Dead Island: A cornerstone of the zombie survival-horror scene
With so many new entries into the horror genre and lots to pick from, we felt it was a great time to revisit one of the defining names in zombie games. Dead Island is a first-person survival-horror game developed by Techland with a heavy emphasis on atmosphere and visceral melee combat.
This is an older title, to be sure, but more recently, the game has been given a graphical and performance overhaul with the incorporation of the Definitive Edition. With that in mind, do the graphics hold up to modern expectations? Is this title as scary and impactful as it once was, or would readers be better off playing a newer title? Is Dead Island a game worth revisiting, or was it simply a stepping stone for better titles? All these questions and more will be answered in our review.
Story and concept
Dead Island takes place on the scenic resort island of Banoi, a fictional locale off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The beaches of this island are a playground for the rich and famous to do as they please outside the laws of their own countries, and is also a place for lucky families to vacation and get away from it all. This paradise doesn’t last forever, and the game begins right as a horrific zombie outbreak takes the island in a violent stranglehold.
The player takes the role of one of a few intrepid survivors, each with their backstory and associated abilities, and is tasked with surviving long enough to find a way off this heaven-turned-hell. To begin with, the player’s character choice has little bearing on the story as a whole, though unique voice lines and interactions give them enough personality to make them stand out.
The island of Banoi contains secrets to uncover, side quests to follow, and locations to discover. These secrets and locations are the highlights of the game’s storytelling, with a combination of succinct and over-the-top elements that sell the desperate and brutal struggle of the island. Environmental storytelling takes the form of short notes, audio logs, and physical objects that tie the story into the atmosphere surprisingly well.
Dead Island’s main story is mostly your standard zombie survival fare, with Techland’s unique style stirred in for flavor. If you’re familiar with Techland’s other zombie titles like Dying Light, then you probably have a good idea of what we’re talking about, though this title lacks a bit of the character Dying Light displays so well. Without spoiling anything, you are one of a few survivors capable and willing to fight the undead horde while leading groups of survivors in a desperate bid to escape the island.
The game’s side stories and optional quests are admittedly pretty boring overall. Though they provide fun distractions and give the player reasons to engage in more gameplay, the motivations and tasks are quite basic, mostly boiling down to elaborate fetch quests. That said, there are certainly a few moments that strike an emotional chord, however briefly.
Dead Island was at the top of the game in terms of graphics when it was first released, and although there are more impressive examples today, the game is still marvelous in terms of visuals. The developers did a fantastic job updating the game’s graphics, and players can enjoy scenic vistas, dark corridors, and horrific zombies in high-quality, blood-soaked glory.
This title utilizes a simple but stylish UI for most gameplay and a similar menu and interaction system. Graphical effects such as sparks, lightning, fire, rain, and other particles are all top-notch and, when matched with the game’s impressive gore effects, make combat flashy, violent, and satisfying. The arcade-style damage numbers and other UI elements clash a bit with the game’s gritty, realistic environments, but not enough to be considered an eyesore.
Weapon and item textures are relatively smooth and well-designed. Character models and facial expressions, in particular, reveal the game’s age but aren’t painful to look at or anything. Certain environmental textures lack detail, and distant entities will only pop into existence when the player approaches.
Overall, however, Dead Island is a surprisingly beautiful game. The lighting effects, in particular, are on par with modern games and reflect off of metals, cast shadows, and even diffuse colors onto surrounding objects. We wouldn’t label this one as photorealistic, but the environments of Banoi are immersive, expansive, and stunning.
Sound and atmosphere
Dead Island is absolutely oozing with an intense, ominous atmosphere. What’s so impressive about the soundscape of this title is just how well Techland managed to create a world just as relaxing as it is anxiety-inducing.
On its own, the music for Dead Island is good, but that’s all we had to say about it. It fits and suits the gameplay well but doesn’t stick out by itself. However, when matched with the game’s ambient soundscape, the music becomes anxious, tense, and impressively ominous. Hearing an off-key note that sounds uncomfortably similar to the cry of a raven cutting through the uncomfortable silence makes for a truly immersive and scary experience when exploring. Take a walk down the beaches of Banoi for yourself, and you’ll quickly see exactly what we’re talking about.
Probably 90% of the sound effects used in this title are fitting and sound great. There are a few sounds from weapon impacts, gunfire, and especially vehicles that sound whispy and quiet. The rest are spot on, though, and most of the sound effects will have you feeling like you’re really smashing zombie heads and hacking off limbs. Weighty, dense, and brutal are the words we’d use to describe the well-implemented combat sounds of this title.
The zombie sounds of Dead Island are particularly impressive. Everything from the breathy growls of dormant walkers to the intimidating roars of dangerous mutants is fine-tuned to put you on edge and make combat a true test of your nerve. The sudden screams of sprinting infected, in particular, were enough to make us jump out of our seats several times.
The voice acting is passable. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either. Many lines come off as campy or a bit forced, but we wouldn’t say it impacted our experience much. The cheesy one-liners our character occasionally threw out during combat were a great addition to the game’s theming.
Dead Island is a first-person hack-and-slash survival-horror title. That means the gameplay centers on melee combat but also includes minor RPG elements, exploration, scavenging, crafting, and weapon customization. From moment to moment, players will mainly be facing down hordes of zombies or groups of hostile survivors as they search for a way off the island.
As the game’s highlight feature, we’ll discuss the combat first. Melee combat is close-quarters and brutal, requiring the player to carefully manage their stamina while slashing, smashing, kicking, and dodging through enemies—each weapon the player finds or crafts has different strengths and weaknesses. Sharp weapons can hack off limbs and weaken enemies, while more forceful weapons can knock them to the ground and leave them vulnerable.
The only complaint we had was the slightly unresponsive movement controls. It isn’t a serious issue, but players will likely have to get used to driving a slower and less reactive character than they are used to. Everything else about combat feels superb, with brutal takedowns and slow-motion kills that make you feel like a badass.
Enemies even have a sort of balance to them and can be toppled over by kicking them at the right time or by knocking them into objects. A lot of the skill involved in combat requires timing and a certain feel for that balance, but learning and adapting to the push and pull is seriously satisfying when you get it right.
Zombies aren’t especially smart and can usually be avoided by standing on something slightly taller than them. On even footing, however, even a single walker can be a serious threat if you aren’t careful. This game doesn’t allow the player to mantle or climb anything other than ladders, and jumping mechanics are sketchy at best, so most of the time, level ground is where you’ll be fighting. Human enemies are a fair bit smarter and will utilize cover and verticality to try and pin down players.
The game’s RPG mechanics are more about progression than customization. Each time the player levels up, their maximum health will increase, and they’ll gain a skill point they can spend in one of their three skill trees. Some of these skills, such as lockpicking and conditioning, are shared across all characters. However, each character also has unique skills that lend themselves to a particular fighting style and improve that character’s specific “fury” (or ultimate) ability.
As players explore the island of Banoi, they will also be scavenging locations for materials and money that can be used to repair, modify, and upgrade weapons and craft new ones. The game boasts an impressive variety of components that can be turned into all manner of useful items and wacky weapons, from grenades made of deodorant cans to electrified-sawblade-sledgehammers. Searching for new blueprints to craft and try out is a great exploration incentive and allows additional customization and experimentation.
The game does include some small driving segments, but these are usually pretty limited, and the vehicle physics are quite bad. Not only are the vehicles difficult to drive, but they get stuck easily and often land you in more dangerous situations than what you may have been trying to escape. If you don’t end up with at least some kind of issue with your vehicle, consider yourself fortunate.
The core gameplay loop of Dead Island is fun, fast-paced, and addicting. Our only real complaint about the gameplay as a whole is that it can get somewhat repetitive if you play for long periods in a single sitting. If you love brutal, in-your-face combat, though, chances are you’ll love Dead Island.
Dead Island boasts a surprising level of replayability, even with just the base game. To begin with, there are four main characters to choose from; each allows for an entirely different gameplay experience and can drastically change how players approach challenges and combat. Additionally, Dead Island supports several multiplayer options, allowing players to opt into random worlds or join up with friends to fight the horde together.
Moreover, this title has several different arena modes that allow players to test their survival skills against endless waves of enemies and tons of in-game collectibles, blueprints, and achievements for completionists to hunt down.
Final thoughts on Dead Island
An oldie but a goodie. We can’t say that Dead Island truly matches up to modern standards when it comes to graphics, mechanics, or depth, but this is a title that really helped to set the stage for future zombie survival games and raised the bar for tension and terror in survival horror as a whole.
Whether you’re looking for an atmospheric and immersive zombie survival game, a scary and fast-paced game to play with friends, something similar to Techland’s other titles, or just want to see the origins of Dead Island 2, we wholeheartedly recommend Dead Island. With an expansion, a sequel, and a couple of similar zombie games out now, Techland has made a strong case to become one of the leading names in hardcore zombie games, and that all began here. Dead Island walked so Dying Light could run.