On paper, Techland was on to a winner. A holy triumvirate of RPG, co-op gameplay and a healthy dose of the old ultra-violence, Dead Island could hardly fail to be brilliant, could it? And that trailer… well, for many, it cemented the idea that this would be more than a mindless first person zombie grind. This was going to be a gruesome, moving and, above all, smart take on the undead apocalypse. I mean, you can’t tease us with a sombre, intelligent vignette about a family under attack and then deliver a tit-heavy, hack n’ slash affair with less self-awareness than your average TOWIE star, can you? Erm…
In the game’s opening cutscene sequence - a first-person walk through the island resort’s hotel - Techland sets out its stall defiantly. Washed-up rapper Sam B spits “who do you voodoo, bitch” (clever, no?) as you stagger through a partying crowd, attempting to storm the stage and grope nearby women before finally passing out in your hotel room. Subtlety, it would appear, has left the building. And the island. This is definitely not the game the trailer implied.
Nope, this is something altogether more adolescent, superficial and, sadly, mindless. Techland clearly had one primary focus in developing Dead Island and that was gore. And, to be fair to the developer, it’s this extreme violence that makes the game feel fun, at least initially.
First up you’ll need to choose from the four main characters on offer, each with a cursory back story and weapon speciality. The former is completely pointless as you’ll struggle to muster a single, solitary shit about the character you’re playing. There’s zero character development in Dead Island and the only reason to think about who you pick is their particular weapon skill. Which, if we’re being honest, doesn’t really make that much of a difference anyway. The aforementioned Sam B is handy with blunt weapons, disgraced ex-football star Logan favours throwing weapons, undercover Hong Kong cop Xian Mei is a whizz with a blade while tough-talking bodyguard Purna likes a shooter. Once you make your selection you’ll need to escape the hotel, hook up with some fellow survivors and start knocking the hell out of zombies.
Despite Purna’s firearm focus, Dead Island is very much centred around melee combat so you’ll spend a lot of time cracking zombies round the noggin’ with whatever weapons you can scavenge. Melee attacks are mapped by default to the face buttons but hidden away in the menus is an option for analogue combat which, once you get used to the gestural movements, feels pretty intuitive. Techland’s main achievement in Dead Island is the clever damage system which encourages you to be strategic about your violence. You can choose where to aim your melee attacks (thanks to a pretty decent sticky-aim) and revel in the glorious puerility of breaking bones and lopping off limbs. It is undeniably fun and, alongside the thrill of searching for, modifying and upgrading weapons (via the obligatory workbench system), it’s the kind of action that proves strangely compelling and time-consuming. Basically, the best bit of Dead Island is finding new, exciting things to hit zombies with.
There’s also a fair variety of enemies to contend with, from your bog-standard Walkers (well, shufflers really), to the viciously quick Infected and the hard-as-nails Thugs who will require a fair bit of strategy to take down. Enemies increase in number and level-match with you as you progress through the game meaning it always feels challenging, especially when you’re faced with a swarm. That’s when the kick – your saving grace in unfavourable combat situations – comes in handy. It’s basically a space-creator allowing you to keep the zombies at bay while your stamina regenerates. It’s also, by virtue of the game’s ‘unusual’ character animations, strangely funny as your leg shoots out in front of you at high speed, recalling *that* confrontation between Jeannie and Mr Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It’s all sounding fairly positive, no? Well, that’s because the action gameplay at the heart of Dead Island is pretty solid. The problems arise when you realise its RPG elements aren’t strong enough and it’s hampered by some significant bugs.
The main problem in Dead Island is poor quest design. If you want to keep players interested beyond the 20 hour mark you need a compelling storyline and interesting, varied quests, neither of which Dead Island has. Too many fetch and escort quests means once the novelty of hitting zombies with a series of ever-more powerful things has worn off, there’s little to keep you playing. Plot, characters and dialogue are all badly-written (to the occasional point of hilarity) and although the levelling-up process allows you to play around with unlocks in three separate skill trees, it all feels a little unimaginative. Even the joy of amassing and upgrading weapons is spoiled once you realise that the game’s economy is utterly demented. You want me to pay a thousand dollars to repair a wooden plank? Seems a little steep, Techland.
To be fair to the developer, it does try to mix things up in the final third of the game by introducing human enemies and gunplay. However - and if you’ve already played Call of Juarez: The Cartel, you’ll know this already – the Chrome Engine 5 really doesn’t do gunplay well. It’s incredibly sluggish and imprecise, which is surprising given that the previous two CoJ games were solid shooters. It’s at this point in the game that you realise just how sloppy Dead Island is. Sure, you’ll have spotted a few glitches earlier on but the fun of the zombie-bashing takes precedence. Yet, when you’re dealing with rubbish gunplay, dreadful AI, a hugely inconsistent framerate and unpredictable collision detection it all starts to take a toll. At one point, I became tempted to quit the game altogether and abandon this review after finding myself stuck on a small staircase for over ten minutes, unable to climb to the top.
This general sloppiness leaves a bitter taste and conspires to rob you of all incentive to continue through to the end of the campaign. Those playing with friends via the online co-op mode are more likely to persevere and, while it is undoubtedly a fun co-op experience initially, the novelty soon wears off and you’re left with a pretty flawed first person melee game (and a dreadful shooter). It’s a genuine shame that the game fails to live up to the promise of that fantastic trailer. With some technical polish and a whole lot more imagination, Techland could have created something unique in the zombie genre. However, like the zombies it depicts, what Dead Island needs more than anything is braaaiiiiiiins.