anytime, just about, the game can sense that another online player is nearby and ask you if you want to join up. I rarely did this. Why? Because, in a complete change for me, I wanted to go this game alone.

Dead Island is a survivor's story and I wanted to feel like I survived the game without any help. Playing through the second time, I still feel that way. I still want to figure out all of those mysteries, help all of those people. Maybe on my third play-through I'll be more inviting.

This cooperative play does bring up one of the things that really bugs me about Dead Island. It is a narrative that stars a cast of four. But if you play the game alone, you never see those other three members. Not until you get to a cut-scene and suddenly they're talking like they've been there right by your side all along. It's a disconnect so severe that I began to hope that the game was going to deliver the game's lead up as a schizophrenic by the end. Alas it didn't.

Dead Island By The Numbers
Time played: 20 hours, 10 minutes, 38 seconds.
Quests completed: 71
Challenges: 20 percent
Achievements: 39 percent
Explored Zones: 88 percent
Walkers Killed: 940
Infected Killed: 272
Humans Killed: 127
Deaths: 317

But I still liked the story, I especially liked its unique take on how the zombie infestation began and spread. The ending, the very ending, was a bit much, but not so off-putting to nudge me into dissatisfaction.

There are other problems, problems developer Techland is working to fix, we're told. The game sometimes can't keep up with everything going on in a moment and suddenly zombies will look like they've been sanded down into smooth, moving sculptures.

I ran into one bug near the tail end of the game that permanently stripped me off all of the weapons I had collected, modded and upgraded and dropped me in a mess of high-level zombies with a person to protect.

Fortunately, that's also when I discovered another bug that allowed me to quickly dupe items. I used it on the single low-level item I found in the area: A machete. After perhaps a hundred deaths, I managed to squeak through the level. It was infuriating, but not enough to make me stop playing, or loving the game.

Played with simple button mashing or the more precise analog controls, fighting in Dead Island is the game's biggest strength.

What really sells the combat is that you can target specific parts of a zombie and the game knows how to deal with that. If you take a zombie's leg or legs off, it will fall down, but then crawl after you. If you cut off both of its arms, it will run into you. If you light it on fire, it will engulf you. Break an arm, and it will still disjointedly swing at you.

This makes for some amazing combat, as does the fact that sharp weapons can be thrown into zombies. I've faced off against zombies porcupined with the blades I've thrown into them. And when they finally shambled up to me, I've pulled those blades free and killed the zombie with them.

Initially it's almost funny. But that wears off over time and then it becomes tactical. I paused only briefly when a lucky toss firmly planted a fireaxe into the crotch of a zombie. Then I set about taking the thing down.

While I haven't managed to dig as deep as I'd like in the game, I have been able to get a shallow taste of the entire experience. According to the game, I've seen about 90 percent of the places Dead Island has to offer. That's impressive, especially considering just how massive this game is.

It's so big that even the fast travel offered in the game doesn't shave much time off your experience. The eclectic mix of settings amplify the experience, making sure you don't get worn out fighting zombies on the white sands of a beach, or in the run-down remains of a depressed city, or in the jungles or in a fortified prison.

Each setting is huge and most bring with them new forms of zombie infections. I was surprised how far into Dead Island I had to play to experience everything new in the game. Not just new settings, new zombies, new characters, but new ways of playing.

It wasn't until the very end, when I was confronted with killing other people, not zombies, but innocent people, that I felt I had touched on everything Dead Island has to offer.

Dead Island may not be everyone's favorite, but its deft combination of role-playing, action, horror, gunplay, driving and exploration makes it the sort of game that everyone should at least sample.

I've got to go now, I only paused the game and I really do go want to level up my fury skill.