I think most of you will agree, gamers are, by and large, a breed apart.
Imagine you’re on holiday with your family. It’s a gorgeous beach resort, you’re staying in a villa with a sweet pool, a short walk from the beach bar or the hiking trails inland. Your family are all sat in the sun, reading or splashing around in the pool. Everyone is completely at peace.
Except the gamers. The likes of you and me will, more likely than not, allow ourselves to wistfully imagine survival strategies for if the zombie apocalypse was to happen here, right now.
Of course, that’s the kind of thinking that we have to go through when we’re separated from our gaming PCs for any length of time. I imagine a couple of developers, presumably gamers themselves, had a similar thought at one time or another. Because here’s Dead Island.
You play the part of a survivor of said zombie apocalypse, mysteriously immune to the infection yourself. It therefore falls to you to do the donkey work for all the normals who daren’t go within crowbar-range of the walking dead for fear of infection. So begins an FPS-RPG-survival horror mashup, featuring a great deal of weapon repairing. But I’ll come to that.
If I had to liken Dead Island to any one other game, it’d be Far Cry 2. There are secure hubs of survivors from which to base your operations, upgrade your equipment and take on new missions. After you’re through the gates, though, it’s a free-for-all against pretty much everyone you meet. There are vehicles to requisition, which handle similarly to those in Far Cry 2, and while it’s possible to clear an area of enemies temporarily, they’ll be back if you return after too long.
So while I said that Dead Island has FPS elements, the emphasis is actually heavier on the melee than the shooting. There are a ton of serviceable weapons for impaling or battering the ‘un’ away from the undead, and there’s a simple yet fun upgrade system that ranges from bashing a couple of nails through the end of a baseball bat to some truly weird and wonderful homemade weapons later on. After repeated use, weapons become blood-spattered, twisted, pitted and bent out of shape, and the damage rating drops off until you get them fixed up back at a safe zone workbench. Actually, it’s not really after a great deal of use. Generally, weapons are flimsy affairs that need constant maintenance, and that forces you to either carry a ton of weapons and constantly juggle them in your inventory or foot-slog it back to base to sharpen them up every five minutes. Personally, I felt a little too much time and focus was given over to repairing your stuff. I understand the idea is to give a feeling of scant resources and makeshift defences, but it can really eat into your time.
The standard RPG elements are all here, in a pretty straightforward way. Get experience, level up, get skill points, spend them on new talents and abilities. It’s not a revolutionary system but every game these days seems to have caught on to the juicy merits of the level progression system. It makes incentivising the vast number of side missions easier, particularly when the only other thing they may offer is a worn out old meat cleaver, when you’re already toting some serious, premo-quality stainless steel cutlery of your own.
I’ve never really understood how level limits on particular pieces of equipment is supposed to make sense – are we to believe that our badass zombie survivor doesn’t have enough self-confidence to wield that particular machete until he’s levelled up a couple more times? Anyway, it serves the game balance, meaning that as the enemy increase in hit points, your damage output goes up as well.
Graphically, Dead Island delivers a pretty environment in which to massacre the unliving hordes. If it wasn't for the heaps of rotting carcasses and the ever-present threat of surprise attack, it'd be a nice place to hang out for a while. The tropical paradise theme has been imaginatively developed throughout, and the 'world as we know it run amok' style reminded me a little of Half Life 2. Some of the scenery occasionally feels a little too solid - if I was being chased by four screaming ghouls, I'd probably be able to get myself over a beach umbrella or through a bush with less trouble than our Dead Island heroes.
To be quite honest, there are two games here. A single-player experience for those looking for a deep, story-driven experience (for which Dead Island is a pretty run-of-the-mill delivery) and a frenetic four-way co-op zombiegeddon with your mates. Any multiplayer game with a cooperative angle, even team deathmatches, is a strange fruit; if played with absolute strangers it can range between sublime and infuriating but the trumps of glory truly sound when you’re playing with old chums who you know well, all with decent mics and PCs. And that’s where Dead Island fits into the PC gaming hall of fame. For those of us who are pretty much done with Left 4 Dead but have fond memories of the many hours we sunk into it, Dead Island might just scratch that itch. The story is perhaps not scintillating, and some of the side quests might be a little samey, but is it fun? Well, the answer is that yes, it is pretty good fun. To my mind the combat is usually fairly well balanced, and there's always something to do. It can occasionally be scary, cinematic and grand as well, but it's main selling point is a melee-heavy survival-clickfest with your mates.