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Review: Dead Island
by Chris Hawke

Dead Island
Naughty Dog
Deep Silver
Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Reviewed on
PlayStation 3
Horror, action-adventure, open-world
Best price we found in GBP:
Very few games come to prominence like Dead Island did. Those AAA titles with millions behind them get lavish reveal trailers and huge advertising contracts, which all come together to build a never-ceasing hype train.

On the flip side of things, you do occasionally get the rare indie game that can engender communal childish commotion over a charming idea or unique style. But with Dead Island? A single trailer was enough to propel it into stardom.

A Polish developer with a chequered past. A publisher that juggles the superb S.T.A.K.E.R. with the likes of Russell Grant's Astrology. A setting and plot reeking of cliché and originality. Yet, once that announcement trailer hit, everyone looked past all those details. That single trailer was able to cause such a massive fuss because it promised us a mature game; a game with strong emotional connections and heartbreaking violence, not just the usual blood and guts which make up countless shoddy copycats. Dead Island was so, so exciting.

The actual game is a totally different beast. It is a mature game, yes. But only because you can slice off zombie limbs in glistening HD.

Dead Island puts you in the shoes of one of four survivors, and tasks you with finding some escape from a beautiful paradise which has turned into a baneful bloodbath. Sounds familiar? That's because it is familiar. Truth be told, there is nothing in Dead Island's set-up that is remotely new or fresh; much like the zombies it portrays, Dead Island is simply a rotting, abhorrent husk of the original material it feeds off. There's nothing wrong with being unoriginal - after all, Left 4 Dead is still one of the finest zombie experiences out there - but Dead Island seems determined to shoot itself in the foot. The four survivors have surprisingly complex and sympathetic back-stories - it was exceptionally difficult to choose between a fallen football idol and an ambitious policewoman. Of course, in the end, it doesn't matter; you'll never get anything more, in terms of characterisation, than an 'eat that!' remark as you crack skulls. It's sourly disappointing to see Dead Island squander its potential.

However, once you jump into the game, you might just be able to forget about all that. The opening scene, where you wake up to an abandoned hotel, is startlingly well done, especially having to charge down corridors to escape a hungry horde; and once you get used to the slightly bulky controls - think the heaviness of Killzone 2 bumped up to eleven, and you have Dead Island's lumbering sensitivity - it's really all a bit fun. Stupid, needlessly violent, cliché and vapid, but fun nonetheless.

The zombies all have excellent physics, meaning that swipes with a baseball bat and slashes of a machete will provoke different and appropriate reactions from your enemies, making combat that much more fulfilling. Likewise (and regardless of your weapon of choice), there is an undeniable and honourific guilty pleasure in maiming a bikini-clad member of the rich and famous, whilst the appearance of a special infected swings the doors of strategies tactics wide open for you. You'll find your favourite weapons, upgrade them, possibly even modify them, all for the glorious and goreious (I made that word up, kids) buckets of red that stream from leg stumps. Dead Island is built on a foundation of smacking around the undead, and it's a brilliant foundation.

Of course, one can only aimlessly set fire to parasitic prisoners for so long; it's the game's job to make you feel like you're actually accomplishing something with all that maiming and decapitation, and for a while the missions in the game seem quite promising. Finding tired and aimless camps of survivors is initially thrilling, with a strong and logical string of main quests. Whether it's fixing up cars to drive over zombies with ease, or picking up the last scraps of food from beach bars, it really keeps you going through all the killing. In particular, you're told of a monsoon coming, and thunderous roars from the clear-blue heavens above make you feel under incredible pressure. Unfortunately, after a while it all goes downhill. Missions that start out with clear initial objectives soon becomes tarnished, with characters saying, "hang on, just get me a bit more petrol", or "before we get going, I just need an extra stick of chewing gum". At this rate, missions quickly become tedious, and as you venture into the city, the sewers, and later the jungle, everything becomes more linear and corridoric. Oh, and that monsoon? It's nothing more than a light bit of rain that clouds the game from time to time, and messes up the graphics. Speaking of graphics, the Chrome Engine which the game runs on boasts an odd mix of delightfully angelic and downright disfigured graphics, with more bugs and glitches than you can shake a hundred day-one patches at. What begins with promise quickly becomes a game stalling for time as it realises it needs to deliver fifteen hours worth of gameplay.

The problems don't end with bugs. There are scandalous difficulty spikes; particularly gruesome zombies known as Floaters, in particular, can spit furious venom at you, yet take a good dozen blows to finally surrender their crimson insides. The 'Infected', zombies who can sprint at you, seem to have a nasty habit of getting into unbreakable animations - despite endless kicking and even some slicing, they'll continue to pick away at your health with all disregard, until ending their little attack animation and suddenly dropping dead. It really isn't as fun as it sounds. And don't expect to find the emotional depth the game promised in other characters, as there seem to be only a handful of NPCs; one of the only emotional points in the game comes when a daughter is forced away by her slowly dying father, but two minutes later I'm talking to survivors with exactly the same beard and hat as him. Unless criminals are reduced to stealing facial hair in the zombie apocalypse, the only thing to blame is lazy design.

What isn't as lazy is the online co-op. Four friends can take the role of each survivor and have some good, old-fashioned fun. It really changes the mood of the game - in single-player, Dead Island can often be quite tense and thrilling, bordering on terrifying, yet with three mates it just becomes an unholy massacre. It's far too easy and distracts from any mood the developers were trying to create, but in its place comes the simple joy of friends having fun - not even Left 4 Dead can match the joy of having each player cut a limb off a lumbering Thug all at once. Personally, I much preferred the lonely, solitary experience, but it's nice to know that when that gets boring, you can turn Dead Island into Light-hearted Trigger Happy Island.

All in all, Dead Island is brainless. Sluggish, obtuse, dazed and ludicrous, it shuffles along half-heartedly, trampling all the potential it once commanded. But, when you take up arms and start sawing arms off, Dead Island is mindless merriment. It's big and dumb, but for all its faults and squandered potential, there's nothing quite as satisfying as a no-holds-barred zombie massacre.

9/10 [?]

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- Chris Hawke

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