After six years in development, Techland has come up with a nuts-and-bolts zombie experience simulator. Somewhere in its genetic code is a shade of Left 4 Dead's zombie types, a bit of Dead Rising's crafting system, and Borderlands' preference for co-op. But beneath all that design is just a sustained rumination on what it must really be like to hit somebody in the face with a paddle. It was never going to surprise anyone that the game would have nothing in common with its marketing. But still, to the denizens of the Internet who were getting all hot and heavy over the initial FMV trailer, Dead Island is eager to provide the cold bucket of water to bring you back to reality.
And the reality is that Banoi Island sets the scene for a particularly inept survival story. You play one of four larger-than-life characters from B-movie central casting, whose Mean Motherf*cker personalities seem to have been outsourced from an entirely different genre. From the start it becomes clear that Techland had two different games in mind during the development process, and the result is an ill-fitted contradiction, a brainless punch 'em up melee game tucked inside sincere apocalyptic tragedy.
Dead Island tries to reconcile its two halves, but it never quite works out. The delightful zombie survival gimmick is quickly replaced with a rollercoaster of odd jobs and fetch quests as dictated by NPCs from various camps, and as one of the few remaining survivors who happen to be immune to zombification, you play the only character capable of finding jewellery for sobbing widows, and fixing broken fire hydrants around the block.
Rather than being a focal point of the game, zombies provide a temporary blockade between you and your objectives, and you can at least partly thank Techland's Chrome 5 engine for that. Its engine can only generate a handful of foes at a time, meaning on a bad day you'll be face-to-face with four to six undead, leaving you to imagine that zombie outbreaks just aren't as big an issue as what you'd previously imagined.
It's when the game returns to its default factory settings of head-punching and rib-kicking that it's at its best. Dead Island can't seem to gets its head around much in terms of quest content, but Techland has successfully built what basically amounts to a three-dimensional spread of Whack-A-Mole. Guns join the party late in the game, so throughout most of Dead Island melee combat is the universal solution to all problems. Basic kick and punch moves accompany a weapons list of oars, shovels, knives, and crafted items you will find or create, and although melee in this game is an eternally inexact science thanks to some imperfect hit detection; when it does work, it works well.
Stabbing the arms off of a hulking Thug zombie and watching him continue to attack with headbutts is the sort of thing that will fuel YouTube fan videos for months to come. Another inspired touch lets you coax a Suicide Zombie into a ring of shuffling Walkers, then watch as they collectively explode in a ray of gore.
Specialty enemies like these are designed to be tackled in groups; one of the many reminders throughout the game that it was built with co-op especially in mind. From four-seater trucks to cut scenes which inexplicably show you as part of a team despite playing solo, Techland highlights its four-player co-op repeatedly throughout Dead Island. Unfortunately for new players to the game, enemies level with the highest-level player in the group, putting those lower down the totem at a disadvantage. However Techland tries to counter this with its matchmaking system, a straight-to-the-point method of connecting users with a similar level and story progress.
But despite a few intriguing zombie deaths both in solo and group play, generally you'll find just kicking a line of zombies to the ground in a domino effect is the order of the day, when you swiftly realise that you're rarely rewarded for your creativity.
It's a shame that the game fails to create an incentive for just about anything. Dead Island quickly becomes a 25-hour ode to apocalyptic nihilism, when even death in the game fails to matter. Rushing by with little penalty, dying in the game simply transports you to your last checkpoint while skimming a fraction off your cache of money. At worst it's a frustration, leaving you to respawn seemingly at random - either miles away from where you were, back in the centre of a group of still-aggro'd zombies, or even in areas you've yet to visit, bypassing difficult fights altogether.
The same issue follows through to exploration, which dampens the survival aspect once you realise that zombies you had previously slaughtered are back to business as usual. Returning to the same areas evokes déjà vu in the most literal of ways, the game cranking its Survival Horror aspects down to the lowest dial and leaving you with an unlikely reworking of Concentration. Memorise where the zombies are on the map, and success is yours.
Still, the game's ambition can't be overstated. The developers are clearly students of everything from Borderlands to FarCry, Dead Rising to Oblivion, and Dead Island feels like a notepad featuring the basic gist of ideas from each title. Basic crafting, unlockable abilities, exploration, and shootouts with looters all provide some structural complexities. But unfortunately, still hidden underneath that crust is an astonishingly boring apocalypse.