Another example of Dead Island struggling to build a cohesive atmosphere is the way in which cash must be spent at workbenches to repair, upgrade and modify weapons. This fits with the game’s RPG progression model, but makes little sense in the zombie apocalypse setting. Why would it cost money to use a workbench? Who are you paying?
Casting these issues aside, though, character progression and a growing sense of empowerment is something in which Dead Island excels, slowly gathering momentum and getting exponentially more enjoyable. Making us wait four or five hours before modifying weapons made us really appreciate it when we finally had the chance. Suddenly, instead of beating back zombies with sticks we were popping heads in one swing with a baseball bat covered in nails, and feeling a good deal more badass in the process.
Similarly, the later character upgrades have far more tangible effects, although some still remain redundant. We upgraded the lockpicking ability thinking it would reward us with super weapons in otherwise inaccessible crates, but it was hardly ever needed, for example. It turns out that it’s best to focus on fury, weapon and stamina upgrades for noticeable improvements.
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Attacking uses stamina, as does running, so you can’t swing manically in self-defence. Kicking doesn’t use any, but causes only a small amount of damage, instead stunning foes. Once a zombie’s stunned you’re more likely to connect with attacks that break or sever limbs, depending on if the weapon’s sharp or blunt. As the game progresses the kick becomes a vital move and can eventually be upgraded to a satisfying, deadly head stomp.
The kick move also enables some of the most raucously violent moments Dead Island has to offer. At one point we threw a flaming knife into an approaching zombie’s chest, halted its approach with a boot to the face, retrieved the knife, and then lopped off its head with it. Nice - and another example of what Dead Island can offer on a moment-to-moment basis.
Although aiming is literally a bit hit-and-miss, combat in Dead Island still manages to be great fun thanks to the variety of ways you can off your foes. Electrocution, fire, poison, projectiles and both blunt and sharp objects can all be used and - more often than not - combined to create a host of gruesome deaths. The game gets even crazier when playing co-operatively as well.
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With four players you can revive each other and team up on the harder, special zombies. More players equal more enemies, but it’s still definitely easier with company, and although it's marketed as a co-operative game Dead Island doesn't feel like it's really been designed as such. Areas aren’t particularly conducive to having multiple players, and the enemy AI is, understandably, incredibly basic. The only features that makes Dead Island feel specifically designed for co-operative play are the cutscenes, which show all four characters no matter how many are actually playing.
Dead Island may not be what some expected from the initial trailer (disproving the common misconception that slow piano music always equals something deep and meaningful), but that’s not necessarily bad. There are plenty of flaws, such as the iffy aiming, average graphics and poor story, but Dead Island still claws back ground with the variety of weapons, the scope and the pleasant progression path. Zombie aficionados won't be wowed, but they could also do a lot worse.