Would you like to know what the most dangerous thing in gaming is right now? It’s more deadly than playing Kinect on a wooden floor wearing socks, it’s more devastating than throwing your Wii Remote through your television – the bringer of destruction, the crusher of dreams… it’s hype. Case in point – Dead Island.
In development since 2006 and with a mind-blowing trailer which we all know about by now, expectations were at fever pitch. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to nip this in the bud as soon as possible; Dead Island: The Game is nothing like Dead Island: The Trailer. The now-famous CGI teaser was a masterclass in various evocative tools deployed in motion picture to tug at the heartstrings. It was literally faultless, from music, to drama, to the manipulation of time, but as soon as we became more aware of what the actual game was going to be like, it disorientated and confused us, as what we were led to believe and what was reality were two very different things. Of course, this is not a first by any means, but we wouldn’t advise any players arriving on the island of Banoi to expect anywhere near the level of ‘pro’ as the trailer suggested.
The best way to enjoy Dead Island is to free yourself from the shackles of expectation and turn down the hype machine a few notches, and whilst it’s frequently difficult not to feel like you’ve been led over a rickety bridge by Techland, your enjoyment of the game will be decided by your ability to do this – to understand that it’s not Citizen Kane anymore; it’s a fairly fun adventure which is ultimately too shallow and beset with niggling flaws to be considered a truly great game.
The trailer evoked themes of humanity – what it means to be human, for the human race to be battling itself (albeit 100% more dead versions) for survival. It’s not a new concept in other media, but it was refreshing to anticipate a game featuring zombies in this way. The crushing irony here is that Dead Island’s characters are utterly two-dimensional, and the journeys on which you meander along with them fail to convince in any respect. The four playable characters are a quartet of stereotypes so predictable, you begin to wonder if Techland were being somehow self-referential, an observation on negative stereotyping, but it’s safe to assume that social commentary is not their forte when you realise that every last character in the game has about as much charisma as…well, a zombie.
With no characters to drive a non-existent plot, things start to fall apart, and gamers seeking some sort of narrative, exposition, or motivation are going to be left sorely disappointed. The main story missions are allowed to falter only if the side-quests measure up – they’re a superb tool used by developers to really flesh out the game universe, the characters, even gameplay mechanics. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 utilise them to superb effect, but Dead Island? Fetch quests offered to you by more stereotypical no-marks. Yes, we can search for missing loved ones (not yours, obviously) and do other menial tasks, but if we were supposed to actually care about why, then it’s a golden opportunity missed. RPG’s live and die on their ability to inject life, some soul, into their (in this case, an excellently realised) game space, and in this respect Dead Island fails.
With the game being a substantial size, with little to interest gamers wanting ‘more’, the experience is going to become an enormous slog in single player. Of course, with three friends along for the ride – courtesy of online co-op – the plot can take a back seat whilst focus shifts to the core mechanics of hacking and slashing the zombie hordes, which is hit and miss…literally. Often the player will find themselves swiping at thin air when a bludgeoning blow looked certain, and other times making a bloody, quite frankly gruesome mess when it did not. An open-world game focusing on survival in the throes of a zombie outbreak should never, ever be this clumsy.
Dead Island’s primary mechanic is the repelling of the undead, and like we have said, it is somewhat sporadic. Focusing on melee attacks in a first person game is often lacking, rarely imbuing the player with any feedback in your actions, or weight and heft of your thrusts and swings, but Dead Island’s attempt is an admirable one. It is somewhat morbid, but landing a heavy shot at a zombie’s head with a blunt weapon results in a sickening neck crack, or you could do away with the head altogether. Aim for an arm or a leg with something sharp, and chances are you’ll successfully lop off the offending limb. It’s a neat system providing tactile feedback, offering more tactical play than you may initially realise. With weapon conservation being of vital importance, it’s great that Techland have made us ‘think where we slice’. Fighting several zombies at once is where events usually get a bit chaotic, but that’s somewhat the point – of course they would. With co-op buddies in tow the sense of danger lessens, but with your character being rather fragile, the tension becomes palpable.
Again, it’s such an odd feeling – extended periods of being frankly bored to tears can pave the way for these sorts of moments, but the combat is a one trick pony, and it is personal preference as to how long you can enjoy it before that in itself begins to wane. Despite this, Dead Island is a game you should at least experience in that – depending on opinion – the highs can easily outnumber the lows. Critiquing a game like this makes it hard to recommend when there are many better alternatives to the open world RPG genre out there, but it has an intriguing spin on combat, the island of Banoi is mostly a pleasure to explore (when you’re not tracking back and forth in the dull quests) and beating down undead shufflers with friends will surely add to the experience. Playing Dead Island is similar to going on holiday – it’s nice to try something a bit exotic and different, but after a while you begin to yearn for home.
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