Developer Techland is beginning to make a name for itself as a progressive, forward-thinking studio with some lofty ideas but not enough resources to realise them. Dead Island does not buck the developer's burgeoning trend. Part Borderlands, part Fallout, part Diablo, Dead Island is an inventive first person survival horror with some lofty ambitions, but the experience is marred by a number of technical shortcomings and some core design issues.
What is Dead Island? It's been the question on the tip of everybody's tongue since that infamous teaser trailer hit the Web and went viral. It's not what you think it is, that's for sure. While the teaser trailer depicted an emotive family scene in reverse, the only thing that will bring you to tears in the actual game is when it 'accidentally' corrupts your save file. But more on that later.
If Dead Island is absolutely nothing like the teaser trailer that it earned such stunning mind share in the first place, what is it? Well, it's a mish-mash of a number of popular titles: there's the co-operative questing of Borderlands; the post-apocalyptic landscape of Fallout 3; the loot-driven emphasis of Diablo; the brutal melee combat of Condemned, and the shuffling undead hordes of Resident Evil. It's a disparate collection of ideas, but against all prejudices it comes together in a surprisingly compelling manner. Unfortunately, some unforgivable technical issues and flawed game design mar what could (and probably should) have been an exceptional, fundamentally unique RPG had it been given a little more time in the oven.
No time is wasted in reminding you of developer Techland's personality. An opening introduction movie — which wouldn't look out of place in Call Of Juarez: The Cartel — shows a shuffling protagonist mince his way through a club, sucking back on a bottle of vodka and generally irritating those trying to have a good time. Through the haze of the protagonist's eyes we get a good glimpse of Banoi, the game's tropical setting and all-round holiday destination for no hoper twenty-somethings looking to get off their faces. As the protagonist's gaze blurs, we get the first idea that something's not quite right. A security guard is tackled at the neck by another holiday maker. A lady lies passed out on the floor in the women's restroom. The protagonist steals the injured woman's pills and retires to his room before glugging them down with a final drop of beer and passing out. Unfortunately, Banoi is overwhelmed with the undead while the protagonist sleeps things off.
From there Dead Island gets down to business. You actually have four playable characters to choose from, and as with other Techland games each of them is as unlikable as the next. We plucked for Xian, an Asian undercover agent with an affinity for blades. Each character has their own unique speciality, be it firearms, melee or throwing weapons. This gives each of the characters their own 'Fury' attack — a special move that's executed once you've racked up enough kills — but otherwise there's no real discernible difference. Xian, for example, is equally savvy with sticks and guns, despite being described as a knife expert.
Character choice doesn't really have an impact on the narrative either, with quests largely unfolding in the same way regardless of your chosen protagonist. Since you're mysteriously immune to the effects of a zombie bite, you find yourself being leaned on by Banoi's remaining survivors, tasked with locating and delivering food, as well as escorting mechanics and specialists to fix various objects and — cynically — do whatever is required to transform the game into a 25 hour adventure. The reality is that the questing system, particularly the sidequests, is heavily contrived, though Dead Island is not the only game guilty of this. Delivering champagne to drunken playgirls amid a zombie apocalypse adds a certain charm to the grindhouse leanings.
Dead Island is not ashamed to admit it's a video game. Every inch of its presentation is accommodated with numbers, and experience points, and destinations, and quest lists. The action plays out from a first person perspective and relies heavily on close quarters combat. Upon being thrust out into the tropical resort of Banoi, you'll find yourself clutching at the R1 button, desperately trying to fend off oncoming foes with a canoe paddle.
The controls are a little hokey, but there's a realistic clarity in the way characters move. The camera sways as you walk and wobbles as you thrust weapons forward. Dead Island is all about judging distance: dodging and then landing a well-placed strike. A subtle lock-on mechanic allows you to target specific limbs and body parts, making for an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse as you attempt to disable opponents by breaking arms — or you could simply slash their heads off.
Dead Island is packed with some truly cringeworthy moments — snapping a zombie's arms is perhaps most satisfying, rendering them pretty much harmless while you beat away at their head. You can also kick to give yourself breathing room, and later stamp on the zombies' heads to deliver a quick kill. This is, of course, all populated by flashing hit points, and glowing XP awards, all of which float off into the distance adding a satisfaction beyond the visceral combat itself.
While the combat's fun, it does get a bit repetitive. After a good eight hours or so spent killing everything we encountered, we later re-opted for the more straightforward "sprint" to the checkpoint option. As things move on, you quickly find yourself getting overwhelmed by progressively more difficult corpses, and subsequently it really begins to lose its sheen.
Therein lies one of the biggest issues with Dead Island. The sense of progression is continuously broken by the game's desire to keep foes within the same level range as your character. While this ensures a challenge from start to finish, it also kills the illusion that your protagonist is actually growing in stature at all. Sure, you're allowed to use much more powerful weapons, but the zombies you're facing also become that much more tough to kill, leaving you right back at square one. One of the most satisfying features of the RPG genre is its ability to depict some kind of development journey — building your character as you progress. Dead Island completely eschews that philosophy, favouring a much drier experience.
That's not to say Techland should have crafted a much easier game. Dead Island is actually rather well-balanced, but it just doesn't make sense that you can return to areas that were originally populated with level one zombies only to find that they're suddenly overflowing with level 20s.
As such, the pace is very laborious. Make no mistake, it's a tense affair throughout, helped partially by the game's phenomenal audio design. The cower and shriek of zombies in the distance never fails to get the blood pumping, especially when you're low on health with no sign of resources in the distance. The sense of isolation contrasted against the tropical — and, later, city and jungle settings — creates a wholly unique tone that side-steps the expectations of a post-apocalyptic zombie game. Dead Island is not always the best looking game in the world, but it certainly has its moments as you look out on blue-skied vistas and through dense, tropical foliage.
Sadly, it doesn't quite run as well as static screenshots might suggest. The game's plagued by a host of technical issues, from screen tearing to unexplainable pops in the audio. The framerate also has hiccups, especially when running, often jumping a good few frames as the game world pops into view with a disorienting last generation feel.
In its defence though, Dead Island does a lot. Its world is huge, separated into a variety of enormous environments: just one of these would have been perfectly ample for a retail release. Each world is well-defined and distinguishable from the last, so the game gives you plenty of new eye candy to go questing in. It's a shame, then, that the quests are so frequently dry. Like so many MMOs and JRPGs, Dead Island falls into the trappings of "fetch this" or "do that", and there's never really much encouragement to comply. XP and weapon mods — which allow you to combine the items you find around the resort in order to craft unique killing apparatus — give enough incentive to keep going, but it's only because the game manages to lock you into that age-old 'one more quest' sensibility. It's certainly not because the quests are particularly exciting — outside of a few exceptions of course.
With the game world so big, you're able to drive a number of vehicles around Banoi. Cars drive in first person and can accommodate four players, making them extremely useful in co-operative play. They are also a helpful method of knocking off the undead, as one swift connection with your car's bumper almost guarantees insta-death; fantastic in those tense, improvised moments where you need to kill a group of enemies fast.
Death is also handled interestingly, with no game over screen to speak of. Once felled by a group of the undead, you'll take a hit to your wallet and respawn in a nearby area. This takes some of the frustration out of getting your behind kicked, and has a bigger impact than you might initially perceive. Finances are imperative in Dead Island, with weapons degrading in quality the more you use them. With this mechanic in place, you'll need to frequently return to work benches in order to repair the items in your arsenal. While it's less important at the start of the game, as you happen upon indispensable weapons you'll want to ensure they're always in tip-top shape. That can be an expensive endeavour.
Co-op works fine, suggesting nearby players as you navigate the game-world. Smashing up zombies in a group is genuinely enjoyable, but it does push the engine even harder than in single player, causing some ridiculous animations and increasingly frequent frame drops. The system is uneven but it works, allowing you to tackle sidequests independently and story quests together. Progress is saved when players quit, while your solo checkpoint can be restored at any time.
Unfortunately the lack of a manual save option meant we crawled into a very unpleasant issue which caused us to lose around three hours of progress. Dead Island's auto-save glitch is now well-documented around the web, and occurred to us post-patch. The issue meant we not only had to sacrifice a number of trophies — which inexplicably didn't pop, despite the in-game tracking system noting we'd earned them — but also meant we dropped back three whole chapters of progress. Given the game's already arguably repetitive nature, it's needless to say we weren't overly impressed when the realisation dawned upon us.
Dead Island's not the first open-world title to be marred by inexplicable glitches; Fallout is famous for being the same way. But here, without the option to save when you feel like it, it's a risky scenario to be in. We recommend waiting for a new patch or having a good read into Dead Island's saving issues before you embark on your quest, or you risk losing progress as we did.
It's funny, because in spite of its issues there's the nugget of a fantastic idea hidden in Dead Island. In fact it's more than a nugget. The game is repetitive, buggy and flaky all over; but it's desperately moreish at the same time. The game manages to capture none of the emotion of its trailer — aside from a throw-away reference at the start of the game — and yet it conjures up something entirely different. It's hard to dislike Dead Island in spite of its evident issues, and that's perhaps its saving grace.
Like much of Techland's output over the past few years, Dead Island is flawed but packed with potential. The developer really needs to seek some additional talent — a couple of lead designers, coders and artists that can transform the studio into a real powerhouse. Dead Island comes agonisingly close, and is an enjoyable ride if you can withstand its issues, but it's still several layers of polish short from the blockbuster Techland clearly intended.