Dead Island [5 Minute Review]

I’m a zombie in a straight jacket. It’s a culture, not a costume.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’m getting a little sick (zing!) of zombie games. Granted, most of these games simply use zombies as a means to enhance solid underlying gameplay (Left 4 Dead, Plants vs. Zombies, Dead Rising). But the amount of media portraying risen corpses has overwhelmed me. The intrigue is lost. I’ve been desensitised to the heaving lurch and raspy snarl of the walking dead, and I no longer panic whenever they come within striking distance. I think that humanity is doomed once the zombie plague hits, because everyone will be far too apathetic by that point. Either that, or there will be several merry bands of calm and competent survivors come the zombie apocalypse, thanks to the extensive subliminal training provided by the entertainment industry.

Regardless, all of this didn’t stop me from purchasing Dead Island. Yes, I too was wooed by that emotional and heartfelt trailer that promised gritty storytelling and emotional connection with characters. I thought that this would be the one game that would attempt to focus on the people, rather than the zombies. “We are the real monsters,” etc.

The game has you take on one of four personas – a washed-up former football champion, a jaded Aboriginal ex-cop turned bodyguard, an Asian hotel employee, and a one-hit wonder rap star. They all have their own tortured pasts, but it doesn’t appear to have any bearing on how the game actually pans out other than their preferred method of killing zombies (throwing weapons, sharp weapons, blunt weapons and firearms). It does warrant a couple more playthroughs if only to take advantage of the new perks.

However, the game doesn’t make the proposition very convincing. It appears that patch 1.3 has improved the game somewhat, fixing things like levitating zombies and fickle inventory, but there are still some nagging bugs present. Vehicles handle terribly and get stuck on scenery. Objects have bizarre physics properties – I recall attempting to kick a beachball that behaved like it was filled with lead, and I actually died because I managed to crush myself between it and a wooden fence. When molotovs explode in mid-air, the fire spreads out horizontally on an invisible floor. The dynamic pathfinding chooses some rather interesting routes for me to go through. If I go exploring, sometimes I’ll enter areas that I can no longer leave, forcing me to reload my save game.

Reloading saves would normally be okay, but the save system is awful. As of 1.3, saving persists your inventory, cash, and weapon loadout, but other things like your present location and even your quest objectives do not appear to save correctly. One particular side quest failed to recognise that I collected some flares in my previous session, and I had to backtrack to a zombie-infested arena and redo the quest. Maybe your experience may vary, but I’m getting no love. Checkpoints feel few and far between, but at least it saves every time you quit your session.

The story progression is disappointing. So far, I’ve been doing fetch quest after fetch quest, driving from one end of the map to the other, collecting items, finding people, and returning to the quest giver. It’s a grind, and it feels like it’s justifying this by adding zombies in between. The dialogue is infuriating, as well; everyone is so pathetic and helpless, heaping responsibility upon you because you happen to be immune to infection. Dead Rising was set in a shopping mall, and even those characters had more charisma and lasting appeal. Drop in co-op is also available, which makes the whole fetch-questing mechanic a little more bearable (because misery loves company), but the few public games I’ve come across were griefers that spammed molotovs.

The game’s saving grace is the combat. Dead Island uses a system that allows you to target various parts of the body, so you can break limbs and crush skulls. Cutting off arms with a machete is as fun as throwing diving knives into faces and popping heads with a monkey wrench. (It’s hilarious to see a zombie try and hit you with two broken arms, flailing them uselessly at you.) Weapons can be upgraded and repaired, and they also come with ridiculous names like “Tiring Military Machete” and “Slaughtering Baseball Bat”. The variety of enemies is enough to keep you on edge, and it’s fairly satisfying to muscle and manoeuvre your way out of a hairy situation. However, excellent combat is not enough to brace everything else that’s shaky about this game.

Techland probably had good intentions for this game a long time ago, but the whole affair is fatiguing. The inherent problems don’t surface much later until you’re several hours deep into the game, and even though the issues may be small, they gradually build up until they break the proverbial camel’s back. The fun aspects are so poorly supported by everything else that it struggles to hold its own against other titles this season. It’s one more reason that I’m willing to see the zombie fad slide.

Reviewed for PC.

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