Dead Island – Review
We gamers are very spoilt. Spoilt for choice, spoilt for features and spoilt for entertainment. It’s rarely crossed my mind in the past few years that a game hasn’t ever offered up as much to me as it could, been worthy of its budget or failed to deliver on its premise. Dead Island has been in full development since 2006 and has had ample time to get in shape for the pre-Christmas rush of 2011. It may well have missed the giddy heights of our fascination in zombies and the open world RPG, with some incredibly notable titles managing to excel in those areas during the past five years, but surely Techland have been able to reap the benefit of experience for their product, identify what works and what doesn’t, and then craft the most desirable of titles in recent history. Welcome to Banoi, the Island of the Dead, and don’t call me Shirley.
I must confess from the off that I was walking into this one blinder than most. I had never heard of the game in 2006 (having taken permanent residence in Cyrodiil that year) nor can recall ever having seen the game featured on a list of ‘Top 100 games [Publication X] is looking forward to’. I don’t doubt that the game had failed to develop a following and I can recall, during the earlier part of the year when the trailers for it made a return to the web, just how much of a buzz was generated from its overdue resurgence. The fact remains that I was coming into this with zero expectations, no daydreams to satisfy and no opinions beyond those of what I think it is that makes a good open world RPG and how best to stop the undead horde.
Taking place on the tropical island of Banoi, a fictional isle situated in the Papua New Guinean region of the Pacific, just north of Australia, the game opens with a pre-rendered cut-scene taken from the perspective of a guest at the Royal Palms Resort, on the eve of the outbreak of the end of the world. You’re at a party and already quite drunk, bouncing off of people as you stumble your way through the bar and onto the dance floor, bumping into all four of the game’s playable characters as you do so, and witnessing the first zombie attack (which no-one appears to pay any notice to). Deciding that you quite need to pee around this point (it always happens at the most inconsiderate of times), you’re then shown to stumble into the women’s toilet in search of relief, finding instead a badly bitten hotel guest who is being cared for by one of the staff who insists you leave immediately. You return back to your room where you collapse onto the bed, never to wake again and, presumably, wetting yourself in the process.
For all intents and purposes, it’s a solid opening that, despite being pre-rendered, shows off the game’s solid lighting engine, the fluid animation and the more natural use of a first person perspective, which was last seen in DICE’s Mirror’s Edge. You also soon get a feel for the game’s adult theme, with plenty of well used swearing (minus a bizarre application of the word ‘git’) , a hip-hop soundtrack blazing throughout and the standard inclusion of plenty of blood with a hint of over the top violence. With you now able to select to start a new game from the beautifully designed menu screen – a portrait of drops of blood flowing down into a pool of water – you are now able to choose which of the four survivors you wish to play as.
As you may well expect, each of the four have different proficiencies, different backgrounds and access to different abilities. It was here that I first suspected the game was missing a trick as I was faced with having to elect who it was I would be spending the next twenty six hours with, but without any information on what it was I could expect from them outside of their individual labels as firearms/blunt weapons/sharp weapons/throwing expert. I would have hoped to be able to take a sneak peak at their individual skill sets at this stage, but with only a profile for each of the survivors on offer, I decided to go with Sam B., the rap maestro behind the one hit wonder ‘Who Do You Voodoo (Bitch)’ that played during the introduction. I wasn’t selecting him for his musical styling, nor for his expertise with the sledgehammer he was shown to be wielding, no sir-ee. You see, Sam B is from New Orleans – the zombie survivor’s capital of my world.
Were I not lured into my selection based solely on an imaginary shared heritage, my other choices were the egotistical ex-NFL star, Logan (the throwing expert), Purma – a former police officer, currently employed as a bodyguard for the rich and famous (the firearms expert) and Xian Mei -the hotel’s receptionist with dreams of getting off the island to see the world (the sharp weapons expert). Each of the characters are well realised, with a nice diversity in appearance and vocal talent that is sure to offer a way into the game for everyone. Being a core gamer who likes to plan in advance though, I really did feel like the labels of expertise weren’t enough to allow me to make an informed decision on who to play as, and it really did feel like I was taking part in a lottery that I had a one in four chance of losing, as there’s always one character that never quite stacks up.
Of course all of this is settled in the game’s levelling system, a standard affair as far as the genre goes, with XP gained from the completion of quests and the killing of zombies. There’s been a little bit of tweaking to the formula though, with the addition of challenges that dynamically track and update you with an onscreen popup that you may have experienced in both the open world and shooting genre, with all levels gained awarding you talent points to spend on a three tree skill system, from which no game seems to be able to escape from these days. Each trio of trees is, understandably, varied for each character but still centralising around the same basic themes of character specific ability enhancements, increased weapon proficiency and then general character enhancements. The differences between all of the characters are subtle, with only a few options remaining entirely exclusive to individual characters, which aren’t worth highlighting given the minor impact these skills have on the game experience. For the most devoted of RPG gamers, you will of course be able to find something that really draws you in to one particular character, but you’re going to want to do your homework well in advance of hitting ‘New Game’.
What stands out the most for each of the characters within the level system is Dead Island’s ‘Rage’ system. Used solely in combat, the feature acts as an ultimate expression for each of the character’s combat specialties – a meter fuelled by killing Zombies which, when filled, enables the player to enter ‘Rage’ mode, dropping all but red from the colour palette, severely increasing your damage output and rewarding the player with an increasing XP multiplier bonus for all enemies killed in that short time. For each character, the ‘Rage’ mode presents itself in different ways, with Purma able to draw her own personal sidearm and automatically aim and fire critical damage shots; Sam B dropping all weapons in favour of a knuckle duster that can send enemies flying through the skies; Xian Mei able to unleash a deadly flurry of swipes with her blades and Logan free to throw as many throwing stars as he can at multiple enemies. It’s an excellent ‘get out of jail free card’ that, when deployed correctly, can change the course of a hectic battle, but if you don’t happen to get the tooltip that explains the feature, and have been otherwise investing points in other talents you deemed more useful, you’ll never actually know anything about it.
With your character selection made, the game begins as you awake in your hotel room, giving you the opportunity to test out the standard FPS controls and head out into the now deserted and creepy hallways of the luxury five star hotel, stopping only for the obligatory looting of everyone’s personal belongings. I again found that shadow of doubt creeping over me once more as I ran into piles of abandoned luggage with on screen icons lighting up to indicate I was able to interact with them and then loot them. As welcome as piles of free stuff and cash is, I quickly became very frustrated in having to stand and activate each icon before then being able to actually loot, with each action requiring a very brief (but entirely notable) animation which meant you were actually spending more time looting than getting on with the actual tutorial.
Deciding that the extreme quantity of lootable objects was a sign that this wasn’t going to be my only opportunity to gather resources, I ploughed on, encountering interactive locked door sequences in which I was required to throw my shoulder into a door in order to progress, made possible by flicks of the right analogue stick in a Tiger Woods-esque mini game. As is required in the zombie survival rule book, I was accompanied in this section only by a surviving security guard at the hotel who was watching and guiding me through the disaster via the hotel’s CCTV system, eventually emerging out into the tropical sunlight of a hotel balcony.
This provided the game’s first ‘Wow’ moment as I stood there, soaking up the view and beginning to plot my adventures through Dead Island’s open world. The graphics are certainly of a 2011 standard, with great use of reflections on the ocean bay ahead, contrasted by the shining white sands of the beach and the rich, green jungle beyond. Palm trees are swaying in the wind and this couldn’t look to be anything other than a paradise of pure bliss. Turning around to look back into the beautifully lit hotel corridors, it was quickly apparant that the game’s much touted ‘WYSIWYG’ Chrome Engine 5 really is capable of producing a wide range of fantastic settings. The tutorial continues to build upon that charged optimism as it concludes with your first interactions with the undead, manically running away from a trio of the infected with no hope of defending yourself, straight into the arms of some fellow survivors.
The feeling of vulnerability is pitch perfect, with you joining your avatar on screen as they begin to pant with you in sprint mode, sitting forward on the couch and gripping the pad like it’s your last ticket to life. The survivors you now find yourself with then go on to really drive the whole survival aspects home, doubting that you’re clean from infection, panicking in equal measure, with no sense of reason dictating their lives since the outbreak. An outstanding introduction with only a few niggles that you’ll be quick to dismiss if you find yourself as easily sucked in as I was.
Carrying straight on from there, you’re thrust into the game’s first combat sequence, arming you with nothing more than a wooden paddle and placing you down on the beaches to fight off your first wave of zombies. This was where things got really interesting, with a beautiful emphasis placed on the need for each of your blows to connect with your attackers beyond the standard ‘Stab, Stab, Health-Decrease’. Connect with the head and you’ll see them visibly knocked to one side; land a devastating blow on the arms and you’ll hear bones snap, receive an instant XP bonus and then watch as the zombie staggers back toward you with a now defunct arm hanging limp at his side. When you eventually gain access to a blade, those swipes can similarly dismember those limbs and sever the head from the body, instantly ending the fight (no matter how many hit-points the zombie had remaining) and giving you the biggest, most twisted grin imaginable to wear on your face.
Weapons, both statistically and visually, receive damage during combat, with each blow causing degradation to the weapon, eventually rendering it useless and reshaping it to account for how many brains you’ve exposed through attack. All of these are, of course, repairable for a cash fee, instantly restoring the weapon to its original condition, but in the earliest stages of the game, nearly every weapon is disposable and you’re seemingly encouraged to swiftly adopt that approach, with most weapons quickly reaching low durability where they are ready to be thrown straight at a zombie’s head with no enticement given to ever go back and collect them. For blunt weapons, the throwing mechanic will result in the weapon impacting upon the enemy and then dropping to the ground, though for sharp weapons, expect the blades to stick and stay wherever they land throughout the rest of the fight.
With combat forming only one part of the total gameplay experience, the rest of the game is constructed around the main plot, a need to escape the chaos at any cost by making friends, forging alliances and uncovering the mystery behind the outbreak. It’s fairly standard stuff, entirely competent with few flaws, but nothing you weren’t expecting from when you read that the game involved zombies and surviving. Side quests are present in abundance across the game’s four acts, each taking place in four distinct open world environments with plenty of collectibles, locations to reveal and achievements to unlock. It’s all optional of course and there for the player who likes to play for total completion, extending the experience beyond the main quest. For those hoping to more accurately gauge the scale of the game, my save file stopped at twenty two hours, having completed everything within the game’s first act, dabbled only in the sidequests for the second act, ignored them entirely in the third and spent the best part of the game’s final act in a full on sprint towards the end sequence. Twenty two hours, having skipped probably 70% of the additional content, is a very respectable chunk of play time indeed.
Audio can also walk away from Dead Island with its head held high. Whilst the characters are hardly memorable (save for Jin – you’ll like her, she’s designed that way), the voice work is consistently solid throughout, and the typical groans and wails of the undead provide ample immersion on those dark lonely nights. Anyone hoping for a score worthy of the genre may well be disappointed, but will still be surprised during the bigger and better moments of Dead Island’s quest.
I’m hoping by now that you’ve been nodding along with me throughout this review, enjoying these positives and considering making the purchase. As I’ve relayed thus far, the game has its tiny flaws but looks good, is fun to play and has plenty to justify the RRP. I’m not even trying to lure you into a false sense of security, the game really is enjoyable. Swinging a broomstick at a trio of zombies is incredibly satisfying as the blood splatters and body parts begin to fly, and the physics supporting all of that are well utilised. There were several instances in the game where a zombie was hurtling towards me at uncontrollable speeds, only for me to trigger my melee knockback attack, a low powered and defensive ability which saw me extend my leg, connecting with the zombie’s head, pushing the neck back to breaking point and instantly ending its undead life. Instant and random gratification.
For many, this really will be an enjoyable conquest, especially if they’re bringing friends. Drop in/drop out co-op is fully supported, never restricting players from entering anybody’s game at any time (provided your settings allow for this), and never requiring you to select one of the playable characters not already present in that save file. If you don’t have any friends playing the game, a handy feature will occasionally make itself known to you that a player of a similar level, at the same point in the game as you is nearby and ready to accept you into their game. Tap right on the D-Pad and you’re in, quickly loaded into their version of the world and free to team up and tackle the quest at hand. If you find that you no longer wish to play with them, you can drop out at no penalty with the game asking if you wish to continue as you are or revert to your last local save. Neat, huh?
As I previously suggested, if you have friends playing this, you’re going to get a lot more out of it than if you just plod along on your Larry Lonestar. The random group mechanic is a welcome addition and will definitely help you out in the horribly unbalanced situations that appear towards the end of the game. Being constructed so that anyone can join is, of course, open to the abuse of the internet however, with players able to grief you in ways that the developers didn’t conceive. If you have your game set to open and a random player joins, be prepared to be running like mad for any looting opportunities as there are no mechanics to support sharing or need before greed. It’s also possible that other players may trigger actions you weren’t prepared for, engage quests you weren’t ready to do and pick fights with enemies you can’t hope to beat. How do I know this? Well I know because that’s pretty much the mentality I took when people joined my game. They were in my game and were taking my stuff, getting in the way of my quests and so I treated them with contempt. It’s now a patched out problem but I also lost one of my best blades to this problem, having panicked and hurled it at a nearly dead Zombie, only for another player to pick it up and then disconnect. Cheers.
This is something that can of course be avoided by simply restricting your privacy settings, but know that Dead Island is not something you can hope to complete on your own; the game simply isn’t designed for single player. Having grown incredibly tired of the need to loot, I eventually stopped and relied solely on income through quest rewards to see how I fared. During the game’s second act, this became a major issue, with me hacking away at everyone, causing all seven of my quick access weapons to lose all durability and end up in desperate need of repair. Only five additional slots are available as backup in the inventory, two of which are generally taken up by stores of incredibly rare (and mostly useless) Medkits and supplies of highly sought after Alcohol. Thanks to this, I eventually ran out of damage producing weaponry and then found myself dying more and more, resulting in an otherwise painless five second incapacitation period that will then respawn you at a location near to where you died, taking only a percentage of cash by way of penalty.
Now, there are quite a few addressable problems with that. Firstly, weapons require cash to repair and if you’ve lost the ability to fight, you’re going to incur far more death penalties. This means that when you eventually escape the chaos, you’re back at square one, with no cash and no usable weapons. You can of course pick up any old thing and use it as a weapon, but this means dropping something you’re currently using, something which is more likely of a much better quality. In the later stages of the game, you will gain access to a bank but if you run into this problem early on, you’re screwed.
Secondly, the respawning mechanic is far too random, dropping you at fixed points around the map, regardless of what else is in the surrounding area. In the city environment during the second act, I would often die on one street only to be respawned on the next; a logical decision you may believe but this was, more often than not, a street I hadn’t yet cleared and so I would often find myself simply lumped in with a whole new horde of zombies. During co-op play, I also found a wonderfully unique application of the mechanic during a fight through one end of a room to a control room on the other. I was actually co-operating quite well with my randomly connected friend and we were making good headway until the combat mechanics I was touting so much earlier worked against me, snapped my own neck at near full health and then respawned me… in the control room.
The control room was only designed to be accessed from one doorway, a door that only had a trigger mapped to outside. Sure, it was technically a win as I was now at the objective, but all objectives have to be met by all connected players – a player I can no longer assist, what with me being trapped and all. Were it that the game scaled the experience to the number of connected players, this would be an even worse problem as he’d now be fighting at odds of 2:1 against. Fortunately for me in this situation, the game doesn’t apply that logic and so he was fighting a group of zombies that anyone in single player would also be expected to fight, so eventually managed to make his way over to me.
There were also several encounters during Dead Island’s frustrating escort missions (of which there are many) where the game’s AI was all too happy to run headfirst into combat, only to then die and force a reload. In order to avoid that you, of course, had to run in and ensure that every zombie was attacking you instead, resulting in more death, more decay, only for the AI to die anyway and force a reload… upon which you discover it’s only a soft reset whereby you continue as you were, with poor condition weapons and less money. If you’ve ever (or never) played World of Warcraft, prepare yourself to be reintroduced to the many frustrations of the escort mission, with AI happy to wander past some attacking enemies and keep going while you fight them off, walking straight into the scripted instances where your help is genuinely needed. Five years development time apparently never saw that one coming.
Another disappointment rears its head in the advertised crafting system, allowing you to take the items you find in the world and combine them to create the ‘ultimate zombie killing tools’. What this actually translates to is a return to the appalling loot mechanics and a painstaking hunt for all of the materials. In order to craft, you simply have to visit one of the many workbenches in the game that can also be used to repair weapons and drop cash in order to offer stat boosts.
Providing you have the blueprint for the weapon and all of the required pieces, you’re free to craft it. There’s no free-styling here, no experimentation and no customisation. The crafted weapons soon outgrow their uses and you’ll die a little inside when you find a standard white Fire Axe on the wall with better numbers than your two hour long crafted Purple Bashing Stick. Having made that mistake once, I went through the game never again bothering with the system and was never penalised for having made that decision.
On more basic levels, Dead Island fails to impress in the simplest of ways. When first entering the a car and engaging with the driving mechanic, I was genuinely pleased with how detailed the inside of the vehicle was and how well it responded to my controls. I even let out a little ‘eee’ noise when I rolled a zombie up onto my bonnet and into my windscreen, shattering it like frosted glass and triggering an automatic response from my avatar who quickly punched out the glass to clear a view. But after getting out onto the roads, you realise that this is all just a gimmick to detract you from how little visibility you actually have in the first place from a first person perspective, and is nothing more than an attempt to soothe you as you crash into a fixed placement of a crashed car which doesn’t budge so much as an inch. For a game that does so well in the combat physics department, surely there was room to carry that over to such incredibly basic physics on movable objects, and maybe even some limited exposure to destructible terrain? Apparently not.
The menu systems also fail to deliver on a basic level, with your inventory being an absolute mess. Broken tooltips litter the bottom of the screen, failing to tell you your options, and the whole thing manages to become even worse when you visit a store and attempt to buy or sell anything. Knowing that I was never going to bother with the crafting mechanic again, I made a decision early on to sell my garbage components. Expecting that the game would simply roll the list up to the last point of sale after I first clicked to sell, what it actually did was jump the highlighted selection to any random point it wished, never asking if I wanted to bunch-sell any multiple items and never providing any indication of what it might sell off next.
On the topic of bugs, you will hopefully have avoided the majority of them after some extensive patching followed the game’s release. It’s an open world title and so there’s always likely to be a few odd glitches in the system, such as heads stuck in doors and bizarre ramping of the laws of physics, but there are some truly shining ones of note which are still yet to be fixed. Most notably, in my experience, do be on the lookout for instances where a reload moves you to an entirely new location, somewhere you may never even have visited in any one of the four act specific environments. Having thought I had simply pressed a wrong button, I quickly went back to reload the save, placing me somewhere different, but I was then dropped in somewhere fresh once more for luck after that. It took fifteen minutes on foot to get back on track from my final resting point when the game finally decided that this was, in fact, where I should be and completely made me want to switch it off at that point and just walk away.
I know these may seem like minor and rare niggles but there are plenty of them. Multiply that by the core length of the game and then amplify that by the extra time you want to spend in the world and you’ve got a serious problem. I’ve previously cited Dungeon Siege III as being worthy of a place in the naughty book of game development but I was at least happy to continue with that one, I genuinely found the game fun and it was well paced throughout. For Dead Island, they really did knock that right out of my park though, as there were so many instances where I simply found myself wanting to do nothing more than to eject the disc, feed it do a homeless person, dress them up like a Gazelle and wait for a Lion to seriously fuck them up.
The combat is fun but you do get tired of it and the game will never make an excuse for that. There are times where you will be able to switch from melee to gunplay but Techland strictly control when these sequences can occur, given that you’re only ever able to gain ammo from those who were shooting at you. In a way, it sort of adds to the whole survival aspect in that it wants you to use your ammo wisely but even for the gunslingers, your bullets don’t do nearly enough damage to zombies to warrant using it in the event of an emergency, and the whole sanctity of gunplay goes clean out of the window in the final act where they literally throw ammo at you so that all challenge disappears from the final fights.
On the same note, the game has plenty to do but the more time you spend in the game working towards completing it, the less time you actually want to spend with it. With everything about Dead Island running at a standard or just above average level, it’s far too easy for the game to be dragged down into the realms of disappointing and unplayable when you find something that grates. It’s a cruel task reviewing a game of this scale as you’re committed to playing it in a critical fashion. For a game like this, I would personally choose to play it until I get annoyed and then leave it for a few months and see how I get on further down the line. I’m still playing Oblivion and I’ve never finished that but I love it. It’s a tough one to call as I may have got that same experience from Dead Island given the luxury of time, but for all of the things it does wrong, I seriously doubt it would have made any difference in a pre-Gears of War 3, Battlefield 3 and Skyrim filled end of 2011.Pros
- Will provide hours of fun for you and three friends
- Does make some welcome feature additions to the Open World RPG
- Gorgeous Visuals
- Entertaining Combat Mechanics
- Plenty to keep you occupied
- Will punish you for opting to play this on your own
- Hasn't learned anywhere near as much as it should have over its long development cycle
- Other games do everything this game does, but they do it a lot better
- Flawed gameplay design that slowly eats away at you
- If you're not a fan of Open World RPGs, this won't change your mind
It was refreshing for me to come into this with no pre-existing opinions. I knew that the entire time I spent with Dead Island was the raw, crafted experience that the developers wanted me to have. The problem with that, is that the experience is a bad one. I will, however, stand by the game. I think that with a core group of friends, Dead Island will support you, but then really you have to ask yourself if it's the game you're enjoying or the company of others.
Dead Island is an 'ok' title. I don't think it deserves the trashing that some critics have given it, but it's definitely not worth the praise it's receiving from the other side of the fence either. You will get some enjoyment out of it and if you're flitting your way in and out of Banoi during the hectic holiday season, maybe it'll even shine for you. Just heed my warnings. Dead Island is a hangover waiting to happen, letting you soak up all the enjoyment you like in the early stages and then slowly starting to make you feel ill, allowing for doubt to set in as you ask yourself why you're even doing this. After you've passed through the numb stage, the hangover kicks in and no amount of painkillers will make it better. You're stuck with it now and you should have thought more carefully about all of this before you started.
One for Alcoholics.
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