Issues as contagious as a deadly zombie bite
You remember that trailer, right? The one that told the harrowing story of a small family torn apart by a fleshthirsty zombie infestation. The one with the slick editing, beautiful music, memorable imagery and emotional resonance we so rarely see in video games. The one that took the internet by storm and re-introduced us all to Dead Island; the zombie game that might just pull at the heartstrings, offering more than just a comical bash of undead slaying. Well you can forget all about that trailer, because that’s all it was: a trailer. Dead Island, the video game, is more of what we expect from a zombie game. Heads will be severed, limbs will be broken, and there won’t be a shred of poignancy about it. This is zombie killing 101.
There are no tales of a little girl and her fatal family vacation, or a gripping story about surviving against the odds; the narrative in Dead Island essentially boils down to getting the hell out of dodge. Its setup sees the beautiful, tropical holiday island of Banoi being overrun by the living dead. As someone immune to the plight, you’re charged with helping the pockets of survivors populating the island’s various safe houses. There are no memorable characters or interesting story beats here, it’s all very simple and functional, with the majority of characters providing quests and little else. Dead Island is an RPG after all, taking inspiration from multiple sources, with Borderlands and Fallout 3 being the most deliberate. That’s not to say it’s bereft of its own ideas, however. Introducing open-world and role playing elements to a zombie apocalypse is certainly an anomalous idea, and its darker tone is a refreshing change of pace from something like Dead Rising, even if the fiction is disappointingly paper-thin. In fact, the most comprehensive semblance of story comes courtesy of each playable characters skippable back-story.
There are four characters to choose from, each coming with their own specialised skills for slaying the hordes of undead terrorising Banoi Island. Sam B, for instance, is a beefy rapper, capable of massacring zombies with blunt weapons; while the more fleet-footed assassin, Xian Mei, is handy with a few quick swipes of a blade. They all have their own stats and unique skill trees so who you choose comes down to personal preference. However, despite being able to play Dead Island in either single player or co-op, some characters work best when playing with other people. Purna, the firearms expert, is fairly pointless early on since guns aren’t seen until two thirds of the way through the game, but in co-op her group buffs prove useful. Sure, she can still use any of the plethora of melee weapons laying around the island, but it’s not much fun when her specialised skills have no use until later in the game.
Playing Dead Island in either single player or multiplayer also begets vastly different experiences. As a co-op game with up to four players it usually descends into madness. It’s both funny and enjoyable as you wreck havoc on the island, teaming up to annihilate each zombie you see; bumbling into trucks and completing quests with relative ease. With the right people focus is easily lost as you find increasingly more comical ways to procrastinate around the island, experimenting with ludicrous ways to kill both the living dead and each other. But as a single player experience it takes on a glaringly different tone. Those hordes you were disposing of so easily are now overmatching you, charging in and surrounding every inch of your view. Here, combat becomes methodical and tactile, a stamina bar dictating your swings, dodges and desperate rushes for safety. Very few games successfully execute enjoyable first-person melee combat, but Dead Island is more than adept at the art of steel pipe-led skull crushing.
Each swing of a baseball bat, hammer, police baton or machete is met with a gratifying thud and explosion of blood, body parts and eviscerated zombies. Combat is brutal and gory, allowing you to aim for specific body parts in an attempt to impede the progress of each flesh-hungry cadaver you encounter. It opts for a deluge of zombie types, offering both the slow-moving kind and the frighteningly quick runners - as well as some bigger, acid-vomiting, suicidal monstrosities – so the combat keeps you on your toes. The seven-foot tall Thugs proposition one such deviation from the regular undead massacre. They’re immeasurably slow - their blood-curdling groans filling the air - but one hit from their hulking frame is enough to send you flying. With precise timing to avoid their wild swings you can get in close, bashing their arms with whatever blunt object you can find, breaking limbs in several places. His once effective arms become limp and disjointed, rendering him unable to do anything beyond desperately gnawing at you with his disfigured skull. From there it’s just a case of finishing the job, decapitating him with one fell swoop of a custom-built, electrified machete.
While Dead Rising 2 allowed you to build increasingly absurd contraptions of destruction, Dead Island takes a more realistic approach. You won’t be combining boxing gloves with a box of nails in a simple and nonsensical fashion; instead, overtime, you’ll eventually loot enough items that a nailed baseball bat becomes a viable option. It makes sense, and you’ll eventually have enough blueprints and items that your entire arsenal will be filled with crafted weapons that provide both efficiency and predominantly satisfying rib-breaking. Particularly once you start finding colour-coded (in traditional RPG fashion) rare weapons and use your hard-earned cash to both repair and upgrade them.
It would be futile to question why you’re paying considerable amounts of money to a workbench, so just know that it serves its purpose. Upgrading weapons is fairly simple, allowing you to splurge cash on each weapon for a stat-increase over four levels. Weapon degradation on the other hand, will prove a Marmite issue. As your weapons break it encourages experimentation with each instrument in your arsenal, but repairing them can be expensive, and the unwieldy in-game menus make it a chore as you’re forced to use it time after time.
Though clunky menus are just a small issue when compared to some of Dead Island’s other wholesale problems. There’s no doubting the island of Banoi is a beautiful place. It provides a striking contrast between a tropical holiday resort - filled with golden beaches and luxurious swimming pools - and the grotesque and sickening mayhem caused by the zombie infestation. The scale is fantastic, its four distinct areas stretching for miles and offering plenty of exploration. You’ll loot bodies and suitcases, find a vast array of weapons and rescue stranded survivors in the most obtuse corners of the map. There’s so much to do but so little of it varies. The majority of the missions are fetch quests, asking you to travel from point A to B and back again, picking up supplies of soda or much-needed medical aid. Forget the fact that items constantly respawn causing NPC’s to begrudge the dwindling supplies when the room next door is filled with them; it’s just not very exciting, quickly settling into a formula of tedium and predictability. One section has you travelling though a set of linear, corridor-crawling sewers that repeat themselves ad nauseam in what is one of the low points of the game. Its excellent melee combat and exploration possibilities carry the mission structure for the first ten hours or so, but eventually it becomes a chore to play as you embark on yet another monotonous fetch quest.
Dead Island is also burdened by plenty of technical issues associated with open-world games of this scale. There have been patches since release to fix a whole host of problems, but some still remain. In some cases there have been instances of quest-givers completely disappearing, and then at other times it will give you credit for completing a quest you’ve never even seen before. There are also scripting issues in some quests where enemies won’t appear, and the inventory is often stated as being full despite there being plenty of free spaces, leaving you unable to pick up new items. These may not be severe game breaking bugs, though other gamers have experienced save game deletion and hard lock-ups so it depends on your fortunes. Other issues stem from a general lack of polish and range from visual glitches to a lack of differentiation between playing alone and with other people. NPCs will often refer to you as a group even if you’re playing alone, and this is more glaringly illogical when it comes to cutscenes as they have a propensity to feature all four characters when there is only one.
These are unfortunate issues that will frequently frustrate, but it’s the mission design that proves most disappointing. Its scale is highly ambitious but Dead Island’s population of living dead aren’t enough to compensate for its barren lack of variety and an increasingly tedious structure. There’s fun to be had with its brutal, measured combat, but it’s not enough to carry Dead Island through the grind of laborious quests and a non-existent narrative. Proceed this apocalypse with caution.