Dead Island, the open world RPG from developer Techland and publisher Deep Silver, has a legacy that precedes it due entirely to its infamous trailer. In it, we see two different progressions of the same chain of events where a family is set upon by a horde of the walking dead and killed. It plays backwards from the end and forwards from the beginning, colliding at the end of the trailer (the middle, really) with a heart-wrenching moment where a father realizes he was too late and he couldn't do enough to save his daughter from being bitten. It's a moment of bleak, quiet desperation that will forever be etched in the memories of those who've watched the trailer.
In fact, it was that wrenching moment that kept playing in my head as I trekked my way across the ruined island of Banoi, waiting for something—anything—to drop that sort of weight on my shoulders. Instead, I feel that Dead Island is like that unfortunate father in the trailer: no matter what the game presented, it wasn't enough to make it as good as we hoped.
The first problem with Dead Island is presented before you even start the game proper: the character selection screen. Here, you pick from one of four characters based off of their skills: blunt weapons, bladed weapons, etc. However, these four characters are offensive in their cookie-cutter, almost racist caricatures that they portray. Female police officer from Hong Kong? Of course she's a master of kung fu with vengeful ties to the Triads! Black rapper from the south? Of course his mother was crackhead and his father was absent! Strangest of all is the minimal impact these trite back stories have after your character has been selected: your character simply becomes a puppet who occasionally spouts a shred of commentary about their situation. Ironically, by putting a proper name and face to your character, you become less invested in their plight. Games like Fallout 3 and Half-Life have made us fall in love with their voiceless homunculi because we can relate to them. A washed-up, one hit wonder rapper is not relatable.
Once you get past this character hurdle, however, the game does improve a bit. In typical open-world RPG fashion, players are sent on various missions all over the island of Banoi to rescue survivors and gather supplies. While it certainly feels typical of sandbox RPG's, the game sets itself apart in its weapon system. Players are given the ability to rejigger virtually all of the game's (primarily) melee weapons into more powerful versions imbued with electricity, fire, etc. It's very similar to Dead Rising 2's crafting system, with one main difference: the speed at which they degrade. Within minutes of building a powerful new armament, you're left holding a ruined hunk of slag and falling back on whatever else you have crammed in your character's virtual pockets. This has the benefit of making your character truly feel vulnerable in their zombie-infested surroundings, but the detriment of making you not want to invest the time and energy into the game's crafting system.
However, the biggest sin simply comes from the game's tone. Where the aforementioned trailer promised a bleak, emotional tone, the game itself feels like your typical zombie game. True, there are hints at loss of life and humanity (early on you stumble across a man knee-deep in the blood of his family, as well as a knowing wink to the trailer's doomed clan), but the overall feel is woefully typical of the genre.
Which is the issue with Dead Island as a whole: it's not necessarily a bad game, and its addictive charms can certainly shine through (why else would I spend hours opening hundreds of pieces of luggage?), but it does literally nothing to set itself apart. It's woefully, unfortunately typical, and that's not enough to excite me anymore.