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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Video Game Review: Dead Island; A Zombie-FilledTale of Trouble in Paradise

Before I begin this review I want to start off saying I am a big zombie-game fan.  I’ve played through almost every Resident Evil game out there, spent more hours then I care to admit conquering Left 4 Dead and L4D2 along with friends up at college, and I’ve sunk a healthy amount of my life into taking down the walking dead in Call of Duty's zombie mode so when it was announced that a zombie game featuring a lush tropical setting, customizable weapons, and rpg elements was on the way, naturally I was more then a little excited.

Dead Island, developed by Techland and published by Deep Silver, already started garnering controversy even before it was released with surprisingly heart-wrenching cinematic trailers depicting families and loved ones being forced to watch each other succumb to the zombie virus accompanied by slow depressing piano-music.  The game’s logo, which featured a corpse hanging by a noose from a coconut tree, made many worried that the game would be canceled or banned before it even saw the light of day but fortunately Techland scaled back on the thematic press and focused more on gameplay and other elements.
When the game was finally released, I dove head-first into what I hoped to be another satisfying trip through zombie-infested locals ready to test my mettle against the living dead.  And boy was I tested.  After several frustrating days I finally emerged victorious and vowed never to set foot into the world of Dead Island again, at least not alone.  Now, before I go any further I just want to make it clear that Dead Island isn’t a “bad” game, but how much you enjoy it will depend on a few key factors of which I will go into detail later on.
 The game’s story and setup are pretty straightforward: the fictitious island resort of Banoi, where rich tourists, celebrities, and young party-animals all come to forget their troubles for a few days, has suddenly been stricken with a massive zombie outbreak.  Playing as one of four characters, each with varying skills and weapon specializations, you awake after a night of revelry and partying to discover the hotel you’re staying in is suddenly deserted.  A few cut-scenes and tutorials later, it is revealed that the game’s four main characters are somehow immune to the zombie virus and are thus the only ones able to set out and discover just how exactly everything went to hell.
The game actually contains several similarities to Capcom’s cult hit Dead Rising not only in the rpg leveling up and skill-acquisition elements, but also in the character’s health-system and the overall narrative progression.  The one big difference here is that Dead Island’s perspective is a completely first-person one, allowing the player to aim their attacks at specific parts of an enemy’s body as well as search through certain static objects in the world like cabinets and desks.  Also like Dead Rising, the majority of combat you’ll engage in is melee, utilizing pretty much anything you can find from kitchen knives, to coat-racks, even boat-oars and frying pans.
Killing zombies and completing quests for the various survivors you’ll meet nets you experience points that can be used to level up and acquire new active and passive skills.  Unlike Dead Rising however, in Dead Island zombies can level up too ensuring that no matter the player’s level, fighting zombies will always be a challenge.  The zombies in Dead Island are also divided up into “classes” much like in Left 4 Dead.  You start out fighting the standard fare, called “walkers”, but eventually you’ll be pitting yourself against more specialized breeds like “rams”, “drowned”, and “infected” to name a few.
The game’s story isn’t exactly original or awe-inspiring, as mentioned earlier; the developers went for a more personal feel, focusing mainly on the four main characters and their journey throughout the island but there are occasional glimpses of how the zombie pandemic is affecting other survivors, lending rather well to the game’s overall ambiance and immersion.  There are four major locals the players will visit over the course of the game starting in the resort but soon branching off into other areas of the island.  Each location contains its own perils tucked into its unique environments meaning the game never feels stale or recycled.
 For all its nuances however, Dead Island is still a flawed game that could very easily end up being more frustrating than fun.  My first caveat with the game lies in the radar system.  While it does a fairly good job of guiding you to your next destination, the radar’s pathing system isn’t the most reliable, sometimes leading you right into a dead end or suddenly re-calculating a route back towards the way you came when you cut a corner, and it has no indicator of where zombies are located which, coupled with the game’s first-person perspective, means there are going to be a lot of times where you’ll get your backside mauled if nobody is watching it for you.
Traversing the environments themselves can be a pain as well since you can only fast-travel from specific locations (usually safe-houses) and not being able to mantle up onto ledges can lead to a few frustrating deaths if you have a mob of infected in hot pursuit.  While dying in the game costs you nothing more then a short respawn timer and a bit of cash, I was left wondering why even have a health-system in the first place when most enemies can just come up behind and three-shot you later in the game.  And while the game encourages you to craft, upgrade, and maintain weapons, such systems are pretty much rendered obsolete from the get-go considering how quickly you’ll burn through even a heavily upgraded/modified weapon’s durability.  I found it much more cost-effective to just discard broken weapons and pick up the next wrench, pipe, knife, etc. I came across rather then waste my cash.
I think my biggest fault with Dead Island however is the game’s reliance on co-op play which is a funny thing for me to be saying considering how much I usually pine for wanting co-op in my video games.  To be more specific, what I mean is the game is scaled for four players and keeps that amount of challenge in no matter how many players happen to be playing.  Now, since I played through the entirety of the game solo, I ended up having to deal with scenarios that were designed to be a challenge for four players which caused me to throw my hands up in frustration more times then I can count. 
All the ambiance, combat, and story the game has to offer were ultimately overshadowed by the overwhelming difficulty that never failed to kill my enjoyment after only a few minutes of play and I admit my last few hours on Banoi were spent trying to rush through so I could just beat the game and get it over with.  I’m not trying to criticize the game itself in this regard, I am of the opinion that if I had three competent buddies backing me up it would have been a much better experience, but being forced to do the work of four players by myself isn’t my idea of fun. 
 I also found it hilariously ironic that, despite being by myself in the game, the cinematics and cutscenes still depicted the entire party and people in the world would often refer to me as “you guys” or “them” indicating that the game just assumed I was in a party.  I’m not sure why Techland didn’t opt for bot-controlled allies akin to Left 4 Dead but I can tell you that only those with the patience of saints should attempt to beat this game solo.
Overall, if you have a few friends to bring along for the ride, Dead Island can be a fun, action-packed, and deeply satisfying zombie-slaying adventure.  The environments are massive and beautiful, the combat is visceral and frantic, and the rpg elements coupled with a whole list of optional challenges and tasks means there is serious potential for multiple playthroughs.  Just try to avoid the one major mistake I made: trying to brave the dangers of Banoi Island alone.

General Gameplay Tips:
  • Jump-kicking can knock most common zombies to the ground instantly, allowing you to preserve the durability of your weapons.
  • Items that people request for continuous quests will show up on your radar as small white hand symbols no matter what quest you have active.
  • Weapons that reach zero durability won’t just “break and disappear”, but their combat-effectiveness will be severely decreased.

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