Review: Dead IslandBy Dustin Mendel | September 11, 2011 | Reviews | 2 comments | Share
Over the last decade, zombies have grown tired of shambling slowly through shopping malls, suburban neighbourhoods and the streets of London, and have begun to overrun the world of video games. Franchises like Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, and Dead Nation (see the pattern?) have all enjoyed varying levels of success, zombies have had notable cameos in the popular Call of Duty franchise as well as Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, and millions of people have enlisted the help of plants in their battle against the walking dead. Shortly after, each fairly unique zombie game cranked out an uninspired sequel and the entire genre began to feel like a zombie probably smells: old, stale, and increasingly unpleasant.
Thankfully, developer Techland came along with a breathtaking trailer for their game Dead Island, which, as it turns out, had absolutely nothing to do with the game itself, but it got the gaming world talking about zombies again. It also set the bar for the game incredibly high. Now that Dead Island has been released, I can safely say that the game has made killing hordes of zombies feel fresh, unique and most importantly fun again, but the experience is marred by a host of missteps ranging from minor annoyances to borderline game-breaking glitches.
If I gave you thirty seconds to guess the overall story of Dead Island based solely on the name, you would probably figure it out with time to spare. The game begins with your character (or characters, if you’re playing co-op) in a tropical island resort, where somewhere off camera, all hell has just broken loose. From there, you set off to help a band of survivors find food, shelter and the materials needed to survive and ultimately escape the island. This is done in the form of quests your character can receive from NPCs strewn all over the island, both to advance the story or for XP and rewards. The island itself is huge, with plenty of collectibles, side quests and unique locations to explore. The game also does a good job of introducing each new area in a way that makes sense to the story, whether it’s an important building, or deep into the heart of the island’s jungle.
The system is very reminiscent of other open world games like Borderlands or Fallout 3, and I was thrilled to find that, for the most part, the missions were dark, disturbing and appropriate for this kind of a game. Instead of mixing margaritas and buying artwork for survivors in Dead Rising 2, I found myself tasked with putting a man’s family out of their undead misery or finding materials necessary for burning bodies. The developers clearly set out to tell a disaster story first, and focused on the emotional toll a major traumatic event takes on people. My only grievance with the story is that some of the voice acting was downright terrible, and the profanity-laden script can get a bit eye-rolling at times, but I was able to overlook both issues and still enjoy the game’s narrative.
Dead Island’s gameplay takes inspiration from other zombie games and first-person shooters, but enough is added to make the game feel unique. Players will be able to use a variety of unlockable hand-to-hand moves, as well as dozens of different destructible weapons found all over the island to fight off the usual different types of zombie, from the faster and more ferocious Infected to the slow and powerful Thug. More often than not, the zombies hunt in packs, and depending on the type you’re dealing with, it’s often a good idea to forgo combat and just run like hell, as even one Infected can pummel you to death before you can even get your hands up. Fighting with a melee weapon in a first person game will take some getting used to, but when you do finally get your hands on a firearm, you’ll feel right at home if you’ve ever played an FPS.
Console gamers also have the option of using a completely separate analog fighting mode, which uses one of the shoulder buttons to lock on to specific body parts of your opponents, and the right analog stick swings your weapon of choice. It definitely takes some getting used to, and it won’t be for everyone, but I ended up playing through the game using it, and found it to enhance the combat significantly. There’s nothing more satisfying than incapacitating a Thug zombie by breaking both of its arms with two targeted swings of a baseball bat. The system isn’t without a lot of frustration though; the targeting button won’t lock on to an arm or head unless you’re really close to a zombie, and sometimes the button would stop working mid-swing, which would usually result in the camera flailing wildly as I frantically tried to find my attacker again before it chewed my face off.
The weapon system is incredibly deep, thanks to what seems to be inspiration from both Dead Rising and Borderlands. Weapons found throughout the game are color coded depending on their rarity and quality, and your bats, machetes and broomsticks will need regular maintenance to remain effective. Custom weapons can also be crafted, using mod blueprints found hidden on the island. Thankfully, the custom weapons remained within the realm of possibility, at least compared to some of the creations in Dead Rising that would make Einstein’s head explode.
The A-Team…with Zombies
Dead Island was clearly made with co-op gaming in mind, so much so that every in game cinematic shows all four playable characters, no matter how you play, but the experience was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Players have the option of sending out invites or searching for a game to join, and they’ve also included a neat feature where the game will let you know when it finds someone who is playing the same part of the game as you, and you can link up with the push of a button. It sounds great, but after a dozen attempts, it didn’t work once for me. I was able to join a game through a lobby though, and the game ran seamlessly, even with four players and an NPC running around on screen.
It was great getting a squad of zombie hunters together to fight across the island, but my biggest problem was that it felt unnecessary. With the exception of one chapter late in the game, I never found anything in Dead Island to be hard; if your character is killed, after a brief waiting period, you respawn nearby and continue on, so there was never really a need for help. Certainly that isn’t reason enough to ignore co-op and go it alone, but it would’ve been nice to see the difficulty ramp up a bit depending on how many people are playing.
The Odd, The Bad, and The Ugly
My biggest issue with Dead Island is an overall lack of polish, in nearly every aspect of the game. On the console version I played, there were pop-in and texture issues that I haven’t seen since the original Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, and I occasionally found it difficult to differentiate between zombies and the living, on account of how utterly strange some of the character models, particularly the women, looked. The game’s map would often stop showing my objectives without warning, or completely freak out while I was trying to follow the course it had charted for me and change directions. Driving in the game is one of the strangest experiences I’ve had in a game lately, as you remain in first person view behind the wheel, even when your vehicle has massive steel shutters blocking most of the windshield and your car goes from zero to “my ears are bleeding” fast in two seconds. On top of all this, Techland has spent the last week attempting to patch some of these problems, which in turn has deleted game saves, erased Trophy/Achievement progress or has made co-op gaming impossible.
I can only guess how a game could be released with so many preventable issues, and I hope it isn’t a case where developers see games like Fallout: New Vegas get released as buggy messes and just think it’s acceptable to do the same. I was able to look past all of these problems and still have a great time with the game, and I intend to keep playing the game for a long time to come. Techland has created an engrossing, authentic feeling world with countless hours of content to play with, and if you’re able to embrace the game for all its faults, the experience is a rewarding one. It’s just a shame that so many people will be understandably put off by a game that, with a little more time and polish, could have been one of the better games this year.
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