The laundry list of things wrong with “Dead Island” would lead most people to conclude Techland’s zombies-in-paradise adventure is a terrible game. The characters are forgettable, the story is paper thin and it plays like a stitched-together Frankenstein’s monster of other, better-made games. It’s also the buggiest mass-market game since “Fallout: New Vegas.”
Yet for all its flaws, “Dead Island” (rated M, $60 for Xbox 360 or PS3, $50 for PC) is tough to put down. It’s easy to get sucked into the grind of saying “Just one more quest” as the hours melt away and real-world tasks go uncompleted. The four-player online cooperative play feels just as satisfying as “Borderlands’” blend of questing, looting and leveling, but with more bugs. While the gunplay is uninspiring, the visceral hand-to-hand combat against vast numbers of walking dead is tight and polished.
“Dead Island” stars a cast of four characters who come together after a zombie outbreak. Each character has his or her slate of special abilities. Sam B. and Xian Mei specialize in melee attacks, while Purna is a gun nut and Logan throws knives. Taking a cue from “Borderlands,” the game allows multiple players to play each character, so if everyone wants to play as Logan, you’ll have four goofballs with Mohawks running around whipping knives at zombies.
The gameplay feels like a synthesis of a bunch of other popular games. The open world tropical paradise is reminiscent of the “Far Cry” games, while the character classes, questing, looting and leveling reminded me of “Borderlands.” Throw in a recipe and weapon-crafting system that feels like a mix of “Dead Rising 2” and the recent “Fallout” games, and you’ve distilled the formula for “Dead Island’s” addictive gameplay down to its core elements.
Basically, the game boils down to finding survivors, talking to them and completing tasks, many of them optional, to advance the story. The quests themselves aren’t anything spectacular. Most can be summed up as “travel to Point X, kill a bunch of zombies, hold down a button for a few seconds, return to quest giver.” But they’re executed competently. The level design across the three huge, open areas is done so well it rarely feels like you’re retreading the same old territory. (The game’s fourth and final act is a more confined, linear experience.)
What’s more, the resort, city and jungle that make up the game’s first three areas are brimming with hidden areas featuring rare weapons, powerful special items and even Jason Vorhees from the “Friday the 13th” movies. Very few areas in “Dead Island” feel wasted. If you wander around and explore, you’ll find cool stuff.
But for as much as Techland does right with “Dead Island,” it gets a bunch of stuff wrong.
Like the excellent “BioShock 2,” its real protagonist is a secondary, nonplayable character. But she’s never on screen long enough for players to form a real bond, so her story lacks the emotional impact it could have had. Though each of the four playable characters has an elaborate background story you see during the character-selection scene, their personalities rarely come into play, save for in the in-game movies. (In a bit of an oddity, all four characters appear in the movies, and other characters address you as if you’re playing in a group, even when you’re playing by yourself.)
As polished as the level design in “Dead Island” feels, the spawning of players and enemies is maddening. You can patiently walk through a level making sure you’re leaving no zombies behind, only to be ambushed when the game drops zombies directly behind you for a from-all-sides attack. Your aggravation will be compounded when you die and the game returns you to life, but places you in an unfamiliar nearby area, surrounded by even more zombies. No matter how careful you are, at some point these spawning issues will drop you into a furious death-spawn-death-spawn cycle until you’re finally able to whittle the zombies down enough to triumph. (Enemies’ health levels don’t reset when you die.)
Even allowing for the fact that huge, open-world games will always have more errors than linear, controlled experiences, “Dead Island” contains an unforgivable amount of bugs that Techland says they’re working feverishly to patch.
Quests can be plagued by glitches, requiring you to kill enemies who fail to appear or who show up behind unbreachable walls or doors that aren’t triggered to open until after you kill all enemies. (Fortunately, each of the quest-breaking glitches I encountered was fixed by loading from the last checkpoint.)
The navigational interface is frequently broken, particularly in the jungle area, telling players they need to walk through walls or sheer cliff faces to advance to the next destination. At times, the game will allow players to explore new, hard-to-reach areas by platform-jumping across rocks, while at other times invisible walls block your progress and send characters plummeting to their deaths.
My character, Purna, shouted “That blew up good!” whenever she caused an explosion, in a voice that sounded nothing like the actress in the in-game movies. (She even shouted this the one time I accidentally shot a propane tank right next to Purna, killing her. Famous last words, I guess.)
Furthermore, there’s a complete disconnect between “Dead Island’s” gameplay and the haunting, beautifully rendered trailer that publisher Deep Silver released back in February. It’s an unconscionable bait-and-switch that serves as Exhibit A for why gamers should never buy a game based on TV commercials or trailers that don’t show any gameplay.
Despite its myriad problems, “Dead Island” still passes the fun test, particularly if you’re playing online with friends. Until Gearbox Software releases “Borderlands 2” next year, it’s the best four-player fusion of first-person shooter, open-world adventure and level-grinding role-playing game you’re likely to find. You just have to be willing to look past its warts.