PS3 Review: DEAD ISLAND

Can Deep Silver's zombie apocalypse shooter cope with the weight of expectation created by THAT trailer?

Sometimes marketing can be a product's worst enemy, and the world of trailers is one that invariably muddies the waters of an audience's perception of a film or game before it sees release. In traditional terms, the problem is usually to do with the fact that a trailer has to sell the product, even if it is an irredeemably terrible one, so there is often a degree of misdirection involved - mostly on the film side of things. That teaser trailer that set the world alight all those months ago might have been an astonishing bit of marketing, but it also suggested a heavily emotive experience that the actual game didn't deliver and that encouraged a vocal and surprisingly vicious response from some elements of the media and fans. How dare this first person zombie apocalypse retread aspire to something more, when it was simply going to be a dressed up Dead Rising on Holiday?! Personally, I've looked forward to Dead Island as a reinvigorated zombie slayer from the moment that first gameplay trailer hit, and any hang-over from the teaser trailer's false promises was quickly washed away with the tide when I saw the potential for gleeful head-smashing and how stunning the design work was. Yes the genre has been done to death, but as with the filmic fascination with vampires, there is something extremely enduring about the simple pleasure of offing the undead, and there is still a world of possibility out there - just look at how Driver: San Francisco changed it up... And my excitement was completely founded, because Dead Island is a breath of fresh air: it is in no way the usual hack and slash, survive at all button-bashing costs. The game is an amalgam of what has worked for survivalist action games so far - the universal weaponry gimmick of Dead Rising, the genuinely scary monsters of Left 4 Dead for instance - along with the best mission-based features of open-world staples like Grand Theft Auto. Of course you can wander around to your hearts content bringing the noise to the infected souls roaming around Banoi, the same way you can live out your grandest criminal fantasies in GTA without being troubled by missions, but there is also close to 30 hours worth of missions to divert and distract once the pleasure of unregulated violence fades. The game design is phenomenal: there's a moment early on when youre standing at the top of a hillside flight of steps linking two parts of the resort and if you choose him, Sam B remarks that the beautiful panoramic view stretching out before him is like a "motherfuckin' postcard". And though ineloquently expressed, the sentiment is profoundly difficult to argue with - the Banoi Island environment has been exquisitely designed from the ground up, and everything from the small touches in interiors to that huge panoramic are artisanally created with the same level of diligence and attention to detail. But then the environment had to be completely spot on, because the collectibles side of things means that the player has to scrutinise every possible crack and cravass for money and objects and if the Dead Island world had been even remotely lacking, or not in sync with the scope of the gameplay content it could well have been catastrophic. As it is those time-consuming looting side-missions, and collectible hunting sojourns are far more engaging than they would have been in a drab setting, and even I, the gamer who hates collecting on such a massive scale usually wasn't put off opening the thousands of discarded luggage items on the hunt for customisable booty or cash. There is an awful lot of material to play through, and those who seek 100% Completion rates will find a challenge, though be warned, the lack of a save function means you can't go back after completion and finish the bits and pieces you'd skipped. This is really a everything-at-once play-through sort of thing, which works for the immediacy of the action but is a little frustrating for anyone wanting to open-world it to their heart's content after completing the missions. Each playable character from the original selection of four - Sam B, Logan Carter, Purna and Xian Mei - has a unique Rage mode, which recharges through combat that allows for a short burst of special skill. I chose Sam B - there is something wonderful about the idea of using a Blunt Weapon Expert for me - whose Rage mode gives him the power to pummel zombies with his bare fists (another draw at the selection stage I have to admit). The other three characters' modes are weaponry based, which seemed a little like cheating, but then the Rage subsides pretty quickly and must be unleashed sparingly to best effect. The addition of a stamina bar is a genius touch as it adds a limitation, and an immediacy to the zombie threat - you can't just run away forever, nor can you swing away at your undead foe indefinitely without needing to recharge the batteries, which adds a welcome touch of realism that the zombie genre hasn't ever embraced so openly before. And then there's the weapon degradation: hitting walkers with lower quality arms, such as a wooden oar or rusty pipe will inevitably lead to the make-shift weapon falling to pieces, meaning there is no room for comfort even when you're packing a number of deadly items in your armoury. That means a commitment to clean killing or incapacitating shots is a must, with my preferred early plan of attack involving dualing heavy kicks with targeted weapon shots (though that went out of the window whenever I was sneak-attacked and screamed bloody murder and fear at the screen while blindly smashing my fists into the controller). You see, the zombies are pretty memorable. Aided by some excellent sound effects that announce their arrival ominously before they appear, they are designed to perfection, taking a leaf out of the Walking Dead school for zombies that are more monster than men. The co-op mode, which allows players to join in your game is pretty damn good, though it compromises graphics and frame rate at times, especially if you have too many friends wanting to play along (up to three can join in). Still, it's easy enough to turn back to solo if you're feeling more vigilante than posse- focused. There is though a slight impediment to enjoying the mode in the shape of the badly conceived levelling discrimination system, so that unless you've all started playing together, there is little chance every one of the friends you would want to play with will actually be able to drop-in to your game. Dead Island definitely has its faults - for some reason the first few hours were slightly glitchy, with backgrounds taking some time to fill in fully, and the occasional embarrassingly jumpy animation. Despite the design work, the animation and graphics plainly don't match up all of the time, and that just sullies that great design work. What is worst about these, and the other glitches that will blight the gamer's experience more than once if my own game-time was anything to go by is that all of them could have been ironed out in pre-release testing, if it was substantial enough. The most annoying of all of those glitches is that in close combat weapons can inexplicably disappear as you're attempting to use them, and at the same time the combat controls all of a sudden becomes uncharacteristically slow to respond, opening the player up to damage that skill cannot avert. The fact that such a heavily anticipated game makes it onto shelves with them intact is nothing short of criminal, and is the only hint that the final stages of development might have been rushed to hit the release date. The combat mechanic is also not as simple as it could have been, especially at the start. While this does admittedly add further realism, and more real threat than if slaying your foes was effortless, it is still enormously frustrating that the movement system cannot completely cope with how quickly the zombies move so it is all too possible to momentarily lose track of where they've gone. The navigational buttons also seemed slightly over-responsive during combat as well, which simply exacerbated the problem. Add to that the fact that some of the walkers can appear out of nowhere while you're engaged in beating the infection out of one of their fellows, because of the density of some of the environmental features and the speed with which certain types of the zombies move, and the issue can be very frustrating at times. Not fatal at all, but a blip that felt unintentional rather than part and parcel of the combat system. And the game is also the perfect example of a wider problem in the XBox 360 world: no matter how good the graphics get in building environments, or how well characters are designed, even the most HD of games cannot seem to capture human emotion convincingly. Even though characters we meet are supposed to convey the anguish of survivors under threat, and the grief of having lost loved ones, the technological deficiency that means faces are still rendered without movable secondary features and muscles means it is incredibly hard to empathise with anyone, and it sticks out particularly in proximity with the other perfected design features. In short, despite the debilitating influence of so much hype, and a few almost unforgivable glitches peppered about, Dead Island is a rough-cut diamond of a game, blending RPG and FPS characteristics with a hugely effective horror element that might not win it the highest accolades come awards time, but definitely make it stand out as one of the finest releases so far this year. And if it doesn't win every design award going, I'll eat my own brain. Dead Island is available to buy on XBox360 and PS3 now.
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