Also available on: PlayStation 3, PC
Publisher: Deep Silver
Genre: First-person action
We've all heard about those holidays from hell. Baggage lost at the airport, hotel half-built, a gang of 18-30s turning the pool into a drunken orgy. But these problems are nothing on waking up with a hangover to find that almost every other guest in your five-star resort paradise sees you as a walking buffet.
Techland's ambitious Dead Island video game takes the well-worn zombie survival genre and lobs it head-first into the glittering sunshine, cocktails and all. The game initially appears as a promising mix of Far Cry and Left 4 Dead, but, unfortunately, this island is as infested with design flaws and bugs as it is bikini-clad undead.
However, Dead Island's overriding enthusiasm somehow makes you forgive its problems, as the visceral thrill of battering zombies with sticks, bats and other blunt instruments just never really gets old. Dead Island is a first-person action game but it also majors on RPG elements, particularly in the Borderlands-style looting and the levelling-up of player skills.
It takes place on the large island of Banoi (presumably a portmanteau of Bali and Hanoi) which is absolutely littered with infested, flesh-eating former partygoers. The mission structure is open, with the main story quests driving the narrative forward, while optional side-missions enable you to help out other survivors and upgrade your arsenal. Four-player co-op support and mashing away at the zombies with three buddies is an absolute blast. But to talk about Dead Island's strong suits, it's almost impossible not to first talk about its flaws.
Problems abound with the game. The four-player co-op is tremendous fun, but it also has rather braindead drawbacks. The drop-in, drop-out system does not compensate for the level of each player's character and so unless all four players started the game together, there is a chance on latter stages that newer players could be horrifically under-powered against tougher foes.
Then there is the navigation, which is at best woolly and at worse downright confusing. All too often it's unclear what the game wants you to do, leading to lots of wandering around trying to figure the mess out. The erratic mini-map doesn't help make things any clearer.
You don't get your hands on a gun until quite far into the game, and even then it's a mixed experience. Some of the four available characters are virtually useless with a firearm, making the process of blowing away zombies an unsatisfying experience when it should be a ball.
But despite all these issues one thing remains apparent - mashing zombies in the head with blunt instruments is an absolute joy. This is particularly due to the marvellous theatre of death in Dead Island. Zombies can be punted off cliffs to humorous deaths, mown down in cars for lashings of XP, or cleaved of their heads with machetes. It's gory, and it's brutal, but it's also guilt-free violent fun, similar to the Dead Rising series.
Clubs, mallets and other blunt instruments can be modified with items picked up from the environment to inflict even more bloody carnage, such as machetes charged with electric bolts. With immediate respawns putting you pretty much straight back into the action after you die, it's easy to get lost for hours dispatching the infected.
Alongside the blunt instruments, there is also a kick attack to either beat away an enemy, or kick them to death while they are down (which is somewhat unsettling at times). Combat moves can also be upgraded using the XP-based RPG system, while a Rage mechanic is activated when the meter is full allowing one-hit kills for a limited time.
The visual presentation of Dead Island is also a mixed bag. The game occasionally offers a beautiful vista and dizzying set piece, but overall the graphics and character animations fall rather short of current generation standards. Characters often stutter and jerk in their movements, while it's far too easy to get snagged on parts of the environment, particularly when it's a vehicle. But, again, every time Dead Island disappoints, it also delights with some really nice touches. The difference in lighting between the sun-baked outside areas and the gloomy interiors is great, while the real-time damage to the melee weapons adds to the sense of immersion.
Adding atmosphere to the world is the audio, particularly the constant moans of the undead. When in the darker areas there are genuine frights to be had upon hearing the unearthly groan of an oncoming foe. Likewise, the game gets truly frantic when multiple zombies come charging at you a la 28 Days Later.
The open-world structure is well realised, throwing up the genuine sense of danger in the infested open spaces, against the relative serenity of the safe havens. The script and supporting characters are wholly forgettable, throwing up the usual survival horror clichés, but the missions that they trigger are varied, challenging and entertaining.
All missions can be tackled as the player chooses and are clearly marked with their difficulty level and the amount of XP or additional items you will earn. This engenders a real sense of freedom to the player, in that Banoi is a genuinely open world where you can do what you want, even if that is just obliterating the undead.
The game introduces new areas of the island intelligently to always keep the player feeling challenged and keen to progress. The move from the coastal areas to the city and beyond presents new enemies to tackle, items to collect and quests to fulfil. The constant fetch quests can get a touch repetitive at times, but the overriding joy of the combat always keeps a lid on the flaws, particularly if you can get three friends to join in the action.
Techland has aimed high with Dead Island, but ultimately fallen short of truly realising a Borderlands-esque open-world undead killfest. The game lacks the sophistication of other zombie games such as Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil, and has enough design gaffes to sink a battleship. But as long as you have a bit of patience and don't expect a true survival horror experience, you will have oodles of guilt-free fun mashing away at zombies on this twisted beach paradise.
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