Game Review: Dead Island

PrintE-mail Written by J.D. Gillam

Isn't that just the way it goes? You save all your money throughout the year and plan a relaxing and lush getaway to a 5 star all inclusive resort to wind away the stresses of your job and life back home. No sooner have you arrived and you realise that the zombies are coming.

Welcome to Banoi. Where celebrities and the rich come to mingle, party and bite each other.

There have been a plethora of zombie gaming choices over the last few years, ranging from the classic Resident Evil series, through to the fun Dead Rising games and the pant-wettingly good Left 4 Dead and its sequel. Over the last few months, the makers of Dead Island have ramped up the excitement for their own take on the zombie computer game, which culminated in the impressive but not exactly gameplay representative trailer below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZqrG1bdGtg

Having had the opportunity to get hold of the full game almost two weeks before release, I thought that, having completed it, I'd give you the skinny.

First of all, let me just say that I was as pumped about this game as any of you and have been waiting with baited breath for about four years now - the original release date of Dead Island having been announced as some time in 2008. I'm a big horror fan, and enjoy playing most horror games. So I sat down with mucho excitement when the game arrived on 30th August and let the opening montage play out before my eyes.

Firstly, we are introduced to choose our avatar from the four playable characters. Throwing expert Logan, a disgraced ex-American football player; Xian, the Hong Kong patriot and sharp weapons expert who is on the island to spy on the rich Westerners; Purna, the firearms expert who is an Aboriginal ex-cop and finally, Sam B, the one hit wonder rapper who had a smash hit with "Who Do You Voodoo, Bitch?" He's also a wonder with blunt instruments.

They are all immune to the virus and so you are expected to complete missions and side quests on your own, and here is where my one major bit of advice comes from - search everything and pick everything up if you can. You'll probably need it at some point - be it to fashion a new weapon, upgrade one, barter with others or even give it away to needy NPCs.

As for playability, I really wanted this game to be great. I wanted to love this game and shout it from the rooftops. Unfortunately, I can't. That's not to say that the game doesn't have its good points, because it does.

There are moments of standout quality. From modified weapons that can have interesting effects on the zombies, to the satisfying bump as your truck runs over another dead-head. There are a couple of good set-pieces, but I won't spoil them for you if you are planning on playing the game.

Subtle in-jokes, like the amiable Dr West making an appearance (unfortunately not Herbert - that would have been too good!) raise a chuckle and being able to fast travel between positions once unlocked is a bonus because Banoi isn't exactly a small island. The upgrades you unlock by gaining XP through death, destruction and side quests can improve your experience immensely and, like Dead Rising, the XP increases stay with you should you wish to replay and pick up more items and get those elusive achievements / trophies, dependent on which console you're playing it on.

The VAT system from Fallout 3 puts in an appearance of sorts, with you being able to direct your strikes on particular body parts until they either break or come off entirely. It's interesting to watch an armless zombie come at you and try to bite you. Sprinting is a viable alternative to fighting and sometimes this will be the only way you'll get through a section without dying.

The game is played out in glorious sunshine, mostly, and yet you still can't help creeping around each corner, knowing the next zombie could leap out at any point. The constant baying and growling of the undead is un-nerving, and offers a feeling of unease to the player at all times.

The good news is that if you die, you lose some money, but you respawn five seconds later and carry on, so no having to worry about going back to the previous save point every time you fail.

So lots of good points, but also, there are lots of issues.

The graphics are in no way world-beating and seem to have only moved on slightly from the original Left 4 Dead. The draw distance is decent, with faraway locations like the hotel or lighthouse easy to see. However, there are times when the game fails to create the landscape under your very feet for a few seconds and it's moments like that that can take you out of the game, which is a major issue with a horror game. On at least two occasions, I had zombies literally come at me via osmosis. One appeared through a solid wall, the other climbed up through a solid wooden floor. Arms flailed through walls at times as well. It was also lovely to see in this advanced age of graphic engines that our old reliable friend, the invisible wall, puts in an appearance.

The combat seems flawed at times, with too many strikes missing their target, which can be frustrating. This isn't helped by the fact that these zombies will actually flank you. They may all attack from the front, but at least one will deliberately sneak behind you and hit you where you can't see them.

The aforementioned 'homages' to the VAT system in Fallout 3, the XP and weapon modding of Dead Rising, the co-op play of Left 4 Dead and even the kerb stomping of Gears of War are all in there. Perhaps this is Dead Island's biggest issue. It spends so long using great ideas from other games that it forgets to create any new ones of its own.

Also, the co-op may be there from Left 4 Dead, but if that is the game that Dead Island wants to be compared against, I'm afraid it fails. In L4D there is true camaraderie where co-op means something. Even if you are playing on your own, the other three characters are there with you to aid and to be in need of aid. If you die and someone doesn't revive you, you're out of the game and your team is down by one. Also, if you play co-op online with three other players, you know that if one of you walks off, they're probably going to die.

In Dead Island, you play alone, with the other NPCs only visible during cut-scenes. If you play with others, it doesn't matter if you wander off or not. There's no real penalty for dying, you just respawn. There's no feeling of dread or concern. There's no trepidation about whether you need to change tactics to complete the section.

Like I said, I wanted this game to be great and I wanted to love it. Instead, I can only describe it with one word that I've already used.

Frustrating.

Dead Island is released on PS3, Xbox and PC September 9th


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