Comparing the PC and console versions of Dead Island

The zombie-infested Dead Island is out now, but how does the PC version stand up to its equivalent on consoles? Mark delves in to find out…

These days, there’s very little to choose between games on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Unless you’re the kind of person who spends hours comparing the shading in screenshots, you genuinely wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between versions in the majority of games released across the two major consoles.

The PC, however, is another story, and on certain occasions the home computer version of a game can look like a serious improvement over its console brethren, solely because the technology isn’t limited to a fixed specification which is now around six years old. Yes, keeping ahead of the game in the gaming PC world can be expensive, but you can guarantee that some games will repay back the money you have invested in spades.

There seem to be three types of multi-format title. The first and most beloved is the game that publishers spend time on, honing each version to use the hardware in the best possible way, to wring every last bit of processing power from whichever piece of technology you choose to play it on. Sadly, there aren’t too many of these titles around, and those that exist are invariably the more polished, big name games. Modern Warfare 3, Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City – all these titles will doubtless look better on a decent PC, but will also look very impressive on the console in your living room, too.

Secondly, we have the most common variety of game – the ports that seem to settle for the lowest common denominator. These games don’t generally look bad as such, it’s just that it seems optimisation is a dirty word for some developers. Graphics usually look nicer in the higher resolution that monitors can provide, but aside from that, texture work and lighting doesn’t seem much improved. We usually see control schemes either adapted to mouse and keyboard play, or at least sporting the Xbox controller on-screen graphics (which is okay now, seeing as the 360 controller has become the de facto PC standard.)

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Bottom of the pile are the turgid ports that are either broken or severely hampered in their translation to PC. The low quality graphics look worse for being highlighted by your gorgeous LCD monitor, and the control schemes simply don’t work for computer users. There are shamefully still cash-in ports being made to this template, with the PC version of Resident Evil 4 sticking in the craw as a good example of an appalling port – although in Capcom’s defence, the port of RE5 was a bit of an improvement.

I’ll let you all guess whereabouts in this pantheon of PC porting greatness Dead Island sits. If you proudly declared ‘Middle’ in a manner becoming a contestant on Strike It Lucky, then treat yourself to a biscuit. A digestive though, not a bourbon – it wasn’t that difficult. Yes, Dead Island is indeed a competent port from console to PC, which is a relief for any non-console owning zombie haters, but it can make the task of suggesting which version to plump for a difficult one if you own more than one gaming machine.

Our review of Dead Island was posted a short while ago, and we found it to be a fun, if slightly shallow experience. I won’t disagree with that summary, though I would point out that whacking meat bags with a machete rigged up to a car battery is quite high up on my fun scale, and some unpolished voice acting and the occasional repetitive trek through the sewers never once takes the edge off that visceral thrill.

Certain niggles mainly relating to a lack of variety in the story mode and poor gunplay stop me from labelling the title a must-buy, but as an open world hack and slash game with a sprinkling of RPG elements, it’s certainly worth a try and several hours of your time.

At first glance, the PC version doesn’t impress graphically, simply because of screen tearing issues. There is a way of setting VSync by fiddling about in the configuration files of the game, but frankly, you shouldn’t have to. The option to switch it on should clearly be in the main games graphics options, and as most users won’t go to the effort of rooting around to change it themselves, the tearing does lend a messy look to the indoor scenes of the game.

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Things improve when you’re outside, however (which pretty much also goes for the game as a whole), and the vistas seen from the resort look crisp and impressive, particularly in the higher resolutions the PC can provide. The draw distance really impresses in these sections, and gives a sense of scale to the whole island. I don’t have access to a 360, so I can’t comment on any difference between console versions, but I can say that the game itself does look a trifle crisper and more realistic on the PC, but not enough to particularly notice if you aren’t looking at the two versions side by side.

The biggest improvement is in the shadows of your character, which appear noticeably blocky in the console version of the game. The PC version manages to supply much higher quality shadows, which again, lends the game a slightly more impressive realistic and smoother look.

The frame rate is also much more consistent on the PC, which isn’t a surprise, bearing in mind the actual game engine itself has fairly low demands. My PC is certainly no Cray supercomputer – it hasn’t been upgraded for around 18 months, and is, curiously, very similar in spec to the upcoming Wii U.

There are moments when a lot of flesh eaters infest the screen on the console version where the occasional hiccup in frame rate occurs, whereas on my modest PC it remains locked at above 40fps for the majority of the time, and occasionally hovers around 70fps. If you do decide to set the VSync option yourself, however, (which I strongly suggest) then of course the frame rate would settle down to a more consistent level throughout all areas of the game.

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As for controls, the best option is probably a joypad if you have one for your computer, and as usual, the 360 controller is your best bet. Keyboard and mouse work fine, though, for those of you who won’t play a first-person game any other way, and you quickly become accustomed to whichever method you select. Once thing worth noticing is that the more hardcore and realistic ‘analogue’ fighting method only works with the controller, which is a shame, as it is the best way to play the game and a ‘mouse swing’ option could have worked well.

In summary, then, which version of the game should you invest in if you have a console and a gaming PC? The low system requirements needed to run the game’s engine mean that you certainly don’t need a £1000+ computer to play Dead Island at its best, so my suggestion would probably be the PC version, so long as you have a machine a couple of years old or so. Although the differences are negligible, the console version is ever so slightly less smooth, with some frame rate dips and poor quality shadows not seen on the PC.

Unlike some of the blockbusters on the way, like Skyrim, ultimately you won’t be getting a completely different experience depending on how you play Dead Island. Ultimately, the decision could be less about frame rates, buffering and lighting, and more about comfort, and your preferred location for hooking up with some buddies to go busting heads like melons. In that case, any version of Dead Island will give you what you’re looking for. Now where did I put that car battery?