Dead Island has been in development for a fair few years, almost causing the Techland zombie title to fly off the radar completely. Then suddenly, the game was thrust into the limelight earlier this year with that trailer, getting everybody talking about it. However, the trailer ended up having no bearing on the final product, other than it was a zombie game at some resort hotel. There is so much more to the game though, and not all of it is pretty.
At the very core, Dead Island is a complex and involved RPG. Levelling, crafting, and skill trees are fundamental parts of the experience, with each of the four main characters having unique skills and specialties. Like an RPG, you have a main quest going at any one time, however the game world has a huge array of side quests for you to pick up as well. These range from your standard ‘kill these zombies’ or ‘collect these items’, although there is enough variety in them that they never feel too stale.
The other side of Dead Island is a zombie survival game, with a bigger focus on melee weapons than firearms. Around the world you will pick up weapons from the environment, as loot from the undead, as quest rewards, and also plain old fashioned vendor purchases. In the early stages of the game, the survival aspect is more about just finding a usable weapon to fend off Zombies, grabbing a nearby oar or iron pipe to whack something. When you start picking up viable weapons to reuse, you begin to learn about aiming your blows to severe limbs or break bones. Using an odd combat system, you hold a shoulder button to raise your weapon, then the right stick to control your characters arm movements to swing the weapon around.
To be frank, it’s a little janky. You’ll either get used to it eventually, or concentrate on any number of other technical issues that plague the game. It’s the perfect concoction for a jankfest – an overly ambitious, open world, hack and slash shooter with RPG elements made in Poland. Admittedly, a lot of problems have been fixed since launch: inventory items don’t disappear now, save files aren’t corrupting as commonly, attacks do what they’re supposed to, enemies level better in coop, etc – However, laughable clipping, mistimed dialogue, broken quests, and more, are still problems you’ll face playing the game today.
As the game progresses, you’ll find yourself travelling to 4 distinct areas. The hotel at the beginning is soon left behind for the ravaged Island capital, followed by the Jungle, and finally the offshore prison. Which for some reason is surrounded by mines. There’s a lot of ‘for some reason’ with the games almost incoherent story, with your characters seemingly blindly following whoever asked them to do something most recently. And then. suddenly, after fighting zombies half the game, real people will start shooting at you with little warning. Without batting an eyelid, your characters will stomp through their heads at a moment’s notice. It’s all very jarring.
As a single player game, it is incredibly difficult and frustrating. The bugs hamper the gameplay no end, and the checkpointing is infuriatingly inconsistent. Co-op is really the best way to go with Dead Island, turning maddening sections from single player into manageable yet challenging encounters to overcome with team work. Even deaths find a balance in co-op, and not just because friends are able to heal or revive you. Whereas before you may have been unavoidably overwhelmed, now it’s a lot fairer if you die.
In some ways, a lot of the minor jank actually adds to the experience while in Co-op, as you and your friends laugh at how a jump kick looks like someone is kneeling in mid-air before extending their leg awkwardly. Later, some of you are teleporting between chairs in the back of a truck, all while any zombie that dares cross the drivers path clips through and around the vehicle, limbs flailing. A knife that looks like a fire sword on your friends character is just shimmering for you. As long as you don’t take it too seriously, it can be fun.
In the end, it’s something that should really be applauded for its depth and ambition. Behind the scenes, the game seems to work remarkably well most of the time. There’s also plenty to do in it, so you’re definitely getting value for money if that’s a concern. Apparently, I played 20 hours into it on one playthrough with friends. It’s definitely not for everyone, even if it tries to be, but it is definitely a curiosity and a serviceable co-op game.