Well, this is a turn-up for the books. Only as recently as July, Techland dumped its modern-day Call Of Juarez threequel out the door to almost universal cringes and regretful heads in hands. Jump forward a few weeks, and the Polish developer finally delivers Dead Island and – whaddya know? – against all the odds, it proves to be one of the most plain enjoyable action games that will be released in the latter half of 2011.
In a sense, Dead Island’s success is one banked heavily on low expectations; after all, that CGI trailer gave nothing of its gameplay away, and until recently the most notable aspect of Dead Island’s development was that it silently disappeared into the development cupboard for two years following its announcement in 2008. However, despite some mechanical issues, its fair share of technical limitations and a few inconsistent design choices, it’s undeniable that Techland’s open-world, four-player zombie slayathon surpasses the highest hopes anyone had for it. Just traipsing round the island of Banoi, slashing at zombies and dragging multiple fetch quests behind you makes for a more appealing ordeal than the majority of sandbox-based games available, and the island proves to be far more expansive than just the holiday resort that has been publicised most prominently, remaining varied and intriguing through its four act-based environments. Meanwhile, aficionados of the genre can indulge in the bonus meta-game included, whereby players can attempt to work out where most of the ideas on display have been pilfered from.
Indeed, Dead Island is a title that takes its cues from the best of them. Aspects of Fallout 3, Resident Evil, Far Cry 2, Borderlands (and many more) litter its design, in ways that would reduce a whack-by-whack review down to a comparative shopping list of features. But even still, it somehow still manages to moan with its own zombified voice, with a system of exploration, quest accumulation and bespoke weapon upgrading that somehow combines well with the simple act of driving over a procession of the undead in a van so heavily decked out in armour that you can barely see out the front window. Furthermore, Techland ramps its character levelling almost perfectly, as feeble weapons give way to heavier duty, home-tooled monstrosities, and the spreading mutation introduces new types of zombie and even more powerful versions of the blade fodder you’ve already encountered. At its best – say, taking three zombies’ heads off with a single swing of the arm – it’s a hugely empowering experience.
Of course, it’s mostly gaming fluff that lives in the memory as a blur of marauding corpses, and there’s very little in Dead Island that can be taken seriously. No, you won’t feel a single shred of attachment to any character, player-controlled or otherwise, that you happen to come across. Yes, it’s a terrible oversight that the human enemy AI is somehow much worse than that of the island’s zombie population, and that the quality of the game drops considerably as soon as you look down the sights of a gun rather than using melee weapons. And yes, it’s narratively stupid that every abandoned suitcase and corpse pocket is filled with cash to collect – even when the corpse in question is a prison inmate or wearing a bikini – and it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to pay that money to a bench in order to repair, strengthen and upgrade weapons. But when that upgrade system enables you to attach electrodes to a machete, make incendiary bullets or even just hammer a bunch of nails through a baseball bat, and every enemy can be hacked to pieces and left in a bloody pile of bones and shredded flesh, you’d have to be the world’s biggest cynic to care that Dead Island doesn’t force-feed its players with saccharine sentiment, or go out of its way to pretend it isn’t a videogame.
In fact, the biggest criticism that can be levelled at Dead Island – beyond a rough-around-the-edges feel that is, again, surprisingly easy to overlook once you’re knee-deep in disembodied limbs – is the lack of persistence in its world. It’s fundamentally a story of survival; one where NPCs constantly hammer home the need for ever-dwindling supplies in order to remain alive. As a result, that Techland has chosen to make all Banoi’s collectibles respawn when revisiting any location will be bewildering to many, as it weakens the sense of urgency and desperation that carries through the game from beginning to end. Combined with the character respawn system, which charges a percentage of each player’s cash reserves to bring them back to life with full health after five seconds – and therefore enforces very little actual penalty for getting your face chewed off – there’s a disconnect between what is going on in the game and the way in which it needs to be approached on a gameplay level.
However, as with Dead Rising before it, the complaints cannot come close to outweighing the sheer anarchic fun to be had, the instant gratification Dead Island offers, or the amount that Techland has managed to achieve here despite punching well above its weight.