DEAD ISLAND "ZOMBIES IN A SANDBOX"
Do you like to be scared shitless? Do you like to be scared shitless by zombies?
If you answered yes to the above questions, chances are you'll at least get some kind of thrill out of Dead Island.
Dead Island started its undead life with one of the gaming world's most beautiful trailers—which, as eager gamers soon discovered, happened to have nothing at all to do with the game aside from the setting, causing mass internet outrage.
The slow-motion, backwards footage of a vacationing family dealing with a sudden zombie outbreak tapped directly into our collective fears. The game itself seemed a rather tepid foray into the hack-and-slash zombie survival genre.
Many diehard fans refused to even look at it. It's unfortunate, because the game is actually pretty enjoyable.
Sure, the multiplayer elements are familiar to players of Left 4 Dead, and the breakable, upgradable weapons are similar to just about every game out there. But Dead Island actually has an interesting outbreak story, lots of zombie action, a sandbox-style "open world" with multiple side-missions, and fun, over-the-top characters.
You get to choose from 4 playable stereotypes... uh, characters. I chose Sam B, the foul-mouthed rapper, who also happens to be a blunt weapons specialist. For some reason if given the opportunity, I always play as the black guy. Maybe I'm hoping it'll help him survive past the first ten minutes, which as everyone knows is rare in horror. Regardless, when the outbreak starts, he's in the club drunkenly singing his chart-topping, mind-numbing hit "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch?" He wakes up hungover in his suite with no idea what happened the night before… but screams are audible outside the door. The hallways are empty, luggage racks left everywhere with plenty of items and money inside. An apparent suicide from the top of the hotel is Sam B's first glimpse of real trouble.
When the elevator crash lands in the basement, there are "infected" everywhere. A voice on the radio (Kiwi or Australian, I'm not sure which) tells him to follow instructions. The lighting is minimal and flickering, with plenty of smoke and whirring fan blade shadows--typical horror game ambiance. After you escape you end up with a bunch of other survivors, where you get your first taste of side-missions.
Like any survival game, you start out with whatever weapon you can find. I used an oar against the first hoard, bashing my way to multiple experience points and gaining "achievement levels." I found the XP gains and Hit Points lost floating above the heads of the zombies distracting. It's nice to know you're rising in the ranks and hacking down the life force of your enemies, but in a horror game I want to be absorbed in the action. I don't want numbers floating everywhere, ruining the illusion of reality. Minor gripe. As you can probably tell, I'm not a huge RPG fan.
The game manages to scare you in the daylight, which is something most games, even movies, rarely achieve or even try.
But where Dead Island really shines is its zombies. And there are a fuckload of zombies, to use Sam B's penchant for cursing (and mine, I suppose). The Infected are most prevalent, lurking around just about every corner, moving incredibly fast. Walkers shamble, as true zombies should. Thugs are larger, shirtless zombies, much stronger than the rest. And then there are the "Super Zombies," such as the exploding Suiciders (George W. would have loved that one), the Rams, behemoths in a straight-jacket, and the Butchers, genuinely terrifying creatures who look like MMA fighters and have arms that end with grisly bone-blades.
So, as Sam B, I beat, bashed and bladed my way from island to island, cutscene to cutscene, finding other survivors who had lost hope, finding many, many who hadn't survived, and had become human all-you-can-eat buffets. They talk a lot about kuru, the real-life degenerative brain disorder thought to be caused by consuming human flesh, similar to "mad cow" disease. There are several missions in a lab where you have to collect tissue samples for them to study, to potentially create a vaccine. It's nice to have even such a seemingly brainless game as this to have an outbreak grounded in reality.
And on the surface, Dead Island is pretty silly. But, like the original trailer, there are some surprisingly touching human moments.
I ran a lot, because there are so many enemies. I missed a lot of the scenery in the resort, the town, the prison and the laboratory, because even with a gun there are often too many hoards to make a dent. But that's part of the fun. If there were only two zombies, the game wouldn't be about survival, it would be a virtual tour.
Let's be clear: this is not the best zombie game out there. Left 4 Dead is a better multiplayer game, the Resident Evil games have a better "mythology," and Dead Space, with its necromorphs and zero-gravity, has a far better storyline. But Dead Island offers some fun, some scares, and plenty of zombies to batter away at for hours on end. It's a good stress reliever, at the very least. And I hear the sequel, Riptide, is even better.
FEAR LEVEL 5/5
Duncan Ralston is the author of Gristle & Bone, a collection of short and not-so-short horror, and the upcoming novel, Salvage. He lives in Toronto with his girlfriend and their dog.