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Dead Island – The Really Long Review

Dead Island – The Really Long Review

To skip a needlessly long intro that eventually meanders into some kind of point, Dead Island is not quite Fallout 3 with zombies. That’s the verdict that’s been going round a lot with lazy journalists coming up with lazy comparisons to save themselves the bother of using those annoying words to actually explain what’s underneath it all. But it’s not really Fallout 3 with zombies. We’ll get to a more accurate comparison later. But first, the good news, based on the first six hours I’ve played of Dead Island (full review in Play next month, obviously)

Best Co-Op Game Ever?
Dead Island is built as a co-op game above and beyond everything else and full marks to Techland for not only creating a decent co-op experience but for introducing ideas that should be made standard in all co-op games. The game flags up whenever someone is nearby at a similar point in the story, allowing you to join their game by tapping left on the D-pad.

You can also check lobbies of players who are a similar level to you at any time, so you’ll have no problem finding a co-op game to join. All the zombies level up slightly in strength to negate the numbers advantage you have in co-op, so you can’t breeze through the zombie horde with numbers alone (although this proves a storyline issue rather than a gameplay one – more on that later).

There are no character restrictions, which means you can have four Logans playing in a single match, and it does make you wonder why there wasn’t character customisation for the clothes at least if not how the character looks. All in all though, there are a lot of lessons here that other developers can learn from how Dead Island co-op is put together.

Even so, co-op here is put together really well. These sound like small things but given the recent swings and misses in the co-op genre – namely Dungeon Siege III not saving your loot from co-op play – it’s good to see a game that does it properly. This rings especially true for Dead Island because loot is big, big deal here.

Kick Them To Death
The first 15 minutes are a tutorial of sorts that play out against the urgency of you’ve woken up in your hotel room, you know something has gone wrong but you don’t quite know what. Even though you’re in a hotel trying to pick your way to safety, you still spend a lot of your time rifling through other guest’s luggage to take whatever money’s in there. As you do.

The urgency comes from the fact that you don’t encounter a zombie, so you have no idea how strong they are. In Dead Rising 2, the zombies aren’t much danger, being little more than limbed gore-bags for you to skewer with shower heads and other novelty items while the real threat comes from the clock. In Left 4 Dead, zombies are the weakest enemy, with Valve compensating for that with both the sheer number of zombies and a host of special infected.

When you finally fight your first zombies in Dead Island, you realise that they’re more of a menace than in those two games but still not a huge threat to your survival. Dead Island relies on a melee system with weapons that eventually break, though as you later learn, you can stock up on weapons to the point that this doesn’t become a huge issue.

Likewise, the need for melee and to get close should put you in danger but you have a huge range advantage on zombies, so that’s not a problem either.

Instead, it should come down to the stamina bar, which depletes when you swing your weapon, run, or jump, until you need to get your breath back. It’s designed to stop players mindlessly mashing the melee trigger but it’s undermined by the kick move you have. This knocks over zombies and does minor damage but for the first few hours of the game, you can easily kick a crowd of zombies to the ground and then stamp them to death before they ever get the chance to stagger back to their feet.

That would be fine except this move costs no stamina. At all. It saves on you smashing up your own weapons AND you don’t lose any stamina. Win-win. Why wouldn’t you abuse that move?

As you level up and zombies level up alongside you, the kick becomes a less important part of your arsenal but it’s strange that its presence means you never really learn how to manage your stamina bar effectively until five or six hours in.

The main three enemies you’ll encounter for at least the first five hours or so are Walkers, Infected and Thugs. The first two aren’t much to worry about, as you can club them to death without too much hassle. The game engine doesn’t seem to allow for a huge horde of zombies, with groups of six or seven being the biggest you’ll encounter, and even that means a prolonged bout of kicking rather than something really worrying.

The challenge is herding the zombies into a group in front of you, so you can keep an eye on which ones are slowly clambering to their feet, which ones need kicking to the ground and if there are any more lurking in the distance. Zombies tend to spot you from quite far away in Dead Island, so monitoring your surroundings becomes more important than the zombies in front of you.

That’s also because most often, you’ll lose health through not knowing where the zombies are. Dead Island does a good job of inducing paranoia when you hear a zombie scowl, and you often spin 360 degrees on the spot trying to sight the zombie before it gets close enough to sink its teeth into you.

Oh, and you’ll lose health from fighting Thug zombies, which can absorb hits and hit you back, sending you flying off your feet. But they’re frustrating for their own reasons, tied in with the controls more than anything else.

Overall though, the combat is really, really satisfying. The graphics are a bit ropey but there’s still something immensely satisfying about smashing through a zombie’s body with a spiked baseball bat and watching chunks of its body fall off. This is the one area Techland has got absolutely spot on, and even though you’ll be fighting a lot of zombies, it hasn’t ever become boring or dull.

Medikits are extremely rare and health is maintained by finding energy drinks or snacks which have to be consumed right there or then – even though death is more of an inconvenience than a punishment (explained fully later), there’s enough in there to give combat the depth it needs.

Up The Arsenal
Dead Island is strangely compulsive in a way that RPGs are. It’s a game that wants you to care about its story and characters and find out what happens next. Soon, all you’ll care about are the cold, hard stats of your character and his weapon, as Dead Island remoulds you as a cold, hard numbers mercenary.

Workbenches allow you to repair, upgrade and create weapons. Repairing is the most important, as once you’ve found a weapon with stats that allow you to smash through the horde without breaking a sweat, you want to hang onto it as long as possible.

Likewise upgrading, with most weapons getting a cute visual overhaul to go with their improved stats.

Creating weapons, however, is limited in the early going. Weapons can only be created after you unlock the right ‘mod’ to put the necessary items together, which can be found by completing side missions. As a result, you’ll end up with hundreds of nails, batteries, glue and duct tape without anything to use them on.

Perhaps this is something that’s addressed as the game progresses and more mods become available but in the first five or six hours, it just makes you wonder where the hell you’re keeping all that stuff in the meantime.

At least weapons are one way players can have some sort of identity in co-op. Playing as Sam B won’t distinguish you much when there are three other Sam B players alongside you. Playing as Sam B swinging a Morning Star? That’s better. There’s also the option to trade with other players, and given how easy it is to find co-op games, it’s not hard to picture a Derek Trotter salesman scenario where you’re jumping into random games trying to swap and deal to get the best weapons you can for your character.

As each character specialises in different weaponry (an advantage that seemingly becomes negated at higher levels when the skill tree is maxed out), it makes sense to try and mix and match with other players.

Clumsy Mechanics
The reason it’s hard to kill Thugs is that the classic Techland controls are unfortunately still present. Anyone who’s played Call of Juarez will know what that means – the odd stiffness of movement as Techland tries to make it feel as though you’re controlling a walking character rather than floating avatar by introducing lurching, laggy delay whenever you quickly try and change direction.

That means dancing in and out of a Thug’s attack range and goading him into swiping at you isn’t possible. You can run into range but the weird, laggy delay when changing direction and trying to nip back to safety is just enough that you’ll be caught by his swipe and get knocked off your feet. Thugs are slow but walking around behind him doesn’t seem to do the trick either, as he’ll spin around and punch you off your feet.

Techland has at least programmed the zombies to back off when you’re lying on the deck and clambering back to your feet, which saves potentially frustrating dead-and-can’t-do-anything-about-it moments, but seeing zombies suddenly wander off, uninterested, makes you wonder if there wasn’t simply a better way to handle those moments.

Another clumsy mechanic – barging doors open. Holding down on the right analogue stick sets off a small mini-game, where you need to time the actual barge (up on the right analogue stick) when the line swings into the middle of the meter. Get it right and you smash the door open. Get it wrong three times and the door gives way anyway.

In isolation, it works fine. If you are low on health and a zombie has spotted you, it seems strange that there’s no reason which allows for panicked attempts to smash down the door. Instead, you have to go through the same timing mini-game, as a zombie charges towards you. Ho hum.

The user interface is also far, far too intrusive. As mentioned, you can rifle through guest’s luggage, along with their cupboards, wardrobes and anything else that’s highlighted with a massive cogs icon. Same goes for flashing weapons, energy drinks and the like – Techland has made it impossible to miss anything because of the intrusive highlighting system.

Some will argue it’s necessary to have that kind of information made loud and clear given the fast pace of a zombie game but 1) the actual pace of the game itself isn’t that fast (this is actually one area where a comparison to Fallout 3 is somewhat valid) and 2) it kills the atmosphere.

Finally, the trickiest issue for developers to handle is dying. What are the consequences of your player snuffing it? How do you make the player fear dying without punishing him too heavily? What happens if he dies in a co-op game? Balancing all those elements must be tricky and so, Techland has gone for the path of least resistance. If you die, you respawn after a few seconds of waiting.

It’s not a terrible decision by any means but it’s an action mechanic designed to ward off frustration rather than one to inspire horror and fear. It’s hard to feel afraid of anything when you know failure will reward you with a second chance and recharged health bar.

Awful Story
Perhaps the biggest black mark against Dead Island’s name is how poorly handled the story and characters are. After the evocative trailer, some corners of the internet were proclaiming how it was going to be the most emotional videogame ever made, there was a lot of talk about what kind of game it would be, etc.

As it turns out, it’s very much a videogame. That means awful voice-acting with voice actors who seem to forget what accent they’re going for mid-sentence, dead mannequin eyes on all the characters and awkward, stiff animations. Worst of all is how eager Dead Island is to set out its stall as an emotional videogame. Whether this was in response to the trailer or what the trailer itself is based on is unclear but what we do know is it fails.

There are also some bits of the story that make absolutely no sense. One of the first story missions sees you retrieving a keycard for the lifeguard tower and then clearing out said tower so the 10 or so survivors can move in. If one man armed with a paddle can do all that, why can’t the group arm themselves with paddles and move en force clearing out zombies?

None of them are injured at that point, so it seems weird that they’re relying so heavily on one man to get food, water and so on. There’s an unexplained ‘you’re resistant to zombie bites!’ angle that comes into play very early on in the story and will presumably be played up later but it still seems bizarre that the group does nothing as a whole to help their plight.

Later on, you meet a woman who croaks that she desperately needs water because she’s so thirsty, she’s getting stomach cramps… yet the hut she’s in is rammed with energy drinks. Little inconsistencies like that pop up throughout and it just doesn’t hang together in the way a convincing story with convincing characters should.

One of the first characters you meet outside your initial group of survivors is a man on his knees, in a pool of blood, surrounded by bodies, sobbing. You can guess what’s happened by the scene alone but that’s not enough. “Why did I have to kill my wife! And my brother!” he yells, just in case you didn’t know why he was so upset.

A later side-mission from Mike asks you to get some gasoline to burn rotting bodies outside the lighthouse, as he’s worried the smell from the corpses will attract zombies (presumably the massively blaze won’t). No sooner have you put down the gasoline can, a somber piano tune starts playing, just in case you weren’t aware that burning bodies is really sad.

Those ham-fisted attempts at wringing emotion from the player are rife throughout, which not only jars awkwardly against Techland’s infatuation with swearing and ‘Hold Circle to activate Fury’ instructions but is a wasted opportunity.

There aren’t enough peripheral items in the world to fill you in on the tragic fall of Banoi – where are the diaries? The environmental clues? The recordings? There are some recordings but annoyingly, these are restricted to one person who’s working undercover. The plight of normal people is strangely underplayed.

Fallout 3 With Zombies?
No, it’s not. Fallout is about exploration across a flat, vast landscape. Dead Island also offers exploration but its funnel-neck design tends to shuttle you towards certain areas where it’s almost impossible to miss side-missions. Fallout 3’s thrill of seeing a building you haven’t explored isn’t really captured here because Dead Island isn’t about exploring buildings.

Likewise, part of Dead Island’s appeal is discovering new weapons and upgrading them, which is also part of Fallout 3 but isn’t the driving force there.

In that sense, Dead Island has a lot more in common with Borderlands or even Condemned, where finding new weapons means comparing them to the weapons you have now and deciding what to keep or drop.

Dead Island isn’t really like any game out there. The co-op emphasis, the melee combat and the zombies (and even the ham-fisted attempts at emotion if we’re being really mean) all add up to something new that can’t be categorised quite as easily as ‘Fallout 3 with zombies’ as some writers but like. But that’s a good thing for Techland and it’s a good thing for anyone buying this. Better to be different than the same, right?

Worth Checking Out
A lot of this blog post has focused on the negatives of Dead Island but that’s only because of the unique situation the trailer (and some of the developers) have created in setting up Dead Island as an emotional, engaging survival horror game. It’s not emotionally engaging on any level and its attempts to wring reactions from players are crass, crude and far too obvious.

What it does do well is co-op action and the simple act of battering zombies. It’s no exaggeration to say this has been one of the more fun co-op games Play has tried in a long, long time. It’s clumsy and it’s rough but as a straight up, action co-op, it’s bloody good fun.

Just don’t expect to be scared. Or emotional.




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  • Sam Adamson

    I Get What Your Saying But You Seem To Be Judging On Stupid Things, Like The Guy In The Pool Of Blood, You Could Tell He Was Upset And Someone Had Died. But You Wouldn’t Know It Was Is Wife And Brother And Dad. And Where He Has Too Burn The Bodies And The Piano Starts Playing. That’s Called Creating An Atmosphere, I Don’t Think Anyone Stood Up In A Showing Of ‘Schindler’s List’ And Started Screaming That They Know When Somethings Sad And They Don’t Need The Music To Patronize Them. The Door Minigame, Just Add’s Urgency And The Fear Of A Locked Door Not Budging That You Do In Many Horror’s. I Think You’ve Looked At The Negatives A Little Too Much On This One.

  • Sam Adamson

    I Get What Your Saying But You Seem To Be Judging On Stupid Things, Like The Guy In The Pool Of Blood, You Could Tell He Was Upset And Someone Had Died. But You Wouldn’t Know It Was Is Wife And Brother And Dad. And Where He Has Too Burn The Bodies And The Piano Starts Playing. That’s Called Creating An Atmosphere, I Don’t Think Anyone Stood Up In A Showing Of ‘Schindler’s List’ And Started Screaming That They Know When Somethings Sad And They Don’t Need The Music To Patronize Them. The Door Minigame, Just Add’s Urgency And The Fear Of A Locked Door Not Budging That You Do In Many Horror’s. I Think You’ve Looked At The Negatives A Little Too Much On This One.

  • Sam Adamson

    Or Took A Negative Perspective On Everything Would Be Better To Say.

  • stephen

    there is no way im reading all that!

  • ICE WHIZZLE

    YO DIS GAEM LOOKS DOPE MAXIMUM BRA, IMMA TOTALLY PUY MY PIMP HAND UPSIDE SOME BITCH-ASS ZOMBEES.

    YOUR ARTICKLE WUZ WAY TOO LONG SON, I STARTED RUMINATING BOUT HOES HALFWAY THROUGH, INNIT.

  • Pingback: Dead Island – The Really Short Review | PLAY Magazine()

  • Me probably

    @ICE WHIZZLE yes

  • Jerome Tate

    ive got to agree with the reviewer as opposed to sam because its true the piano was crap im not sad they were zombies and they got the viking funeral and yeah i was pissed when the girl was thirsty but the point was xp the diabetes guy i can understand i met the diabetic jonas bro at grad nite 08 nothing but sugar filled treats and no insulin boy was he pissed.
    anyway allot of things rub me the wrong way like the lack of game save information and the fact that i cannot get into any co op or get my trophies.

  • Jerome Tate

    the hype suggested an emotional story which led to the confusing commercial which led to a dead couple lying near a perfectly good yet somehow unnatainable fire axe all i felt was the way i always feel in game with energy drinks amped to beat zombie skulls in no emotion no love no sadness just violence conversation skipping and violence

  • Billy

    “Just don’t expect to be scared. Or emotional.”, LOL really bad review, i was both scared and emotional at times.

  • Terra

    Ice Whizzle: You are a moron. Don’t waste our time or yours by ever EVER typing another letter on a keyboard again. Apparently spell check isn’t in your vocab. But, hey, I doubt your IQ level would have allowed you to process this article anyway even if you would have tried to type out a worthy opinion.

    On to the real subject: Great informative article! Thank you for taking the time and energy to write out such a great, REAL review! I appreciate you!

  • the bossman

    Surprised you said the graphics are ropey, because they look stunning most of the time. The character models and lip syncing are poor when you think of LA Noire and its amazing tech. I agree that you never really feel scared or anything, just a little unsettled from time to time but that’s rare. Just a good game to blast through from start to finish.

  • Kruger

    so this game is not worth getting for single player only? I understand it presents something different but I just can’t justify investing the time and money to play a unique but “not all there” single player experience. I love zombies but I have to be picky… help anyone?