Dead Island Review - September 15th 2011

Dead Island could be the zombiest game ever. It turns over entire libraries of undead film and fiction to scavenge every cliche in the book. Where Valves L4D series throws Boomer-shaped curveballs in rock-concert-shaped settings, and Dead Rising opts for slapstick with fruit-based decapitations and snapping photos for high scores, Dead Island pulls a George A. Romero gurn and hopes for the best.

It's what to expect if you're expecting braaains: survivors dispute whether to stay put or flee, daughters say teary goodbyes to infected fathers, there's a pregnant lady who needs to sit down a lot, and moral quandaries aplenty: "He just got bitten. Shovel or axe?" Much of the emotional core developers Techland strive towards falls flat, but through ingenuity or sheer dumb luck some of their more bloodletting clichés translate well into gameplay.

Remember THAT trailer? It was an invigorating promotional boost but not an entirely honest one. Subsequent snippets carried on the theme, promising sombreness and gravity alongside rotting flesh and tropical islands. They were half right. While Banoi is gorgeous, a paradise of ripped parasols, lone seagull caws and abandoned boats left to bob in clear waters, emotional impact isn't one of its strong suits.

This looks painful.

Picking one of four characters with different strengths, you wake in a hotel bed. As always the apocalypse happened while you were sleeping and you'll have to make a break for it. Starting with nothing more than a hangover and a scavenged paddle, you'll eventually loot devastating weapons both melee and firearm, build up XP through free-roaming challenges and a charitable attitude, and even craft your own murderous DIY on work benches. If Borderlands was bitten by an infected, Dead Island would be the result.

But the game never exceeds simply killing things like it pledged. Distressed brothers plead with you to bring back their kin, and weak diabetics need insulin or they'll be total downers, but characters are robotic and unconvincing. If it's easier to empathize with a salmon than a human, emotional resonance is a distant target. An admittedly cracking score (from the trailer, solemn and poignant) kicks in every so often, but it's sometimes completely misplaced; you can't just insert a song into a game and expect its tone to follow suit.

All-important character nuances, that kind that has earned Valve's enduring L4D cast places in fans' hearts and erotic fan fictions, are missing here. Your avatar doesn't engage with survivors so much as reel off a stock "sure" or "you got it" sound bite whenever you accept a task (forget branching missions, by the way), and survivors ask you, blank-eyed, to bring back rations even though the place is littered with lootable snacks and alcohol. Upon hearing the news of his brother's death, one even exclaimed he was "getting outta here!", only to remain in his seat and cycle through his 'slightly irked' animation. Little details like this make it hard to connect to the game on an emotional level.

Uneccessary stomping.

You'll be hard-pressed, however, not to connect to it on a physical one. Melee weapons, which you'll wield for the first 10 hours before even seeing a gun are immensely satisfying. They're not as tactical as Condemned - there's no block and no sense of timing or momentum - but damage models impress. Launch a shovel like into an enemy's arm and it'll hang limply by his side; lop off both and he'll feebly try and gum you to death. Just one button for whacks and one for crowd-controlling kicks make for hardly scientific combat - a poor show for a game so built around the mechanic - but each smash leaves strong and bloody evidence.

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