The Essential Games: Dead Island (2011/2016)

Techland’s Zombie-Diablo-Thing features exceptional first-person combat

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I captured the screens in this article on an Xbox One S. It looks a little better on PC, and runs as fast as your system can muster instead of being locked at 30 frames per second.

Polish developer/publisher Techland is one of my favorite game studios. They’ve made all sorts of things over the years, from shooters to racing games to open world action RPGs, and they all run on some version of their in-house Chrome Engine. Their dedication to bespoke gaming technology gives their games a unique visual flair, even if their designs weren’t always in line with modern industry trends. Now, they’re the award-winning developers of multi-million hit Dying Light, and that game has a long-in-development sequel on the way soon.

But my favorite game of theirs (that’s not a western) is Dead Island.

Expectations for Dead Island weren’t much of anything…until its phenomenal teaser trailer hit. Complete with an incredible piano piece composed by Giles Lamb, it conveyed a foreboding atmosphere and blend of emotion and horror that most video games hadn’t even come close to attempting.

Of course, the actual game was almost nothing like that trailer for 90 percent of its running time. Instead, it was a 1–4 player open world zombie combat action RPG, with randomized loot. It still had awesome music though.

Visceral first-person melee combat is the true star of Dead Island. You’ll choose one of five characters and then hack and slash your way across an idyllic resort filled with zombies. The combat has two modes if you play on a console or with a controller on PC: digital, or analog.

In Digital mode, things work like Diablo with just a pinch of Dark Souls thrown in. You aim attacks with a reticle and click a button to strike, which depletes a slowly-refilling stamina meter. Different weapons use differing amounts of stamina, and a dynamic physics system means that hit reactions are governed by your aim, the physical location of your zombie opponent, and the size and weight of your weapon itself.

If that’s not enough physically-based realism for you, you can step things up to Analog mode. Here, you’ll use the right stick to fully control each swing of your weapon. This allows you to precisely aim and animate every attack, and pull off some excellent precision blows.

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Zombie limbs can be broken or sliced right off, and a critical hit to the head will often sever it. Combined with realistic deformation of bodies and good amounts of blood spatter for player feedback, this is one of the most enjoyable and exciting first-person combat experiences ever produced, regardless of which mode you play in.

On top of standard striking, you can also throw any weapon. When you get really good, you’ll be striking out at enemies, dodging incoming attacks, throwing a knife into a zombie that you immediately then run up to in order to pull the knife back out before it hits the ground, and turning to face your next opponent.

It’s a fun, fast, amazingly tactile experience.

Oh, and about 7 hours in it secretly transforms into a competent shooter as well.

Unlike many marketing strategies, most of the pre-release footage of Dead Island was only focused on its first zone, the resort. But the game also has a city and a jungle area. And once you hit the second map, human enemies enter the fray, and the shooter combat developed for the Call of Juarez games makes an appearance. A whole variety of randomly generated guns then joins the melee weapon selection, and if you’re a Borderlands fan, it’s like playing a mini version of that but with zombies and more dismemberment.

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The story is fully voice-acted, but it’s nothing incredible, and the quests are mostly of the “go here and get or kill a thing” variety. But the combat more than sustains the 20-ish-hour campaign, and you can replay it with higher level enemies if you’d like.

Graphically, the original version of the game now has an overly shiny look that was common on the Xbox 360 but looks a little weird now. Fortunately, in 2016, the original team got the chance to revisit Dead Island, and its sequel Riptide, and completely remake them with new visuals running on the same generation of the engine that powered Dying Light.

The game was fully modernized with updated models, textures, lighting, and effects. It’s one of the most impressive remasters of the current console era, and markedly different-looking compared to the original.

The only missing things from the original game are the shadow the player character used to cast, and the goofy “look at this piece of paper to accept the quest” interface, replaced with the standard menu system from Riptide. I’m guessing the player shadow was removed because it would sometimes expose the weird animations Techland had to make for the body that shows up under the first person camera.

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The game gets moody and scary every few hours, but most of it is goofy hilarious fun.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a loot game, a zombie game, or a first person shooter, you’ll probably find something to like in Dead Island. You can play it with up to 3 friends online, and it scales the experience accordingly. It’s way more combat-focused than Dying Light, and while that game has a much more detailed environmental design, it never quite matches the visceral looting thrills of its predecessor.

A sequel has been in development for many years now, spearheaded by publisher Deep Silver and made entirely without Techland’s involvement. It got rebooted once during its creation and its been in the hands of two different studios…so far.

Techland also had a fantasy take on this game called Hellraid nearly finished and ready for release, but then it was dropped off the release schedule with no real explanation. I’ve been bummed about its random and baffling cancellation for almost five years.

The Dying Light franchise is Techland’s new baby to the exclusion of Hellraid or Call of Juarez, and while it builds on a lot of the same ideas from their old games, it doesn’t quite recapture the unique fun of Dead Island.

Instead, it focused on its own new core mechanics centered on platforming and world exploration, and although it might be an objectively “better” game…no one has ever quite made first-person combat as thrilling or immersive as the system featured in Dead Island.

Dead Island is available now on Xbox One (And Game Pass!), PS4, and PC, and the remastered collection regularly goes on sale.

Click here to read the other entries in my Essential Games series.

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