By Mike Bezek
Earlier this year, there was a trailer that trumped all when it came to creating a very palpable buzz in the gaming community. It featured a zombie survival-horror game that seemed determined to take the over-the-top direction of current zombie games and inject some humanity into the soulless genre. An emotional scene of a family desperately trying to survive a horde of zombie attackers featuring top notch facial expressions and motion capture technology wowed and amazed many, including myself. With such a hard-hitting non-verbal promise, Dead Island set some very high bars for itself before it had even released footage of the actual game. While the emotion and humanity is missing from the final product, the game retains other virtues that make up for the misleading premise sold to us early on.
Congratulations, you are now a God. Now get to work.
The concept is simple here: zombies are running amok and you’re immune to the disease that spawned these horrors. Now that you are considered a God to the now-plebes of the island (who are not immune), you are now tasked with providing for and protecting them as they scurry around the island looking for shelter and salvation.
You are given the choice between 4 possible characters, although besides the cosmetic differences, there is little more that makes choosing one over the other unique. I decided to go with Logan, and was quickly shown how far the game departs from its emotion-filled trailer. I discover that Logan is a binge-drinking adrenaline junkie that killed a passenger while drunk driving in a fast car – quite the opposite offering than what I was initially expecting. Never before was I so quickly disconnected from a character in a game before, but I decided to stick with him. Before long, I found my first group of survivors, and the fun began.
Dead Island’s story functions much like a standard RPG hybrid experience. The story progresses through the acceptance and completion of quests, which reward the player with cash, weapons and experience. While there is a slight variety in what each task requires, they mostly boil down to simple fetch quest after fetch quest. “Kill x zombies” or “Track down x object(s)” is the main object of each task within the game. In other words, don’t expect to have too many creative experiences thrown at you.
The scope of the island is impressive, as it will take you a decent amount of time to traverse it via foot or car. While it is fun to have the sense of freedom to go and do whatever you please, there is not much to accomplish outside of mission objectives. While there are scattered survivors that you could overlook if you don’t take the time to explore, the realization that there is little incentive to seek them out makes it hard to even care.
The actual premise of the game brings us to what an overall disappointment the story is; what was once being sold to us as gripping and emotional quickly becomes hollow and predictable. This normally wouldn’t even be a negative factor in my judgment of a game like this, but after such a hype-filled advertising campaign, it’s unfair to renege on that promise in any way.
Guns Are For Sissies
What makes up for the husk of a real storyline is the incredibly satisfying combat system that delivers the goods in style. Trigger happy zombie hunters should be wary of Dead Island, because its true focus is on melee combat. Guns and ammunition are scarce and best saved for emergencies. Combat is quick and visceral: a carnival of blood and limbs fill the screen as every well-timed hit and accurate blow delivers the right results. You are able to target legs, arms and head with swift ease, which often results in the loss of the limb altogether.
When things get a little too hairy, you always have the option to either throw your weapon at your target or kick back zombies for some breathing room. There is a definite imbalance when it comes to kicking and throwing, as lodging a machete in the face of the undead yields the destructive force of a toothpick, but kicking leads you to believe that your character is channeling the spirit of Pelé. You can literally keep a group of 5 zombies pinned to the ground by simply kicking them, which you can do it as much as you like without dipping into your governing pool of energy.
The RPG elements truly kick in for this portion of the game, as the combat is all based on numbers. Weapons have different ratings such as: power, defense and durability, and can also be modified to cause other effects, such as bleeding over time. Likewise, zombies have different levels, resistances, and other adverse effects they can inflict upon you. A few pages of Dead Rising’s excellent upgrade system have been torn out of its proverbial book and transplanted here: scouring the ravaged island will cause you to rack up an impressive amount of odds and ends you can combine to make deadly weapons. Improbable inventions like deodorant bombs and baseball bats with running saw blades bring an almost campy feeling to the party.
A problem with this weapon system is that it relies solely on items that you find on the island. Part of the whole zombie apocalypse theme is that survivors pick up anything they can find and make due, but not here because weapons are too scarce. While there are a few scattered sticks and oars you can find on the beaches, the island is literally a static environment where only the survivors and rogue zombies retaining excellent motor skills possess weapons. My disappointment in not being able to pick up a bench and bash a zombies head in may just be because I have been spoiled by Dead Rising once again, but I think that a game that relies on the improvised weaponry of scattered supplies would have more interactive elements to it.
Most importantly, Dead Island is a game that encourages you to bring your friends. Some areas of the game are almost insurmountable without recruiting a fellow player to deal with the encroaching amount of enemies blocking you from your objective. As of the time of this review, I have been unable to partake in this fun that I am supposed to have. I am unable to join games, players would randomly be dropped from the groups, and dying places me in odd areas away from the rest of the group.
The Ben Stein Effect
Dead Island is truly a mixed bag of visuals painted on the canvas of the Chrome Engine. The ever-present sun is an unwelcome maelstrom of brightness that makes you feel like the developers were trying to burn the corneas of damn near everyone that plays the game. Environments are mostly static, with moving bits and pieces here and there, but it ultimately feels quite sterile because no interaction is possible.
The spectrum of detail at several points in the game is astonishing. The beginning of the game is littered with lush foliage, beautiful beach houses and sandy beaches; however, as you make your way into the main city on the island, you are greeted with bland, unfinished textures in some areas, and the ground is littered with the same copy-pasted graphic en masse. Another issue is the total lack of any emotion on the faces of characters throughout the game. A character could be tasking you with murdering his newly-zombified family, but the look on his face is that of someone who is reading the Sunday newspaper. I found it very hard to empathize with people who have the same look as everyone in line at my local DMV.
The zombies, on the other hand, range from people who look like they have had some blood splashed on their face for Halloween, to full-blown grotesque caricatures of their once humanistic counterparts. The attention to detail in creating truly horrifying zombies comes to light when they are in your face, while you attempt to throw them off in the heat of combat. The variety of undead shuffling around the island is numerous, but it will not be long until you find yourself running into the same models over time.
The biggest compliment to the atmosphere is most definitely the sound direction in this game. Music is scarce for the most part, only drumming up when you are in combat, but the screams and moans in the distance are constant. While I have been jaded by the bland and uninspired attempts to make a zombie game scary by sound alone, Dead Island features some of the most bone-chilling vocal tracks I have encountered to date. The death and anguish fills the air at every given opportunity, and the fear and anxiety of the situation never lets you escape the mindset. Running zombies are the standard things of nightmares – they inspire fear in everyone. But when they are accompanied by a blood-curdling scream straight from the depths of hell, the nail has been hit on the head in terms of scaring this man right here.
Like the Nazis, zombies are at the point of saturation when it comes to the games industry. What has been in dire need for a long time is a satisfying experience that does not use the premise as a cash-grab, like Call Of Duty. Dead Island delivers on those terms in some aspects. The unfortunate problem with the game is that it was incorrectly advertised, and it is in need of a better engine to truly show its full potential. The exciting combat levies itself against the uninspired storyline, which strikes a careful balance of satisfying the player enough to not drop the game in spite of its shortcomings. While it’s not the vacation that was originally proposed to me, I’d still send the blood-soaked postcard home to grandma.
Is It Worth Your Money?
If you have kept up with any news on Dead Island, you would think that the game is the epitome of being infested with bugs, and an unfortunate release. People who purchased the digital copies of the game were given the developer version that had features, which made the game a mess, and some of those buggy and poorly implemented themes are still present in the patched version. My retail copy included controls for the XBOX 360 in some tutorials, which led to confusion when first learning the mechanics of the game. Many players, including myself, have loaded up save files and have ended up in locations not remotely close to where they last left the game. It is frustrating to have to trek back to the nearest town to use Fast Travel. Multiplayer is still a bit buggy, but as of 9/18/11, I have found it much easier to join and maintain groups, which was a stark contrast to my experience a week prior.
While bugs are still a big issue, the developers have stated they are working to resolve them. Do not let it keep you away from a quality experience like this. I found the bugs to be a minor inconvenience to a game that I easily got lost in for hours.
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