You’re on Banoi, an island paradise off the coast of Papua New Guinea. You’re on the job so you can’t enjoy the beaches, the tropical climate and whatever else this pacific island promises. So you don’t want to be here, not like this, going through one loathsome motion after another. Then, like an unsuspected monsoon, a zombie outbreak quickly turns loathsome into terrifying.
While that’s the general situation for all of Dead Island‘s playable characters, those who pick up the sticks for this title must sample similar loathing for some of its mechanics. There is so much promise and beauty. Yet, you can’t avoid the biting flaws threatening to tear this game down. After all the hype, Dead Island mostly teeters between the extremes of awesome immersion and near rage inducing frustration, creating what can best be described as a love-hate relationship with the player.
The concept for Dead Island starts in online multiplayer co-op. That has been its messaging since the beginning. With its chest out, the game boldly touts “seamless 4-player co-op multiplayer”. So that is where this review will start, and on a bad note.
“Seamless” is a major overstatement; and it is a major let down the first time the lobby screen is opened, finding it full of players you cannot connect with for some reason or another. In addition, the quick match works less than 50% of the time. When a match is successful, the other player is just standing there, perhaps poring through her/his item menu, unresponsive and ignoring of your constant pleas to get started.
The last one is in no way a fault of the game, but, the amount of frustration caused by the overall sputtering co-op, even before one starts playing, cannot be ignored. The best bet is to invite friends to a party or to just play through solo waiting for someone to appear, but that leaves the whole co-op affair lacking.
Fortunately, this frustration does not totally eclipse the great and positive difference co-op makes. Even having one additional player on the same quest, talking strategy and sharing technique, noticing things one might have missed, is refreshing. Also, it is downright fun to get into a splatter fest with others, something along the lines of the following mantra: it is fun killing things, it is more fun with a friend.
Why is it so fun? More than any other zombie game, Dead Island features impressive, in-depth visuals when it comes to zombie damage. Players are treated with the ability to literally break zombies down and see the results immediately. A blunt weapon swing can break an arm, and suddenly that arm is hanging useless, swaying as the zombie tries to attack with what limb it has left. Cut off both limbs with well aimed machete slices and that zombie is hobbling toward you, groaning, oblivious to the two gaping holes in its torso spurting generous amounts of blood.
Can we go further? As one smacks a zombie around with a debilitating mace, bits of zombie flesh fly off revealing gross innards, ribs, viscera. Lead the unwitting undead into flames and watch as it turns into walking, darkened barbecue. There are many more ways to pulverize and dismember, fry and fricassee. Techland should be applauded for treating the zombie with such attention. They have certainly spent a lot of time on detail. It’s Dead Island‘s claim to being gorgeous.
Beyond the walking dead, the varied environments are lush and tell a story in their own right. Bright sandy beaches play host to clear waters with bungalows hovering on stilts. This is juxtaposed by a 3rd world shanty town further inland replete with close, run down buildings and claustrophobic alleyways. It’s all telltale of an exploited people that is no longer there. Wrap that all up with major jungle vegetation and dank sewers. Even better, all of this can be explored in open world fashion.
It’s just too bad the game suffers from mind blowing screen pops. Dead Island inflicts self damage by wanting to always respawn the player in the middle of all the action, guaranteeing several moments of jarring, half rendered graphics. This is compounded by a wacky auto-only save system that drops the player in the game at odd locations, often not previously discovered. So, when you’re back from a break and boot up your campaign, not only are you greeted with a world of no detail, you also have no idea where you are, which can be frightening and tense without hordes of the reanimated barreling toward you.
Some would argue that there is an imbalance in difficulty as well. It is true that most likely, players will die a lot. They will be overwhelmed by a sudden gang of zombies and die. They will be struck down by cheap shots and die. They will be shot and …
However, looking at the design, and more so at Dead Island‘s main theme of survival, it is hard to honestly say that the game is unjustly difficult. The main focus combat-wise is melee, which makes sense. On a vacation island, one shouldn’t expect droves of firearms laying around. Realistically, Banoi mostly offers random sticks, shovels and various other bludgeoning devices. This means in order to fight zombies, more often than not it is in hazardously close quarters. And if one really thinks about it, just as if it were a real outbreak, engaging in melee against the undead should be a last resort lest you want to get hurt.
Following this logic, the game’s open level design gives players many chances to stop and assess the situation, find the best and safest way to proceed. In the end, however, because it’s a game, the addicting thrill of beating a zombie to its second death overtakes the natural instinct to avoid harm.
If there is an imbalance here, it is that Dead Island is introducing a new kind of treatment on survival gameplay at odds with the sloppy low risk, high reward schemes of contemporary games where charging in and killing all enemies earns the prize. In fact, Techland understood that players may sometimes overlook the fact that it may be better to run than fight. This is why they made it so respawning preserves all items and costs only five seconds as well as a relatively low percentage of in-game cash, rather than long load times and restarting at a far off check point.
Step back further a moment — the plot starts with the playable character getting out of bed, unwitting to the distant growls of flesh eaters wafting in the otherwise vacant breeze. Disoriented, s/he is knocked unconscious soon after by a zombie who seemingly comes out of nowhere. It is safe to say that zombie outbreak preparation was not on the list of things to do before leaving for Banoi. Therefore it is only right that it is genuinely hard to stay alive in Dead Island. The player is not experiencing imbalanced gameplay, s/he is experiencing just how goddamned hard it is to stay alive and sane amidst a true outbreak whilst generally unprepared.
If the talk is immersion, there is also something to be said about the control scheme, more specifically, the attack input. The game offers two modes: digital and analog. With digital, the player is only pulling the right trigger to attack with the game auto-aiming based on the camera. For more precision, analog mode has the player using the right thumb stick (360/PS3) to swing and slice in the direction of her/his choosing, reminiscent of the light saber levels in Star Wars Arcade. It’s enough to make one feel more in control, and mindful of the next best move to take the a zombie down, and the next zombie, and the next to the heart’s content.
While combat control may be a relatively small detail, it’s important to the feel of the game as much as, say, the RPG aspects that drive overall gameplay. And if Dead Island bleeds multiplayer co-op, its beating heart is first person RPG. As far as the nuts and bolts are concerned, each playable character gets three skill trees. Two trees focus on the character’s unique combat strengths. For example, playing as Sam B. one can upgrade skill with bludgeoning weapons as well as the duration and strength of his haymaker mode where he goes into a trance like state, punching with uncanny strength and vigor. Xian can upgrade her skill with blades as well as her blood rage (martial arts) mode etc. The third tree allows the player to upgrade survival skills such as health, lock picking and inventory capacity.
Looting is another major factor as players are forced to forage for cash, inventory and health items. This is important as weapons have limited durability and it takes cash to keep them viable. It also takes cash and other miscellany to craft these typical weapons into the likes of electric blades, impact hammers and deodorant bombs.
Then there are the quests. There are three types: story, sidequest and continuos. Players have only one story quest at a time which moves the plot along. Both the sidequests and continuous quests have you doing oddjobs for people in exchange for valuable items and cash, offering up XP and more of the island to explore in the process. Overall, there are more than 20 hours packed into quests, not to mention the countless hours worth of free roaming and wanton zombie bashing one may feel so inclined to partake of.
All in all, Dead Island doesn’t do anything new as far as the first person RPG is concerned. If you’ve played Borderlands or Fallout, you have seen it before. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong. It’s still vastly immersive, just not essentially unique gameplay wise.
For all the technical flaws and shortcomings, the game’s ability to immerse a player in a specific world and in the depths of survival cannot be understated. There is never a time that conservation of health, stamina, weapons, sanity are not at the forefront. It definitely influences whether a player accepts or declines helping the inconsequential NPCs. Like all great zombie tales, that says something about our individual humanity.
Dead Island tells a raw story of how the unprepared can survive amidst a world overrun by the death. The fact that it’s a first person RPG puts the player even closer to its visceral psychology. Whereas other zombie games before it tell of corporate and government conspiracy; or they caricature the theme with main characters that are unnaturally strong and durable to deliver a cartoon-like experience; or they just provide vapid arcade style zombie killing. The pure survival approach makes this game unique in its own way, salvaging some of it’s dignity in my opinion.
Here’s to Dead City, Dead State, or Dead World: I for one can’t get enough of Techland’s brand of zombies and survival. Maybe it’s the masochist in me.