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Review: Dead Island

review-dead-island

Title: Dead Island

Genre: Horror, Co-op FPS/RPG

Release Date: 9/6/2011

Systems: PC, Xbox 360, PS3

Format: DVD, Blu-ray, Digital Distro

 

Looking at Dead Island, it’s hard not to recall Valve’s own 4 player co-op zombie slaughter Left 4 Dead. Both feature hordes of zombies, special infected, and four immune survivors who also happen to be quite adept at combating the walking dead. At that though, the similarities end. Developer Techland manages a clean separation from L4D once players get into it, and the distinctions only become more clear as the game progresses.

While we’re talking differences, Dead Island’s most obvious difference is the choice of zombie canon. It’s still a virus, but it produces the slower, shambling corpses most people are familiar with. You would think, then, that this makes the game an easy thing, right? Not in the slightest, unless your twitch reflexes are at a ridiculous level. The reason Dead Island’s zombies are primarily of the shambling dead variety is the fact that this enables the player to get up close and personal with their attacks and boy, does the texturing and modeling show it. These zombies are some of the most detailed and revolting zombies ever produced in a video game. Ribs poke out, muscle peeks out from behind flayed skin, black ruts occupy the center of the face where a nose should be, that sort of thing. And every zombie you find looks more or less unique. It’s very difficult to find a significant grouping of look-alike zombies. Add to this the damage modeling that looks like it came right out of Soldier of Fortune, the previous market leader in gratuitous dismemberment and gore. Zombies come apart at the joints as you attack them. Whacking off arms, legs, heads are all entirely possible. If using a blunt weapon, you can break different bones on the model and the zombie behaves differently after that. Sockets where limbs used to be spurt copious amounts of blood that creates a slick crimson texture, expanding slowly around the area where the socket fell. Worst of all, try setting one on fire.

Not that it’ll be particularly easy seeing all this. The zombies are not only interested in your flesh, but they’re actually pretty good at getting it. These are strong bastards, able to take a licking and give one back, especially if they corner you or surround you with numbers. Double goes if it’s both. Fight if you will, but the world is filled with them. They will get you eventually if you don’t play smart and careful. It doesn’t take special zombies in this world to get you. Knowing when you’re outmatched definitely pays off, although the game seems to like to toss enemies at you from fairly random directions, giving a fairly annoying tendency to be ambushed at the wrong times and dying badly for it. This can get pretty bad in later areas where faster, more persistent enemies get tossed at you.

In terms of graphics on everything else, it’s a fairly nice looking game. Good use of HDR lighting in outdoor environments really drives home the impression of a southeast Asian island paradise (the other thing might be the Aussie accents) gone awful. The environments aren’t repetitive, either, and the unity of the set piece themes is fairly good, with just enough clutter, just enough stuff  outside of the theme that it looks like there are, or were, living, breathing beings who moved set pieces around. There’s a fair variety of weapons, each with a unique look, feel, swinging and impacting sound, etc, with pretty good looking ingame models. Given the game’s emphasis on melee combat though, those melee weapons will always be the more dramatic compared to the firearms. Still, that’s not a huge gulf of difference between the two. Whatever the case, visual and auditory aesthetics are all-around crowd pleasers in this, although you should be careful not to be tempted to try to kill everything in sight… you may end up being heavily outmatched by more dead than you initially thought.

There’s a reason I speak so much about being outmatched; it will happen often to you. The only real way past it besides slogging your way through some frustration is to get online and play with friends. That really is the only way past it. Hell, the cutscenes are built around the premise of the four-man team. But the combat dynamic changes when you have teammates. Each character archetype you pick differs in not just their base stats (small differences, really), but ther skill trees differ as well. As they start out, they’re fairly similar, but as the game goes on, they diverge heavily in scope and really come into their own specializations. It is these specializations that enable a team well-versed in their own skills and familiar with each others’ to cover each other from every angle and from every threat. Playing alone is a real challenge in this respect– you don’t have the backup, and several threats you face are going to need more than one man to kill with a comfortable margin. You’re going to be slicing away at walkers as Xian Mei, the blade weapons specialist, only to be ambushed by more from behind and about to face down a charging Ram from the fore. You’re going to miss the tanking ability of Sam B., the gangsta hammers specialist and the covering fire of Purna, the ex-cop firearms specialist. Don’t know what Logan’s good for, frankly. But when you’ve got a team all together, the game instantly becomes more compelling as you tackle the world with three others since the number of options open up drastically. Where you would be forced to sneak around or somehow bait individual enemies at a time out of a larger crowd of dead, you can unleash the multiple skills of the team, with individual members beating back the horde while ranged specialists fire from behind the line, whittling the horde down to nothing within seconds. Not only that, but you’ll reach segments where the trek from point to point between objectives will be rather long. In those cases, you’re going to want some human company to break up a little of the monotony (and trust me, if you’ve been getting ambushed by sprinting Infected the whole time, it’ll be dying monotony).

Just one more difference between this game and L4D: it’s long. This game has a long, meaty campaign that will run you about 11-14 hours on the main plotline alone and another 12-15 on doing all the sidequests. The objectives are fairly varied as well; could be kill this psychopath survivor, could be escort this guy to this point, could be bring back supplies for a survivor cadre, could be repair stuff around these points, it could be a lot of stuff. It’s enough that quests don’t feel recycled too much. I think what’s most surprising about this game is that the designers made this game and put in enough variety to keep people interested; variety in environments, weapons, quests, zombie appearances, amount of sheer junk and the weapons you can mod them with, all sorts of crap and somehow it’s all in there and it all feels just about spot on.

So overall, it’s really down to this. Dead Island is an RPG, really, somewhat in the vein of Fallout 3 with its FPS mechanics and character development, but like Left 4 Dead with its undead emphasis and four-player co-op action. Where it diverges from those entirely is an emphasis on visceral melee combat and varied team tactics with each character’s specializations. Other than that, it takes the best ideas from both the aforementioned games and Dead Rising and turns it into a 30-hour-ish killfest full of places to explore, people to meet and occasionally gank, and a whole story to uncover.

Problems? Yes. Firstly, the game, if you got it on PC and haven’t patched it yet, will be rather wonky. Animations may be half-finished, some game-breaking bugs are in the code, irritating tendencies for the game to spawn you into the middle of zombies when loading a saved game will be there, even the freaking option to turn on no-clip with the press of a key will be available. This is because more or less the developer version of the game was uploaded to servers accidentally instead of the official one. Take my advice: get it patched. Not only are all of the above problems fixed (except maybe the player animations), but several PC optimizations are included in the code, so expect it to run faster and smoother than the dev code ever did. That said however, still expect to run into some instances of ugly texture pop and inconsistent frame rates. The developers did a clever job of hiding most of the pop-in with good placement of terrain, though, so you might have to hunt for this on occasion. Hey, it only goes to show they really put effort into designing the environments.

Worth buying? Maybe. As a single-player game, the graphics are good, the art direction and gore factor high, but the gameplay is a little frustrating and devoid of satisfying human presence alone. The value only goes up if you know three other people with whom to play online. With that, this game becomes a gory, satisfying open-world romp through the zombie apocalypse with your buddies who can cover your own character’s shortcomings and fill the void of generally lacking characters with some stiff facial animation.

 


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