Should you spend your vacation time on Techland's Dead Island? Normally in this situation looking at a range of video game review scores would help. Normally.
In this case, however, that might not help. The latest zombie survival horror action role-playing game's fancy trailer dragged it kicking and screaming into the spotlight where it now stands, naked and shivering, desperately trying to cover its naughtier bits while the folks from outlets like Edge Magazine and the UK's Metro point and laugh. Other outlets see something they like, and aren't afraid to scrap off a little decaying flesh to get to the good stuff. Heck, Crecente seems to be liking it well enough so far.
How can a game generate such disparate critical reactions? Read on and see for yourself.
Conceived in 2005, Dead Island finally makes its shambling way to shop shelves, invigorated by a promotional boost but carrying some telltale traits picked up during its six-year gestation. What began as a straight survival FPS – a wide-eyed go-anywhere, wield-anything premise – arrives looking a bit peaky. We spy Borderlands-shaped toothmarks on its loot-focused weapon customisation and fourplayer online co-op. Elsewhere, NPCs bear Oblivion-esque side missions – with none of Bethesda's branching outcomes – while zombie types echo Left 4 Dead's. Only Banoi Island itself remains Techland's own, complete with all the texture, audio and animation glitches we've come to expect from its Chrome Engine.
Without letting slip any spoilers the game world is more varied than the basic set-up might imply and it's filled with enough side quests to make the comparisons with Fallout and Oblivion - even if far too many of them recall the annoying escort missions of the first Dead Rising. But not least because there's never more than a dozen zombies onscreen at once it's Bethesda's first person role-players that are the primary inspiration here, as you continually loot cupboards and left luggage for useful bric-a-brac.
Graphically, it's a bit of a dog. The Chrome 5 engine conjures up the same jagged Duplo jungle foliage as it did for the wretched Sniper: Ghost Warrior, and constantly struggles with textures, edges and frame-rates. Character models are downright disturbing, with marionette animations and distracting staring bug-eyes. The zombies, at least, are supposed to look horrible but even they're blighted by crude skins and spurting blood that looks like it's been added in MS Paint.
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.
Misery loves company, and Dead Island is best played with friends. Gearing up with three fellow zombie slayers reminded me of the blissful carnage of Borderlands. Power-leveling underdeveloped characters, swapping new loot, and cooperating to survive are all highlights of co-op. When you're standing on the roof of a car surrounded by craven cannibals, having a buddy with a fire axe is a great thing. The drop-in, drop-out co-op demands that all players be at exactly the same point in the main plot in order for quest progress to save, but experience, and loot are always retained. It's in your best interest (and the most fun) to choose a group of friends and stick with them from the beginning, unless you don't mind burning through low-level quests to catch up. Fortunately, enemy levels scale with you, so backtracking isn't a complete waste of time.
Some of you might play the game and wonder why I gave it a 9/10. You might look at the faults that I've outlined and declare "that list is worth more than a one point deduction!" However, look at it like this. I don't believe in a system where you have to deduct certain percentages of points per hang-up or fault you find in a game. For me it's the overall experience while playing through that determines the final score. Yes, there were faults that I discovered throughout my experience with the game. However, every game has faults, and I viewed this through the lens of a gamer. Did I enjoy this game? Absolutely. Did it scare the crap out of me at times? 100%. Was there a real feeling of survival horror (as opposed to just jumping-scares) that has been sadly lacking from other contemporary zombie games? You bet. So looking at the total package that was brought to the table here, this game is too fun to play and too unique an experience to be really nit-picky on the things that didn't go exactly as I'd rather them go.
It takes all kinds of people to survive a zombie apocalypse.