Thursday, October 13, 2011
Review: Dead Island (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)
For video games and anything else involving zombies, the well of creativity and originality has long since run dry. These undead monstrosities have been shoehorned into countless games and movies to the point where they feel almost stock, therefore you couldn't be blamed for not being particularly excited when Dead Island finally hit shelves. While the story ultimately feels inconsequential and technical issues abound, Dead Island is a lively, intense and additively enjoyable zombie-killing experience that benefits from an open-world design and a strong emphasis on cooperative gameplay.
While most first-person zombie-killing games take place in dark corridors and urban environments, Dead Island opts for a lush tropical island of Banoi, a fictional resort island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. It's beautiful beaches, turquoise waters and lush tropical jungles would make it an idea vacation destination, however there is a small matter of a zombie epidemic to contend with. You play as one of four survivors who wake up on the resort after a night of partying to find the resort in shambles and hordes of the undead roaming about feasting on the bodies of dead vacationers. After a brief respite to gather your bearings, you learn that you are among the small number of people immune to whatever caused the outbreak and you must spend the game finding both other survivors and a way off the island. Each of the four characters has a backstory that is fleetingly interesting, however their personalities are never fleshed out enough to make you care what ultimately happens to them. Your objective in the game is to find survivors, do quests and advance to other parts of the island and ultimately find a way out. In doing so, you must fend off a seemingly endless parade of the walking dead that get progressively harder to kill as you level up. The enemies are also varied, with the standard slow-moving and fast-running zombies being complemented with more difficult enemies that require better weapons and more tactical skill. With the fun that you can have killing them en masse, the story seems like an afterthought that barely binds the game together. It picks up steam in the latter parts of the game, however it never feels particularly interesting or dramatic.
At first glance, Dead Island might strike you as a first-person shooter in the vein of Left 4 Dead, however melee combat is the order of the day here. Firearms and ammunition are rare and expensive, so the majority of your kills will be dealt by blunt or edged instruments, with incendiary and explosive weapons occasionally coming into play. You begin the game using stocks, boat oars and pipes to fell the undead, however hammers, knives, machetes and other instruments will come in your possession and these can be upgraded and augmented as you progress in the game. The combat controls are intuitive and responsive, and the weapons are very satisfying the weird. In combat, skill must be employed to ensure you don't take critical damage, which can happen very quickly in the more difficult missions. Targeting the limbs with a blunt instrument can cause them to break, while using an edged weapon can sever them completely with a satisfying geyser of blood. Doing this is especially important when faced with a tough opponent like a "thug" or a group that swarms you all at once. Similar to Borderlands, dying carries a monetary penalty where you lose 10% of your available money, however you re-spawn close to where you died and any damage your inflicted upon enemies will still be intact. If all else fails, you can run past the zombies or get in a car and run them over, so you have plenty of options on how you want to tackle your objectives.
The gameplay consists of travelling to various parts of the island, finding survivors and completing various quests. The main objectives keep the story moving, however there are numerous side-missions that you are given by various people you meet in the island, people who seemingly lack any ability to do things for themselves. Most of these missions boil down to simple fetch-quests that can get very repetitive, however you'll want to do as many of these as possible in order to gain experience points and money, which are essential to surviving in the latter parts of the game. Despite the apocalypse, cash is still king on Banoi Island and everything you do costs money. Since your weapons take damage with each blow delivered, ultimately rendering them useless, you will need to constantly pay to repair and upgrade them if you plan on keeping them. As your loot and collect items, weapon upgrades such as weight damage, electricity charge and even explosive augments will become available for certain weapon types. Money can be obtained by looting houses, scattered luggage and even the corpses of the zombies you kill, however you will earn the bulk of your money and experience points by completing missions. Some NPC allies will also give you better weapons and weapon upgrades for completing quests, so taking some time to complete these before advancing in the main story is well worth it.
Dead Island can be played solo and it provides a fun and engrossing experience, however the game really comes alive with the online four-player cooperative mode. Three friends can join your game and play through the missions cooperatively and the enemy difficulty will scale depending on the number of players. If you don't have friends available to play with you, Dead Island integrates an interesting system in which you can drop in and out of another players game while others can do the same in yours. Whenever a player near your level is present in the same general area, you are alerted to this and given a chance to enter their game and assist them. You can opt-out of this feature if you do not wish to come into contact with random players, however this can be very useful in the more difficult missions since other players can trade weapons with you and assist in battles. Additionally, if you have the online settings on "Cooperative", other players will be unable to hurt you or steal your loot. Similar to the aforementioned Borderlands, playing cooperatively helps to increase the sense of fun and reward that the game has to offer.
In the audio-visual department, Dead Island has many strengths and more than a few wrinkles that are common in sandbox-style games. The island of Banoi looks fantastic and a lot of work has been put into selling it as a tropic paradise gone wrong. The gorgeous beaches are tainted with dead bodies, looted luggage and garbage everywhere, while the empty streets give you a sense of foreboding as you anticipate the next wave of zombies coming towards you. The character animation is plagued with doll-like facial expressions and poorly-synced voice acting, the environments have constant draw-in and screen-tearing, and the character animation of the zombies is jerky and glitchy. These happen too often to go unnoticed and they will prove distracting at times, however they are not a severe hindrance to the overall experience. Anyone who is used to playing large, open-world games knows by now to expect graphical hiccups and these are definitely present here. The best part of the game, visually speaking, is the gruesome and inventive ways you can dispatch the zombies. Bones snap out of place, limbs fly and blood flows in seemingly limitless quantities, and you'll spend hours eviscerating the undead with a big smile on your face.
Outside of the aforementioned visual bugs in the environment, the game features various glitches that can range from amusing quirks to quest-ending annoyances. Even a moderate amount of time spent on Dead Island will reveal enemies and even their body parts dangling in mid-air, loot disappearing and even instances where your character gets stuck in or even falling below the level geometry. The two biggest issues noted on my end were problems with the in-game map and with the driving controls. The mini-map is meant to act as an on-screen prompt that shows you both what's of note in your immediate area and to point you towards your next objective. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. There were several instances where it did not register that an objective had been completed and I was left wandering aimlessly, and other times when it gave wrong directions and pointed me towards an objective in an inaccessible area. The issue with the driving in the game is a mix of stiff controls and environmental shortcomings. The narrow roads on Banoi make maneuvering your vehicle difficult and turning around almost impossible at times, while severe annoyances such as your car getting stuck in the environment and being unable to move are commonplace. The vehicles are mainly there to lessen travel time and to quickly dispatch enemies, but the controls are so haphazard that travelling on foot will often be preferred.
Whether or not Dead Island is a game worth playing depends on the type of game you are looking for. If you want a streamlined corridor shooter with defined parameters and levels that emphasize survival over story, then the free-roaming gameplay and RPG elements such as leveling and fetch-questing will likely be a turnoff. If you are able to look beyond the flaws and enjoy zombie-killing, looting and progressing through a thin story to ties it all together, then Dead Island might just be the game for you. However, the game is best enjoyed with three friends tagging along for the ride, so a rental is recommended before purchase if you plan on going solo.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10