Rather than stumbling onto shelves like a zombified brain muncher, Techland’s ambitious new IP, Dead Island, exploded onto the videogame scene thanks to a rather brilliant trailer that seemed to have just about everyone talking about it. With its slick production values and notorious wow moment, Dead Island had piqued the interest of the gaming public long before most folk had seen so much as a screenshot.
With the trailer going viral and the intriguing combination of open world gameplay, RPG-style progression and tropical setting promising a wholly unique take on the zombie shooter, Dead Island quickly became one of the most exciting prospects of 2011. Now on shelves, Dead Island proves to be a much more formulaic experience than the trailer suggested, but one that can certainly be enjoyed if you are willing to forgive its myriad of glitches and poor design choices.
Playing like the bastard child of Left 4 Dead, Oblivion and Far Cry, Dead Island is an experience quite unlike any other. Struggling to match the developer’s ambition, the games engine and budget are clearly stretched to breaking point. Home to a laundry list of technical issues that would have crippled a lesser game, Dead Island somehow gets by thanks to its brilliant premise, some fantastic ideas and the simple joy of killing zombies with your friends. It’s far from perfect, but Dead Island’s co-op-centric zombie shooter proves more than the sum of its parts.
After picking one of four characters, you’re let loose on the island to deal out the pain. There is the semblance of a story to follow but it’s the same regardless of what character you choose and is wafer thin at best. It’s there as a vague excuse to put you and a few friends on an island infested with the walking dead, but in fairness, it does that job admirably. Dead Island never put story at the forefront of the experience, instead, like Borderlands, this is more about loot drops, leveling up your character and creating fantastically OTT weaponry.
Played on its own, Dead Island is an enjoyable enough experience but it’s clear from the design that this is a game that is supposed to be played with your buddies on board. The drop in and out gameplay works well and keeps the game flowing but the requirement to group players together based on story progression rather than XP level does have its problems. If you happen to be of a considerably lower level than the others in the group, taking down zombies is going to prove a major problem. While the scaling difficulty of enemies does make sense under perfect conditions, coming up against a group of zombies of a much higher level with no added incentive to take them down can turn the game into a teeth grinding chore.
Get a group of players together of a similar level, however, and Dead Island’s melee heavy combat really starts to shine. Despite issues concerning collision detection and the successful judgment of range, Dead Island’s brutal melee combat is consistently entertaining thanks to a wide range of weapons and the pleasing way in which zombies fall to pieces as you hack at their limbs.
Although initially basic, after the introduction of the workbench and a bit more cash, the chance to be a creative zombie killer really comes into its own. With knife bombs and poisonous blades becoming the standard, Dead Island’s melee will most likely remain the main focus of attack for the majority of gamers even after guns become more readily available later in the game.
Unlike the smart implementation of the melee controls that revolve around a stamina guage and well placed attacks, the gunplay feels rudimentary and underthought by comparison. With its basic aiming mechanics and lack of oomph, shooting in Dead Island feels like something of an afterthought. This is highlighted perfectly by the fact that you are literally unable to pick up a gun until you reach level 10. What the hell is that about? Even if you pick the firearm expert as your character, you are still forced to wait until you hit the magic number. Unbelievable. Even when you do reach the level required, guns are still relatively scarce until much later in the game, at which point you will probably be fully committed to your melee arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, guns are still useful on occasion, but compared to the quality of shooters out there, Dead Island falls painfully short. And anyway, what’s the fun in shooting a zombie when you can stab one with a knife attached to a bomb.
Be it on your own or with friends, the variety of mission types is relatively impressive. None of them are hugely unique but they do enough to take your mind of the disappointing main story and will certainly keep you entertained for the game’s 25+ hour running time. These missions range in difficulty, but most are just the right side of challenging, and while there is no limit to the amount of times you can continue, the cash based punishment for death means that you’ll want to keep you guy/gal’s little heart beating for as long as possible – with weapon degradation being a constant threat, you’re going to need some serious readies to keep your arsenal up to scratch.
The more I write about this game, the easier I find it to remember the good times rather than the bad, but in case I haven’t made it clear, Dead Island is home to some pretty bad times. Beyond the co-op-centric design having an adverse effect on single player gameplay, Dead Island’s ropey graphics engine and plethora of visual glitches can be extremely annoying. There’s nothing here that is particularly game breaking, but there are more than enough minor issues to pull you out of the experience. That’s not to mention the appalling voice work, terrible script and strange looking inhabitants (and no, I’m not talking about the zombies).
The sandbox world created is impressive in scale, has some fantastic examples of artistic design and has a certain consistency lacking from other open world locations. Sadly, it’s also quite ugly and home to its fair share of poor animations, glitchy environments and strange design choices.
Dead Island is a game of contradictions…..and zombies…..loads of zombies. It’s brilliant, terrible, ugly and beautiful. It’s cutting edge and old fashioned. It’s great fun and hugely irritating. It’s……well, it’s a little bit of everything. The only thing I can say for certain, is that it definitely isn’t is boring. For those who can look past the glitches and poor design choices, Dead Island will provide hours upon hours of fun. Just be warned; this is a game you’ve got to want to love, because, at times, it feels like it wants to be hated.
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