Dead Island Co-Op Review

9/5/2011 at 3:07 AM

The zombie genre is not dead.

Dead Island is great. Go buy it. There. That was easy. Oh- You want to know why? Well I'll tell you. Dead Island is a very good open world zombie survival game featuring a robust weapon crafting system and first person melee combat. It’s positively chock full of bloody undead chunks. As a single player experience it's fun (really fun), but not amazing. There are some minor flaws that keep it from becoming something truly special. As a co-op experience, Dead Island overcomes these flaws, nay, it strait up curb stomps them into a soupy red goo. Dead Island is one of the best co-op titles of the year.

If you’re playing Dead Island solo, you’re, as they say, "doing it wrong." Four players can get together in the undead sandbox of Banoi and transform a survival horror game into an all out action gorefest rife with zombie butchery. While my dreams of chucking zombie children off of hotel balconies may go unfulfilled, I did encounter a zombie near a cliff side. I shot him with my modified electric gun, broke one arm, chopped off another, embedded my poisonous machete in his head, lit him on fire with a Molotov cocktail, and finally kicked him off the side of the cliff. I then had to hop down that damn cliff to retrieve my "Toxic Military Machete." Purple text weapons don’t grow on trees, you know.

I hate saying that a game is a cross between game X and game Y, but writing this review is keeping me from Dead Island, so I’m going to do it anyway. I'd have to say the game reminds me of Borderlands mixed with your bloodiest zombie wet dreams and then infused with a healthy dose of first person, panicked, flailing, melee combat. There’s also hints of Fallout 3 in the game as well, both in terms of the RPG elements and the ridiculously gory violence. Top that all off with some gratuitous potty mouths and you’ve got a recipe for one Dead Island and a very Mature rating.

Sam B came here to drink beer and clobber zombies.  And he's all out of beer.

You'll begin your adventure by choosing one of four characters. Each has their own special abilities you can enhance through three skill trees. The trees have the same titles across all four characters, (Fury, Combat, and Survival) but their individual skills vary greatly. Sam B is a blunt weapons brute. Logan is a weapon throwing pro. Purna is the firearm specialist, and Xian is a master of edged weapons. Anyone can use any weapon, so long as they meet the level requirements. Each character receives bonuses for using certain weapons. For example, Sam B’s first combat skill adds 5% damage to blunt weapon attacks.

I chose Xian in my first playthrough. She’s a nimble hellcat of a blade expert. Her Fury skill is a super powered knife assault. When activate, she can pretty much one shot almost anything in her way. Her Combat skills focus on edged and poison weapons, while here Survival skills focused on getting a higher yield from Med Kits. I tinkered with the other three characters, and they all have their own distinct abilities.

Your main mission is to survive and get off a beautiful tropical island that has become utterly zombified. Seems simple enough. But as is the nature of open world games and zombie apocalypses, there are scattered NPC’s who want you to do stuff for them. These missions have a lot of variety. You’ll be fixing a truck, looking for lost items or people, turning on this, making that, all while hacking, slashing, stomping, and bashing your way through the zombie hordes. There is even the occasional escort mission, and unlike every other escort mission ever, these don’t suck.

It's an electrified machete. What else do you need to know?

As you complete missions you will be rewarded cash, new weapons, and blueprints (mods) for custom weapons. There are component parts all over the world, and you’ll need to find them to create deadlier weapons with prefixes like Shock, Heavy, Toxic, and others. There seems to be an unlimited inventory space for parts, so collect away. Sadly, at first you can only carry 12 different weapons. Your tools of undead destruction degrade as you use them, (they can be repaired at work benches) therefore you’ll need every one that you can carry. We found that we’d stick with two or three primary weapons which we watched with a careful eye while the others were more disposable. As in, "I’m going to chuck this monkey wrench into a zombie’s skull," disposable. There are literally "throw away" weapons that can be found everywhere. Wrenches, pipes, oars, bats, wood planks, knives, and just about anything else can be scavenged and weaponized. Like any good RPG, weapons that are more rare use a color rating scale - white, green, blue, purple, and so on. There are also other crafted items you can create like Molotov cocktails and a hand grenade made from deodorant and duct tape - MacGyver would be proud.

The first person melee combat is incredibly satisfying for what seems the first time ever. The primal satisfaction when you smash a zombie in the face with a hammer as he charges at you screaming is unmatched. You’ll encounter a nice variety of zombies.  Some even require strategy and team work to bring down without heading to that great respawn counter in the sky. Numerous times we’d come across a Thug, which is a big damage sponge zombie. Nick, as Sam B, would target and break the limbs so the Thug couldn’t swing his massive arms and knock us down. I would throw various sharp objects into him from a distance. It’s these series of small victories in the larger scheme of things that helps make combat satisfying. Every encounter feels like a George Romero fantasy.

Zombie head stomping with some zombie side-boob.

You won’t see guns until the second Act, and then it’s up to you if you want to use them. We simply found the melee weapons more that satisfying. Perhaps forcing players to get up close and personal would seem to make death more frequent, and at times, it is. Thankfully Dead Island does a good job of making you cautious of dying without really penalizing you for getting killed. You’ll lose 10% of your cash and respawn nearby after a meager five second time penalty. You can also revive your teammates if you have a spare Med Kit.

What makes Dead Island truly special is the atmosphere. It’s probably a bad game to compare it to, but if you’ve ever played Trespasser on the PC, it’s somewhat similar in the whole stranded on paradise motif. Where the game excels though is playability. Do what you want, when you want to do it. Feel like hopping in a car and driving over as many zombies as you can? Do that. Want to see how long it takes two players two chop up a dead zombie on the ground? You can do that too, you sadistic bastard. Want to hang out on the beach with the bikini zombies while your partner drives a truck through the surf?  Hell yeah, you do!  The hilarity of kicking a zombie on the ground in co-op over and over again never gets old.  It really doesn't.  Then someone goes and does a head stomp and you have to find a new zombie to kick.  I call it zoccer.  Europeans will probably call it foothead.

Bonus points for a headshot on a zombie with a man purse! (Not really.)

On a technical level it’s easy to see that Deep Silver paid a lot of attention to co-op. Story progress, experience, dropping-in and out all behave as you’d expect. Dead Island has been tailored for the discerning co-op gamer. You can check out our full FAQ on Dead Island's co-op, but rest assured, there’s very few negative aspects in terms of co-op play.

I should note that Dead Island isn’t truly an "open world" game. There are very large maps that are separated by fast travel locations. Players aren’t tethered together in the larger zones, but they have to be together when entering certain mission locations. You can be on opposite sides of huge maps, which is cool, but ill-advised. The game scales up the enemy count when more players join in.

Money is shared. If I pick up $12 bucks, everyone gets $12 bucks. XP scales to your level, but it’s shared on a scale. If I kill a zombie, you’ll get some XP if you assisted in some way. Anything you place in your inventory will go back to your game when the session is over.

Contrary to what the game tells you on a load screen, any player can join any game. If you’re level 1 and want to jump into a level 30 character’s game, you can. You won’t earn any story progress or mission rewards. You will get a ridiculous amount of XP if you can take down a zombie. If you are a level 30 character and want to hop into your friend’s new game, you can. You’ll get 1 XP from killing zombies, but you will get rewards for completing missions, even though you already completed them! The best thing is that the rewards scale.

When I joined Nick’s level 15 character with my level 25, we completed a story mission from his game. We both got the 1500 XP bonus, even though I had already completed the mission. He got a level 15 weapon, and I got a level 25 weapon. Exploit-licious!

Rock, paper, scissors meets truck, gun, bat.  Bat usually loses.

The game lobby and party system are incredibly smooth. If you’re playing solo you’ll be notified whenever an available game with similar story progress is open. Simply press left on the d-pad and you will hop into the host’s game. Since you both have the same story progress, everything that happens will occur in your game as well. Other people can enter your game at any time. If you don’t want any help you can set everything to private. When the host leaves the game you can continue on your own. The game even lets you create a new copy of your character at a matching level of a friend’s game and then you can save that in a separate slot. Like I said, there’s a lot of attention to technical detail.

All isn’t quite perfect though. There are some visual miscues like slow texture loads and some weird shadows, and the inventory can get a little wonky in shops. I’m willing to make exceptions when a game of this scope supports four player co-op so well. There are even multiple Achievements/Trophies rewarding various co-op milestones.

Dead Island is the closest thing to date to an open world co-op action RPG. As an added bonus, it has zombies. There’s plenty of content here as well with lots of side quests to keep you occupied. You should have no problem putting 30 hours into the game before seeing the end with one character. Not to mention all the return vacations you’ll be making to Banoi with friends. Dead Island breathes new life into the zombie genre.

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