With the best part of a million views on YouTube, the trailer for Dead Island has whipped zombie enthusiasts into a minor frenzy of expectation. That anticipation is piqued further by the game’s intro, a thinly veiled tribute to The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up music video, albeit set on a tropical island at the outset of a zombie infestation. As well as setting the tone, it briefly introduces the four playable characters, further investigation of whom reveals that they each have a troubled past, and are no stranger to death. If this were a 1970’s portmanteau Hammer Horror film, they’d all be stuck in a lift, and probably already dead.
As it is, whoever you choose, be it the washed-up rapper, the fading sports star, the feisty female ex-cop, or the other token woman, you are mysteriously immune to the bite of a zombie, and hence an extremely useful asset to the petrified holidaymakers fighting for their lives. As such, they will draw on your good nature to have you running all over the island carrying out errands of varying degrees of importance, be it finding a teddy bear for a hysterical woman, or hunting down insulin to save a child’s life. And of course trying to escape.
At its core, Dead Island is a role-playing game, with all the mainstays associated with the genre: quests, levelling up, even crafting weapons, i.e. sticking some nails into the end of a baseball bat. Carrying out your quests is hampered at every turn by the legions of the undead, and the slightly clumsy melee system by which you have to dispatch them. Whether wielding a shovel, a rusty pipe, a hat stand, or a battered piece of wood, combat is a hit-and-miss affair, with little sense of depth to enable you to land a satisfying blow. With practice it becomes manageable, and the most effective technique is to kick a zombie to the ground and proceed to stove its head in, replete with extraordinary levels of gore. This approach become trickier in a crowd scene, although unleashing the contents of your fury meter takes out a swathe of enemies with a side weapon. You do eventually pick up guns, but they’re not as useful as you’d hope, and the bulk of combat is melee-based.
In an apparent appeasement to zombie purists, the undead come in three main types: self-explanatory Walkers, 28 Days Later-style runners called The Infected, and great big lumbering Thugs who can knock you on your back in one blow. As formerly alive holidaymakers, they are a mixed bag, although a lot of your time is spent battering feral women in bikinis, which is arguably a gaming first.
Structurally, the game consist of a series of safe houses populated by survivors who will send you out to do their bidding in return for XP, weapons and cash. It’s here that the real interest lies, as you come across pockets of survivors and their desperate hopes for escape. There are a number of different approaches, from the lifeguard who gets you to effectively build a tank, to the lighthouse of hopefuls writing messages in the sand, and even a church full of weirdoes praying for redemption. There is some genuinely dark content: at one point a distraught father begs you to go out and kill his zombified wife and daughter to put them to rest. Other snippets of weirdness include a porn shoot gone wrong, and a cabin full of revellers intending to see out the apocalypse in a blur of champagne and threesomes. Which certainly never happened in Resident Evil.
In terms of scares, the bright outdoor settings prevent any of the real creeping dread perpetuated by Japanese zombie titles, but there are still some shocks to be had when a dead freak grabs you from behind. Generally, the atmosphere is one of mournfulness and desperation, punctuated by plaintive piano riffs and a sense of hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds. You do press on though, not really to gain the largely arbitrary XP (which is rendered somewhat pointless by the zombies levelling up concurrently) but because you genuinely feel that you are doing your bit for humanity. It’s certainly a far more persuasive incentive than picking up magic potions for pixies in more traditional RPGs.
In terms of its sheer ‘zombieness,’ Dead Island is a strong entrant into the pantheon. Sadly, as a game it is hampered by technical issues that can render it almost unplayable. Items disappear, quests inexplicably repeat or reach dead ends, and without a manual save option, continuing a game seems to be largely arbitrary in terms of both location and timeline. Indeed, it sometimes feels like you’re playing someone else’s game. The path finding is a mess, and the physics bear little relationship to the real world – in Dead Island, a pick-up truck can be stopped by a picnic hamper. The lip-synching is primitive, the script doesn’t even acknowledge your gender, and while it would be churlish to criticise the AI of a zombie, they’re certainly not the brightest.
Nevertheless, there is some gleeful fun to be had, and mowing down zombies in a pick-up truck recalls the glory days of Carmageddon, as hinted at in one of the game’s trophies. There is certainly value for money for those with the resolve to push on, with some 20 hours of play either as a lone hero or part of a four-person co-op team.
Although it's a hugely ambitious affair, Dead Island is writing cheques that the game engine can’t cash, and it will probably be consigned to history as a heroic failure. Undoubtedly set to garner a cult following, it’s essentially the gaming equivalent of a B-Movie. If this were Hollywood, they’d already be talking about a big money American remake. Which might not be the worst idea…
Despite the hype, Dead Island is a technically crippled affair with none of the panache hinted at by the stylish marketing campaign. Nevertheless, for those prepared to overlook its shortcomings, there is a deeply involving role-playing game that lures you into its nightmarish shambling world.