Technically, Dead Island is a bad game. The mechanics are near-universally clunky, the graphics are mediocre and full of glitches, the online ‘lobby’ system is lacking in any kind of intuitive design and the narrative elements – such as plot, character, voice-over acting and pacing – are hardly original, inspired or inspiring.
And yet, despite every inch of your being screaming at you to stop playing and trade the thing in, you can’t help but get just enough ashamed enjoyment of out it. If you’ve ever played Deadly Premonition, Pokemon Dash or Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard then you’ll know what I mean. Then again, you might not.
However, Dead Island differs from those aforementioned classics by way of setting and its multiplayer. The island of Banoi is the kind of picture post-card holiday retreat you’ve seen a thousand times on publicity photos for the South Pacific and the Caribbean. It’s sandy, it’s sunny, it’s got palm trees and deck chairs – you know the score.
Then the zombie apocalypse hits and the little ol’ paradise island is transformed into a little ol’ gore-fest – enter your traditional slow zombie, your charging ’28 Days Later’ zombie, your massive charging zombie and (among others) your zombie that fires skin-dissolving bile at you. It’s heart-warming stuff.
As someone who’s immune to zombiefication it’s up to you to locate any survivors and get off the island before any more people are turned into something resembling a microwaveable lasagne. If you like zombies it’s a decent premise; not an original premise, but good enough.
What is also good enough is the variety of weapons available to aid you in your bid for freedom. Given the nature of the location the majority of these are of the inanimate object variety (baseball bats, machetes, metal poles and batons). Guns come more into proceedings around the halfway point, but primarily this is a melee combat game.
The weapon variety comes from the fact that almost everything can be upgraded and customised in all manner of ways. Add wire and batteries to a metal object and it becomes an electrifying tool as well as a cutting one; some bandages and flammable liquid create a flaming stick of doom; nails turn a regular plank into something approaching Saw levels of sadism and deodorant cans make nifty grenades following a minor tweak.
For the creative player there’s a wealth of killing methods on offer and the steady stream of new modifications, base weapons and zombie types means combat stays interesting until the final credits role.
There are four playable Banoi party-goers to play as, each falling loosely into a familiar category – a warrior/tank, a firearms expert, a throwing weapons connoisseur and another that prefers the stealthy approach. As individuals they’re serviceable but Dead Island is greatly improved when playing as a group. This is in large part due to the fact that the balancing seems to have been tweaked towards the group dynamic in that the enemies come in large groups and the environment forces you to keep a constant eye out in multiple directions.
However, while multiplayer is the best way to experience the game, it still suffers from the same issues and bugs as the single player experience. The HUD radar’s pathfinding breadcrumb trail is terrible, often sending you in the completely wrong direction and/or expecting you to somehow navigate through an impenetrable wall. That terrible pathfinding turns into controller-smashingly-ridiculousness when you reach the island’s inner jungle… I’ll leave you to experience that for yourself so as not fully ruin the beauty of its incompetence.
Then there’s the appallingly designed vehicle sections, the glitchy-to-the-point of comedy graphics, the amateur voice acting, the unnecessarily precise way in which you must deliver quest-related items and the repetitive mission types.
There was one absolute gem of a bug which meant I missed out on the game finale cut-scene. Playing in a group of two my partner quit the game just as the cut-scene initiated, prompting the game to ask me whether I wanted to return to my previous single player save in order for my progress to be saved.
I clicked ‘yes’. Big mistake. I was returned to start of the game and told to set off on my ‘new game plus’ adventure in which I could play through again but begin with all the skills I’d accrued in my prior playthrough. With no way of viewing cinematics from the main menu the only way to see the ending is to play through again. Great design.
And yet, despite all that (and more), Dead Island was entertaining. The combat, the weapons, the surprisingly varied environment and the fact that it features zombies was enough to just about overshadow the horde of crap you’re forced to plough through.
Think of Dead Island as a B-game and you’ll be fine. It seems like a bit of an insult to reel off the old cliché of “if you can ignore the bad stuff and only look at the good,” but for Dead Island that line actually rings true.