Dead Island stumbles like a zombie with a wonky leg
Dead Island drops us into an open world nightmare, a tropical paradise overrun with zombies. We're not talking about the lovable, shuffling Romero-style breed of zombies, either; the buggers at the Palms Resort have more in common with the fleet-footed Infected of 28 Days Later.
It's a great concept for an action RPG, but as soon as you start playing a new horror comes to light: bewilderingly clumsy handling. Your survivor's awkward movement suggest that their arms and legs have been heavily anaesthetised. Even basic navigation seems problematic, and if you attempt a melee strike your weapon of choice will flap across the screen in an ungainly swipe.
I'm not sure if this is a deliberate affectation on the part of developer Techland, but it's certainly off-putting. Tilt your gaze downwards and you'll see your legs - a rare feature for an FPS game - and yet your feet skitter across the scenery as if they're barely touching the ground. More worryingly, it seems hard to judge when an enemy is in range of your attacks, with blows occasionally missing when it feels like they should connect, and vice versa. These issues seem particularly severe when fighting on an incline; at one point in my recent demo I found myself battling a trio of zombies on a flight of stairs, and here both sides wound up clawing at the air with no apparent effect.
Weirdly, the throwing mechanics are extremely reliable, to the point where it seems that you will always hit your target, unless someone pops up to bite you first. You can only equip two weapons at a time, so after a couple of lobs you'll have to delve into a menu to select another two projectiles, but even so throwing seems to be the combat tactic of choice, in the early game at least.
It's a shame that the core action seems so wonky, because aside from its central concept - and it really is a good one - there's a lot of potential in what Techland is trying to do. Blades that are thrown into the walking dead remain lodged there, so if you're quick you can retrieve a weapon from wounded enemy and then use it again. Stray too close to an explosion, and you won't just get hurt: the force will knock you off your feet, forcing you to struggle back up as your rotting foes close in on you.
The skill trees for each of the four classes are also promising, suggesting that there's no shortage of depth to the combat system. Certain abilities unlock critical hits or temporary speed increases, while others poison your targets (can you poison a zombie?) or make them bleed over time. Mind you, none of this will do much good if it's hard to hit the zombies in the first place.
The four-player co-op and class system is clearly inspired by Borderlands, which is no bad thing. However, Dead Island also appears to have pinched the latter game's respawn system, to the extent that death is just a minor inconvenience that costs you money. While this certainly gets you back into the action swiftly, it somewhat removes the sense of risk from your adventures.
Despite all these obvious problems I'll admit that I did find myself getting drawn into the action, dashing about a beach, securing a new base for other survivors, then hunting for car parts to fix up a beefy-looking truck - sadly I didn't get this running before the close of the demo. While the voice acting is a mixed bag, the rest of the audio design is very slick. And while the game suffers from pop-up and a number of other graphical issues, the Palms Resort looks an environment that will be fun to explore.
Whether this will be enough to save Dead Island from its apparent clumsiness remains to be seen. Release day is a month away, and it's hard to imagine that the game we'll get then will have any more finesse than the graceless one we've just played.