Version tested: Xbox 360
Remember the Dead Island teaser trailer? Of course you do. It "went viral" as marketing people with spreadsheets like to say. That means everybody saw it, posted it on Facebook, emailed it to their friends and said, "Hey, what's this Dead Island game all about?"
Played in reverse, we saw how a pretty young girl's fatal plunge from a hotel window was not the result of exorbitant room service fees but a zombie outbreak at a tropical resort. The mystery was almost unbearable. What was this game? Where had it come from? Was it a shooter? An adventure? The trailer wasn't saying. It was simply slick, artful, intriguing and loaded with promise. Remember it? Good. Now forget it, because Dead Island the game is nothing like the trailer.
It is, in fact, almost the complete opposite. Much like the moaning corpses that you're destined to spend a lot of time hacking to pieces, Dead Island is a shambling, lurching thing, falling to bits in important areas and frankly a bit whiffy up close. It's also strangely compelling, provided you're a forgiving sort who doesn't flinch at wonky coding and weird design decisions.
Now that we've established that Dead Island is a ramshackle B-movie rather than a streamlined blockbuster, let's clear up another misconception. This is not just a horror action game with occasional RPG bits glued on. It's a full-on openworld horror role-playing game, complete with crafting, side quests and skill trees. In fact, I'll put money on the fact that the conversation at developer Techland's Warsaw HQ started with the question, "What would happen if Fallout 3 and Left 4 Dead went on a holiday to the Far Cry island?" That, in a blood-stained disembowelled nutshell, is Dead Island.
The first order of business is to pick your character from a selection of four. Each has their own nominal speciality - blades, melee, firearms and throwing - but in gameplay terms the difference is minor. Each has their own "Fury" attack, activated by accumulating hits against enemies, but otherwise there's no discernible advantage. Having picked the firearms specialist - a feisty female Australian cop - I felt no particular handicap while restricted to sticks and knives in the opening act, nor did it seem like there was any noticeable benefit once guns entered the arsenal.
Character choice doesn't really affect the story either, as the quests unfold in the same way regardless of who you control. As you're mysteriously immune to the effects of a zombie bite, you find yourself sent all over the island in pursuit of possible rescue plans, or just retrieving things for fellow survivors. Family heirlooms, siblings, even bottles of champagne - all are in demand, and rewarded with bonus XP, cash and unique objects or blueprints for powerful weapon mods.
That's all further down the line though. The big hurdle where Dead Island is concerned are those first few hours where you're not entirely sure what sort of game it's supposed to be, and all you can see are the ugly technical problems.
Graphically, it's a bit of a dog. The Chrome 5 engine conjures up the same jagged Duplo jungle foliage as it did for the wretched Sniper: Ghost Warrior, and constantly struggles with textures, edges and frame-rates. Character models are downright disturbing, with marionette animations and distracting staring bug-eyes. The zombies, at least, are supposed to look horrible but even they're blighted by crude skins and spurting blood that looks like it's been added in MS Paint.
Control feels stiff at first, and finding the measure of the melee combat takes some patience. Judging your reach is problematic, not helped by flaky collision detection that leaves you swearing that your machete just whizzed through a zombie's head without leaving a mark.
It's in the opening sections where the immediate desire to mash zombies to bits grinds most awkwardly against the restrictions of the RPG framework. Playing as a cop-trained firearms expert, only to be told you can't actually shoot a pistol because you're not level 10, is about as immersion-breaking as you can get. It also gets tiresome, constantly foraging around for pipes, planks and kitchen knives with which to defend yourself as you jog from poolside bar to lifeguard tower to gas station.