Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dead Island Review

Conceived in 2005, Dead Island finally makes its shambling way to shop shelves, invigorated by a promotional boost but carrying some telltale traits picked up during its six-year gestation. What began as a straight survival FPS – a wide-eyed go-anywhere, wield-anything premise – arrives looking a bit peaky. We spy Borderlands-shaped toothmarks on its loot-focused weapon customisation and fourplayer online co-op. Elsewhere, NPCs bear Oblivion-esque side missions – with none of Bethesda’s branching outcomes – while zombie types echo Left 4 Dead’s. Only Banoi Island itself remains Techland’s own, complete with all the texture, audio and animation glitches we’ve come to expect from its Chrome Engine.
Dead Island delivers death by a thousand cuts, both literal and figurative. The literal cuts are almost good fun. As zombie hordes (or, thanks to limited tech, zombie tens) shuffle closer, a series of melee blows result in chucklesome injuries. Wrenches split heads, butchers’ knives cleave legs clean off and baseball bats dislocate arms, leaving them swinging impotently from the shoulder. Hit a sprinting infected with a well-timed swipe and its head pops off in slow motion as momentum sees the body comically run on by. In a game about bashing zombies, the zombies look suitably bashed. The problems arise from the bashing.
For a game built primarily around melee combat, the swinging arc is an inexact science. Some blows clip enemies visibly out of reach, while others refuse to snag bodies filling the screen. The vital kick move, handily knocking attackers down, sees the player’s leg constantly alter its length. Sometimes we are lanky Bruce Campbell, at others a wee Sarah Michelle Gellar. The mystery of this ever-changing limb is more engaging than Techland’s yarn. Console players get the added bonus of an inconsistent auto-aim, refusing to dish out the head lops that come more easily to PC mouse-wielders. What should be laughs of vindictive satisfaction are more often snorts of genuine surprise.
The survival fiction is particularly inept. Items respawn after a short window of time, lending infinite resources to a narrative that trades on desperate struggle. On a micro level, it leads to the absurd. Characters cry about dehydration as energy drinks lie at their feet, while tricky supply runs sit at odds with the infinite quantity of canned food in the room next door. And these inconsistencies cannot be forgiven with a weary shake of the head. Ongoing trade missions can be exploited as XP mines, while weapons need never go blunt thanks to endless trading funds. Only an awkward shopping interface dissuades such underhand play – every item has to be sold one unit at a time. Selling 17 magnets in a row is a true survival horror.
Enemies also magically reappear in precisely the same locations. Banoi operates with the mechanical efficiency of a ghost train: you mentally map which corpses suddenly spring to life and note the back alleys that lead to bigger brute types. Where progress should be a tense procession of life-or-death decisions – do you settle for a knockdown or sacrifice weapon integrity on a kill? – Banoi undermines your every move. Is Techland riffing on Dawn Of The Dead’s notion that zombies return out of ‘some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do’? In the 1978 zombie movie, it was satirical. Here, it seems farcical; a neat and tidy undead Westworld, reset every morning for the next busload of Romero buffs.
Find three other Romero buffs and Dead Island improves. For starters, competing to find the NPC with the worst acting on Banoi is a fun pastime, but playing with company certainly helps make sense of the four character skill trees. In singleplayer, both the throwing and firearms classes are at a disadvantage against the AI’s rush tactics. And the gun-free opening area makes the markswomen all but pointless for the first five hours of the game. Let two melee-trained friends take the close-quarters brunt, however, and some semblance of tactics emerges. And neat matchmaking – the game automatically invites you to join strangers with similar level and story progress – means Dead Island rarely has to be endured alone.
Playing with close friends proves more problematic. Enemies level with the highest-ranking player, so newcomers joining at a later point find the odds stacked against them. Thanks to weapon levelling, during our playtest one online companion was unable to wield any of the tools available to him. In order to develop his stats to a basic stick-waving standard, we had to sniff out lone zombies, disarm them (literally) and let the newbie sheepishly kick them to death. Pangs of paternal pride aside, this is a ludicrous solution to a problem that shouldn’t be there in the first place.
The remainder of the time is spent wrestling with a checklist of flaws. Lazy asset recycling, ugly character models (every female has porn-star proportions and the bikini to prove it), loose driving and inconsistent world logic (some doors breakable, some not) remind us that Banoi comes from the same place as Call Of Juarez: The Cartel. An additional quirk sees everyone refer to your character as ‘him’ – even if you play as a woman.
Considering our aforementioned proportions, this seems particularly inexplicable. The world doesn’t have the charm to warrant forgiveness, and progress-halting bugs prevent it anyway. With regular AI freezes and vanishing items, a mistimed autosave can prove fatal. Ultimately it all invites the refashioning of another line from Romero. When there’s no more room in development hell, the dead losses will walk the Earth.


  1. OH MAN, ME AND MY BOYFRIEND HAVE BEEN PLAYING THIS GAME NONSTOP. <3 I like being the chinese lady. sharp melee ftw.

  2. I didn't like it. Tried it for an hour on pc and wasn't impressed at all.

  3. Thanks for sharing this information! I can not wait to play it!!!!!!!!!