As I’d thought (following general incompetence that ranged from a poor review cycle to some rather ugly misogyny), Dead Island has been a hard game to review. Yes, there is a great game here, an open world zombie fest that rewards clever planning and quick thinking, while showing off a truly horrific zombie outbreak. There are some great gameplay elements, from the locational damage to the stamina system... However, for every Great Thing, there’s something blocking any sense of real enjoyment.
It’s like having the knowledge that to a lot of people, caviar is lovely (especially on toast accompanied by really cold vodka – trust me on this), but to you it’s just salty mush with the mouthfeel of a pregnant slug.
That pretty much sums up our Dead Island experience.
Let’s knock off those issues first, and then try and cleanse our slug-addled palettes with the positives, shall we?
First up was one of our least favourite things ever, the dreaded zero-day patch. Of course, Dead Island really needed it – not was the game riddled with bugs, but many people (Australia missed out on this thanks to a delayed release) ended up downloading the wrong version of the game. Tech Land had uploaded a dev version to Steam... fun times.
Even so, once the game had installed, patched and finally run, it was still buggy as hell. In particular, the entire first portion of the game featured weird, washed out and jaggy red shadows. It was like suffering some kind of brain haemorrhage, and just as much fun to play through. The next thing we spotted was a mess of hold-over console iconography. To open a locked or busted door in Dead Island, you have to play an odd little mini-game that sees you moving your mouse and back forth to mimic the motion of someone shoulder it open. Only instead of showing a mouse, Dead Island suggested we use our thumb stick.
There followed a good few minutes of trial and error while we worked that one out, and our interest in the game waned more and more.
The controls, too, are rather offputting, with a headwobble so exaggerated that it will leave those susceptible to motion sickness rolling on the floor in their own up-chucked lunch. The characterisations are broad to the point of offensiveness, and if you’ve chosen to play as Purna, the Koori (okay, points there for Tech Land) firearms expert, you are doubly screwed over. Not only is this a game that’s characterised by its lack of focus on firearms, but you’ll also be shouldered with an accent so ocker that it’s like playing the game with Pauline Hanson hanging over your shoulder yelling BLOODY HELL and WHAT THE HELL’S WRONG WITH YOU. The latter, in particular, made me grind my teeth in frustration – it’s zombies, Purna.
This is what they do.
Less annoying but just as nonsensical are some of the powers, especially Purna’s first Fury ability. The game follows the tried and more or less true tripartite skill progression that any Blizz fan would know; we chose Fury for Purna because it seemed like going combat heavy would be handy, but that first power is, well, dumb. It basically allows her to draw a pistol. For a bit.
So, wait a moment – this game’s telling me I need to be angry before I can let off two or three rounds? And that I’ve already had to kill a mess of undead before remembering I carry a revolver? What?! At this point, my immersion – and any sense of care for any of the characters involved – was pretty much as dead as the walking horrors shambling about the island.
We’re not the first to point out that there’s a good game in here. However, for most we’ve spoken to it’s a matter of ‘if you can get past the bugs/problems/stereotypes, it’s good’. However, we just can’t get past any of that.
Co-op is fine, and the drop-in, drop-out structure means you can always find someone nearby to play with, and the sprawling, open nature of a lot of levels actually makes the horror more acute, especially once you get into built up areas and have to start avoiding really large mobs of zombies. The sense of scavenging after the world’s gone to hell is solid, though on PC the two clicks it requires to pick anything up is supremely annoying.
Though, that of course reminds us that the also has one of the most ill-thought and unresponsive inventory systems we’ve ever had to displeasure to swear mightily at. But we’re talking good things, right?
They are there. It is a matter of getting past the bugs. But we can’t. At this time of year there’s a raft of better made games out there, and I refuse to forgive a developer this many mistakes just for the chance to kill a few more zombies.