Dead Island Review
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On 11/14/2011 at 08:00 PM by Jesse Miller
This game craves brains because it clearly has none.
Fanatical zombie fans need only apply. Otherwise get your zombie fix from the far superior Left4Dead, Dead Rising, Dead Nation, Resident Evil, or any other zombie series.
Dead Island is a game in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s not sure if it wants to be Dead Rising 2 with its customizable weapons and biting humor, Left 4 Dead with its multiplayer focused gameplay, or Borderlands with its RPG elements and zombies that bleed numbers. Dead Island wants to be all of these things and in trying to do so fails to do anything well, the result of which is an overly flawed experience that just months ago looked so promising.
It may not be fair, but Dead Island has garnered quite a bit of criticism for not being anything like the amazing trailer that put the title on almost every gamer’s radar early this year. Usually I would make the separation between trailer and finished product since one has nothing to do with the other, but in this instance I can’t do that. That backwards streaming trailer showed a zombie game that would focus on the horror and tragedy that would befall humanity in the zombie apocalypse. It looked like a thoroughly human story of loss and hardship ironically juxtaposed against serene island vistas – perhaps we were finally getting a thoughtful zombie game that could readily stand up next to Romero’s classic films.
What we actually ended up getting instead was more zombie schlock – and not even good zombie schlock at that. Dead Island’s problems are many and surface before you even start playing the game in earnest. The game starts with an opening cinematic that introduces you to your playable characters through the eyes of a stumbling drunk at a party. As many may know from experience, slobbering drunk is not the best state of mind in which to make a good impression, and this rubs off on the playable characters as they all come off rude and completely unlikable (with one possible exception here). So when it came to make a decision as to which character I wanted to play as I found myself wishing that there was a create-a-character function since I wanted all of my choices to die horrible, excruciating deaths.
And it’s not just the player characters that are horrible examples of humanity. There isn’t one likeable character on the whole damn island. It’s true that a zombie apocalypse can bring out the worst in people, but trials and tribulations of this nature can also bring out the best in people as well. No one expects an NPC to be the hero, but I would at least like a good reason to want to save the people around me. Instead I had to continually repress my desire to light every safe house on fire.
Interacting with others also brings some glaring technical and design issues to light. Characters are rigid and extraordinarily creepy looking. Most won’t even look at you when speaking with you and they all have the same blank look on their face. It’s as if everyone was at a Botox injection party just before the outbreak and is incapable of expressing any emotions whatsoever. This simple presentation issue trickles down into every aspect of the character: the dialogue is terrible, voice acting even worse and on top of that they all look the same.
And I can’t talk about the NPCs without bringing up the ladies. The men in the game have a nice variety of looks, but almost every single woman on the island is wearing a bikini, which is actually quite odd since the zombie outbreak actually begins the night before. None of the ladies changed into something more sensible for the evening? Expectantly they all have the bodies of a twenty-something stripper, but the face of a geriatric.
Allow me to apply the brakes before I continue. After all, getting hung up on appearances and characterization in a zombie game is pointless if the zombie killing is fun, right? Of course it would be, that is, if zombie killing was actually that fun in Dead Island.
The basic mechanics of zombie killing are simple enough. You control your character from a first person perspective. You can equip a variety of weapons that can either be either found laying around the island or created by the player (we’ll get to that later). To kill a zombie you can swing said instrument of death and you can kick. Swinging your weapon drains your stamina, but strangely enough, kicking is apparently not strenuous at all and can be done as much as you like with no stamina loss.
It’s important that you as a player are familiar with operating an armored tank, because your character will control like one. The simple task of moving side to side will often feel like a chore and combat is anything but precise. A successful strike against an enemy may as well be determined by a roll of the dice, considering how wildly inaccurate the collision detection is. There would be times when I swore I had to have hit a zombie, yet hadn’t, and other times when I would completely whiff yet I would strike a critical hit.
Weapons degrade after a period of time, offering a supposed element of strategy, but if you’re anything like me you’ll largely be passé about not having a weapon and instead start beating down zombies with your fists since it’s just about as effective and your fists don’t break down.
Running around beating up zombies with your bare hands would seem suicidal if there was any real danger present. It’s obvious from the constant pop-in that the game has a hard time generating all of the landscape on the island and can’t be bothered to show more than 5-6 zombies on screen at a time, which is a serious zombie faux pas. What makes zombies scary isn’t the fact that they’re undead (okay that helps) it’s the fact that there are so many of them. The realization that there is nothing you can do to stem the tide of death slowly rolling over you is where the real fear in the zombie genre originates. Taking that away makes the game stupidly easy and not scary at all. Most encounters would wind up with me kicking the zombie(s) down and then standing over them pummeling with my fists or a series of kicks. While the zombie types do become more ferocious as the game progresses, they never pose any real threat that can’t be dealt with one swing of a nail studded bat.
Weapon creation is a concept that has been directly lifted from Dead Rising 2 and works well for the most part. Before you can build a weapon you’ll need to find the schematic for that particular layout, because after all only a genius would be able to figure out that you can add nails to a bat and come out with nail-bat. The schematics only serve as a limiting factor and the developers should allow the player’s imagination be the only barrier to creating weapons.
The RPG elements in Dead Island only serve to hold it back. Having level caps on weapons - an RPG staple - doesn’t make sense since the higher level weapons are only sturdier, more damaging versions of the lower level ones. You’re telling me that I can’t use this sturdy pipe, but I can use the rusty one? It’s frustrating and there isn’t any real reason for it except for the sake of having it in there.
Being an open world, Dead Island is filled with quests of the side variety. Now, I’m all for side quests, but Dead Island botches the concept by having practically all of them originate in a few select locations. Once you get to a safe house you’ll see a ton of exclamation points on your map indicating a side quest that can be undertaken. You’ll walk around, talking to everyone, gathering quests and filling up your quest log and further losing focus on any singular objective. Having ten quests in your log is daunting, and since you can only have one quest active at any time, it can be difficult to try to go out and accomplish multiple quests at a time. I found myself doing one at a time, oftentimes returning to an area I was just at. By the time you finish a batch of quests, don’t be surprised if you can’t remember what the main goal was – it’s easily muddied like that.
Luckily, getting around the island isn’t all that difficult and there are vehicles that can be used to expedite your travel and also serve as a handy zombie killing machine. Driving around Banoi was the most fun I had in the entire game, but being a tropical island meant that roads were mostly narrow and winding. Still, it’s more than satisfying to run over packs of zombies in a pickup truck.
Multiplayer also rears its head in this tropical paradise and it doesn’t do much service to those playing it. It can be fun to kill zombies with a friend, to be sure, but joining a game with strangers is more difficult than it should be and when you do end up joining, the enemies are leveled with the highest ranked player in the party, which isn’t an issue if you happen to be that guy, but late adopters to Dead Island are going to find it difficult to break into the game as a result.
What it all comes down to is focus. Techland wanted Dead Island to be so many different things that the game that resulted was a Frankenstein monster of different concepts that aren’t developed enough to serve as a strength, instead becoming dead weight that ultimately holds the game back. A tighter focus would have ended up in a less expansive game, but it would have been one worth playing.