So here we are, many months after that trailer and after much anticipation we finally get our clammy hands on Dead Island. On paper this game has it all: built on a great premise, weapon building, a large open world and drawing from many genre of games this should have set the gaming world alight. Unfortunately for me the majority of Dead Island left me as cold as the staggering mumbling masses on the island itself. Before I proceed I want to lay out that I played mostly single player and that is what I am basing this review on, but from the brief dabble in multiplayer I can say that while it made the game easier it didn't increase my enjoyment by a large measure.
The setup is as straightforward as games go; you wake up in your holiday resort hotel room and everything outside has gone to hell and after a brief unsuccessful encounter with the undead you find yourself with a group of survivors. You will get to pick between one of four characters all with their own flawed hero back-story and different skill sets such as firearms or melee and from here you are led into a hunt for the explanation as to why the outbreak occurred and to work towards rescue from the island. To be honest there is little advantage in any particular character, in my case I went with Purna who was a former police officer and firearms expert. I figured that on an island with a majority population of flesh eaters that guns may be a good idea, this was until I realised that I (a firearms expert) could not fire a weapon until suitably levelled up. I know this is part of the RPG element of the game but it lacks any sense and was one of many moments that removed me from my immersion into the game.
In terms of character progression the game uses the skill tree system that will be familiar to anyone who has played most RTS games or even the likes of Borderlands. With every level up (you garner XP points from disptaching zombies) you will be allowed to access new skills under one of three headings, Fury, Combat and Survival. It does offer a nice range of ways to mould your character around how you want to play the game but in terms of being an innovative game mechanic it suffers from being highly unoriginal. One of the highlights of the unlocked skills for me was the unlocking of the foot stomp. With this, once you have a zombie knocked down you can aim at their head and deliver a fatal and skull crushing head stomp. This is utterly violent and over the top but essential to conserve ammo or weapon durability. There are moments like these in Dead Island where you will find yourself actually enjoying it, whether it’s head stomping a zombie or trying out your newly built electrified meat cleaver but alas these moments are not as common as they should be.
If you die you will respawn shortly after in a place near where you died; this does seem to be completely at random which causes problems and frustration. More than once I have been respawned directly between the undead with little chance to get my bearings before being attacked, and later on when gun-play appears I lost a number of consecutive lives as the game insisted on respawning me in a small room with four attackers. While there will be no ‘game over’ screen when you die you do lose money each time and with your money being essential to survival it can grate when you feel you were unfairly spawned. This problem is compounded with the fact it costs so much money to repair weapons (it cost me at one point $617 to repair a baseball bat with nails!) so losing money to cheap deaths carries a lot of frustration.
You will receive tasks via the group of survivors you find yourself with but you will eventually find yourself bumping into other various groups throughout the island all with their own gripes, needs and motivations. The tasks you are given are fairly uninspiring too and usually involve going to Point A and bring back requested item to Point B. There are also a heavy weighting on escort missions and with questionable AI you will find yourself frustrated as your counterpart refuses to move or takes a fancy to looking at a wall up close. As you move through the story you will encounter different dangers as zombies are not the only threat on Banoi, gangs of survivors and boss-like zombies such as the straight jacketed ‘The Ram’ whose attack pattern reminded me somewhat of the Berserker in Gears of War. All in all things tick along at a decent pace, there are plenty of missions and lots of side-quests to fill out the proceedings and the enemies are varied enough to keep things interesting.
I don’t think I have come across a game that displays so much graphical schizophrenia in terms of its quality. Firstly let me say that the island of Banoi itself is very well realised and does a good job of reminding you of the sprawling vistas of Far Cry or Just Cause. From the holiday resort setting to the forests tand shanty towns there is a great continuity in the design and quality, it’s not exactly an island you’d want to visit but for your time there you will be treated to some great visuals. All of this immersion into the world is quickly shattered at times though, I found a lot of texture popping when entering new areas turning the detailed world into a plasticine model and while only there for a short while it does immediately break the illusion of where you are. Similarly there are a lot of issues when it comes to walls and doors as straying too close to what you think is a closed door can result in you taking a hit from a swinging zombie arm through the solid wall. This can also work to your advantage at times as you can put your foot through the wall and defeat the hordes before you have to enter, while not a constant problem this does occur frequently.
The character models also prove to be strewn across the graphical quality spectrum with a strong weighting on the negative side. I have to say that the zombie models are great, whether lurching, eating or running at you they are believable and intimidating. I think perhaps it’s the blood covered clothes or the degrading skin that hides any texture issues with the zombie models but all in all they look great. When you level up and begin to hit with heavier weapons the animations are fantastic, zombie mandibles spin off amidst clouds of blood and limbs take off in a variety of trajectories, all with a brutal physicality. When we get to the main characters and the supporting cast things take a graphical turn for the worse with reasonably uninspired design choices mixed with bland texturing and mouth animation that reminded me of a dog eating toffee. Techland's Chrome Engine seems quite adept at large environments but struggles and cannot seem to push above the average with its characters.
The game isn’t helped by some severely clunky controls, you’ll never feel quite as agile as you would hope to be in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. A major gripe for me was the sprint action being tied to the L3 (click in to sprint, click again to walk), because given that this is the directional analogue stick and you need to make some sharp turns to get away you will find yourself unwittingly switching from sprint to walk at the most inopportune times. The hit detection is also a bit unpredictable especially when kicking, which is essential to pushing back the undead advances, as your kicking leg sometimes just doesn't seem to reach where you think it should. It is something you learn to live with but every kick or punch will use up stamina so you can find yourself vulnerable because of poorly defined spatial reaches. On top of this you will also find a lot of hits just don't land, this isn’t an endemic issue and most of the time its fine but every fight comes with the risk of missed attacks that you will feel are not your fault. The control clunkiness is not just reserved for the characters but is consistent with the vehicles as well, with each vehicle feeling more or less the same as the last irrespective of size or class. I did get a fair amount of fun out of ploughing through the undead but I think that was just the relief of not having to deal with combat and poor hit detection.
One thing Dead Island can do well is tension and I have spent a lot of time avoiding fights as even though the numbers of the undead onscreen rarely reaches double digits the threat is very real. There are no Dead Rising mobs of zombies to contend with and thankfully so as every encounter will have you weighing up if its worth losing your weapon’s durability in a fight you could avoid. I really did enjoy this aspect of the game, there’s no mindless violence once you get going and every battle must be considered. The audio also helps drive up the atmosphere of Dead Island and for me it stood out at times far above the world drawn in the visuals. The music is subtle and incidental but ramps up at the appropriate times, I’m not sure if this is totally by design but for me it worked very effectively. The character acting is average at best, don’t be hoping for any L.A Noire levels of performance but what it does it does in a workmanlike way, you’ll not be removed from the atmosphere by the acting but it just wont thrill you. I managed to play the game before and after the first patch and in both instances I experienced a fair amount of audio cut out, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to this but when it started to happen it does lift you out of the game. On the plus side the audio of the zombies is great and when coupled with the fact you are, at times, trying to avoid fights when you hear a zombie scream in the distance getting ever closer it is genuinely nerve wrecking.
So when it comes down to it I am in two minds about recommending Dead Island. On the one hand it is buggy, clunky and fairly ugly at times but at the same time there is fun to be had, you just need to dig in and be forgiving. There is a good game here, somewhere, and I don’t doubt that the majority of people who play this will find a decent level of enjoyment. As a gamer if there is one thing that really annoys me it is unfulfilled promise and Dead Island has it in spades. This could have been an amazing experience but what we are left with is a studios ambition being held back by its ability, but with positive sales we may yet see a sequel and hopefully mistakes will be learned from. For now however what we have is a game that, like its premise, has pretty surroundings but is filled with lifelessness.
Final thought: Can zombies get sunburn?
This review is based on the Playstation 3 version