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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dead Island (7.9/10)

Dead Island pissed me off.

For those who know me, it's common knowledge that I'm all about all things related to the zombie apocalypse... maybe not going so far as to purchase a pallet of Spam, but I've enjoyed the zombie renaissance that has come about over the last decade immensely. Movies, books, and a glut of games have over-inundated us with zombies of all shapes and sizes. For me though, it's not just the zombies, but rather what humanity will do when the chips are down. I love asking myself what I would do should the undead rise... and just how far I would go to survive. Would I be able to kill a loved one should they become infected? What would I do for food? Hell, I don’t even really know how a toilet works! It's one thing to say it, completely another to do it....

So Dead Island, the new game from Deep Silver and Techland about a zombie outbreak on a resort island should be right up my alley, right? Dismembering bikini clad zombies should be a laugh! With more akin to games like Fallout or Elder Scrolls than Dead Rising or even Left 4 Dead, the RPG elements (complete with side-quests and skill trees) should seal the deal. So what went wrong?

Well, let's start with what Dead Island does right. On the stunningly beautiful, yet wholly fictitious, island of Banoi, you wake up after a rough night of drinking to discover that most everyone is dead and intent on eating the living. You can choose one of four playable characters, each with their own specialty and base statistics. Purna is a firearms expert. Rapper Sam B. is a tank-like character with high endurance and penchant for blunt weapons. Logan, a former football star, is best at throwing weapons. Lastly, Xian Mei is a desk clerk who happens to be trained in martial arts. She's good with blades. Each character has a "Fury" super attack that ties into their specialty. Build up your "Fury" meter by bashing zombies, then unleash your super attack when your back is against the wall.  But here's the kicker, no matter who you choose one thing is constant: you're immune.

Once the rest of the survivors figure this out, it's up to you to brave the island and bring rescue. Since you're the only ones who can survive being bitten, you're once again given the unenviable task of playing errand boy to anyone and everyone who has a problem. There is the main story of course, which involves getting food and water for the survivors who hole themselves up and wait (rather impatiently at some points) for you to complete your assigned tasks. There are four acts to the story, taking you all over the island from the beaches to the city and even the jungle. It starts slowly, but the narrative is actually fairly engaging, as it goes from a quest for blind survival to the search for the origin of the outbreak and its cause. Every time you enter a new area you'll be inundated with requests for help from different people. These sidequests are sometimes fun, sometimes annoying, but are mostly worth completing.

To be honest, this is one issue that I can't really blame solely on Dead Island, but rather on this type of open world RPG in general: it's easy to get distracted from the main mission at hand when you've got to go out and collect water or food for someone (over and over again... these so-called "continuous" quests are the annoying ones) or find some one's lost teddy bear. Basically, there is too much to do. It's the infamous "errand boy" syndrome. Some of these missions are silly, some are clever. Others are heartbreaking like the ones where people want you to finish off their loved ones who have turned or "please find my sister, she's missing!" style quests that never end well. Still, whether or not you partake in these side missions is up to you. Dead Island is definitely of the sort where you get out of it what you put in, if you see what I mean.

When you're out searching for teddy bears or liquor (or more important things like gas or food) you'll naturally face hordes of the undead. They come in several varieties. "Walkers" are your standard shambling zombies. The "Infected" are weaker, but they are the sprinters (and are a pain in the ass). These two types are the most common as you'd expect. But there are also super zombies, reminiscent of Left 4 Dead. "Thugs" are big buggers who can absorb a tremendous amount of damage as well as inflict a ton themselves despite the fact that they are slow. If they hit you, you'll go flying! Some of the others are obviously ripped straight from Left 4 Dead, like the fat "Floater" who will vomit all over the place if you're not careful. I'll leave the others for you to discover.

To combat the walking undead you'll have to make use of anything available. At the beginning of the game you'll be scrounging for useful items like oars, kitchen knives, or pipes. It's a resort island after all, so guns are pretty rare early on and ammo is always at a premium. You'll need to keep an eye on the status of your weapon... chopping off zombie heads will eventually dull your blade. You can repair them at workbenches that are scattered about the resort. Each weapon is upgradable, with four different levels you can purchase. Also, searching through trash cans and collecting random items becomes important as you can modify your arsenal. You'll also need a "mod" blueprint. Have a baseball bat? Grab some nails and you can make a spiked baseball bat that adds bleed damage. That nice machete that guy gave you after you helped him escape some zombies can be modded to deliver an electric shock when used, provided you can find all the parts.

Now, one thing I need to mention at this point is that Dead Island is really meant to be played with friends. Not like Left 4 Dead per say, but rather more akin to Borderlands. Provided your partners are at roughly the same point in the game (or are behind you if you are hosting), then you can play together. You can swap weapons, and help each other out. It's quite fun, screaming into the headset as you're getting eaten, hoping someone will make it to you in time....

The biggest issues with Dead Island lie with some bizarre decisions in the basic design of the game. What annoyed me the most is the auto-save system. The inability to save whenever you want is a major crutch, but this becomes infuriating in the face of one simple fact: the auto-save doesn't always seem to work. It's very weird, when the game first launched it was well documented that some players (especially on the PS3) had major save issues... like they'd play for a while and upon reloading would discover that nothing had saved. I was one such victim, I got set back more than once (hence the fact it took me so long to complete this review... after losing a five hour play session, onto the shelf it went). Sure, there have been some patches they've released that have supposedly fixed the problem, but it doesn't change the main issue at its core. If we had the option to save whenever we want, as is par for the course in open world RPG's like this, then these admittedly major save related headaches wouldn't even have been an issue.

There are a slew of smaller problems that, while not nearly on the level as the save catastrophe, are still head scratching. The menu system isn't nearly as streamlined as it could have been, and takes a while to get used to. Another infuriating issue is weapons magically disappearing. Every character can throw their melee weapons and retrieve them from the dead. When things get hectic and their corpses disappear, sometimes the weapons disappear with them. After you've spent a crap load on upgrading your favorite blade only to search a recent battlefield for five minutes and not find the bloody thing again... well, it's more than a little frustrating.

Another weird problem is that upon reloading a save the game seems to want to start you off where ever the hell it feels like it. I was started once in a place I hadn't even discovered yet! Another thing to keep in mind is that there are several "continuous quests" such as bringing people food or finding some chick's lost necklace which can seemingly reset upon reloading. I ended up focusing on one mission at a time, just to make sure they were actually completed before I'd turn off my system. Again, it's not the end of the world, but you can't escape the feeling that you shouldn't have to do things this way if the game worked as it was supposed to. It feels cheap, especially when you are re-spawned with a zombie already chewing on your love handles!

One last thing to mention: the enemies level with you. This is something that's fairly commonplace in these sorts of games, but Dead Island takes it to the extreme. Regular "walkers" take an insane amount of punishment towards the end of the game before going down regardless of your weapon of choice, and as the game progresses you'll face hordes of them. Then there are the super fast "infected" bastards; when they join the walkers you'll find yourself being attacked from all angles and quickly end up as dead as the zombies you face. This actually provides an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, I like how it forces you to pick your battles. If you don't like the odds, run! Trust me, after a while, you'll learn that legging it is the more viable option sometimes. But the flip side is that you never really feel like you're making any advancement. Finding that bad ass machete and upgrading so it's on fire should be empowering, but if it has all the effectiveness of a dull butter knife you'll wonder why you even bothered. And all of this without bothering to mention the guns... which seem strangely ineffectual. I mean, I know these are zombies, and I know we are supposed to shoot them in the head, but even that doesn't seem to do a lot of damage consistently. And that's what bothers me, it's the consistency (or lack there of)... which speaks to the entire experience of playing Dead Island if you ask me.

Then there are the technical issues. There are a lot of them: frame-rate drops, texture pop ins, lag... and I had the game completely lock up on me a couple of times, both online and off. Hit detection is really hit and miss. Normally, I'd pass this off with a shrug due to the scope of what the developers were trying to achieve, but these issues are so consistently prevalent that they are impossible to ignore. Dead Island honestly seems like an unfinished game in this regard, like it was rushed to meet a deadline.

The graphics are really hit and miss. Some of the environments look great, others not so much. Same with the character animations. There are some consistent pop-in and texture loading issues seemingly every time a new area loads up. Oh, and the cutscenes are laughably bad, especially with the lip-syncing.... like worse than a bad kung fu movie bad. When compared to the beautiful beaches and jungles you explore, again, the inconsistency is mind boggling. The same can't be said for the sound work, which is generally pretty poor. The zombies sound great (it'd be hard to screw that up, even if their aural cues get repetitive), but the voice acting from the host of NPC's and even the cutscenes themselves aren't terribly impressive.

Here's the thing... if Dead Island worked as advertised it would be a 9.5/10 easily. When it gets it right, it really gets it right! It's bloody brutal in the gameplay department, with a story that takes some time to develop but is ultimately satisfying. There are a ton of collectibles to find if you are so inclined. But sadly, the technical and design issues end up rendering what should have been an awesome game merely passable, with poor implementation making it more frustrating than fun in a lot of areas. The truth is I wanted to like Dead Island more than I actually did. With a little more development time to iron out some of the technical issues and a few different design decisions and it could have been exceptional. My only saving grace might be the fact that the ending sets it up for a sequel... so here's hoping they get it right the next time out.


Score = 7.9 / 10

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