Techland proves its zombie-strewn paradise Dead Island is more Dead Rising than Left 4 Dead.
Published on Aug 31, 2011
It does, now and again, feel like the most vivid, most convincing zombie outbreak you’ve ever played
Dead Island is a lot like most of the weapons employed by its protagonists. It’s crude and a bit broken, but still surprisingly effective… at first. It doesn’t stand up well to sustained, repeated use, though.
Cracks and weak spots gradually start appearing, and its impact and edge are slowly dulled. Still you keep bashing away with it, but it’s just not working as well as it did when you first picked it up.
That satisfying thwack has degraded to a mere disinterested slap. And Dead Island, unlike its weapons, can’t be returned to former heights simply by repairing it at a workbench.
For the first few hours, it appears that Dead Island might just be everything you could want it to be, unless, of course, you still want it to be exactly like that reverse slow-motion trailer. Everyone’s over that by now, right?
But if you want it to be a unique mix of RPG and survival horror juxtaposed with a self-consciously non-militaristic holiday paradise setting, then that’s pretty much what it is at first. It’s rough around the edges and there are various ideas that seem a bit silly, but these issues are outweighed by numerous strong points.
The combat is satisfying and the game world both detailed and refreshingly different, plus the range of missions on offer gives you both a sense of purpose and a feeling of freedom.
It also appears ripe for expansion and exploration at this point, like it’s going to keep unfolding and revealing deeper and more complex layers as you dig into it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out that way.
Like all good RPGs, Dead Island's weapons can apply status effects.
After blowing a pretty substantial load of mostly good ideas early on, Dead Island then spreads itself very thin for the remainder. The periods of by-the-numbers filler wedged into the gaps between fresh-feeling good bits get longer and longer as the game goes on, and there’s a growing sense that Techland may have bitten off a rather larger chunk of braaaiiins than it is actually capable of chewing.
When Dead Island is at its best, you get a strong impression of what Techland was aiming for. The once luxurious and carefree, now desolate and ravaged, locations of the opening act create an atmosphere of real dread, and early zombie encounters feel like desperate struggles for survival.
So you might find yourself wandering along a worryingly quiet beach, scavenging for supplies. Suddenly a hoarse, gurgling cry goes up nearby. You tense up and look to where the scream echoed from. You see nothing.
But then there are more screams, and they’re getting louder. A zombie appears around the side of a hut at the far end of the beach. It’s coming straight for you, and fast!
You leg it across the sand, leap over an upturned canoe and grab a paddle planted into the ground next to it. You turn to face the zombie bearing down on you, then, just as it reaches up to strike, you take a matador-like step to one side and slam a deftly timed paddle smash straight into its face, killing it instantly. Blood soaks into the white sand at your feet and – save for your own heavy, frightened breathing – there is silence again.
Scenarios exactly like this do happen in Dead Island, and they’re really, really cool. But as it wears on, the game proves incapable of sustaining the thrill.
One glaring fundamental flaw is that everything respawns, enemies and items alike. Not only does this totally undermine the survivalist tone of the game – every character claims to be low on supplies, when clearly there’s an infinite supply of almost everything – but it takes away much of the incentive to explore and scavenge.
There's a lot of loot but, then, you probably expected that.
But then it also turns out that there isn’t that much freedom to explore on Banoi anyway. The island eventually reveals itself to be much more structured and linear, and much less of a true open world than it first appears.
Ultimately, you’ll realise that the reason everything respawns is that you’re often retreading the same ground over and over again. It starts to feel less like a decent ‘Fallout on holiday with zombies’ and more like a half-hearted first-person dungeon crawler.
Dead Island is worth checking out just for the moments where it does manage to brush its filthy, rotting fingertips against its own lofty ambitions.
It does, now and again, feel like the most vivid, most convincing zombie outbreak you’ve ever played – even Left 4 Dead feels like a bit of a mindless shooter by comparison. But it’s very hit and miss, and the thriller-to-filler ratio just isn’t as high as it should be.
7.4 / 10
7.7 / 10
7.0 / 10
8.6 / 10
TBA / 10
7.3 / 10
A mix of highs and lows that shows flashes of brilliance but needs more variety, more polish and a genuinely open game world. We’re tentatively hoping for a much-improved sequel.