Sunday, September 11, 2011

PC: Dead Island review

Maynard and Mr. Tanglefoot went for Sunny Beach to score some Night Elves, but ended up with the undead. Kudos to www. for the illustration (click to enlarge!)
I love zombies.
I mean, don’t we all, more or less? There is certainly reason to think so, since the long tradition of games, movies and books is about as endless as the vast undead legions of corpses they are all about. I’m pretty sure the very same impetus drove Techland once they sat down and designed the first person horror survival action-adventure game ‘Dead Island’. Also known as; “Let’s do another one!”
I’ll have to admit; I stole the description from Wikipedia, because I really had some difficulties describing the exact genre of this game. Except pointing out the zombies it doesn’t really tend to stick with one certain trait, but instead flirt with numerous aspects at the same time. It sure is about survival, but you are certainly not without means to switch your role as hunted to hunter. There is plenty of action, but you also benefit much from either walking away or simply ignoring many of the zombies. Also, some tasks in the game are so boring and mundane that you can hardly feel the guns blazing all the way through. There are some elements of adventure, but they mostly come from exploration and small interactions with bland NPC’s.
So what is ‘Dead Island’ exactly?
Well, it’s basically everything you’ve ever known from said zombie media. Nothing less, nothing more. And it’s first person. We’re not getting around that.
Story wise we’re presented with the classical scenario “What if there was a zombie apocalypse at Sunny Beach, and all the beautiful people suddenly started eating each other?”
Besides being a barrel of fun which I’d actually give a shit about (compared to the current state of Sunny Beach) it’d likely never make it into a computer game, so we’ll have to settle for the fictional island of Palms Resort. The only difference from the real life counterpart is the name, really. It’s a tropical island of the (dare I say?) stereotypical kind with lush vegetation, crystal clear oceans and white, radiant sand now covered in blood.

Palms Resort is a highly ranked vacation spot in the zombie community
The game opens up with a typical evening, showing a young man’s blurred vision as he drunkenly staggers through the dance floor. The game wastes very little time before bringing in the flesh eating antagonists, which doesn’t really seem to bother that many guests at the current time. Instead the drunken sod decides to cash in early and go to bed. This is the kind of logic you might as well get used to if you want to make it far in Dead Island.

Waking up, wondering where room service went
As you wake up the next morning in your dorm, you notice that you’re very much left alone. The sunlight is bright, the hallways of the hotel eerily empty and being the kind soul you are, you start rummaging through abandoned luggage for goods. Eventually you discover corpses lying around in grim positions that immediately remind you of the occult Paradise Hotel, and you realize that something on this island has gone horribly wrong. Zombies are now stalking the beaches, bungalows and bars in unlimited hordes, and it’s up to you and a small handful of survivors to find a way off.
Before you start out, however, you are required to choose one of four protagonists to control throughout the story.  Dead Island is certainly built with the possibility of multiplayer in mind and thus you and three other friends can join up for some cooperative zombie slaying (which undoubtedly elevates the joy of the game immensely). On your own, however, you’ll have to decide which take on zombie-slaughter appeals to you the most. You’re free to either specialize in throwing attacks, guns, blades or blunt weapons. Each specialization comes with its own character and a small attached song and dance-background story. Your choice of character also has consequences for the kind of abilities you will learn later in the game, and the amount of damage you’ll be able to absorb.
Sound familiar? Almost…RPG’ish?

Because he's pure awesome
That’s because it is. Dead Island does make an obvious attempt to cater to the RPG-crowd through a differentiating class system and the varying skill trees between them. Hell, they even have aggro improving/decreasing abilities.
As an avid RPG-fan I can’t really say that I mind, and in a sense it kind of brings your thoughts to “I wonder how Fallout would be on zombie island?”. Some people, especially those used to a more dynamic and fast passed action game, will likely be put off by the numbers in this regard.
On the other hand this isn’t Baldur’s Gate and unless you’re numerically handicapped most people will get through this small hurdle in no time and stick to whatever their class does best. If you went for the blade-specialist, use blades and you’ll likely make it. Personally I went with the ever charismatic rapper and writer of the smash hit “Who do you voodoo, bitch?”; Sam B (SaaahmBee…ZoohmBeee… am I the only one seeing this?). Only because of his badass accent and the fact that he wields a hammer the size of a surfboard.

Once you get started on the island of Palms Resort and get introduced to the quests, you will quickly realize that nothing is really new here either. Not that you should be put off by that, though, because the people from Techland did their research. Your tasks are properly divided into main- and side-quests and range all the way from acquiring food for the survivors to fetching valuable family heirlooms forgotten in the fray. All the time keeping the ravenous undead at bay.

Enjoy the peace, it won't last long
The structure of said quests is more than often so simple that you’re simply to go to a destination marked on your map, bash the brains out of a few zombies and gather named item. Sometimes you’ll encounter a tougher version of the zombies or just a bigger concentration of them before reaching your goals, but that’s about the biggest variation you’ll encounter for the majority of the game. A few quests do involve some more brain work from your part, such as shutting down the electricity in order to pass through an area and such. Just don’t expect any Half Life puzzles.
Regarding the incitements for the main quests you might draw similarities to games such as Dead Space in which you had to go through a series of mundane tasks in order to succeed in an overall criterion. Although you can’t help feeling a bit like an idiot when the quest giver for the third time in succession says “OH HERP DERP, THAT’S NOT ENOUGH FOOD. CAN U GATHER MOOR PLZ??” you will likely take them for what they are. Some of the side quests are quite entertaining, a few of them downright weird and beyond logic. You will encounter survivors, whose very grasp on priorities has evaporated in the tropical heat, meaning they will ask you to bring back their teddy bears instead of attempting evacuation to one of the bigger quest hubs. Others will ask you to help break into forsaken homes and some will actually tell you to get them booze so that they can throw in a party?... It’s best to simply think of the XP once you head into zombie-territory looking for Teddy. Luckily, the game features not only a map but also an objective-tracking system for the most parts.

Early in the game you will have to make do with whatever you find
You’re not bound to follow this in any way, though, as Dead Island features a very appealing sandbox approach and encourage exploration. If you’re up to heading into the zombie-infested unknown you should by all means do so, as the enemies will level up as you do. Some areas might be offline for you, due to the story progression, but all in all you have very loose reins. It’s not that Palms Resort is abundant with small rewards and secrets in the same way as Vampire: Bloodlines, but you might stumble upon some funny stuff. I personally managed to find the setup for a pornographically zombie-video, which was disturbing to say the least.

"It's fun to stay at the Y...."
There is another incentive to investigate, however, which is frankly one of Dead Island’s pitfalls. You have to dig out your inner kleptomaniac and scour the island clean for basically everything not nailed to the floor. Being the massive tourist trap that it is, you will find plenty of lost luggage and chests, all lootable. Some are empty, some contain money and some contain various important parts for later upgrades to your weapons. Since Dead Island doesn’t feature any junk-items you can basically utilize everything you find. The downfall comes in when you realize that looting a container requires you to activate it once in order to open it, and then again in order to loot. While this doesn’t sound so bad in writing, you will very soon tire of the two-second animation that will haunt you just about through the first part of the game.
You will, however, choose wisely in doing so, once you get to the weapon-aspect of the game. This is frankly one of my favorite aspects, since the weapons do feel just about right. They make an impact and do indeed feel like what they are: Improvised. You will therefore wield oars, broomsticks, shovels (Dead Space really needed a shovel) kitchen knives and cleavers initially. None of these were really designed for combat and their durability declines rapidly as you slaughter zombies. This not only encourages you to pick your fights but also time your attacks to do as much damage as possible, instead of simply clicking like a maniac.

Getting up close and personal with the zombies
In this regard your stamina is the limiting factor, as it drains by running, jumping and swinging your weapon. Overdo it, and you’re reduced to a gasping, collapsed breakfast pile for the zombies.

Luckily, you quickly get access to better, improvised (and more durable) weapons. Some of these are painfully obvious (such as nails in a bat) whereas some seem like McGyver has nothing on them. Highly effective deodorant bombs, combined baseball bats with whirling razors and electrified scythes are all devastatingly effective against the undead hordes. Make no mistake though, a good Molotov cocktail does the job as well in a pinch, just don’t get too close.

Another mentioning of Vampire: Bloodlines seems in order, when talking about guns which sadly show up way too late in Dead Island, and once they do they seemed quite lackluster to me. I fooled around with them for a bit, but all in all melee seemed not only more powerful but also more fun. Splattering off a zombie’s head with a shovel just has a certain appeal to it.
If all else fails, you always have access to the mighty foot, which will likely be your most cost-effective weapon through the majority of the first 10 levels or so. It’s a very quick and yet powerful free attack, unblockable and able to knock the enemies to the ground. As you can imagine, zombies have a hard time getting back to their feet, often leaving you in a perfect position for a decapitating strike.
The combined baseball-battery-saw blade...thing

The enemies are pretty much what you’d think. The undead are the primary antagonist through most of the game, the living occasionally stepping in to give them a break. The AI isn’t particularly great, which somehow seems fitting due to them being mindless and all.  They will happily get stuck in pools or behind fences, a few of them will take a long time before noticing you. What still seems extremely silly to me, no matter how you put it, is the fact that zombies in Dead Island are actually able to drown. The only time I’ve seen this possible was in Thief: The Dark Project and I’d hoped this game established that this was a really bad idea.

Upgrading and inventing new weapons is vital
The game scales somewhat decently in this regard and although it doesn’t make as big a deal introducing new enemies as Dead Space did, you certainly notice the zombies pulling out the bigger guns as you level up. Initially you’re confronted by the weak Walkers who pretty much splatter if you frown at them. Later on you’re up against the fast moving ‘Infected’ that eventually catch fire and become swift suicide bombs able to inflict massive amounts of damage. You will also confront giant zombie brutes (I like to think of them as the grown up schoolyard bully, who’s now zombiefied) that will literally knock you down in a single blow. Albeit never impossible the game doesn’t let you grow careless at the higher levels, which is good.
Along the way you will have plenty of opportunity to utilize whatever weapon comes in your way. Zombies can be lured into patches of electricity, knocked into pools for drowning (sigh) or you can knock them down by throwing heavy objects at them. The most fun is, of course, running them over (en masse) in your trusty car as you drive around the island like a maniac. Cars never seem to run out of gas or be destroyed and greatly reduce your chances to be hit. Although not able to go to any quest-zone, fooling around with my trusty truck was undoubtedly the most fun I had in Dead Island.

Driving over zombies is a never ending bliss
As you might remember from Diablo 2, bringing in more heroes also brings more monsters. This provides you with an even better challenge and presents some interesting encounters, such as the much cited refill-mission. In these missions one player will be responsible for loading the truck with supplies, while the others keep off the waves of zombies till the whole group can get away in the car. Once again this stresses the impetus to join up with real life friends in order to make a decent game quite good.
The atmosphere, sound, graphic and story are a mixed basket. On the graphical side I don’t really have much bad to say about Dead Island but not really anything bad either. Sometimes I was left with a “Wow, this doesn’t look too bad?” (‘Like motherfuckin’ POSTCARD!’) and other times it felt a bit artificial. There is some repetition of the scenery, making you feel that old Oblivion-sensation of much similarity in a big world.  The NPC’s really don’t look that good at all, especially up close, and a lot of them are both stiff and barely moving. The voice acting is bland at best, sometimes different voice actors seem to appear for the same quest giver. The music is somewhat passable, but in some situations better than others. It’s sufficiently subtle, however, and not that fast paced as I initially feared.
A fast moving zombie. How original
Saying that Dead Island is a horror game is like comparing Dragon Age 2 to ‘Lord of the Rings’. Unless zombies have been the eternal focal point of your deepest fear for ages you will likely get very few scares from this game. Granted the atmosphere can be intimidating in a very few of the quests, and playing without headphones did give me some shocks since I didn’t hear them crawl up on me.
Don’t expect much from the story either. It’s just there because they likely had to come up with something. I frankly didn’t bother one bit about it and it certainly doesn’t provide you with any moments of ‘OHSNAP!’.

All in all it’s fair to say that you’ll likely play the game for the massive appeal in mowing down zombies. Although the melee combat does feel clunky and sometimes you feel like you’re being punished for a mistake you barely noticed making, there is much joy to be found. Dead Island has some very obvious flaws that you will most likely notice, but eventually it’s easy to forgive it as you engulf yourself in weapon upgrades and talent trees. You tend to forget about ugly NPC’s and weird quests, once you unlock your new talents and start sending zombies flying. This is prime attribute of Dead Island and it’s not really at the severe cost of any dumb stat.  If you’re in any way set or curious about some zombie slaying, I do encourage you to give this game a try. In my opinion, however, it might not be entirely worth its current price (being just released and all) so waiting a while before getting it might be feasible.
Verdict: 7/10

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