People were probably right to be a tad sceptical about Dead Island. The fact that it was made famous primarily by a trailer – and a trailer that was almost certainly cut by someone who had no connection to the actual production – was suspicious in itself, and the game’s developer Techland haven’t (until now) been on the receiving end of too many kind words from the majority of the critical fraternity. Never mind that they’d had a hand in creating a small handful of seriously underrated videogames (the excellent low-fi arcade racer Nail’d in particular) the widespread perception was that the company simply didn’t deal in AAA titles.
Most impressively, the Polish development squad have risen to the challenge and created what is unquestionably their finest piece of work to date. A million miles away from the emotional bushwhack that was suggested by that trailer, Dead Island is actually an open-world RPG that has a distinct whiff of both Fallout 3 and Borderlands about it. Although it starts very slowly – with a barrage of fetch quests and combat that’s primarily one-on-one – after an hour or so the experience abruptly morphs into something that’s almost as deep and rewarding as its two aforementioned (masterpiece) forebears; although nowhere near as pretty.
After an intro cinematic that’s heavily indebted to Jonas Åkerlund’s memorable video for the Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up, you’re given the chance to select your character. In terms of gameplay, the only real difference between them is their general (negligible) approach to combat, and the threadbare plot is the same no matter who you choose. Although firearms become much more prevalent in the second half, Dead Island is all about the melee combat, which (thankfully) starts off addictive and only gets more compelling as you progress. Once you’ve gotten used to the idiosyncrasies of Techland’s rather peculiar Chrome engine – which will probably take you the best part of the game’s entire opening tier – you’ll be happily lopping off heads and limbs like a bereaved Danny Trejo.
After you’re acclimatized you’re free to roam around the quarantined island of Banoi more-or-less however you please, helping the stranded populace, looting abandoned luggage and levelling yourself up on an expansive and initially bewildering skill-tree. Make no mistake, this isn’t a genre toe-dip; it’s Techland diving into RPG-land headfirst, and it’s a very strong debut. The story may not be up to snuff – the writers don’t even feel that they need to elaborate on the fact that you’re immune to the outbreak – and the acting and dialogue are both as amped-up and hammy as you’d expect from the creators of The Cartel (“I caught a bitchy bullet!”) but everything else, from the XP system to the way it asks you to handle its low-attrition resource management, is spot on.
One thing that definitely deserves to be mentioned (and commended) is that a significant amount of time has clearly been spent on tailoring the game to however many players are taking part at any one time. This is especially noticeable when you compare it to something like Borderlands – which, if you weren’t keen on grinding incessantly for hours on end, was basically unplayable as a solo experience – and how the difficulty of the combat takes form is very dependent on the number of players present. The sparse and chilly atmosphere of Dead Island on single player makes the loud and chaotic mash up of co-op feel almost like a different game. The second is certainly the more entertaining of the pair, but going solo does bring its own set of eerie, unsettling pleasures too.
So Techland have played their ace, and Dead Island is a mightily gripping RPG that works whether you’re tackling it alone or with friends; although the co-op option is definitely the one to pursue if you can. The technical restrictions of the developers’ own Chrome engine (in comparison to the competition, anyway) mean that it doesn’t quite look or function as impeccably as you’d expect from a blockbuster title, but this is something that’ll bother you for about five minutes before becoming irrelevant. Even if you’ve never been a fan of Techland’s output, or are put to sleep by the idea of dispatching yet another shrieking horde of undead vegetables, Dead Island is sure to sway you in almost no time.
Dead Island is due for release on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC on Friday 9th September, 2011.
Watch the Dead Island trailer here: