"Why won't you just die?” I cried, plunging a cleaver into a zombie's skull. Car totalled, I was stuck on the side of a mountain, fending off the undead. Having blunted my weapons on his friends, this last one was proving hard to dispatch. A few more frantic swings, a terrible splat, and it died. I stood breathless. The zombie's severed head rolled off the edge of the cliff.
Scary, horrible, hilarious. Three traits of the best zombie fiction, which developers Techland have successfully infected their openworld zombie apocalypse sim with.
The setup is simple. You wake in a hotel on the beautiful holiday resort of Banoi Island. A mysterious man on the other end of a distant radio system is promising escape. You need to contact him, but there's a more pressing concern. Almost everyone is dead. And walking.
A brief prologue, and you're shoved out of the door of a beach hut, armed with an oar, and instructed to clear out the nearby lifeguard tower. Dead Island's story is centred around a series of safehouses scattered about the open world, and its primary missions send you deeper into the island as you move from one group of survivors to the next.
The first thing I noticed was the blood. When a zombie left its desiccated meal and lumbered towards me, I smacked it with the oar so hard its ribs flew out of its body and span away, spilling red stuff from its torso in all directions. The zombie groaned a little, then tried to get back up. I whacked it on the back until it expired. The gore was spectacular. The violence of Dead Island remains remarkable throughout the game.
Half an hour later, the lifeguard tower was secure and the survivors in the beach hut are free to move in and start building a stronghold. Once your comrades are established, you can wander around chatting to them, taking on more tasks to help them out. There's always a main quest objective to follow, but it's often more satisfying to complete the dozens of sidequests that you pick up from survivors. If you're willing to risk your neck finding lost loved ones and medicine, they'll reward you with cash and weapons.
So I found myself heading into the surrounding bars and swimming pools, to find food, water and booze. In this order: food, water and booze.
Missions sent me all over the island. I travelled to the coast to get flares from a downed helicopter, drove out to a gas station to secure some vital orange juice, and braved the resort's hotel basements to rescue radio equipment. You spend a lot of time in Dead Island on fetch quests, but they're enlivened by the constant threat of zombie attack.
It helps that the island is a beautiful, convoluted place to explore. Small wooden stairways coil around little pools and holiday huts, each area encircled by tropical fauna. It's a careful layout that encourages exploration and puts you in close quarters with the lingering undead.
As I completed more missions, I gained experience and levelled up. There are four characters to choose from, and each has three skill trees from which you can unlock new combat moves and general buffs to make you and your weapons more resilient. I played as Xian Mei, mistress of sharp things. As well as the ability to deal hideous damage with edged weapons, I would eventually gain bonuses for backstabs and flying stabs. She's fragile, but her limb-severing talents make her the most effective of the bunch.
The other three characters can gain more ludicrous abilities. Rap star Sam B, master of blunt objects, has a rage mode that eventually causes his punches to send zombies flying through the air. It's funny and brutally effective. Master of throwing tat, Logan, has an ability that causes tossed objects to return to his grasp. They don't fly back to him, they teleport to his hand and BOOMERANG! appears in big red letters on the screen. It makes no sense, but is tremendously satisfying to inflict, and can wipe out a small horde in seconds. Finally, Puma is master of Dead Island's rare but largely ineffectual firearms. You don't encounter guns until a third of the way into the game, and when you do, they're pathetic. It makes Puma easily the weakest character, though her group buffs are useful in co-op.
In some ways, it's a better game as a singleplayer experience. The sense of unease as you wander the deserted island is more powerful, and the zombies a greater threat. But with friends, it becomes pure slapstick. Like the time Tom 'goddamn' Hatfield and I took on a Thug and an army of zombies in a parking lot.
I was dedicated blunt close-combat specialist Sam B. Tom was ranged ninja Logan. With barely any plan in mind I charged in and launched a flying kick at a zombie. It connected with a bloody crunch, and then everything exploded. Tom, targeting the same zombie, had thrown a plank of wood just a moment after my kick flattened his prey. His auto-aim cursor shifted to the explosive canister positioned just behind that zombie. Hollywood physics did the rest, and I died horribly in the flames. It took a full minute for Tom's laughter to stop.
One of the benefits of rolling with friends is the ability to swap items. Dead Island's weapons start out as flimsy, breakable tools that wear out after a few swipes. There's always some debris to hand that'll get the job done, but as time passes you gain skills that increase the durability of your items, and you start spending money on upgrades. You'll find recipes that will let you craft mods for weapons, adding explosive, electrical and venomous effects. By the time I got beyond the tropical beachfronts, I had a favourite murder weapon that I kept in tiptop condition: an electrified sickle that I could never quite bring myself to chuck, unless it was at a zombie's head. I called her 'Old Zappy.' Her critical hits could reduce a zombie to a fizzing electric puddle. She never let me down.
Beyond the holiday resort lies the game's best-kept secret: a vast inland city. It's a warren of baked brown slums covered in litter and streaks of blood. The streets are lined with burnt-out cars. and the shattered shopfronts have been looted bare by gangs. This is Dead Island in survivalist mode. Pockets of humanity have scratched out safehouses here and there, while other areas have been taken over by bandits who will shoot you on sight. You have to pick your way through the rubble, avoid large groups of zombies and constantly assess the best route to your objective. Is it safer to take to the rooftops, battle through the alleyways or brave the open streets? It feels like a war zone, with a tightly packed geography that makes it a fascinating place to explore. It's inhabited by some memorable characters, too, not least the nun who sends you on a quest for booze and rewards you with a mace. Aside from some tedious sewer sections, each location feels busy and new. Later, you'll travel further afield, but I don't want to spoil to much of what lies ahead.
Dead Island does have problems: it can occasionally feel clumsy. The skippable cutscenes seemed determined to make me hate my character, the minigame for smashing through doors is abysmal, and unless you want your zombies to bleed XP numbers as well as blood, you'll want to turn off that counter, and the zombie health bars, immediately. Niggles such as the slow mouse cursor in menus and the lack of drag and drop on the inventory screen contribute to a sense that Dead Island is a little rough around the edges, but it never breaks the experience.
When it comes to combat, aside from the pants-but-rarely-used guns, getting up close with the undead has rarely been so grotesque and satisfying.
And the game is huge. Dead Island lacks the geographical sprawl of Far Cry 2 or Just Cause 2, but the island is so varied and packed with detail that navigating it feels much more interesting. Even when blasting through the main quest line and ignoring the many, many side quests, it's easy to rack up 25-30 hours, and the whole thing is playable with a friend in co-op.
Part grim, survivalist nightmare, part slapstick zombie comedy and the goriest game you'll play this year, Dead Island is the most fun you can have with an electrified cleaver and a sack of wet, walking flesh.