Some gamers and critics have derided the prominence of zombies in games over the last few years, but it’s easy to see the appeal. Not only do they function as simple metaphors for the malaise of modern life, but they’re also incredibly fun to kill. Plus, even though they look like humans, they’re not. That means there’s no need to feel guilty when dismembering them with electrified machetes, caving in their heads with a baseball bat covered in nails, or both.
Developer Techland understands this and exploits it to the extreme in Dead Island, making brutal action and creative weapons the focus of the adventure. The downside, however, is that the emotionally charged experience promised by Dead Island's melancholy trailer is nowhere to be seen. Instead, there's an action RPG that bathes in gory excesses and offers violence as the only means of interaction or entertainment.
There are four crudely stereotypical characters from which to choose - a rapper, a Chun-Li analogue, a Texan and an ex-cop - each of which has their own weapon specialities and unique 'Fury' attacks. Beyond their violent preferences, however, there's little practical difference between characters; choosing the weapons-expert ex-cop didn't leave us flailing clumsily with melee weapons, for example. Likewise, he didn't offer a huge advantage when guns become more prevalent in the later stages either.
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Instead, the main difference between the characters is what type of supposedly-witty gibberish they end up constantly spouting. Wise players will decide on their character based only on which one they find offers the least moronic of musings.
Story-wise, all the characters are the same and there's no need to worry about missing out on anything, especially given the weakness of the plot. Beginning with an escape from a ransacked hotel guided by an anonymous, disembodied voice, Dead Island's tale is unoriginal and unimpressive from the start; a case of investigating the zombie infection and securing escape.
It's not just the clichés that hold back the story either, but also how poorly it's presented. The graphics are generally average, despite the jagged shadows that pop in and out like a jack in the box, but attempts at dramatic setpieces only ever fall flat thanks to a confused tone that feels half-way between parody and tragedy.
Once you're off the leash of the intro sequence and have escaped the first buildings however, Dead Island starts to steadily improve. The island of Banoi isn't astoundingly pretty, but it has a sense of depth and scale to it that helps compensate for quality with quantity.
The first proper zombie encounter does a good job of conveying fear and panic too, but this is sadly down to awkward controls and inaccurate collision detection, with swings connecting seemingly at random. It's beautifully gory when you do score a good hit, caving in a skull and devastating your undead enemy, but the pleasure of getting a kill is offset by the haphazard approach; the destination overshadowed by the journey.
Dead Island's combat does have its moments, however, most of which arise from the hectic times when your weapons shatter or break, leaving you defenceless and forcing swift retreats.
The moment can quickly turn sour, though. Getting chased while unarmed should feel tense, especially as shambling pursuers groan and gargle behind you, but weapons are fairly scarce and these escapes usually get boring quickly. The idea of using whatever’s lying about to defend yourself is cool and fits well within the zombie genre, but its implementation is limited and immersion breaking. You can’t rip a post off a wooden fence, or grab the nearest parasol; instead you have to wait to find a designated bit of wood or metal pole.