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.
Weapons degrade rapidly with use, and it's only once you gain access to the obligatory workbenches and can start making your makeshift arsenal more robust that things settle into a more agreeable rhythm. Once you're able to tape some batteries to a machete to create a weapon that slices and fries, or a vicious cudgel that delivers flame damage, or a cruel sickle dripping with poison, everything becomes more fun. Maintenance is still an issue, but options on your three-pronged skill tree can make weapons more durable or reduce the cost of repair.
There are guns in the game, of course, but ammo is scarce and it's not until the last of the story's four acts that you'll be able to start blasting away with any consistency. This isn't a bad idea, since the shooting mechanism is basic at best and wouldn't look out of place in a 1998 title. For the most part it's melee all the way, and despite the struggles with collision detection, when enemies are really close it's a decent enough system. Frantic arm-waving is made impossible thanks to a stamina gauge, depleted by each swing as well as sprinting, while distance and angle are both taken into account for each attack.
Bladed weapons show things off to their best advantage. Zombies lose flesh with each slash while arms can be lopped off with a well-aimed (or lucky) hit. Reducing one of the tougher "thug" zombies to a bloody skeleton, with stumps at the shoulder, still desperately trying to bite you, is undeniably fun.
You can also throw any weapon, at which point it sticks out of your target's corpse as it roams around. You can lob a machete at a zombie, then yank it out as it approaches and use it to slice their head off. Alternatives include turning them into a pincushion with multiple throws, or attaching explosives to a knife for a savage spin on the sticky bomb.
Even more vital is the kick move. Easily forgotten in the early going, it proves essential later on, useful for pushing zombies back but more importantly able to knock them over. Once a zombie is on the floor, you can unleash particularly brutal hacking and battering moves, or unlock a foot stomp that crushes their skull instantly. Saving wear and tear on your best weapons, it's a skill worth mastering as soon as possible.
More bizarre is an alternative control system that lets you direct your arms with the analogue sticks in combat. Credit for trying something different, but after just a few minutes its clear why this facility was buried in the options menu. Suffice to say, it gave me nightmarish flashbacks to Jurassic Park: Trespasser.
You can also use vehicles to get from place to place in relative safety, though limited visibility, rudimentary physics and Tonka truck handling means that it's easy to get lodged between scenery items. Speeding into a group of the undead and sending them hurtling to their doom is worth the aggravation, for a while at least.
The vehicles all have four seats, a reminder that this is very much a co-op game. Those playing solo are in for a tricky ride as certain encounters and "special infected" zombie types are clearly designed to be tackled as a team. There's no game over screen, but each death is punished by the deduction of a large chunk of your cash reserves. Not too troubling at the start, but once modified weapons become indispensable and the price of repair and upgrading runs to thousands rather than hundreds of dollars, you see why they made your penalty a financial one. It's the tools that matter here, not the quaint notion of "lives".
Respawning after each death puts you randomly in the same area where you died. Sometimes this will be right back in the middle of the fray. Sometimes it will be somewhere else entirely, often facing the wrong direction. At one point I died in the shallow water on a beach, and reappeared on a rooftop 50 metres away.
The only time the game forces you to reload and tackle a battle again is during escort missions, of which there are rather too many. Here you'll find that enemies are reset, but your weapons and items are not. Use up your Molotov cocktails and break your best weapon in a failed attempt and you'll have to try again with those handicaps already in place. Hoping for a herd-thinning fury attack is the only way out of this cycle of inevitable failure.
Elsewhere, you can see how the need to work around the requirements of co-op play has boxed the design into awkward corners. The game has no manual save, so once the story is completed there's no way to go back and finish off any quests you didn't tackle. Like an elderly driver navigating a tricky roundabout, all you can do is start over and go around again, playing the story from the beginning with your items and player level intact.
The sense of escalation, at least, is well handled. Enemies level up alongside you, so that encounters with zombies remain tense and challenging right up to the end. The engine clearly can't render more than 10 or so at a time, certainly nothing to compare with the crowds of Dead Rising, so this seems like a reasonable compromise. Loot drops are typical of the genre, and combined with the impressive modification options ensure that the drive to constantly improve and add to your arsenal provides compelling momentum even when the game itself struggles.
Co-op play makes the engine work harder, resulting in some hilarious puppet-like animation, but it works in a rudimentary sort of way. Players in the same game are free to roam the map, tackling different side quests, but story progression and fast travel demands all players gather at the same spot. The matchmaking system works not on player level but chapter checkpoints, putting you with players who are at roughly the same place in the game. Progress is automatically saved should other players quit, and your solo checkpoint is restored. It's a clunky and graceless system, but mostly workable and the game is considerably more fun with a full complement of players.
I didn't encounter anything game-breaking in the 26 and a bit hours it took to complete the story solo, or during my forays into co-op play, but it would still be all too tempting to fill this review with complaints about the flaky game engine, the weird floating objects and distracting animation spasms, and annoying glitches like inactive quest points, inconsistent navigation markers and the general air of a scrappy half-finished game. All that stuff is in here, and can easily dominate the experience.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the experience though. Dead Island is a deeply flawed game, but it's also clearly a low-budget game and one that has interesting ideas, often under-served by the bargain-basement code. Finding the diamonds in the rough demands a lot of patience, and enough investment in the base joys of zombie slaughter to tolerate the laundry list of flaws.
I suspect this will be one of those games that will be justifiably mocked by the majority for its many flaws but embraced by a forgiving minority, and passionately defended for its underdog status. Neither response will be entirely wrong. Much like gnawing on human flesh, Dead Island's clumsy horror-action role-player is the definition of an acquired taste.
6 / 10