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Dead Island can be a lot of fun, it just doesn't know if it wants to be completely serious or completely silly.

Zombie media always gets a pass: if the story is atrocious that's ok. You can safely wager that if a zombie movie or game is released and the story is terrible that somewhere someone will say "well it is a zombie game". Traditionally speaking, zombie stories are the cliché to king all other clichés.

Why is that? Why not have zombie stories that take themselves seriously and try to tug at the emotional heartstrings of the player?

This is where Dead Island makes its first mistake. The first ad campaign featured a rather emotional trailer of a little girl being afflicted with the zombie strain and attacking her parents. After a few videos, it was clear this wasn't going to be part of the game. Now to discredit Dead Island for having a poor story is, indeed, due to be followed by "well it is a zombie game" but the problem is, is that Dead Island actually tries.

The beginning of the game plops the player into the role of one of four random people that aren't affected by the infection, because that's always how it goes. Of course if you get bit or beaten by the horde of undead you won't become one yourself or have to quickly heal yourself; no no, that would only be intense and interesting. After a very brief tutorial, you quickly meet up with a group of survivors and because of your unique condition you're tasked with doing various quests to save them.

Some of the survivors will plea and complain about lost loved ones or talk about traumatic events that transpired after the zombies showed up. Poor voice acting and scripting aside, these little moments, such as going to look for a man's missing wife, suggest that Deep Silver really wants you to take the game seriously. Having to gather gasoline to burn a pile of bodies littering the refuge and attracting the wandering undead should be a terrible, but necessary, moment of survival that shows how horrible an event like this would be. Unfortunately, it isn't.

For every serious request asked by a survivor, there's another one followed that's completely stupid. One character will ask for water, as she's dehydrated and dying. Another will ask for alcohol, so she can party. That's right. People will ask you to risk life and limb, literally, to obtain the most ridiculous items or do the most tedious of tasks. Of course you can deny these requests, not that it matters. The story won't change depending on your actions or anything to that nature. The game does tease alternate paths in the form of cutscenes featuring the group of player characters expressing ideas on how to survive, including fending for themselves and abandoning the survivors. Of course, this never amounts to anything and regardless of your own opinion you go along the path without any say in the matter.

This is the biggest issue with Dead Island. It truly doesn't know what it wants to be. Everything about the game is bipolar, and as it pushes along it only becomes worse. Near the beginning of the game, you have to use whatever you find to defend yourself. It might be a crowbar, a steel pipe, or an ore. You'll find sticks and broken baseball bats, wrenches and more pipes and you'll grab it all because there's desperation to it all. The weapons break quickly and having to switch weapons in the middle of a fight is intense. The combat is focused and realistic. You have to get in close and plan your swings and dodge any sort of retaliation the zombies dish out. You'll also quickly run out of stamina and have to sit back to catch your breath to continue swinging your makeshift weapon away.

However, as the game progresses this goes away. What was a fraught "holy crap I need to find a new weapon laying around" turns into a lackadaisical effort where you upgrade all your best equipment into bizarre, hyper powerful monstrosities. One hour you're using a rusted wrench, and before you know it you have a giant hammer that throws lightning bolts. This is a good idea on paper. Instead of constantly using the same weapons it upgrades and you're always using something new. Sadly though, these weapons become so powerful and silly that it instantly ruins any sort of tension and atmosphere the game was providing.

Gameplay wise, Dead Island starts out strong. Despite the shoddy plot and acting, it does a great job of placing you in this dangerous world. Most of the tension and fear is instantly levitated with almost zero penalties upon death: if you die, you just respawn 5 seconds later about 10 feet away from your short lived grave. Even so, the world is so detailed and it's so much fun to just dig through all the loot, finding a new weapon and having a little weight lifted from your shoulders that you're now holding something that won't break in 3-4 swings. Then, after a while, it just becomes boring. You'll end up buying so many perks that make your character stronger (one of which allows an instant kill, which all players get), and you'll keep finding powerful, ridiculous weapons that the zombies just aren't a threat anymore. It has a little drive to keep on searching through the loot and progress to the next, consistently gorgeous and detailed environment, but the gameplay just becomes tedious. You know there's something wrong with a game when you're digging through a bunch of abandoned luggage and a zombie races towards you only to be decapitated in one swing and you turn around and go back to the luggage.

There are a few types of zombies throughout the game. You have your normal shambling ones, then there are ones that run (called Infected, no doubt a reference to 28 Days Later), a slow and big one, a fast and big one, and the various kind that explode and vomit acid at you. Fights with the various zombies can be intense, especially when they're all up in your face and you get to see all the gross, violent detail put into their designs. In keeping with Dead Island's bipolar theme though, these encounters' immersive quality is ruined by brightly colored numbers that fly out into the air letting you know how much damage you're doing to one of them. So again, realism and atmosphere meets the silly and ridiculous.

When the zombies start becoming monotonous (and they will) Dead Island takes another turn into the "what are we trying to be" territory by adding in human enemies that shoot at you. These sections always begin with a conveniently placed gun before them. Dead Island's shooting mechanics are terrible, and these fights aren't very much fun. It's a good idea, that some people will quite simply kill everything to survive, but a mediocre shooter thrown into a survival horror hack and slash RPG doesn't really help a game already suffering from an identity crisis. As a bonus, dialog wasn't changed for human to zombie encounters. If you take damage from a zombie and you're playing as Sam B you may hear him shout "Don't you gnaw on me" in anger. Humorously, if you get shot by a human while playing as a Sam B you might hear him shout "Don't you gnaw on me" as well.

On the technical side, Dead Island looks great. It is a bit disappointing that you go from a beautiful beach resort that feels fresh and interesting to a dirty city, but everything is so nicely detailed it's hard to stay mad. There are also dozens upon dozens of zombie models, so you'll rarely feel like you're killing the same dude/chick over and over again. It's nice to see added detail in enemy design in a game like this. If you play the game for an hour or two, it's quite common for there to be massive slow down to the point where it appears the game freezes, but it'll shortly throw you back into the world before you go to reset your PS3. It isn't that horrible, but it's worth mentioning.

There's definite fun to be had with Dead Island. Playing with some friends is a lot of fun, especially since it ups the zombie health so those moments where it's one on one become exciting again. There are some areas where 4 players are just crowded, particularly the narrow corridors of the sewers, but it can be a lot of fun just slashing zombies with a group of friends. Plus, even for its problems and the fact that Dead Island is a case of "what could have been" it doesn't change the fact zombies are always fun to dismember.

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