Ever been on a truly horrific charter trip? Ayia Napa? Ibiza? Thailand? Well, it has nothing on the experience tourists had to endure on Banoi.
There are bags left all over the place. I walk over to them and search them in the hopes of finding something useful, but there is nothing. Folks packed flip flops, bathing suits and sun block. Not what's needed right now at Banoi. They should have packed brass knuckles, axes and inflatable escapes rafts. Banoi has officially become hell on Earth, as former tourists have dropped their umbrella drinks in pursuit of something far more delicious - your brains.
I hear laboured, uneven breathing, and I realise why Gordon Freeman is so fond of his crowbar. Five half-decomposing undead surround me and I swing at them for all I'm worth. More are coming and I better get a move on. I've made promises to get insulin for a diabetic and car parts for a mechanic. All over the island there are survivors, and the one thing they have in common is that they need me to run errands for them. I naturally comply as it pays well gains me experience points needed to access bigger and better weaponry.
This aspect of Dead Island gives off an RPG vibe. You level up your character, loot like a mad man, buy weapons, upgrade equipment and run back and forth across the zombie-infested island against all logic and reason to get water for old ladies and escort grown-up individuals who should be able to fend for themselves.
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At first the sheer amount of missions is almost overwhelming and there is a lot of freedom. The adventure takes shape depending on which of the four characters you chose. The differences are relatively minor and you quickly get involved with groups that have formed since the outbreak.
The most entertaining way in which to tackle the zombie infestation is to play with up to three friends. It's easy to jump in and out of campaigns, and a smart multiplayer component detects when other relevant players are nearby where you are in your adventure. Something more games should try and adopt.
But there are problems as well. Something that seldom works well in first-person games is close combat and Dead Island is no exception. It's not a game killer, but I feel as though I never really gain that perfect control over my swings and this is the one area I really hope Techland can nail for a possible sequel. If you think of Borderlands and all the issues there was, yet in spite of those it still managed to entertain, then you get an idea of what I'm describing here. It's a great concept, but just doesn't live up to its full potential.
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Thankfully the combat never becomes a major issue. The focus is instead firmly on exploration, and in most cases you can choose whether to engage in combat or adopt a more stealthy approach. Some things seem a bit ill-conceived, and it's comical that the lady who needs water has an apartment full of energy drinks and it's hard to imagine how my massive crowbar gets worn out after three or four swings at mushy zombie chests.
It takes an hour or so before Dead Island really grabs a hold of you, but if you give up after the first few zombie encounters you'll miss out on a great deal. Slowly, but surely, you level up and you're relatively free to shape your character to your preferred special abilities. There is also the option of combining your own weapons and upgrading them with junk you stumble across. There's a whole sub-game in finding that duct tape and those nails to complete that special weapon.
And it is with a great deal of satisfaction that you then sneak out to try your new gadget out. Chopping down zombies works well, and learning how to aim properly with throws and pull off fancy moves is a lot of fun. The undead are all over the place and there are plenty of scary moments. It's an adventure just to go into a restroom as there may very well be someone there waiting for you.
It's always tricky to figure out which undead is truly undead. Corpses that lay spread out on benches can very well jump up and attack you as you pass by, while most stay dead and quiet. It's a good thing you can carry around a lot of weapons of various kinds, and it's quick and easy to switch between them.
Techland has managed to surprisingly well to convey the sense of a tropical paradise. When you don't see any rotting bodies or pools of blood Banoi comes across as a truly beautiful place. I find myself admiring the views, checking out the flowers as I stroll along the beach, pining for a Piña Colada at one of the abandoned seaside bars.
You're quickly pulled back into your actual situation as zombies frantically try and make their way into beach huts, cars and houses. This signals that there is someone with a brain still left inside. Humans who most likely have a mission for you or something to sell. But there aren't too many of these survivors for it not to feel like a believable vision of a zombie infested tourist resort. And the fact that Techland manages to scare us in this kind of location is an accomplishment.
What doesn't come across as believable, however, is the classic system of level scaling, where enemies grow stronger as you level up. Sure, you're a lot stronger at level 5 than when you start the game, but you never really feel it as Techland throws bigger and stronger zombies your way. It's a difficult problem to find a solution to, but the point of levelling loses its meaning somewhat even if it's nice to gain access to better equipment.
The game also starts to feel repetitive after a while. The missions mostly consist of fetch quests, killing zombies or escorting someone. Later missions are especially troublesome as the folks you escort seem completely brainless (which should actually protect them in this case). It feels as though Techland have equipped the NPCs with the same artificial intelligence as the zombies by mistake. There are also the occasional mission that involves driving. The car physics aren't very impressive and driving is mainly a means to get to far-off locations and not something that's enjoyable in itself. An accomplishment if anything, as it's hard to imagine driving into crowds of zombies not being enjoyable.
It's not just on the design front where Dead Island impresses, the technical side of things is also well crafted. At least for the most part. Every now and then it strikes us just how beautiful Dead Island is, with incredibly detailed environments, vast draw distance and great effects. The PC version is especially pretty, and the Chrome Engine 5 offers up a lot of jaw-dropping moments. Other areas, such as the undead themselves, are less impressive. Thankfully, you only see how ugly they are when they're really close and start biting into your shoulders.
At the end of the day I enjoyed my time on Banoi, despite the imperfections. To walk into a dark and blood-stained beach hut, lit only by a shimmering TV screen, hearing the waves coming in outside the hut and the hissing breaths of someone who is not quite alive nearby is a great feeling.
Techland has done a good job on the graphical side, and the concept is just brilliant to start with. Some good jump-out moments and the massive amount of content to explore are also strong . And we never mind hanging out with a bunch of dead people: it's what gamers do best.
7 / 10
Enormous freedom, lush environments, packed with zombies, plenty of weapons, lots of missions.
Poor close combat, lacking variation in mission, boring car physics.