When you take those weapons into a fight, prepare for gore enough to fill swimming pools. Injuries are dynamic and gruesomely vivid, encouraging you to lop off limbs and heads. That the combat is only mildly clunky comes as a surprise--there aren't many successes in the field of first-person brawling. It's grimly satisfying to slice off a zombie's arm with a single, well-aimed swipe, but the system would benefit from a more refined way to block and dodge. As it is, mastery comes from closely watching enemy attack animations, jumping out of the way where possible, and punting zombies back with a well-timed kick in the face. Kicks, in fact, become the unlikely centrepiece of your arsenal, in virtue of being nigh-on uninterruptible and at zero cost to stamina. Swinging other weapons, especially heavy ones, drains your stamina bar, as does sprinting. Weapons can also be thrown--from time to time you find yourself at low health, furiously backpedalling while you lob the contents of your inventory at your pursuer (they can be recovered from his corpse later).
Meet your first quest giver.
When guns do show up later in the game, they are only passable; Dead Island doesn't excel as a shooter. The guns would be a welcome change of pace in combat, at least, if they didn't come hand in hand with the living, breathing human enemies carrying them. Like many zombie stories, Dead Island is determined to teach us that humans are the real monsters; you occasionally face off against gangs of smugglers, guards, and opportunist punks, but the clashes are mostly tedious sweep-and-clears, turning a brisk action game into a so-so shooter. They feel tacked on, seemingly without even situation-specific voice acting from the player characters: one screams her usual zombies-are-eating-me line ("They're tearing me apart!") when being shot in the head by distant smugglers.
Levelling is par for the course in a role-playing-heavy action RPG, complete with talent trees for customising characters which offer, for instance, options to increase damage or durability of certain weapon types. You level up quickly as well, thanks in part to frequent checkpointing and the minimal penalty for dying: a death tax that skims off a little of the money you've earned by completing missions and scrounging from abandoned suitcases. If you die, you generally respawn a few metres from where you dropped, ready to plunge back into the zombie fray. It's a generous system, though it minimises any sense of dread or tension.
What do vegan zombies eat? Graaains.
Any remaining traces of terror are wiped out by the characters themselves, who run the gamut from flat to flat and obnoxious. There are two basic personalities among the four playable characters: both of the female characters are disillusioned cops trying to make it in a man's world, both of the men are faded superstars trying to recapture former glory days. Their voice acting is equally lacklustre (in sharp contrast to the cast of zombies, whose groans and angry screeches are alarmingly good). Thankfully, cutscenes are skippable.
The game starts stronger than it finishes, with the first act host to the most visually attractive, most open-feeling location: the beach resort itself. On the other hand, later acts deliver the blueprints for the best mods, so you can at least have exotic hardware for hacking through the enemy in the second act's overlong, under-fun sewer sections. Besides, you can start a second game with all the inventory and character progress of your first, letting you do battle with level-appropriate enemies and your best weapons back in the winning environment of the Royal Palms Resort. Here, among the palm trees and beach huts and gleaming spilt blood, the game looks its best; later, the environment designs are much less inspiring, and poorer compensation for the stiff character animation.
A quest-led trip to Ocean View Bungalows.
Dead Island deserves credit for backing its multiplayer-favouring action with a reliable system for joining up with other players online. We played online for hours without a hitch, with equally smooth experiences playing alongside friends and match-made strangers. If you play alone, the other three characters aren't added in under computer control, though they still appear in cutscenes.
As a sandbox action role-playing game based on killing zombies with friends, Dead Island is a proposition rich with possibilities, and it exploits a good deal of them, if imperfectly. There's easily 20 hours of content in a single playthrough--much more if you're exploring the Polynesian paradise sandbox and messing around with trucks as much as you should be. If you don't step off the boat expecting a taut horror experience, a masterful gun game, or compelling characters, you'll have a bloody good time.