Genre: First Person Shooter Developer: Techland Publisher: Deep Silver Classification: MA15+ Release Date: 9th Sep 2011 Platforms:
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Dead Island follows four survivors of a zombie outbreak on the fictional island of Banoi - a Pacific island set off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The game is best described as a First Person Adventure game - as while it is played from a first person perspective, the focus is definitely not on shooting. Your primary weapons in Dead Island will always be melee - and the focus of the game is on exploration above anything else.
Dead Island doesn't seem like a grand technical achievement at first - some horribly low resolution textures can be seen throughout the environment, with a ridiculously low draw distance and pop-in even on the highest graphical settings. Bizarrely, the beginning hotel sequence seems to highlight them over the game's more astonishing features. Once you run down the beach on your first mission however, you will begin to notice some of the game's achievements. The ocean looks gorgeous and the island is huge - a fact emphasised by the limited fast travel options. The biggest technical achievement is much more subtle however - some might not even notice it until they pick up a bladed weapon like a machete.
You can see the damage you do to zombies in Dead Island. Bones break, skin tears, and limbs and heads come off. Even with our imminent revised classification system, the flaws in our classification system are highlighted by Dead Island's uncensored release - Dead Island is in no way for children. The close up, frenetic nature of combat heightens tension significantly and can even seem unsettling at times - which shouldn't seem out of place in a game about the bloodthirsty undead, but even in your average survival horror a zombie isn't usually cause for alarm.
The focus tends to be on quantity in most games with zombies - Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead are examples of this - cutting down swathes of animated corpses until the numbers overwhelm you, or a boss type monster enters the scene. In Dead Island, four or more standard zombies at a time almost guarantees death until you've leveled up a bit - and if you haven't got fury mode or a molotov cocktail, you might want to avoid the Thugs (mini-bosses) until you do.
Leveling up doesn't mean instant success however, as zombies increase in level as you do. The different skills you acquire as you gain levels give you the edge however, although some more than others. Fury mode gives you significant benefits when active, but can only be activated after certain requirements are met (straight up killing being the most obvious one.) The maximum level a character can reach is 50 and there is no way to reset your skills, which means you can't possibly have every skill maxed - and given how unusual Dead Island will feel to most people at first, it won't be a surprise if many people find they have wasted some of their points.
One kind of skill you should put points in no matter what however, is anything money related - because you are going to need it. You lose a big chunk of cash every time you die, you need cash to repair your constantly degraded items and you need money to buy weapons. If you are like me you might have expected to find better weaponry in the environment than can ever be bought at a shop - it's usually the way in any game with stat-based weaponry. Unfortunately, after spending 6 hours beating zombies to death with a Feeble Wooden Plank or a Tiring Heavy Pipe you'll realise how unlikely you are to find anything worthwhile.
The benefit of using the Heavy Pipes, Wooden Planks and other assorted rubbish type items, is that you can find them everywhere, so when one degrades to the point of no longer being useful, you can throw it at your enemy for some ranged damage and pick up something else. You can find them exactly where you'd expect to find them (which is why they are rubbish) - a heavy pipe can be grabbed from the line running down the back of a condo, and a Paddle will be lying on the beach.
The degradation of weapons is annoying, as it almost always is - and made moreso by the fact you can only repair your weapons at workbenches - located in areas of relative safety - so you either travel back and forth while exploring or risk your health by fighting with bad weapons when your good weapons inevitably wear down. While you get skills which lessen the degradation - and it becomes less of an issue later on in the game - it remains an issue - and it remains an issue until the end of the game.
By the end of the game, I mean the end of the story, but Dead Island isn't really about the story. Which is good, as the story in Dead Island is by no means its greatest attribute. The four playable characters are immune to zombie bites for some unknown reason and they set about finding out why, and how to escape the island. The writing seems to have been done by three different teams - one team makes bad jokes, another writes a serious story with elements of pathos and the third is helmed by Ed Wood.
The voice acting is also all over the place, no doubt especially noticeable to us given the large amount of Australians and New Zealanders in the game. While almost every Australian sounds Hollywood Australian some of them are done quite well - and Purna, the female gun expert playable character has the celebrated position of being the world's first half aboriginal female playable character in a video game.
Dead Island has a number of bugs throughout it, ranging from the annoying ‘floating bottles of air’ to the infuriating ‘unusable medkits’ - not to mention the occasional crash. The developers released a patch which fixed a lot of much more major issues before the game launched in Australia however and what with the upcoming Bloodbath Arena dlc, it’s likely they will continue to keep the game up to date.
Dead Island is ambitious - even ignoring the technical aspects, Techland attempted to make a game which would cater to people who wanted visceral combat and decent enemies, people who wanted an immersive game with dozens of hours of gameplay and people who just wanted somewhere to drive over zombies and blow stuff up. Dead Island accomplishes all of that and while it has some issues, for the most part it does it with style. If you’re over the age of 18, don’t mind foul language and copious amounts of blood and violence, Dead Island is well worth it.
What to say about Dead Island? It's a zombie game, but not like other zombie games. It's clearly drawing inspiration from the two big players in the genre and puts them together in a manner that I found surprisingly cohesive. It takes the co-op focus of Left 4 Dead and the more open environments of Dead Rising, then frames them in a thoroughly Borderlands style of action RPG.
The four playable characters are variations on the classic tropes of the all-rounder, tank, leader and assassin that are so common in RPGs, and thei selections of skills encourage different styles of play and approaches to combat with the zombies. Logan can specialize in throwing weapons and Purna can become more effective with firearms, letting them take a more indirect route which is invaluable when the more challenging special zombies are present among a pack of their lesser cousins. On the other hand Sam B. and Xian, tough guy blunt weapon specialist and fragile and agile blade specialist respectively, really do need to get in the thick of things to be effective, as their skill trees are more devoted to a single style of weapon.
The combat itself took some getting used to, but once you understand the way bodt parts are targeted you'll be strategically crippling or cutting off limbs to manage the groups of enemies more effectively. The obligatory special zombies require a different approach, and the later ones can add a frantic edge to encounters that would otherwise be monotonous. Fans of Dead Rising's literal thousands of zombies will be disappointed, as groups range from two to about a dozen zombies in size, a practical necessity given the limitations of the Chrome engine.
It's a good looking game but not likely to leave your jaw gaping, especially with the likes of Battlefield 3 and Skyrim just around the corner. The backdrops to the action have a nice variety to them, with the idyllic tropical resort so familiar to anyone who has seen a screenshot juxtaposed with dreary, monsoon-drenched slums and untamed jungle.
The plot that propels you through these areas is questionable at best, and sees the protagonist(s) running errands for various groups of survivors around Banoi island while being guided by a mysterious voice over the radio. The majority of tasks come down to collecting items for the survivors, though these fetch quests are occasionally spiced up by semi-scripted events. One early in the game involves frantically trying to fill a jerry can with fuel while packs of fast-moving zombies attack, drawn by the sound of the pump. Not only is this event more manageable in a group, but the co-op experience makes it more satisfying to chop down zombies while protecting a friend who is pumping the petrol, rather than fighting off waves of enemies and then filling the can.
The entire experience seems crafted to suit a group first and a single player a distant second, but the existence of a drop-in-drop-out multiplayer matchmaking system goes quite a way to mitigate this - occasionally during single player a prompt will appear on screen informing you that another player with similar progress is nearby, and a simple button press will let you jump into their game to team up. Happily, of the four public games I joined in this fashion all were Australian, and latency wasn't a problem. Needless to say it offers the usual private play modes if you can muster three mates who also want to try to survive the outbreak, and I was pleasantly surprised to see LAN play as an option, something which seems to be falling out of favour these days.
Dead Island is not without its flaws - having a game full of Australians is nice, but many of them sport atrocious accents that sound like Steve Irwin was the only reference point. Happily Purna, the Aussie playable character, isn't so offensively voiced. Coming to the game a week or so late I dodged many of the bugs that plagued early buyers though I was still knocked through terrain by attacks more than once and the pathfinding on my map ranged from brilliant to bafflingly obtuse, sending me half way across the map to navigate around a patch of jungle that I could have circled the other way in about a quarter of the time. The biggest downside however is the inconsistent learning curve. Early on you'll be facting zombies in ones or twos, but progress for a while and the difficulty makes a startling jump which was jarring playing alone. This is one game you're going to want to play with friends.