The zombie craze has pretty much become its own sub-genre these days; which is fine by me as I’ve always been a huge fan. And with each new release, I become more and more in the minority, as the undead continues to wear thin on the gaming public at large. The saturation of the market is beginning to reach WWII/Nazi proportions, so i understand the backlash. I can’t say it has worn thin on me, but it has made me a bit more critical of the genre. Which takes me to the latest of the bunch, Techland’s Dead Island...
First, it’s worth noting that Techland has been working on this game for quite some time. Initially it was supposed to launch back in 2008 (toward the beginning of the zombie lovefest). Unfortunately, it was not to be, and Techland moved on to other projects such as the Call of Juarez sequel, Bound in Blood, and last year’s naild. Then, earlier this year, Dead Island made a sudden return with a trailer that took the Internet by storm, even catching some mass media coverage. Slamming home with an emotional impact felt by all who saw it, the hype machine exploded, and the questions began to flow. Just what is Dead Island?
Now that the game is here, we know. After sinking over 30 hours into it, I can break it down to one sentence: It’s what Left 4 Dead 3 needs to be. Ok, so that’s a bit strong. I don’t mean that in the literal sense. It’s the concepts that Techland have here that really sets it apart from other undead-based forms of entertainment. But first, the basics. Dead Island is a FPS that pits you against a horde of zombies. A whole island’s worth in fact. There are guns to be had, although ammo is quite limited, especially at the beginning of the game, so the emphasis is on melee combat. Sound familiar? It should, as the core components are very much like Left 4 Dead. However, a little Dead Rising needs to be tossed into this decayed salad, since scattered about the island are workbenches where you can modify your weapons based on blueprints you’ve acquired throughout your journey. I was a bit surprised with this mechanic though. I walked in expecting it to be a much bigger focus point than it really is. Granted, there are tons of “ingredients” to find (you’ll waste hours searching through everything, picking up bottles of lemon juice, batteries, saw blades, etc). Yet, in the grand scheme of things, it really plays more of an accessory role than anything else. It’s there if you want to use it, though it doesn’t make a big enough impact to give it center stage. Question: Why are all the vacationers keeping their cell phones and large sums of money in their luggage? And really, when was the last time you packed a bottle of lemon juice for your trip?
So if the basic gameplay is all stuff we have seen before, what’s the point? The answer lies in the RPG overlay. Most of the time, the objective in these types of games is to get from point A to point B alive, thereby securing your escape. Here it is much more involved. You aren’t the only survivor of the outbreak. So you’ll be asked to do everything from helping these folks get to safer ground to checking on loved ones to acquiring medicine and food for them. All the while earning experience which tallies toward your character’s abilities. Leveling up allows you to put points on skills like health regen, weapon proficiencies, and a special move that is unique to each of the four protagonists. It works really well. So much so that for me, it breathes new life into what is admittedly well-worn territory. The questing and character customizing may not be terribly deep, but it was engaging enough to keep the controller glued to my hands.
You might be asking what it is exactly that stops this from being the be-all, end-all for zombie survivalists everywhere. Unfortunately, the blame falls on two key components: the story and the shinyness. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a decent story here. You play as one of four survivors who happen to be immune to the virus. The game begins with contact via radio from a mysterious individual who is trying to help you off the island. The rest of the time is spent trying to escape the perils of the once-swanky paradise. During the journey you’ll meet up with pockets of survivors who aren’t as fortunate as you, i.e. they are not immune. Sounds great, except ultimately you just won’t care. That’s the problem. There was virtually no time spent developing the four heroes of the tale beyond their minor backstory blurb you get at the selection screen. They could be completely nameless and faceless and it wouldn’t change a thing. Although I did feel for the random survivors I’m out there trying to save (one in particular has to make a very hard choice as you start the endgame which tugged on my heartstrings a bit). But really, I need to be invested in who I am portraying and Dead Island gave me nothing to help that. An oddity for sure when you consider the character progression side of the game not to mention the emotional punch in the chest the initial trailer implied.
The second, and what will likely stand out the most, is the simple polish of it all. Graphical anomalies, some collision detection issues, a waypoint system that is broken half of the time, quests resetting, so on and so forth. Every game is buggy to one degree or another, but Dead Island needed some more time in the oven before being served. It’s not broken by any means. It is serviceable. But anyone coming off of a more polished game, like maybe Left 4 Dead 2 (Dead Island’s closest competitor), will be bothered by it.
Visually, Dead Island looks very nice. Loads of detail infused with multiple environments, ranging from a downtrodden city to a beach-side resort to deep within the wet jungles, make for an eye grabber. Although, the afore-mentioned anomalies such as floating rocks and texture tears hamper things a bit. Additionally, the repeated use of certain assets is almost overwhelming. Even the least attentive player won’t be able to help but notice the same bags of luggage and the same furniture in just about every location. And the NPC character models can be just as scary as the zombies, with most taking the appearance of wooden mannequins who rarely look you in the face when they are talking to you. On the other hand, the stars of the show, the undead themselves, are both grotesque and disturbing. In other words, exactly how they should be. Body parts tear away as you hack at them (yes, you can target specific areas of the body) and heads explode with squishy glee or lop right off with a well-timed swing of your machete. Bones break, rendering those limbs limp and useless and heads will lull off to the side if you manage to crack a neck. Don’t think that’s a ticket to chilltown though. The walking dead will continue to press their attack, regardless if they have a functioning left arm or if they can look you in the eye.
The horror genre relies heavily on the sound design to enhance the atmosphere and Dead Island does an alright job of helping the creep factor along with the audio. Skulking around desolate areas and hearing the walking corpses growl from somewhere just outside your field of vision is enough to send chills down your spine. Couple that with the vicious AI (these guys are relentless with their attacks) and you’ll be jumping out of your seat. Again though, it suffers from some of the same polish issues as the rest of the package. Sometimes the zombies make no noise at all until they are right up on you and other times you’ll hear them even though you have completely cleaned out a given area. Minor, I know, but worth noting, if anything as a guide for the eventual sequel.
Conceptionally, Dead Island nails it. Evolving things just enough to keep the momentum while keeping the spirit of FPS zombie killing intact. 4-payer online co-op, crafting, RPG-like character growth, a lengthy campaign and a questing system are all things that serve the genre well. However, the poor character development and severe lack of polish mar the final package. The emotional investment is betrayed by a lack of story-telling and the numerous bugs. Dead Island is still playable and can be quite fun. But the issues do hamper things enough to prevent it from reaching it’s full potential. Let’s hope Techland gets behind this IP enough to make sure history isn’t repeated with Dead Island 2. Bottom line, if you lack patience or a tolerance for technical hicups, you may find yourself less-than enthused with saving what’s left of Banoi. But, if you are a fan of the genre, definitely give it a spin. You will no doubt get your money’s worth. My 30+ hours was using only one of the four possible characters and I still didn’t discover everything there is to be found on the former island paradise.
Release date : 2011-09-06
Publisher : Deep Silver
Developer : Techland
Gameplay : Shooter
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