Posted by John on September 7, 2011

Dead Island review [360/PS3/PC]

Posted September 7, 2011 by Jamie Donnelly.

A zombie game focused on survival and melee combat, set on a beautiful tropical island, is an interesting and unique premise. Does DEAD ISLAND live up to its potential, or would it be better off dead? Read on to find out.

I don’t think I can review Dead Island without mentioning the infamous trailer that blazed through the internet and moved this zombie game from relative obscurity to blinding limelight, so I might as well get it out of the way now. This is not the same game that you saw in that trailer. The people behind that video focused on narrative and emotion; they showed us the brutal reality of how a zombie outbreak would play out, and pulled hard on our empathies. Dead Island does none of this. Instead, it shows us corpses, characters mindlessly staggering about, and not a lot else.

A zombie virus has broken out on the remote Banoi island, a picturesque tourist hotspot. And you can see why people would be drawn there: it’s beautiful. Walking through a brightly lit island scene fit for a postcard is a surreal experience when you know zombies could be lurking anywhere, and it makes a very nice change of pace from the usual dark and dingy environments that we have come to expect from the genre.

You play as one of four characters who happen to be immune to the virus and are thus in the perfect position to help all those stuck on the island. Each character specialises in different categories, and I played as Sam B – a washed up rapper who’s still riding on the success of his one hit, ‘Hoodoo Your Voodoo, Bitch?’. He specialised in heavy weapons, and so I took great delight in swinging sledgehammers and mauls into the faces of oncoming rampant zombie folk.

Not enough braaaains

Aside from a short backstory when you choose your character, that choice doesn’t make the blindest bit of difference. It’s a game that’s designed as a co-op experience, but when playing singleplayer you are on your own – at least, until your teammates mysteriously appear in cutscenes. It’s interesting that despite being immune to the virus, the main characters (and most of the supporting cast, for that matter) are all as lacking in emotion and personality as their zombie cohorts. They’re nothing more than a blank template for you to fill, and as a result it is hard to feel any attachment with their struggle and plight.

What’s most problematic about the lack of decent storytelling is that Dead Island is very much an RPG. There are experience points, quest hubs, skill trees, and everything else that is part and parcel of the modern-day genre. The amount of time you can get out of the game is huge if you partake in all the side-quests, and the main quest line has you in for the long haul as well.

The main quest is all about your attempts to get yourself and everybody else off the infected island. There are plenty of other survivors there, holed up in various locations (ranging from the tourist resort to the tribal jungle), and they all have plenty of things which need doing – you quickly discover that when the world is facing its end of days, errand boys will be the real heroes. Quest hubs are extremely busy, and as a result the game is fantastically fun to begin with, as there’s simply so much to do.

Which is why it’s such a shame that Dead Island soon falls into the trap of repetitive and unimaginative quest objectives. Every quest you take on seems to be a fetch or escort mission, and none of it really adds up with the main narrative of the game. You are painted a picture of desperation and struggle, as people barely have the means to survive – many missions task you with finding food and supplies. Despite this, you are constantly walking past crates of fruit and vending machines full of drinks, none of which anybody seems interested in. The escort missions are also a source of frustration: escortees are not designed to take a beating, and powerful zombie types can often kill them before you’ve really had a chance to do anything.

Great baseball bats of fire

Just like the quests, combat starts off fun and exciting. A first-person, melee-focused zombie game is a unique premise, and at first it doesn’t disappoint.  However, as the game drags along towards the latter stages, the combat becomes a repetitive slog and the fun of killing zombies is lost as they simply become an annoying barrier between you and the next objective. At least it’s redeemed somewhat by the weapon modification system – building bombs out of tape and deodorant that you’ve scavenged adds a new dimension to the game, and being able to set fire to your baseball bats or turn a knife into a throwing explosive spices up even the dullest of weapons.

It is unfortunate that weapons deteriorate the more you use them, so your highly powered best friend that you’ve spent lots of money upgrading and modifying will often become useless halfway through a quest without a repair bench nearby. You’ll then break your four backup weapons, and be left hitting zombies with a mundane piece of pipe that is scattered on the ground. I get that it’s part of the survival element, using whatever you can get your hands on, but it seems pointlessly frustrating when you are shackled from using the coolest things in the game for long periods of time.

The combat hits its lowest point when guns are introduced. Gunfights are a tedious stepping stone between you and your objective, and you’re unable to go in close-quarters when faced with humans with ranged weapons. As a result, the single unique premise of Dead Island – that it’s a close quarters, first-person zombie game – goes completely out the window. And by that point, the engaging and entertaining game that was promised has become little more than a faint memory.

Dead Island starts off as an interesting and fun game, but by the end the bland storytelling and repetitive objectives will have rotted your brain and left you in a zombified state.

Dead Island, from Deep Silver and Techland, is out now in North America for Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, and PC. It’ll hit the UK on Friday 9th September.

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