Dead Island has not had the smoothest of launches. From released developer builds, to the already infamous ‘Feminist Whore’ line of code discovered over at the Steam forums – the murmurings around the game have been somewhat controversial, destroying much of the goodwill earned by an astounding early trailer.
Dead Island shot into the limelight, thanks to an emotional and artful trailer, depicting the backwards zombification of a family at the holiday resort of Banoi, which serves as the game’s setting. The trailer managed to make a zombie game appealing again, at a time when many gamers seemed to be suffering from a touch of zombie fatigue after a deluge of titles dealing with zombie apocalypse, including Valve’s Left 4 Dead and Capcom’s Dead Rising series.
However, as gameplay videos started to emerge and give us a taste of the ‘real’ Dead Island, it became apparent that the game has very little to do with the trailer – it’s more of first person action RPG bruiser for want of an easy description (FPARPGB anyone?). In actual fact Techland have tried to crowbar some emotion into the game, via character interactions and cutscenes. As a result, most of the dialogue is unbearably serious, badly acted and poorly written. The cutscenes depicting what are presumably meant to be heartbreaking scenes are excruciating. You should probably skip them entirely (thankfully a skip option is included).
How does a game come back from this? The trailer that got our attentions is a smokescreen, the story elements are fragmented at best and the whiff of misogyny and incompetence hangs over the game like a bad smell thanks to the botched release. The answer is simple really – Dead Island is incredibly fun to play.
Melee action in FPS games has often been a curiously underwhelming proposition with imprecision and poor feedback leading to several lacklustre titles. Previously only Zeno Clash and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic have really succeeded at making first-person melee feel satisfying and fun for the duration of a game. But within just a few minutes of starting up Dead Island it’s evident that Techland have managed to perfect the elusive formula. Somehow the melee here just works. There are occasions where the timing feels a little bit iffy, or a zombie gets past an attack you’re pretty sure should have sent them crashing into the ground. But for the most part it’s a brutally satisfying experience. It follows in the footsteps of Zeno Clash in making the action feel truly weighty – sounds and visuals combine to ensure that you can feel and see the force of a sledgehammer weighing down on a zombie’s head. You might even find yourself flinching away from the screen as a hardened Thug Zombie slams you to the ground with a wild haymaker. The feeling of weight is further amplified by the way limbs have a tendency to splinter and snap, accompanied by gushing fountains of blood. It all amounts to an intensely visceral experience and you’d be forgiven for feeling as though you need a wash after a session with the game.
Longevity and depth come in the form of the RPG system which is reminiscent of the way Borderlands tackled the FPS genre. You choose from one of four characters (blunt weapons expert, edged weapons expert, throwing expert and firearms expert), each of whom has three skill trees to explore and upgrade, as well as their own unique fury ability which can be unleashed on the undead populace to devastating effect. Some combatants seem more useful than others in the single-player experience (the nearly invincible Sam B is a more straightforward proposition than the gun-toting group buffer Purna), but in co-op the skills compliment each other nicely, allowing different characters to take on specific roles. Further cues from Borderlands are taken with regards to the weapon system. Not only is there a pretty big variety in weapon types – from machetes to shotguns via morningstars and katanas – but assorted weapon mods can be crafted and attached to your weapons. The first time you zap a zombie with your customised cattle-prod police baton resulting in an impromptu ragdoll cartwheel is guaranteed to bring a smile. Early money management can be a bit of a chore, with expensive repairs rapidly exhausting your limited cash supplies. But later in the game and with the right character upgrades, you’ll have more freedom to experiment.
The Co-op mode is where Dead Island truly comes alive – within about five minutes of starting the game with a couple of friends (the game allows up to four player co-op) you’ll likely be grinning from ear to ear. Moments reminiscent of the ‘Don’t stop me now’ jukebox scene from Shaun of the Dead are commonplace, as you stand in a circle around zombies using crude wooden paddles to slowly bludgeon the (un)life from them. There is something inherently comic about the gruesome melee styling of Dead Island and one wonders if the game as a whole might have benefited from embracing the zanier aspects in a similar manner to Dead Rising. Even so, running around the resort (and later city and jungle environments) with your friends; smashing, stabbing and looting like a fiend, you may suddenly find that you’ve lost a day to the unassuming Banoi Resort and it’s rather unwelcoming inhabitants.
Lets deal with those inhabitants in a little more detail. Dead Island veers away from the slow/vs fast zombie debate by having it’s cake, eating it, regurgitating it in a putrescent spray of vomit and blood (and cake), then eating it again. That is to say, it has slow ‘Walkers’, the screaming maniac ‘Infected’ the deadly mutated ‘Suiciders’, the brutal hammer-fisted ‘Thugs’ and the straight-jacketed ‘Ram’ as well as several other varieties. One nice touch is the way in which zombies in different areas of the game are appropriately clothed. Resort zombies are likely to be chubby semi-naked tourists, in contrast with the more sensibly attired town-dwellers. On top of the zombified enemies you’ll find more traditional gun-toting human foes. They aren’t the most intelligent bunch but they do lend some variety to the game and are a handy source of ranged weaponry. The guns in Dead island aren’t the most effective weapons, but they can be useful in a tight spot and a lucky critical can be decisive when you’re under siege.
Dead Island will struggle to prove to naysayers that games are anything other than artless hyper-violent gore-fests. But for those of us who have accepted that sometimes running headfirst into a group of zombies and exploding out the other side in a whirling shower of blood with a shit-eating grin plastered across our faces is highly entertaining, Dead Island is pretty much a must have. If you have a similarly like-minded friend or three to play with, it may just be one of your gaming highlights of the year.
Versions Available: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Versions Reviewed: PC
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