What's the point of adding a survival mode to a survival horror game? I've been playing Dead Island's new Bloodbath Arena mode all night and still can't work out the answer to that one.
Available for free if you have the pre-order code, or for 800 MS Points, this 1GB download adds a new location to the game's fast travel map. Head over there and you discover a military bunker where urgent evacuation has given way to paranoid boredom. The few remaining soldiers amuse themselves by heading through four different doors to self-contained zombie-infested areas. The goal once you're in an arena is simple: last as long as you can without dying, while enemies come at you in ever-more-deadly waves.
Trouble is, that's not vastly different to what happens in the actual game. Survival modes rely on overwhelming odds, but Dead Island's wheezing engine still struggles with more than 10 zombies in play at a time. While the context may be slightly different, the enemy types are the same (the size of the download is presumably down to the maps themselves) and they attack in the same patterns. There's nothing here to catch you off-guard, which leaves the whole survival aspect rather limp.
You hack away at the horde until they all fall down, then take a quick breather, grab whatever loot you can from the corpses, repair or upgrade your kit and wait for the next attack. It's just now you're doing it for no loftier reason than to see if you can, rather than fending them off while you go about more important apocalyptic business. You know, like collecting bottles or putting up posters.
The arena is not entirely without purpose as you can earn massive amounts of XP while working through 30 waves of action, so for anyone grinding through those last few levels, it's a real boon. There are also unique blueprints to be found, depending on how you perform, and a host of new Achievements if you like your objectives to have a meta quality.
There are also flickers of more interesting ideas visible through the sticky red mist. Each wave will have a challenge attached. Last the wave without running or jumping, for instance, or killing 10 enemies using only bladed weapons. Bonus XP awaits those who manage to comply, though the amount is so small you could earn 10 times more just by killing a wave of zombies.
Where Bloodbath Arena trips up in a tangle of slippery guts is in the arena design. Inspiringly named Arenas A, B, C and D, they range from Easy through to Very Hard, but the maps themselves are perfunctory efforts. The easiest is a circle of mountain pathways around a deadly drop. The others take you to a labyrinthine base, a boggy field and a moonlit swamp.
None, however, offer much room for tactical play beyond the expected. Environmental details are few - the boggy field has an electric fence you can kick zombies into, while exploding barrels abound - but it's really just a matter of rushing around, looking for skull icons on your radar and using the same strategies you've been wearing thin during normal play. Compared to the likes of Call of Duty's zombie modes, where you actually have to barricade windows and doors, or Left 4 Dead 2's objective-driven survival, it all feels very thin.
Teamwork helps, of course. As with the main game, you can play with four players, though you'll have to meet up in the lobby area before heading into an arena. There's no way to jump into a session already in progress. Having four of you dashing around livens things up, but apart from the instinctive urge to watch each other's back the arenas never demand any deeper co-operation.
The game has also received a hefty title update which addresses some of the many technical flaws seen in the original game, and removes some of the more obvious exploits. It's still a shaggy beast though, with jittery animation and visual bugs a constant distraction.
If you have the free code then there's no reason not to give Bloodbath Arena a try, even if all it really adds is a place to quickly grind your way up a few levels. As a paid download, however, it's uninspired stuff. Every game is adding a Horde mode these days, and considered against the competition this is a particularly basic effort.
Will you support Eurogamer?