From a distance, Banoi looks like a holidaymaker's paradise: a tropical island in a sparkling blue ocean, home to a luxury beach resort. Get closer, though, and you'll spot blood on the sand (and on the walls, and in the swimming pools). Zombies are shambling around by the beach bars. They're munching on corpses by the surf shack. Time to rethink that vacation.
Much like its once-idyllic location, Dead Island isn't as it first appears. It's got zombies in it, but it's not a survival horror game. It's played in a first-person perspective and has shooting, but it's not a first-person shooter. And whatever that slow-motion trailer would have you believe, it's not a stirring emotional experience. Dead Island is a schlocky, open-world action role-playing game that favours grisly melee combat above all things.
Dead Island's expansive sandbox setting spreads inland, beyond the Royal Palms Resort into city and jungle environments. Its RPG nature is clear in the prominence of quests, doled out by harrowed survivors in the makeshift shelters that form quest hubs. Similarly prominent are RPG staples such as talent trees and numbers, always the numbers: levels, weapon stats, damage, and experience point scores popping out of enemies as you hack away. There are also satisfyingly vicious weapons to be improvised, upgraded, and creatively modded, and a robust online system supports the four-player co-op in which the game is best enjoyed.
Its failings are many but minor, for the most part. The quality of visuals is uneven. Ditto the voice acting. The characters are weak, and the story is a flimsy hook on which to hang the action. Combat is unrefined, and never more so than in the humdrum sections that pit you against shooting human enemies barely smarter than their undead equivalents. The prevalence of drab quests in sewers in the second act is likewise off-putting. All the flaws and missteps amount to a game that is frequently ropey but, thanks to its ambition and scale, nearly always entertaining. There's nothing perfect about what Dead Island does, but it does so much, and does it well enough to give you a good time.
The bulk of your time on Banoi is spent exploring and questing, roaming from hub to hub, foraging items to build weapons or complete missions. Zombies can sometimes be avoided: you can often run around them, amassing a slavering, jogging zombie horde in your wake. More fun, though, is hopping into one of the game's multi-seater vehicles, mowing down the undead as you speed along the island's roads. Some of the best times Dead Island has to offer are those spent cruising in a truck with three friends in cooperative mode, zombies shedding experience points as they bounce off the bonnet.
Dead Island also shines in missions that have you risk life and limb in a sortie to a petrol station, and are best experienced in co-op. Here you might park up in the forecourt then fend off waves of the walking dead while your buddies fill up petrol cans and toss them in the back of the truck. On the journey back to base, your driver might get your ride jammed up between wrecked cars. You might have to pile out to defend the vehicle and its cargo while said driver works desperately to get it unstuck. Dead Island is the kind of game out of which anecdote-generating scenarios naturally, pleasingly emerge--not unlike its zombie-bashing co-op forerunner, Left 4 Dead.
So yes, Left 4 Dead: the undead elephant in the room. If the petrol-gathering mission sounded a lot like Left 4 Dead 2's Scavenge mode, that's because it is. Dead Island lifts liberally from Valve's zombie shooters in other places, too, and beyond the obvious resemblances. Its boss enemies look like leftovers from a Left 4 Dead casting session, approximating the various special infected in that game. Among them is a charger type, a spitter type, and a boomer type. Still, it's hard to begrudge a game for being derivative in a genre as derivative as zombie horror; you could even call it a loving homage, if the bosses were better rip-offs--none are as intimidating as a tank or as creepy as a witch.
The weapon system resembles that of another zombie game, too--this time Dead Rising 2. Though there are guns to be had, they arrive relatively late; melee and throwing weapons are the order of the day, with emphasis on slicing and bludgeoning the enemy. You find basic weapons, such as knives, scythes, and baseball bats, lying around. You can't craft them from scratch, but you can upgrade and modify them at workbenches found in hubs to create, for example, nail-spiked bats and machetes that deliver paralysing electric shocks. It's a shame weapons degrade irritatingly fast over time; a prized weapon you've upgraded and modded to the max might not last too long once you break the cover of a quest hub, leaving you to improvise with scavenged oars and hat stands.
When you take those weapons into a fight, prepare for gore enough to fill swimming pools. Injuries are dynamic and gruesomely vivid, encouraging you to lop off limbs and heads. That the combat is only mildly clunky comes as a surprise--there aren't many successes in the field of first-person brawling. It's grimly satisfying to slice off a zombie's arm with a single, well-aimed swipe, but the system would benefit from a more refined way to block and dodge. As it is, mastery comes from closely watching enemy attack animations, jumping out of the way where possible, and punting zombies back with a well-timed kick in the face. Kicks, in fact, become the unlikely centrepiece of your arsenal, in virtue of being nigh-on uninterruptible and at zero cost to stamina. Swinging other weapons, especially heavy ones, drains your stamina bar, as does sprinting. Weapons can also be thrown--from time to time you find yourself at low health, furiously backpedalling while you lob the contents of your inventory at your pursuer (they can be recovered from his corpse later).
When guns do show up later in the game, they are only passable; Dead Island doesn't excel as a shooter. The guns would be a welcome change of pace in combat, at least, if they didn't come hand in hand with the living, breathing human enemies carrying them. Like many zombie stories, Dead Island is determined to teach us that humans are the real monsters; you occasionally face off against gangs of smugglers, guards, and opportunist punks, but the clashes are mostly tedious sweep-and-clears, turning a brisk action game into a so-so shooter. They feel tacked on, seemingly without even situation-specific voice acting from the player characters: one screams her usual zombies-are-eating-me line ("They're tearing me apart!") when being shot in the head by distant smugglers.
Levelling is par for the course in a role-playing-heavy action RPG, complete with talent trees for customising characters which offer, for instance, options to increase damage or durability of certain weapon types. You level up quickly as well, thanks in part to frequent checkpointing and the minimal penalty for dying: a death tax that skims off a little of the money you've earned by completing missions and scrounging from abandoned suitcases. If you die, you generally respawn a few metres from where you dropped, ready to plunge back into the zombie fray. It's a generous system, though it minimises any sense of dread or tension.
Any remaining traces of terror are wiped out by the characters themselves, who run the gamut from flat to flat and obnoxious. There are two basic personalities among the four playable characters: both of the female characters are disillusioned cops trying to make it in a man's world, both of the men are faded superstars trying to recapture former glory days. Their voice acting is equally lacklustre (in sharp contrast to the cast of zombies, whose groans and angry screeches are alarmingly good). Thankfully, cutscenes are skippable.
The game starts stronger than it finishes, with the first act host to the most visually attractive, most open-feeling location: the beach resort itself. On the other hand, later acts deliver the blueprints for the best mods, so you can at least have exotic hardware for hacking through the enemy in the second act's overlong, under-fun sewer sections. Besides, you can start a second game with all the inventory and character progress of your first, letting you do battle with level-appropriate enemies and your best weapons back in the winning environment of the Royal Palms Resort. Here, among the palm trees and beach huts and gleaming spilt blood, the game looks its best; later, the environment designs are much less inspiring, and poorer compensation for the stiff character animation.
Dead Island deserves credit for backing its multiplayer-favouring action with a reliable system for joining up with other players online. We played online for hours without a hitch, with equally smooth experiences playing alongside friends and match-made strangers. If you play alone, the other three characters aren't added in under computer control, though they still appear in cutscenes.
As a sandbox action role-playing game based on killing zombies with friends, Dead Island is a proposition rich with possibilities, and it exploits a good deal of them, if imperfectly. There's easily 20 hours of content in a single playthrough--much more if you're exploring the Polynesian paradise sandbox and messing around with trucks as much as you should be. If you don't step off the boat expecting a taut horror experience, a masterful gun game, or compelling characters, you'll have a bloody good time.