Techland and Deep Silver have a lot to answer for, given the state in which Dead Island was released.
At the same time, I can't stop playing it.
Dead Island for the PlayStation 3 has big, bad bugs, but like Deep Silver's nightmarishly buggy Boiling Point years earlier, there's enough of a strange allure to the bloody monster mash beneath the technical gore.
Dead Island is seen through the eyes of four survivors who are lucky enough to be immune to the zombie virus that has ravaged the resort island of Banoi. If you've seen the amazing trailer that teased the game, don't get your hopes up. This is a game more about Dynasty Warriors-type slaughter than a moving narrative with poignant, tear-jerking moments.
Fists, guns, knives and even broom handles can be used, though each has its specialty, whether it's in crushing bones with blunt weapons like bats and maces to slicing apart the undead with a sharpened wakizashi. A leveling system unlocks additional equipment slots, along with points to spend on the skill trees for each. Even with a level cap of 50, one character can't master everything, and there's no respec option in case you're not happy with your picks; this lends an even greater weight to the title's struggling survivalist undertones.
You'll run into certain zombies, such as the berserking Infected. Life-giving power drinks are scattered everywhere, and revisiting areas can repopulate their looted containers with new random goodies like an old 8-bit title. What it does best is when it acts as an unapologetic zombie masher with a crafting system that gives weapons new violent abilities, such as turning the undead into walking pyres. It isn't so much survival-horror as it is arcade action.
Dead Island uses Chrome Engine 5, the same engine used in Techland's Call of Juarez sequel, Cartel, and the driving feels the same: Vehicles feel as if they have helium in their tires. Even the animation for getting up off the ground is the same, annoyingly long sequence from Cartel. But on the whole, it does a decent job in making the resort, the nearby town of Moresby, and a green jungle hell look convincingly inviting for explorers who are eager to go out and kill things — or get killed.
Respawning takes a percentage of your hard-earned cash. A high level helps extend your life bar, but damage is damage, regardless of how easy things might be to kill. A level 22 zombie and its friends can still manage to rush and bury an unwary level 50 in quick order. Enemies also scale with your level in the single-player portion of the game, ensuring a grinding struggle from start to finish; it can be a little anticlimactic in seeing the same zombie grunts wandering around for the entire game.
Quests are given out by other survivors that you can either find by roaming around or in following the main, rigidly linear, story. Most are of the FedEx variety while others may ask you to go somewhere and kill a lot of zombies — or partying punks who think nothing of the apocalypse. Firearms later come into play, though they don't turn the game into a full-blown FPS due to the scarcity of ammo. Guns also never wear down, and you can always throw whatever you have in hand, whether it's a machete or a propane tank.
Other weapons have the consistency of papier-mâché. As long as you can find enough cash, though, you can use a workbench to keep them maintained. How this happens with wads of money, I'm not sure, but bikini-clad corpses can sometimes carry someone's monthly salary in much the same way that rats carry gold in ye olde dungeon crawlers.
Exploring Banoi and looting the left-behind baggage, closets, corpses and freshly hacked bodies can be enticing for a while until you realize that a lot of what you find is garbage. You'll end up with a lot of components for custom mods, but given the amount of searching, it can feel like a chore. I started skipping piles of luggage because I didn't want to button-mash my way through them. As for the mods, they're interesting, but only a few felt particularly useful.
Combat is the kind of meaty stuff that Ash from S-Mart would approve. Broken bones leave arms hanging limp, bladed weapons can dismember limbs like sausage links, and decapitations can leave the ground littered with craniums after you clean out a party of the shambling dead. You can either use the digital system for melee, in which you just point the wavering cursor at preferred body parts and time your button strike to swing at the right moment and distance — or you can button-mash away as long as you have the stamina or bullets. The analog system allows you to swing your melee weapon with the help of the right analog stick; this brings you closer to the experience, but it can be tough to use.
The variety of zombies tries to keep combat from feeling too repetitive. They'll shamble along and bicycle punch you, and the giant Thug variety may deliver a slow-moving haymaker to send you flying into the sand. There's also a Ram that, well, runs at you like a ram and a Butcher that uses its sharpened forearm bones to skewer you. Later on, players can even earn a skill that allows them to jump on a downed zombie's head, popping it for an instant kill.
However, the bugs will challenge players more than anything else. The broken save system is the worst offender, especially for the single-player mode. Quest progress, side-quests, and levels of experience earned over the course of several hours could randomly disappear — along with any loot I had picked up when coming back to the game. To make things worse, the first PS3 patch seemed to break it even further, going so far as to wipe out the progress of my in-game challenges, some of which are tied to Trophy unlocks.
I used a workaround that I dug up while browsing a forum for fixes; in the PS3's case at the time of this article, the workaround involved not logging into PSN and making sure that the game's online option was set to single-player. It improved the chances that my game would actually save my progress. I had even gone as far as deleting the patch, which appears to have been pulled shortly afterward, but once again, that reset my in-game challenges.
Other issues — such as monsters that clip partially through doors and walls, encounters that spawn right next to you, respawning in odd locations, or quest-giving NPCs who disappear only to reappear when you restart the game (potentially losing whatever progress you might have made) — pile on the problems.
With that said, Dead Island's four way co-op is actually great ... when it works. A browser allows you to see available games in the local area, thumbing the d-pad to the left can instantly connect you to a suggested survival mate, and when the connection was made, it was co-op happiness from start to finish. Out of the many hours spent online, lag was rare, and I was only dropped from an active game when it froze up.
That's if you can actually get into a game. A large number of players can show up in the list, but the latency gauge may be grayed out, so you can't connect to them. This usually means that all of the ones that your game can see — even ones that may have been green a few seconds earlier —simply go gray. Invites don't always work, either.
On seeing green, it became a metagame for me to quickly scroll through the list and click on a session I wanted, knowing that a second later, it could gray out — only to be often told that I couldn't connect to the game. At that point, the game searches for new sessions all over again anyway. Sometimes, it just stops working and won't find any games at all until it's restarted. That can also mean that the game has stopped saving your progress, forcing you to restart anyway to kick it back to life, regardless of how long you might have been playing.
Whenever I found an online game that I was able to join, I stayed on for as long as the other players would have me or until they decided to call it quits because I didn't know how long it would be until I'd find a multiplayer session again. This is also through the same connection used to effortlessly hook up to sessions in Borderlands, Killzone 3 and Uncharted 2.
It's bad news because co-op is where the game brilliantly shines in the same way that made an open world like Borderlands more fun. Dead Island's take largely restricts you to whatever chapter you are currently playing, although I saw the previous chapter listed from time to time. It will even warn you whether the progress in a chapter you want to join is something you've already seen. Levels don't seem to matter much, so high-powered friends can hop in to lend some aid to low-leveled survivors, though you really can't tell whose level is what until you're actually in the game.
There's a lot of freedom in being able to split up tasks and quests in co-op. In one game, two players looted every container in a village while I did a few side-quests to keep things moving along. Even if that meant driving a car hundreds of meters away on the map, I was still in the game and could see where they were, but I was free to do what I wanted on my own as long as I didn't try to leave the area.
Loot was also scaled depending on who did the killing, so a high-level character could screw up things for his low-leveled pals if he isn't careful. One thing that the patch did correctly for the single-player loot was to scale it up to your level. Without the patch, don't be surprised to get a lot of low-leveled junk on your second playthrough.
Dead Island can be a tough game to like. On the one hand, the sandbox RPG looter in me loved the openness of the game, the crafting, weapons, buying stuff from NPCs, and simply running around hacking apart the undead like a medieval urbanite. On the other, it's a game that's fraught with bugs, which were followed by a broken patch.
It might get better with more patches in the next few weeks, so prospective players may want to wait until then to pick up Dead Island. All games have bugs and issues, as none are truly technical paragons of perfection. Yet the same excuse ignores the truly worst of the worst, issues that are severe enough to impact a player's enjoyment of the game to the extent that Dead Island does. I won't shortchange the fun that I had with the game, but at the same time, that's only after I tuned out the eerie feeling of being a beta tester.
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