From a distance, Banoi looks like a holidaymaker's paradise: a tropical island in a sparkling blue ocean, home to a luxury beach resort. Get closer, though, and you'll spot blood on the sand (and on the walls, and in the swimming pools). Zombies are shambling around by the beach bars. They're munching on corpses by the surf shack. Time to rethink that vacation.
Much like its once-idyllic location, Dead Island isn't as it first appears. It's got zombies in it, but it's not a survival horror game. It's played in a first-person perspective and has shooting, but it's not a first-person shooter. And whatever that slow-motion trailer would have you believe, it's not a stirring emotional experience. Dead Island is a schlocky, open-world action role-playing game that favours grisly melee combat above all things.
Sun, sea, and zombie slaughter.
Dead Island's expansive sandbox setting spreads inland, beyond the Royal Palms Resort into city and jungle environments. Its RPG nature is clear in the prominence of quests, doled out by harrowed survivors in the makeshift shelters that form quest hubs. Similarly prominent are RPG staples such as talent trees and numbers, always the numbers: levels, weapon stats, damage, and experience point scores popping out of enemies as you hack away. There are also satisfyingly vicious weapons to be improvised, upgraded, and creatively modded, and a robust online system supports the four-player co-op in which the game is best enjoyed.
Its failings are many but minor, for the most part. The quality of visuals is uneven. Ditto the voice acting. The characters are weak, and the story is a flimsy hook on which to hang the action. Combat is unrefined, and never more so than in the humdrum sections that pit you against shooting human enemies barely smarter than their undead equivalents. The prevalence of drab quests in sewers in the second act is likewise off-putting. All the flaws and missteps amount to a game that is frequently ropey but, thanks to its ambition and scale, nearly always entertaining. There's nothing perfect about what Dead Island does, but it does so much, and does it well enough to give you a good time.
The ever-reliable kick move.
The bulk of your time on Banoi is spent exploring and questing, roaming from hub to hub, foraging items to build weapons or complete missions. Zombies can sometimes be avoided: you can often run around them, amassing a slavering, jogging zombie horde in your wake. More fun, though, is hopping into one of the game's multi-seater vehicles, mowing down the undead as you speed along the island's roads. Some of the best times Dead Island has to offer are those spent cruising in a truck with three friends in cooperative mode, zombies shedding experience points as they bounce off the bonnet.
Dead Island also shines in missions that have you risk life and limb in a sortie to a petrol station, and are best experienced in co-op. Here you might park up in the forecourt then fend off waves of the walking dead while your buddies fill up petrol cans and toss them in the back of the truck. On the journey back to base, your driver might get your ride jammed up between wrecked cars. You might have to pile out to defend the vehicle and its cargo while said driver works desperately to get it unstuck. Dead Island is the kind of game out of which anecdote-generating scenarios naturally, pleasingly emerge--not unlike its zombie-bashing co-op forerunner, Left 4 Dead.
Meet the weapons wheel.
So yes, Left 4 Dead: the undead elephant in the room. If the petrol-gathering mission sounded a lot like Left 4 Dead 2's Scavenge mode, that's because it is. Dead Island lifts liberally from Valve's zombie shooters in other places, too, and beyond the obvious resemblances. Its boss enemies look like leftovers from a Left 4 Dead casting session, approximating the various special infected in that game. Among them is a charger type, a spitter type, and a boomer type. Still, it's hard to begrudge a game for being derivative in a genre as derivative as zombie horror; you could even call it a loving homage, if the bosses were better rip-offs--none are as intimidating as a tank or as creepy as a witch.
The weapon system resembles that of another zombie game, too--this time Dead Rising 2. Though there are guns to be had, they arrive relatively late; melee and throwing weapons are the order of the day, with emphasis on slicing and bludgeoning the enemy. You find basic weapons, such as knives, scythes, and baseball bats, lying around. You can't craft them from scratch, but you can upgrade and modify them at workbenches found in hubs to create, for example, nail-spiked bats and machetes that deliver paralysing electric shocks. It's a shame weapons degrade irritatingly fast over time; a prized weapon you've upgraded and modded to the max might not last too long once you break the cover of a quest hub, leaving you to improvise with scavenged oars and hat stands.