The bright sun, the sound of the pounding surf, the endless supply of fruity drinks. Ahhh, paradise … or it would be if it weren’t for the constant barrage of infected guests trying to eat you. Luckily, you happen to be one of four characters on Dead Island whose backgrounds not only make them particularly well suited to doing battle with legions of the not-quite-undead, but who also happen to be immune to whatever horrible contagion has run rampant over the island. Other people can aid the survival effort in other ways, but when it comes time to leave cover and brave the deadly streets, it’s pretty much up to you.

Other survivors will give you quests not only to improve the odds of rescue, but also to make everyone safer, happier, or more comfortable while they wait for the cavalry. Dead Island isn’t rich with narrative, so don’t expect the quests to satisfy your craving for story. What you see is what you get: Zombies are on the island, people are dying, and hey, could you go find my infected daughter and kill her for me? Great, thanks, have some money and this sickle I found. The main story quests do follow some basic survival logic as you’re asked to do things like repair the lighthouse or get the water running again, but the side quest can be a bit ridiculous. Tracking down lost necklaces and teddy bears when you’re in the middle of a zombie horde seems moderately foolish but the rewards you get make them worth the effort.

Every time you set foot outside one of the game’s safe house hubs, you’ll be faced with swarms of ravenous zombies, who vary in speed and ferocity. Dead Island lacks the claustrophobia of other horror games, but walking the streets with an ear cocked for the telltale groan that announces a zombie’s proximity is a marvelously tense affair that contrasts beautifully with the frantic combat as you’re rushed by a small squadron of undead. There are no puzzles to solve, no morality to consider as you pick your way to your next destination; it’s kill or be killed, simple as that, and your survival will rely as much on your deft fingers as your ability to make the most of your environment. I felt like I’d earned my merit badge in Zombie War when I realized that when I perched on a car I could slash at the zombies with my shock machete while staying out of their range. I shouted in triumph as I ran as fast as I could from a small army of undead, leapt to a ladder, clambered up to a balcony, and dropped a brick on their heads. Dead Island is full of such moments of small victory that add up to make you feel like you’re not just fighting, but surviving.

Each of the playable characters favors one of four combat methods: firearms, blunt weapons, blades, or thrown weapons. No matter who you choose, you can use anything you find effectively enough to wage zombie war, but you’ll do more damage if you stick with your proficiency. Weapons degrade as you use them, so you’ll need to hit one of the game’s many workbenches to repair, or better yet, upgrade them to be even more powerful. Modifications spice up your weapons of undead destruction with improvements like shock damage or extra oomph, but you’ll need to scrounge around for the resources to construct them. The island is littered with luggage, trashcans, and general detritus that’s hiding the soap, belts, magnets, detergent, tape, and lemon juice you need to turn your broomstick into a boomstick. You don’t spend your time trash picking if you don’t want to, but modifying your weapons adds welcome variety to combat that otherwise could swiftly grow repetitious. Besides, crafting zombie bait from leftover gibs is disgustingly amusing.Dead Island‘s focus is clearly combat, but the three skill trees – Survival, Combat, and Fury – let you tailor your character to suit your particular playstyle, whether you want to dole out as much damage as possible or expand your scrounging options, or something in between.

It’s got oodles of ways to deal death, huge environments and about a bazillion quests, but Dead Island‘s greatest resource is one that doesn’t come in the box: other players. Depending on your settings, you can let other players hop in whenever they like, or join other players as they progress through the story mode. The one hitch is that everyone has to be roughly in the same part of the game; you can’t jump ahead just because your buddy happens to be in a more advanced part of the game. He can backtrack to join you in an earlier chapter, but he’ll have to leave his skills and toys behind and settle for a nerfed version of his character. [NOTE: This is true under certain configurations, but not all. You can backtrack at full strength with all your goodies intact. Apologies for the confusion.] Replaying areas you’ve already conquered can be a bit of a drag, but facing the zombies of Dead Island is always more satisfying when you have backup.

Dead Island‘s weapon mods, quest system, and skill trees work well together to provide an experience that’s slightly more than just “kill many zombies,” but the game suffers from an overall lack of polish. You’ll get stuck on the architecture – so will the zombies. Depending on where you die, you may respawn in the middle of a clutch of zombies, virtually guaranteeing a cycle of spawn, attack wildly, die. Quest givers will repeatedly try to give you quests that you’ve already accepted. The pathfinding will veer off drunkenly or sometimes just point you toward the wrong area entirely. There aren’t nearly enough character models amongst the zombies, and it’s not unusual for twins or triplets to attack you at once.

Bottom Line: Its rough edges will distract and annoy you, but Dead Island‘s quest-based zombie slay-a-thon is still loads of fun. There’s tons to do, plenty of toys, and the chance to pick up and play with buddies is always appreciated.

Recommendation: If you ever wished Dead Rising didn’t have a time limit – or just enjoy the idea of hacking and shooting your way from one end of paradise to the other – definitely give this a try.

[rating=4]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: Dead Island
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Techland
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platform(s): PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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