If I could get away with turning in a three-word review for Techland's zombie-infused, Dead-Rising-meets-Fallout-3 survival-horror game, I'd write "Oh, if only." That would suffice. If only they'd designed this beast as a branching narrative game, similar to Heavy Rain, relying almost exclusively upon Quick Time Events (QTEs) for interaction. But then the story isn't good enough to replace Alan Wake's typewriter ribbons. The dialogue is desolated by insincere invective, lead-balloon wisecracks and inane schoolyard obscenities — my five-year-old swears better than Dead Island's cast. The close-quarters melee combat in an FPS presentation could have provided a welcome diversion from the bog-standard gunplay to which we've grown accustomed, if only the camera control and aiming mechanics weren't perpetually schizophrenic. Even if the fights were tight, the game design lacks strongly sinewed connective tissue binding together those combat sequences. There are only daisy chains of fetch quests and their paper-thin variants that will bore even the dumbest, most obliging hound.
Some of today's gamers may find it a surprise that zombies, even in their contemporary incarnation, weren't invented for George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." Though Romero did a lot to popularize the particular caste of undead, zombies were a staple of pulp fiction in the early-to-mid 20th century, and shambled within 19th-century Caribbean mythology in forms recognizable by today's standards. Zombies are an exceptionally malleable fiction; these moaning, intellectually stunted creatures readily serve as both backdrops and conflict devices in a slew of novels, movies and games. With very little alteration to their core mythology, they appear in works as diverse as the movies "Zombieland" and "Shaun of the Dead," games such as the juggernaut Resident Evil franchise, and in novels at polar opposites of the literary spectrum, from World War Z to The Reapers are the Angels. Zombies are ultimate bogeymen: Terrifying, lethal and relentless, guised as people, they're devoid of the gentler human emotions and motives.
It's lately popular to lament the revelation of more zombie media, especially games, but you can tell most any story as a zombie story. That's the problem with Dead Island: Take away the zombies, and you have a watered-down RPG with broken mechanics and dead-boring quests.
Dead Island's basic premise is that you're vacationing at a resort on Banoi, an island off the cost of New Guinea. There's a cannibalism joke in there somewhere, but I'm not sure if it's intentional. This is true of a lot of Dead Island's humor: Is it camp or merely ignorance? Players may choose from four characters: two female and two male. The only real heroes in backstory are the women, Purna and Xian Mei. Logan, once a pro football great, killed a girl in a drunk-driving accident. As humans, we are frail, but in games we like to imagine ourselves either very, very good or very, very bad. Characters like Logan play more as morally bankrupt buffoons. Sam B, having achieved and subsequently lost great success in the hip-hop industry, also carries a lot of baggage, though his foibles are more forgivable.
Each of the game's characters has a special ability for the Fury skill attribute, plus a particular aptitude for one class of weapon in the game's arsenal. The varied abilities, especially the Fury skills, work far better in co-op play than in the single-player campaign. On your own, the experience is much the same no matter your character; it really comes down to deciding whether you'd like to play as a man or a woman. In fact, Dead Island clearly favors co-op play over solo sessions. There's even a campaign feature for instantly jumping into online co-op with other loners who are near you in map location and story progression. Two to four players can team up in co-op mode, available via Xbox Live or System Link (LAN). There's no split-screen mode, likely a limitation of Techland's Chrome engine, a design decision or development time issue. In any event, split-screen is sorely missed. There's just something — a shared frisson — about playing a survival game together in the same room, the same way that watching cheap-thrill horror movies in a group is more entertaining than screening them alone. The System Link feature makes this possible, but LAN sessions are often complicated to arrange, requiring two or more of everything.
The low on-screen zombie count certainly can be blamed on Chrome's shortcomings. Of course, there are two basic schools of zombie movie: zombies that mill about in crowds and attack in hordes, and those that hide in dark corners, jumping out in surprise attacks. The premiere season of cable TV drama "The Walking Dead" typifies the former, while the film "28 Days Later" is a good example of the latter. For the most part, Dead Island also uses the latter approach. Cinematically, it works — there's really no shortage of immersion just because the zombies loiter in pairs rather than dozens or more.
However, it does present an issue with gameplay design. Since Techland can't keep you challenged as you level up just by throwing more and more zombies at you, they've had to toss in some different, tougher zombie types with inflated skill levels. Fighting the same foes with higher levels is a stock RPG conceit; there's nothing wrong with that per se. At times, Dead Island's undead aren't well balanced against the players' characters. Worse, after a respawn, in the exact same encounter with the exact same zombie, a kill that was taking forever across several respawns is suddenly over with a couple of swipes of your knife. It's the game's loose, erratic controls and psychotic auto-aim; sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. There's no telling when you'll lop off a head or just harmlessly tap a shoulder. It's supremely frustrating.
In the face of a captivating story or excellent mission design, a lot of control and aiming issues are easily overlooked. If Dead Island had a good story or interesting quests, I would overlook them. Unfortunately, the best thing about the game's narrative is the opening cut scene. It's all downhill once the zombie infestation begins in earnest. Not only is the plot weak, but there's also too little revealed or advanced between quest completions. Often all you get is, "Thanks. Now go do this." For completing quests you get XP, cash and, sometimes, weapons or parts necessary for creating new weapons from blueprints you discover. These rewards felt cheap and extraneous; after playing the game awhile, you're mindlessly doing quests just to get through the thing.
Virtually all the quests are split between two types. You're handed fetch-and-return assignments or charged with venturing into danger to flip switches, turn knobs, unlock doors and the like. Then, as with the fetches, you must return to the lifeguard post where the survivors have holed up. Complicating things and murdering fun, while you're handily dispatching a main story quest, you're often required to complete what amounts to an optional side-quest — except it's not optional. The main story quest stalls out unless you complete the side-quest. The frustration lies in thinking you know what you're supposed to do, planning it out, estimating how long it will take, and then getting down to it only to discover it's a lot worse than you imagined. Some people would call this "realism"; after all, life rarely works out like you planned. However, in the context of a game, it's a nuisance; it interrupts the flow of play and sense of timely progression, especially when compared with well-designed, fluid quest integration in games like Sucker Punch's Infamous games.
Dead Island also offers numerous truly optional side-quests. In a rare highlight for the game's design, they're generally well integrated into the main story. In making your main quest rounds, you run into uninfected who need your help. Sometimes you'll hear radio chatter requesting aid and citing a location. Stumble upon one of these weary survivors, they tell their sob stories, and then you're presented with the terms of the quest, a difficulty rating, along with the payout you'll get for doing the job. It feels natural in context of exploring the island. Unfortunately, the side-quests are no more interesting than the story quests. Go find a bottle of bourbon so you can have an eye-opener? Really? Beware: Once you bring him the bottle, he might want ice, too.
Many vehicles in operational condition and a few fast-travel points mitigate some of the quests' drudgery. At least you don't have to run everywhere, hauling back things you're sent to collect on foot. I was generally pleased with the vehicles. They control better than vehicles in some much more refined FPS titles. The vehicles do take damage, but they don't break down if you accidentally hop a few curbs or sideswipe a tree. Trucks are also handy for running down zombies, earning XP the easy way. On more than one occasion, having left my truck to jog the last few meters to a quest goal, I went back for it and just drove over a high-level zombie that wouldn't drop under assault by my limited selection of melee and throwing weapons. Sadly, though, once the quest is done, all those zombies I smushed along the roadways and grassy shoulders are back. If you've taken the time to turn back and drive over a crowd of creepers to earn some extra XP, it doesn't make things easier if you have to visit that same location on foot later in the game.
Not only to the dead come back in Dead Island, but a lot of other things come back, too. Acetylene canisters and energy drinks used for boosting your health reappear, though you've blown them up or consumed them. Trash cans and other fixtures you've knocked over are righted, like someone is cleaning up after you. In an immersive open-world game in which your performance in main and side-quests is supposed to have a lasting effect on the whole environment, this will slap you right back to the reality of your couch and controller. I'd be lying if I didn't admit I liked having useful items regenerate because I regularly needed them on difficult quests. Still, better play-balancing could have achieved the same end while leaving my suspension of disbelief more intact.
Despite some misgivings about the Chrome engine, I was overall impressed with the game's visual presentation. Banoi and the resort complexes, especially the swimming pool areas, look great; and the real-time human and zombie characters look good, too. Dead Island is a visually attractive game. This may have been achieved at the cost of a more robust, populated experience, but it is a pretty game. Some of the animations are rather unrefined, though. For example, when cleaving off a zombie's arm with a long blade, the arm is first there, swinging at you. Wounded by the blade, the creature staggers back, now with only a stump where that arm was. There are no noticeable interim animations describing the limb's amputation. There's also a slow-motion effect that kicks in when you land lethally accurate blows. These are awkwardly implemented, almost as if you paused the game during combat, though you have no control over when things go back to normal. Recovering your wits to continue defending yourself against more zombies isn't a smooth process.
Another quirk worth noting: Some of the zombies attack with weapons. They're quite skillful, almost right from the start of the game, and without some long-winded, story-progression-based explanation about how those damn critters are getting smarter. Zombies using tools with real ability, especially weapons, is clearly in violation of the zombie code of conduct.
Although the complete audio package in Dead Island is acceptable, including sound effects and suitable background score, all of it is nearly ruined when many characters open their mouths. The dialogue is atrocious in cut scenes, quest assignments, or when your character mutters to him or herself. It's not just adult language for a mature-rated game; it's equal parts crass, silly, redundant, annoying and superfluous.
Note, please, I've just arrived at mentioning the now-famous teaser trailer for Dead Island that spread like wildfire over the Internet, turning an unheard-of game without a publisher into one of the most anticipated titles of this year's holiday game launch season. That's because I haven't considered that trailer in criticizing the final game. Some gamers will feel they were baited and switched with that teaser trailer, but this is not the case. The trailer did a credible job of establishing the basic foundation of the game's story, and it presented reasonable expectation for graphical fidelity. It had nothing to do with gameplay. Honestly, I'd have rather the game been a lot more like the trailer, too: an emotionally compelling straight-line narrative against a lush tropical background — with zombies! But you can't take a trailer for a contract.
Even as an open-world RPG, Dead Island had a great deal more to offer on the drawing board than it delivered in the final game. The game masquerades as a unique marriage of several genres and gameplay types. Rather, it's a box of dusty old spare parts tacked together into an experience unsatisfying on every level. I still believe the zombie motif has very long legs in the realm of entertainment, but in games, there are only a few slots left open for big, anxiously awaited zombie titles before gamers are going to demand a break, clamoring for something new in survival horror. Dead Island wastes one of those precious slots.
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