Dead Island review

I’ve been putting off writing this review for days now. ‘Why is that?’ you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked that, because I’m going to tell you: I really couldn’t decide whether I loved it… or hated it, and so instead of sitting down and banging out some vaguely readable prose I just kept on and on playing the thing. I’ve now come to the conclusion that generally I hate it, but there are parts of it that I genuinely loved. Think that sounds a bit nuts? Read on…

Dead Island is set, you won’t be surprised to hear, on an island. More specifically: an island resort. A resort which, based on the in-game intro sequence, I reckon I’d actually quite like to visit, with its glorious beaches, its clear waters, its luxury hotels, some banging nightclubs, and – most importantly – an awful lot of scantily-clad female holidaymakers. But this hedonistic luxury lasts for all of about 2 minutes (ie: about the time it takes for the intro music to finish) before it all starts looking like something rather nasty. And I’m not talking an 18-30s holiday to Magaluf here.

Yes, before you can say ‘George Romero’, the resort has been trashed, half the population of the island is in bloody chunks, and nearly all the rest are roaming around, drooling and moaning, wearing their best zombie drag and looking to eat anybody unfortunate enough to still be left standing. Including you.

Of course, as everybody knows, the ‘traditional’ take on zombies is that once you’re bitten (or scratched, or sometimes even just salivated on) then you become a zombie too. As this would make for a very short game however, there’s a plot twist thrown in to Dead Island, in that for some reason your character, although he (or she – you choose from a handful of both male and female avatars, each with their own unique skill sets) does take damage when accosted by the legions of the island’s undead, they appear to be unique amongst those left alive in that they’re immune to whatever it is that has zombiefied the rest of the populace. The downside of this is that everybody else on the island not currently feeling an overwhelming urge to snack on human flesh basically expects you to run around after them.

So your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to explore the island, help all the whining, terrified ex-holidaymakers (and assorted resort staff) that you find still kicking, fight off an army of swimwear-clad zombies (on the beach, anyway – as you go further inland the undead fashions change somewhat) and basically get to the bottom of whatever it was that caused all these problems in the first place.

What this roughly translates to is trekking round the place from point to point, talking to various people, and deciding whether to do various missions – anything from obtaining a transport vehicle to finding some mad girl’s teddy bear – for which you are rewarded with cash, information, new locations on the island and weapons. Rather than push you along a totally linear storyline, you can choose which missions you take on, and in what order you do them, although to ultimately progress through the game to the end there are certain key missions that you must complete, while others are basically there for extra rewards. Cue many, many hours of wandering around the beaches, hotels and other fixtures of the island.

Sounds straightforward, right? And no doubt, for many of you, quite an attractive proposition. And it took me a while to figure out what it was that I didn’t enjoy about this game, but I finally got there: for me, zombie games are all about survival-horror. I’m talking of course, about Resident Evil, and a small handful of other titles, all of which bring you a gameplay experience that is basically like playing through a half-decent horror film. This is the kind of gameplay I expected from Dead Island, and in places, the game does deliver some of the sudden shocks and eerie suspense that good survival-horror titles generally offer. But gradually I began to realise that although cosmetically this might look a little like a survival-horror, underneath it all… it’s a Role-Playing Game. Once you twig to this fact, it all becomes obvious – player-characters with massively upgradeable skill sets? Check. Untold numbers of collectable weapons and items, many of which are themselves upgradeable? Check. Massive environment populated by loads of non-player characters and all manner of monsters? Check. Quests and side-quests galore? Check. They’ve basically replaced the usual monsters with zombies, the warriors and wizards with martial artists and weapons experts, and the rolling greenery of Middle Earth with a sunny tropical paradise. And THAT my friends, is why I have very mixed feelings about this game: because while I love some of the survival-horror aspects, as a long-declared ‘non-fan’ of RPGs, I can’t help but hate an awful lot of it.

It’s not like I just suddenly realised that it was an RPG and decided to hate it on principal you understand, I just find much of it highly irritating. For instance, what I look for in a survival horror game is suspense and shocks – to start with, you get that here, as you wake up in a hotel suddenly haunted by the wandering dead, and must try and escape, not knowing what’s around the next corner. Once you’ve escaped the hotel however, and hooked up with the first few live human survivors, then you quickly realise that actually you DO know what’s around the next corner: more zombies. Which, of course, there have to be loads of, because otherwise your quests would take no time at all… and that is my major issue with many (although not all) RPGs – they often substitute satisfying gameplay and an interesting narrative with LOADS of wandering from place to place on a ‘quest’ (read: wandering the map, looking for a particular object or character) and lots and lots (and LOTS!) of random, usually pointless, combat with monsters every step of the way, to give you the impression that you’re ‘playing’ rather than just ‘virtual rambling’ (which I fully expect to be a recognised hobby within the next 10 years by the way – I’m looking at you, Second Life freaks!)

The same is true here – what you’re basically asked to do is simply to go from one place to another, and bring back stuff. If there weren’t zombies involved, you could well be working for a virtual courier agency. For me, this just doesn’t hold the same attraction as something like Resident Evil 5, where each carefully planned and designed new level offers new shocks, new surprises, and the plot is equally as important as the gameplay, as opposed to (as seems to be the case here) more of an afterthought. Granted, there ARE moments when you’ll be surprised, or when something vaguely original happens, and there are parts of the game which are enormous fun – experimenting with the different weapons for example, which results in a wide variety of interesting zombie deaths, or burning around the resort in a ’jacked vehicle, mowing down zombies in the style of Carmageddon – but for much of the time you can’t help but realise that it’s just a case of ‘talk to person A, go to location B, collect item C’, rinse and repeat. Reaching the town (which happens once you’re approximately a third of the way through the game) brings newer, more varied zombies, a darker environment, guns (which are, surprisingly, much less fun than you’d imagine) and a slightly more ‘survival-horror-esque’ feel to things, but ultimately, the gameplay is still just more of the same.

For some gamers, possibly those who enjoy repeatedly tackling the same kind of repetitive tasks over and over again (after all, someone must be buying all the rubbish RPGs out there, or they wouldn’t keep making them), this might actually sound attractive, and Dead Island has apparently been so popular in the shops that Game decided to bump up the price of the title to nearly 50 quid – way to make a quick buck guys! – but it’s not just the style of the game that I have issues with, there are some technical issues too.

For much of the game, there’s not a lot of obvious loading, so as you wander around the island, rather than keep you watching a loading screen, the island environment appears to simply load in on the go. I applaud this as an attempt to keep the pace of things moving, but it does mean that often the scenery doesn’t load in until you’re almost on top of it, and the result is a colossal amount of pop-up that you can’t fail to notice (which is even worse when you’re using a vehicle and travelling at speed). On top of this, there’s a great deal of clipping: of you through objects, of objects through walls, and of zombies through just about everything. You expect the odd graphical glitch in a game, but in Dead Island it’s a regular occurrence, and it can completely ruin the atmosphere – at one point I came across four zombies, all sealed inside a building, presumably supposed to be a surprise for me once I got inside, however this surprise was somewhat ruined by the fact that all four zombies were half in and half out of the wall, running on the spot! And it’s not just graphical glitches either…

One of the things I dislike about many RPGs (in case I haven’t made it clear how much I am NOT a fan by this point!) is the lengthy wandering from place to place to locate objects. What I find even more annoying though, is when said objects, once retrieved, randomly disappear. I left a truck parked at one location, saved the game, only to restart and find the truck had reset to the location in which I’d originally found it, right back on the other side of the map (and yet curiously, it retained the damage I’d caused to it). Then another time, whilst undertaking a mission to find and retrieve some gas cans, I found one gas can, took it back towards the location I needed to deliver it to, only for it to simply vanish along the way! This kind of bug, in a finished game, is completely unacceptable. On the flipside of disappearing – the zombies do the opposite. Initially as you play through you come across zombies in different settings – lying at the bottom of some stairs, eating a body in a car wreck, wandering in a resort pool, etc – and you despatch them. It seems like these zombies are randomly placed, but not so, because as you criss-cross the island, visiting the same locations over and over, you quickly realise that the same zombies are in the same place, doing exactly the same thing, every time. Surely it wouldn’t have been difficult, once you’d been through a location once, to randomise the zombie start points a little? And is it too much to expect that I can walk down a set of stairs, kill all the zombies on the way, then walk back up 2 minutes later without finding all the same zombies reincarnated already? It does make the whole business of killing them seem rather pointless, and indeed, sometimes you’ll find you can’t be bothered and just run straight past them… although by doing this, you then don’t earn experience points, and so take longer to earn skill upgrades.

At this point it might be worth mentioning that this game does, apparently, ‘come into its own’ when played in four-player online cooperative mode. I know this, because a guy working at Butlins on the fairground rides told me, while my daughter went round and round in circles on a massive mechanical ladybird (true story!) Having got into a conversation about games reviews, and Dead Island in particular, I assured said Butlins chap that I would make sure I properly playtested the online mode, as indeed any good reviewer would. However, I fully admit that I’ve not played online. Why? Because I couldn’t. When you opt to go online the game searches for suitable online games to connect you to, however you can only link up with gamers who are playing the same chapter as you, or a lower one (I’m not sure quite how that works, because if they’re on a lower one then me, then surely I’m higher than them, and so they wouldn’t be allowed to join me?) I tried on multiple occasions to log in via the lobby system, at numerous different points during my progress through the game, but on literally every occasion I was met with a lobby screen and a ‘no games found’ message. Now either everyone else in the whole world has completed the game already, or there’s something wrong with the player matching system, because you’d think in the 20-or-so attempts that I made, one of them would have found at least one other matching player for me to team up with? Unless of course you have to completely finish the game in story mode in order to then play through it cooperatively? If that IS the case, then count me out!

So… there you have it. Not exactly in a nutshell, but it’s there. I could go on longer, I could mention for instance, that when you bludgeon a female zombie to death, for some reason its screams sound like those of a ‘live’ female (unlike the male zombies, who moan and groan like respectable undead) and you can’t help but feel like you’re basically torturing the poor woman, no doubt an experience which will be a winner with all the sickos who enjoyed the gratuitous violence of Manhunt, but as someone who’s not a budding spree-killer and/or rapist, I found the whole thing quite disturbing. I think, however, that I’ve said about enough. No doubt countless thousands will disagree with me, but for this gamer, despite having a few moments of genuine survival-horror in it, the majority of Dead Island is a big disappointment. If you like RPGs, and aren’t a ‘real’ survival horror fan, then maybe you’ll love it, but for me, with its vanishing objects, mundane missions, uninspiring zombies and all-round disappointingly low shock-value, it gets from me a – probably overly generous 4 out of 10.

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Dead Island review screenshots

Related: Dead Island screenshots, Dead Island Bloodbath Arena

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