Something that separates games from most other media is the effort put into adverts – game trailers are almost universally unmemorable, and so when Dead Island came out with this catchy, speed-switching… thing, the world sat up and noticed. The trailer was either incredibly cynical or just incredible depending on who you talked to, but it seemed to promise a different take on the zombie genre; one that was less arcade slaughter of undead hordes and which instead focused on it as a bleak and brutal battle for simple survival. It hinted at an emphasis on close and personal combat, improvised weaponry, and terror-induced flight, and looked like it might – might – be the first zombie FPS to do it as a true survival horror rather than treating its undead menagerie as just another set of monsters to be shot in the face.
Then Dead Island was actually released, and… uh, yeah. It really didn’t.
Hentzau: How much did you know about Dead Island before buying it, Jim?
Jim: I knew about that trailer, and I knew it was co-op, and that was the entirety of my thought process. You, me, two disposable minions, battling the undead? Score. You already owned it, obviously, owning all games ever, how had you found it the first time around?
Hentzau: Fun for five minutes, but a game which quickly outstayed its welcome and became dull and repetitive. I was playing through it with a co-op partner who still hasn’t forgiven me for giving up about halfway through until more people actually bought the damn thing and we could play with a full set of four. I thought that would make it far more interesting. Turned out I was right, but I had to wait nearly a year for the Steam summer sale to make a sufficient number of my friends lose all control of their critical faculties and pick it up on the cheap.
Jim: I think you do need a squad of four to get the most out of it
Hentzau: With two there’s far less scope for the unintentionally hilarious moments to emerge blinking into the daylight. I mean there were a couple, sure, but I don’t recall us wedging quite so many cars the first time through.
Jim: There is even the option to play the whole thing in singleplayer but, well, I’m not sure I could endure than. Having said so much about what it promised to be, we should start by saying what it is: Dead Island is a four-player open world zombie smashing simulator. One thing they got damn right in that video was how much you’d rely on improvised melee weaponry. My first weapon was an oar which was just lying around when I stumbled out onto the beach for the first time. Whacking zombies upside the head with a piece of wood never really got old for me, I think the default melee system, though simple, was really enjoyable.
Hentzau: There’s actually a secret, more complicated melee system that you can turn on in the options. The default one is fine, though; point crosshairs at body part, wait for it to lock on, and then do your very best to smash or remove it with whatever you’re currently holding, whether it be a razor-sharp machete or a hatstand you picked up on your way through the hotel.
Jim: And I liked the little additions they made, the jumpkick that would knock any zombie down to make their evisceration that much easier and the glory of the tackle: sprint into a line of zombies, knocking them flying. As such a huge portion of this game was the indiscriminate slapping of the undead, it was important that it worked.
Hentzau: Don’t forget the kicking. And the stamping. Four survivors clustered around a prone zombie furiously putting the boot in while it’s defenceless until someone finally purées its head by stamping on it. Wonderful.
Jim: Those zombies were mannequins for our displeasure. You could hack off limbs, stave in skulls, burn off their skin, electrocute ‘em (though shouldn’t that actually help the undead?), and, uh, make them sick. And then after you’ve gleefully crushed a small horde, the trusty stick with which you did it disintegrates.
Hentzau: I actually didn’t like that the weapons were so fragile. If they’d gone for the proper survival horror approach everyone thought they would then it would have been fine, but since Dead Island turned out to be about 1001 Ways To Kill Your Zombie it ended up just being an annoyance that got in the way of the zombie dismemberment.
Jim: We’re going to be using the word zombie more than it’s ever been used before here, aren’t we. Can we agree on a code word or something?
Hentzau: Well there aren’t too many synonyms for zombie. After you’ve run through “undead” a few times you’ve got nowhere to go. Vitally-challenged? Otherwise-alive?
Jim: But yes, I hated that I was constantly looking for workbenches to repair my stick – obviously it’s a bit of an immersion breaker that your finely-crafted machete, designed for hacking through undergrowth for years, can chop through roughly a dozen of the breath-impaired before you have to fix it up, but more than that, it meant I was almost hesitant to use my most amusing, most destructive weapons in case I needed them later for a bigger boss.
Hentzau: Okay, this zombie thing is definitely going to get silly. Shall we just call them potatoes? Or other assorted farm produce?
Hentzau: It struck me as a rather pointless addition to the game. I mean I get that they wanted to have you scavenging raw materials from the environment to make bigger and better potato peelers, but in order to make this worth it — in order to make it matter — there needed to be some proper differentiation between the different weapon types. As it is you’ve got your electrocuting weapons and your poison weapons (what) and your fire weapons, but the way each of these things is implemented in game is exactly the same: a small amount of bonus elemental damage, and then occasionally your upgraded weapon will produce a stun effect where the watermelon you’ve just whacked in the face gets stunned by an electric shock or bends double retching its guts out. Animations aside, though, these stun effects are functionally identical, meaning there’s no actual difference between an electric hammer and a poison mace. Your only real considerations are dictated by the base weapon type: blunt or sharp, and one-handed or two-handed.
Jim: I disliked this disconnect between what a weapon looked like and what it did. You were constantly levelling up, your enemies were constantly levelling up, and so that amazing-looking sledgehammer you’d picked up in chapter two was now about as much use as a chocolate sledgehammer, nowhere near as good as that wrench you found a few chapters later. What this did was add in this Diabloesque system where you were constantly looking at sticks on the ground to see if they were better than the stick you currently had. I hate that, I’d grown accustomed to my mace.
Hentzau: The real-world environment makes it logically inconsistent, too. In Diablo you might pick up a dagger that does more damage than your two-handed sword, and you think: so what? It might be a really super-duper awesome magic dagger. In Dead Island you can pick up a stick that inexplicably does more damage than your painstakingly constructed chainsaw-cum-baseball bat. I mean, what, is the stick made of neutronium or something?
Jim: But overall I was happy with the fighting, the enemies were just varied enough and the attacks I could do were just varied enough too. The skills you can unlock as you level up are a bit of a mixed bag, some of them are fun (tackle! fury! headstomping!) and some of them are just “Numbers get bigger”. I think there was scope for far less mindless increase of numbers and far more slow expansion of abilities but oh well. And then, suddenly: guns.
Hentzau: I’m not going to diss the appearance of guns because they gave my otherwise-useless throwing-things character something to do. They’re not as game-breaking as you might expect, either; ammo is scarce, and unless you’re using a shotgun aimed squarely at the head the shambling hordes of leeks roaming the island have a tendency to simply shrug off gunfire. Melee weapons are still your best option for taking those out. The reason guns exist is so that you can battle the inevitable human enemies on even terms. Two or three headshots will take out an armed goon with ease; however, the gunplay in this game is somewhat tedious, and takes on a faint air of absurdity given how strictly the game adheres to its arbitrary rules. Guns are for PEOPLE, and melee weapons are for VEGETABLES, and if you throw a fire axe at an unfriendly bandit’s head it’ll take off about a tenth of his health and he’ll happily run around with it lodged in his skull while continuing to shoot at you.
Jim: My basic theory on Dead Island, right, is that it’s only good when there are no other humans in-shot. When you weren’t fighting them (it was just about possible to tackle and then headstomp them but I took a lot of damage in the process), they were giving you the most tedious sidequests of all time. When they weren’t giving you those sidequests, they were leaping through plotholes the size of the Yucatan peninsula. Enough of this praise of the mechanics, they’re basically fine, let’s talk plot.
Hentzau: This may end up being a rather brief conversation, because even after reading the plot summary on Wikipedia I still have no idea what was going on. You spend most of the game being ordered around on a series of pointless, nonsensical tasks that have no connection to one another. The four “heroes” of the game have no end goal of their own, they’re just there to take orders from NPCs in the hope that they might fork over a slightly better weapon at the end of the quest chain.
Jim: I mean you missed a few bits so maybe I should summarise: We’re at this lighthouse, and there’s a load of onions, so we head into the town to find the mayor but then there’s a load of turnips. Our only ticket off this rock is a mysterious voice who tells us to meet him at the prison, so we find the guy who knows where the prison is. At first, he’s all “I don’t know what a prison is” and instead takes us on a pointless journey into the jungle (fighting off vicious native pumpkins) where we rescue a girl of some description, and then he remembers where the prison is. So we go there, cabbages galore, and we meet the guy and escape. Anyway this takes twenty hours.
Hentzau: Twenty hours! God, I actually can’t believe they padded it out for so long. For reference, that’s about as long as a single playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas took me. Except in that game I was exploring a rich, detailed, well-written world. Here I was switching on an endless series of loudspeakers, or sending emails to a guy’s parents, just because someone told me to.
Jim: Again, there’s this disconnect between what you *see* and what you *do*. Dead Island couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be serious or silly and ended up sort of lodged between the two (just like most of our cars). The mechanics of what you were doing were simple brainless fun, driving cars through a horde of rutabagas, stomping on skulls like it was a new dancestep. But then you have this plot contrasting to that, where they’re trying to spin a heartrending ballad of a tale, and it just doesn’t work. There’s a girl you pick up in the first act who has to go through that standard asparagus movie routine of killing her dad after he turned. But in game, she was used as an excuse to get us to do thousands of miles of detours, stealing our armoured truck. So rather than being subtly moved by the plight of this poor young thing, we as a group hated her. It was all very bizarre, I felt like I was playing one game to the cutscenes of another.
Hentzau: The cutscenes are so disjointed with what’s happening in the game that they do occasionally become comic masterpieces. Like the guy with the boat who doesn’t know a route through the floating minefield surrounding the island prison, but then suddenly he does. This fiendishly complex route that only he understands the full intricacies of is shown, via cutscene, to consist of nothing more than a long stick which he uses to push mines out of the way before the boat hits them.
Jim: I think the fact that it is co-op means we’re going to be harsher with the plot, I feel like I might have swallowed some of this in singleplayer. But because there’s four of you, all spotting these massive flaws and plotholes, keeping spirits up by abusing the characters who are stopping our progression, well, I dunno. It becomes part of the entertainment.
Hentzau: Certainly my attitude towards Jin switched from resigned tolerance the first time through to a visceral, deep-seated loathing of her character after it was repeatedly pointed out just what a millstone she was round our necks. In-game she acts as the party mule. They could have replaced her with an actual, literal donkey and it would have elicited more compassion and empathy from us as players.
Jim: I think, though, that this sort of unpolished finish does have its benefits. Aside from the fact we were able to have a great time ripping up the plot, there were all these moments of unscripted hilarity that emerged, because of the scope of what had been attempted and the sandbox mentality they’d attempted it with.
Hentzau: Oh god yes. The game is so, so rough, and it’s got more than its fair share of glitches, but this just increased the entertainment factor even more. Like the camera zooming in on a certain NPC as they gave you an impassioned plea for help, only for the effect to be somewhat spoiled by the sight of your three co-op partners doing Irish dancing in the background. Or any time we had to interact with something. In first person view, it’s all very well-animated. To another person it looks like you’re holding out your hand palm down and concentrating really really hard before opening the door or activating the switch through sheer force of will, like Luke raising the X-wing from the swamp on Dagobah.
Jim: Or the fact that they gave some objects infinite mass, so you could kill your partner by kicking a beachball at them or hurling a plastic garden chair.
Hentzau: There was one occasion where we loaded gas into the back of a truck for a quest and set off on our merry way back to the dropoff point. Except in a tragic lapse of judgement, my co-op partners had decided to let me drive. “Don’t wedge the car,” they said just before we left. I didn’t make it past the first corner before somehow managing to jam the car between a wall and a lamppost, with my attempts to extricate it merely sending the game physics into overdrive and causing it to creep slowly up the side of the lamppost. We had to quickly unload the gas before the car became inaccessible and carry it the whole way back.
Jim: Daring the NPC to ask what we’d done with the car, yeah. So, overall, I really enjoyed playing the game despite its many, many flaws, and I think that the way they tried to give you this huge environment to wander around doing sidequests was a big part of that. I reckon if they’d gone for a more constricted, linear slog then it would certainly have been more polished, there’d be a much smoother ride, but it just wouldn’t be as fun.
Hentzau: The game definitely had a dishevelled and unkempt sort of charm to it. I wasn’t enjoying it anywhere near as much towards the end, but that’s mainly down to the fact that it’s about twice the length it probably should be, and that most of that length is obvious padding like the sewer levels.
Jim: Would you recommend it to other people? What would your caveats be?
Hentzau: It’s not so much that the price of the game is an issue when it turns up fairly regularly for 75% off on Steam. The main barrier to entry is that you need to find at least three other people also willing to buy the game and invest twenty hours in finishing it.
Jim: Sure, it’s going to be dependent on finding that committed cadre. I reckon you want to get it done quickly, too, a big gap would kill the momentum. I’d comfortably put this in my top co-op list but that’s more down to a dearth of good co-op games.
Hentzau: I think my main caveat would be that it does have to be played in this very specific sort of way in order to get the most out of it, and if you can’t it’s probably not worth doing. If you can, though, knock yourself out. Or maybe let the courgettes do it for you.
Jim’s making good progress on his epic journey through his Steam backlog, as you can see here. Also many thanks go to Bodge, Rolly and Kinsman for their sterling work as hired goons. You can staff my secret volcano lair any time.