Bludgeoning zombies is pleasurable, and yet not quite as pleasurable as it should be, in Dead Island, Techland’s open-world semi-RPG. Functioning as something of a cross between Dead Rising and Fallout (with a dash of Borderlands) in its assortment of customizable and upgradeable weapons as well as random items that can be collected, sold, and used to make blunt objects more deadly, the game thrives on smashing and slicing zombie limbs to pieces with, among other things, hammers, knives, sickles, and boat paddles. The thrill of swinging and stabbing the undead is this lengthy adventure’s prime recreation, and one that initially offers a visceral rush—until, that is, one realizes that there’s little to the combat system except repeatedly mashing the same button, pausing only to allow one’s stamina meter to replenish. Without the ability to vary one’s attacks or block blows, Dead Island’s battles wind up being simultaneously exhilarating and monotonous, a description that pertains to quite a bit of this sandbox-style saga, in which you play as one of four survivors—who are generally identical ability-wise, despite their supposed specialties—at a Papua New Guinea island resort that, for only cursorily explained reasons, has been overrun by decaying, moaning, flesh-eating folks.
Dead Island’s tropical setting is pretty fantastic—enormous, beautifully rendered, and full of locations that deliver diversity that the regular action, even once exploding and rampaging super-zombies appear, often lacks. Exploration is key, both to find items to sell for money or to enhance weapons, not to mention simply because it further increases the suspense that comes from wandering this lush area with zombies seemingly lurking around every corner. The game’s wide-open playable space is central to creating tension, since whether traversing streets by car or foliage-surrounded paths on foot, your one-against-thousands circumstances are consistently unnerving. Unfortunately, however, that potent feeling of being alone is undercut by the rote design of your missions, which are assigned by a gaggle of survivors—who, unlike you, aren’t immune from zombie bites—and almost always involve traveling a long distance, killing lots of zombies along the way, retrieving some item, and then returning it to someone at a safe zone. That repetitiveness somewhat mars the single-player campaign, albeit not as much as the fact that, because even the most awesomely elaborate weapons degrade quickly with use (and cost a ton to repair), you spend lots of time felling enemies via a lame, wimpy kick attack.
Graphical pop-up issues are sporadic, and on two occasions, the missions that I’d completed didn’t save properly—forcing me to redo them. Those technical glitches, however, don’t detract from Dead Island’s glistening visuals, which convincingly sell its fiction even when your back-and-forth tasks call direct attention to the video-game-y nature of the proceedings. Furthermore, if the combat system is more than a bit one-note, and driving is a bit clumsy (where’s my rearview mirror?!), there’s something addictive about checking out every available cabin and collecting everything in sight, and an additional online system that lets you join up with other players, who are wandering your map, provides a welcome dose of companionship. The game’s RPG-light elements ultimately drive the action more than the beside-the-point story, given that the desire to obtain more cash, design better armaments, and visit more exotic locales (beachside cabins, gas stations, a zombie-infested downtown) is what truly compels one forward, hacking and slashing through one animated corpse after another. With a scale that’s captivating and more missions than one could rightfully ask for, Dead Island enthralls by evocatively conveying a sense of what it might be like to confront the undead apocalypse, even if its shortcomings often make it play like a promising first draft for a superior forthcoming sequel.