Perhaps zombies deserve a little vacation from the restless shambling, groaning and flesh feasting. After all, they were the scourge of the Wild West (Undead Nightmare) preyed on soldiers during World War II (Call of Duty), have colonised space (Dead Space) and even infiltrated the Japanese mafia (Yakuza: Of The End). The tropical island of Banoi is their holiday destination of choice: sun, sea and sinew, with all the brains you can munch. In a clever twist, these brains belong to humans and they aren't ready to part with their grey matter just yet. One of these brains belongs to the protagonist and it falls to you, dear player, to ensure it remains undigested.
The problem with zombies is that they're not a terribly interesting foe. Dead Island might have been more enjoyable if you played a psychopath chasing holidaymakers around the island with a meat cleaver, but that raises development issues regarding AI and moral outrage. With such prolific zombification of games (and our critical faculties in the process, it would seem), titles that carve their own niche such as the camp slapstick of Dead Rising or the tense, refined arcade action of Left 4 Dead are what we really need.
Hannibal Lecter makes a surprise appearance
Dead Island is an old game design rising from its grave to walk the Earth, a strange Frankenstein's monster of cobbled together mechanics from role-playing games and first-person shooters gone by. Choose from one of four characters, each with their own set of attributes, then get ready for over twenty hours of corpse-mashing action as you complete a series of linear fetch quests for characters you don't care about.
You are errand boy to the survivors, completing thrilling tasks like shutting off fire hydrants and collecting cartons of juice from the petrol station. It's like a Christmas Eve shopping simulator as you dodge the foaming hordes, scrambling for the last multipack of beverages before Capri-Sundown. In one side quest (that juice collection mission is integral to the main story, apparently) you're asked to retrieve a necklace they've left in a cabin. "You've lost your necklace?” you gasp incredulously. "I just spent 15 minutes running through the jungle chopping zombies heads off to avoid being eaten alive. See that man over there? He's lost his face."
It is a crass, puerile experience. The majority of the game involves first-person melee combat with a touch of driving thrown in for good measure. I'm still of the opinion that first-person melee doesn't work: it's difficult to gauge the distance between weapon and monster, the camera failing to convey a proper sense of inertia as a pneumatic arm launches from your chest cavity at enemies. Every encounter chips away at your health and patience as you swing wildly at the zombies.
There is an option to switch to 'analogue' controls, which are farcically bad- unless you like the idea of waggling a thumbstick to swing a baseball bat, something you'll be doing roughly three times a second until you wear the controller down to a withered stump. Ultimately, it's better to stick to digital button mashing. Although you can allegedly dismember individual limbs strategically, in practice Oblivion is pointing and laughing at Dead Island's archaic hand-to-hand skills while simultaneously holding a shield and beating up a skeleton. The melee begins to wear thin within the first five minutes; dragged out across ten hours, it is even more agonising than the wounds you're inflicting.
There's little variation to the weapons. Some bludgeon, others slice; the difference between a hammer, bat or mace is academic when you're surrounded by the undead masses. The weapons deteriorate frustratingly quickly, even if you customise your character for resourcefulness as I did, leaving you to defend yourself with your puny fists or run for the nearest workbench to repair them. Guns are much more satisfying to use than the melee weapons: they're tantalisingly powerful and satisfyingly difficult to master. You can customise weapons to add everything from nails to electrical damage with scavenged pieces of junk littered around the island, yet these add more colour than clout. You're less a master of the elements, more a irritating prankster tossing 9-volt batteries into a urinal.
I'm sick of looking at these pictures of the London riots
Speaking of cesspools, the violence is as graphic as you would expect: heads roll, geysers of blood erupt from wounds, girlfriends shake their heads in disgust. It's gratuitous, but never really scary, which I can only assume was the developer's intention. It never conveys an atmosphere of impending doom, partly because you can't actually die in Dead Island. You just respawn after five seconds, everything as you left it, and carry on your mindless war of attrition. No death means no tension, no reason to improve your skill, no sense of achievement.
Despite the wide variation in weapons, the opportunity to improve your skills to better massacre the undead horde, the massive environment to explore… it's just dull. Leaving behind the tropical beaches for a ruined cityscape, the zombies become even more blatantly like those in Left 4 Dead: Tanks are called 'Thugs', Chargers are 'Rams', even Boomers are there too and they've got their own stupid name. It doesn't change the fundamental nature of the game, since you’re still hitting a zombie with something solid until one of you falls over. After eight hours of Dead Island, I was fairly confident what the remaining twelve would have in store. Luckily the game kept me guessing by frequently breaking itself, forgetting to give me a key item or spawning a zombie behind a locked door and forcing a restart. These flaws would be barely tolerable in an otherwise excellent game, but here they just kick you while you're down.
The tedious frustration of playing Dead Island has you swearing at the TV like one of its foul-mouthed characters. Every utterance is riddled with expletives, because I guess that's the way grownups talk. "If you find me the mother******* parts Ima let you ride in this *****", etc. The player character also contributes some awful one-liners. I think it's the inefficiency of their language that really irks me. They spend more time swearing than conveying factual information.
Dead Island offers an integrated online experience. You're alerted to players at a similar level and location and can jump into a co-operative game seamlessly. Well, I say seamlessly, but it doesn't take long for the seams to show. It becomes apparent why there's no third-person camera available when you see the other players' characters swinging weapons like wax mannequins. Your progression is tied to your teammates' but, due to the expansive nature of the environment and insufficient incentive to move forward, you find yourself stuck at the objective waiting for others to catch up. There's no option to vote to kick an irritating player, leaving you to scour the lobby for new teammates. In my experience, there were many players online but seemingly few available or willing to co-operate. I'm not sure if that's a reflection on the anti-social nature of Xbox Live or a bug with the matchmaking system.
It's actually a bit better with a friend: hulking Thugs can be teased and tackled more easily with two or more players, zombie groups are less frustrating to manage and you can quickly revive downed teammates. However, these improvements never make up for its core deficiencies. It's just too repetitive for any amount of online fun to fix and there's little potential for sandbox shenanigans in the bland locales.
He's holding that knife by the blade! Health and safety, guys!
The best works of horror fiction don't shock with gore: they build an atmosphere of dread that's difficult for our mind to escape. Our imagination fills in the gaps: there's not just the fear of death, but also a fear of the unknown. Dead Island elicits no fear except that for the future survival of your attention span. It's a run-of-the-mill hack and snooze adventure; a monotonous single player experience and a multiplayer experience full of tragically unfulfilled promises.
There was a point, not far into the game, where I returned to a cabin that harboured an injured survivor. He'd turned into a zombie, and as I refashioned his face into a concave husk, it made me think of what Dead Island could have been. A father-daughter separation could have been a tearjerker if I'd known more about the characters than just their name and clothing. An injection of human drama could have brought the game's reality into line with our expectations, which were so cruelly raised by that teaser trailer mere months ago.
DEAD ISLAND VERDICT
Like the hungry zombies that inhabit the titular island, Dead Island simply needs more brains.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Climbing behind the wheel of an armoured van and mowing down hordes of zombies may highlight the ropey camera controls, but it’s actually pretty fun.