Has there ever been a more perfect subject matter for videogames? In recent years especially, there’s been a glut of quality zombie games from Resident Evil 4 and Left4Dead to Dead Rising and even Plants vs. Zombies.
But after five years in development, Techland has now introduced a brand new property into the undead mix with Dead Island. The pre-release trailers had zombie fans anxious to see if the game could live up to the hype.
As the title would suggest, Dead Island takes place on a fictional island off the coast of Papua New Guinea named Banoi. After a huge night on the sauce, players wake up in the quintessential zombie apocalypse. This sets the scene – albeit one seen in every zombie survival game or movie ever made – for some limb-detaching, zombie-slaughtering action.
There are four different protagonists to play as, each of them proficient in a certain type of combat. There are two women – Purna and Xi’an, both experienced police officers specialising in firearms and sharp weapons respectively. Then there are two men – Sam B, a stereotypical has-been rapper (blunt weapons) and Logan, an equally overwrought retired football star (thrown weapons). Purna is perhaps the least desirable character choice as ammunition is fairly scarce on the island and an empty clip is not a pleasant experience in a zombie apocalypse.
Clearly, the action in Dead Island is melee-based, and the game provides a couple of options as to how to approach it. The press of a shoulder button will deliver a selection of standard attacks in combination with other buttons, or – and this is the most difficult option to master – the right thumbstick can be utilised to swing a weapon at specific limbs. This provides a more satisfying experience for the exceedingly sadistic and bloodthirsty amongst us.
Weapons are not indestructible. They wear down or weaken with each blow before eventually breaking altogether. However, using an RPG-type system fuelled by cash, weapons can be levelled up, repaired and combined with others to make them stronger and more powerful. Once a weapon’s statistics are maximised it’s much easier to plough through anything.
Weapons are inscribed with a handy durability rating. It’s not simply a baseball bat, it’s a Weak, Flimsy or Dependable baseball bat, for example. These denotations inform players as to when the acquisition of a new weapon is in order; getting stuck with one that is likely to break after crushing a couple of skulls is not conducive to long life.
An additional RPG element of the game can be found in the way the characters themselves level up. Landing well-placed blows and completing quests and challenges earns experience, which can then be applied to a character’s attributes. There are three skill trees that are the same for each character, Blood Rage, Combat and Survival.
Survival increases the base skill-set that all characters possess. Combat is different for each character due to their specific weaponry skills and Blood Rage is a time-limited boost that turns a survivor into an indestructible, psychotic zombie-bashing machine.
The free roaming nature of the game is well constructed, and while sandbox gameplay always brings its share of glitches, players are unlikely to find anything more intrusive than a misplaced texture, a floating object or the clunky movement of some enemies as they navigate around objects. The audio is equally impressive.
Exploring the island and completing all the side quests puts Dead Island’s gameplay at approximately 40 hours. Spending this length of time in one location may seem daunting, however the stunning setting makes for an attractive prospect. Regrettably, some of the side quests are simply ridiculous. One woman tasks players with fetching a cup of coffee – a blatantly foolish request that, should the real Zombie Apocalypse ever actually occur, would certainly see her banished to the street by the collective will of the resistance, perhaps chained to a sandwich-board entitled ‘Free Brains’.
Undeniably the most pleasurable feature of Dead Island is the four player co-op. It works seamlessly either over a local area network or online, and provides zombie action similar to Left4Dead but allows for a more tactical approach. The free roaming environment means that two players can draw the attention of the horde while the other two flank and attack from behind. As the number of enemies scales up with each human participant, co-operation is essential. Advancement in quests does require the group to be in the same place though, so it doesn’t pay for anyone to wander off too far.
Dead Island caters to a variety of play styles. Those after a quick, tense singleplayer campaign can race through it, or alternatively players can take their time and explore the expansive island of Banoi. Either way, the zombie horde will occasionally prove overwhelming and the game includes more than a few frights, but the best way to play the game is co-op with friends.
Whatever the case, there’s hours upon hours of zombie smashing fun to be had.