Man it seems like a long time ago when I first saw screens of this in an issue of PC Gamer, and then the sublime theatrical trailer which had a little girl savagely attack her father to be thrown out a window. Shocking stuff I’m sure you’ll agree and I was very much looking forward to this release, it turns out I was lucky to get a copy since it’s been sold out for 360 pretty much since launch. So the premise of this game? First person survival horror on a beautiful tropical island. So far so good, the thing I found myself hoping for was that it didn’t go too ‘Left 4 Dead’ and focus heavily on the gunning down of countless zombies, not that that’s a bad thing but it’s just we already have Left 4 Dead for that, I wanted a proper nerve wrenching survival horror. Did I get what I want, well sort of, ish, in a way… but not really.
At the start of the game you must choose which of the four miraculously immune to zombification survivors you wish to play, each with a different weapon specialisation. I picked Logan whose expertise lies in throwing weapons, this seemed like the best of both worlds to me until I realised that you don’t have a stock of throwing knives or the like, you simply have the option to hurl whatever you happen to be holding at the time. This meant that as I started to get better weapons I was loath to use my character’s special skill for fear of losing a decent bludgeoning device for when the buggers got up close. This was compounded when I did throw something decent which hit the target for a good amount of damage only to be immediately savaged to death by an Infected (recently turned, very fast and particularly vicious zombies) and after re-spawning I couldn’t locate the weapon I threw initially. So word of advice, pick either the Sharp Weapon or Blunt Weapon specialists, guns may sound cool but ammo is scarce and thus it’s arguably even more useless than throwing. Anyway I digress; your goal is to travel the island doing quests for people with the eventual aim of escaping the island of Banoi and getting home for a well deserver cup of coffee, or whatever.
The game is split into Acts which are split into Chapters, to me this seemed kind of arbitrary but I guess it’s a nice easy way to add some achievements, honestly there isn’t much need to differentiate the sections of the story. The game world is also split into 3 main areas which are free roam-able, starting at the beach, then moving into a city slum and finally into the jungle complete with an Oceanic plane wreck split into 3 parts (I’m not making that up). Unfortunately the City and Jungle areas aren’t as interesting as the initial Resort (read: pretty beach) but they aren’t terrible, just less stunning than the starting location. Speaking of stunning, the graphics on this one are superb. I wish I’d got the PC version to really crank it up but the 360 does perfectly well and everything looks incredible, again particularly in the Resort.
As you kill zombies and the occasional human enemy you gain XP which levels you up granting you extra health, stamina and a skill point to spend on one of your three skill trees. This was a pleasant surprise for me as I avoided reading much of what was around pre-release for fear of spoiling what I wanted the game to be so was expecting an FPS I could finish in a few days and trade in for something else while it was till worth something, instead it appeared I had Fallout with zombies which can only be a good thing. These skill trees are Fury, a unique set of abilities that focus on your characters specialty and are used in ‘Fury Mode’. The next is a general Combat tree and the third is Survival which let’s you increase your health, learn to pick locks and other such skills. The Survival tree is easily the most useful here with Combat coming in at second. Other characters may have better Fury skills but as it stood mine just let me hit multiple enemies when I threw things and let me throw things further, not that great really.
The combat itself is pretty good, it’s heavily focused on melee weapons which after getting used to I thoroughly enjoyed since it gave a more realistic ‘survival feel’ than falling over automatic weapons and shotguns, at least until I had an electro shock axe which dispensed death at a grin inducing rate. A few issues are the ease at which your attacks can get interrupted, especially if you’re using heavier weapons and end up against Infected who close very quickly and if you miss time the initial swing you take some serious damage. The way you move itself is slightly weird; the first time I pushed the stick forward I felt like the air you’re moving through was throwing up slightly more resistance than it should. The quick inventory could use some work too. Tap RB and you cycle once clockwise around your inventory of equipped weapons, there’s no way to cycle back but you can hold the button down and select what you want in a Dragon Age/Mass Effect style by moving the stick to point at what you want. This would be great if it paused the action while you do it so you can make a proper decision, or at least make sure you’ve picked the right machete since the icons are the same, but it doesn’t and this leads on to my biggest gripe with the game.
Dead Island was very obviously designed with co-op play in mind and this is made abundantly clear by the weapon wheel not pausing the game as well as the sheer number of opponents you sometimes find yourself facing, often followed by an untimely death. Being the misanthropic person that I am I dislike the majority of the human race and certainly don’t want to have to play with people I don’t know to survive the odd unbalanced encounter here and there. The game basically forces you into co-op play, the default setting lets up to 3 randoms join your game with a simple press of left on the d-pad and even with this altered to single player mode the right hand side of the HUD is constantly being filled with messages that someone is near you and about the same level and asking if you want to join them. I find this counter intuitive to what was billed as a survival horror; to me a large part of this genre is the sense of desperation that only isolation can bring.
This is when I realised that the game was not what I was hoping it would be. Once you factor in the subversive insistence on engaging with others and the Farcry 2-esque travel distances (complete with muddy vehicle controls and dodgy views out of windshields) to complete samey missions just to travel back for the reward you realise that the game is trying to do too much. Instead of being a first person survival horror it ends up being a first person free roaming RPG emphasising co-operative play over single player. Dead Island is a decent game, I just wish it had stuck to it’s initial MO instead of trying to be all things to all men, instead it falls from great into average and if I’m honest I was pretty disappointed by this.