The last time a hideous creature made me jump out my seat was when our previous health minister made stupid noises about HIV/Aids. But it happened again recently, in Dead Island. Unless you were playing through Deus Ex for the billionth time and ignored everything else in the gaming world, then you know about Dead Island.
Dead Island is a zombie first-person shooter survivor horror, with bits of RPG elements thrown in – that is your character can add points to various qualities to become a more powerful fighter. Correctly, the game mostly focuses on melee combat (which for Techland means beating things, not blocking things that want to beat you). Set on a beautiful tropical island resort town, you have the entire stretch of the massive island to play through. According to one of the leading developers, it takes about 20-30 minutes to get from one side to the other. That’s quite big. But as some men know, just because it’s huge doesn’t mean it will be pleasing.
The game was first made famous because of its slow-motion emotional (slo-emo?), beautifully-done trailer. Gamers thought they would see a new take on the zombie gaming franchise, that would have more so-called “human” elements, perhaps an actual love-bond with another character who you have to protect, look after and so on. Of course, that awful nonsense Dead Rising 2 tried to do that and failed miserably – because when your lead character wears a dress and a giant moose head, grinding zombies into a meaty pulp with a bucket of razors, you for some reason lose all connection with him. Maybe I’m just not going to the right parties.
But again, gamers were, um, slightly deceived. Techland’s massive, sprawling and visually beautiful survivor-horror is largely lacking in human interactions aside from: go here, fetch this, kill that, to get this (a series of interactions I’ve spoken of before). There is barely any fulfilling character focus even with one’s own character, who is one of four generic hands-and-feet-holding-weapon avatar. Sure, he or she sprouts random lines of outrage, confirmation or negation depending on the current situation, but there is nothing that promotes them to you actually caring about them.
Is this a bad thing? I’m not certain, but there’s initially a setup that there will be something like a deep human element. Ignoring the emo-trailer, we meet these characters in various formats in one of the most unfortunate introductory movies ever made: Seen from a FPS-perspective, the camera-with-hands stumbles drunkenly into dancing girls, encountering the playable characters in vulnerable positions. Afterwards, when you start a new game, you see these four people again. When selecting them, seeing their proficiency (one is good with blunt weapons, another with sharp, etc.), you hear a long, rather awkward back-story as to why he or she is on the island in the first place. It’s kind of interesting, but entirely irrelevant. See, this is what I have a problem with: Why give us this when it plays no further role whatsoever? No one’s backstory is hinted at, engaged with, or plays a significant part in the rest of the game. No character from one’s past emerges to discuss the baby they abandoned; there’s no Yakuza chasing you because you laundered too much cash and so on.
I can imagine this being a significant element in a great RPG-zombie game: Your backstory comes back to haunt you. So, let’s say your character is some amazingly proficient gun-wielder who has looked after rich clients. Well, why not have some of those clients hunt you down because you did something in the past? Why not drive the story forward by trying to uncover what it is that your character did? It’s an easy element to implement and would’ve given this game a depth it severely lacks.
After picking your camera-with-arms, you find yourself waking up after an apparent night of heavy boozing. It doesn’t quite work when your character is supposed to be, say, a respectable Asian lady who is highly regarded for her dedication and work ethic to suddenly wake up in a bed soaked in whiskey. But that’s what happens. This ties into the game’s number one failing, which I’ll tell you about shortly.
Anyway, you wake up and there is a genuine sense of creepiness. Screams emerge from random hallways in the hotel; the lights are working badly sending shadows crawling into corners. Doorways are closed and the passages are eerily silent.
In my playthrough, and in a very Bioshock moment, somebody spoke into some kind of loudspeaker to tell me in a foreign accent that he needed to get me out of there. He told me to go here and there, but suddenly I was confronted with my first zombie horde. They charged. He told me to turn, turn fast and just run. In a genuinely heart-pounding moment, I ran. Making it to the door with the zombie’s finger poking the back of my character’s neck, I slammed the door just in time.
Eventually, I made my way to some crappy house and met some survivors. It was a place of tears, horror and frustration, people muttering in corners, bleeding onto the floor. The wind thrashed against the windows and the sea whispered doom. DOOM! The game then begins and you are sent on your first missions to fetch… stuff. It’s irrelevant what it is or why, because it’s always the same thing. For some reason, you are immune (this is not surprising, given that science tells us this is likely to happen). Because you’re immune you get sent out to make life better for everyone else who isn’t immune. Yes, so while everyone else is chilling, enjoying their holiday, you’re out there getting bandages for that whining lady with bad make-up. It doesn’t make for a good reason to journey out there, but it’s a reason nonetheless.
Unfortunately, there’s little that’s smart about the story. There’s no interweaving or repercussions of significance for your missions. The NPC’s are not amazingly voice-acted but are passable, which is unfortunately something we must accept now. Some actors do stand out, notably whoever did the zombie sounds (is that you, Mike Patton?), but other than that, everyone is merely a mission-messenger. There’s little to reinforce you caring about most aspects. Even if you die, you simply start off somewhere close by with less money, thus not even feeling like you need to plan too hard. I can tell you exactly why this is the case shortly.
A great part is definitely the combat. Being a wonderfully realistic focus, you never feel like you can pull a Left 4 Dead and take out a thousand zombies with one hit of your skillet. You feel like a helpless human who has to time her swing as the zombie lunges. There’s few things that have been more satisfying than figuring out how to time your swings and make them effective. You also learn to plan your attacks; not attacking massive hulks in one flurry of shots, but burning or waiting for him to be distracted. Furthermore, in Dead Rising-style, you can maintain and upgrade your weapons, going as far as creating monster weapons like electric gloves or nails-in-baseball bat. It’s fun and terribly satisfying. Also, the models respond brilliantly: you break arms and jaws and skulls. Watching a zombie try to swing their broken arm is laughable but true to what would occur (probably?). This is all done masterfully.
However, the major failing of the game is a failing that recurs in, for example, single-player, offline Borderlands and Left 4 Dead: It’s all just preparation for multiplayer. Yes, the game even tells you there are sections on the island which are near impossible without multiplayer. There’s obvious encouragement even when NPCs refer to “you guys” and so on. The NPCs are as dead as the zombies, the “story” as uninspiring as many modern game’s stories – there’s no drive, aside from realistic confrontations with zombies. The reason you want to play the game is with so-called “real people”, to make the game interesting and engaging.
There’s no doubt it is fun to play multiplayer. There are no local servers, as far as I can tell, so as usual I don’t spend a lot of time on it. However, as far as multiplayer goes, it was genuinely fun. It was obvious that this is where the game is properly in its element. However, I would not recommend this title to someone who is not at least occasionally going to play it multiplayer to break its boredom and monotony. What makes it great in this way is that Dead Island easily links you up with players who are at a similar stage in the game as you, thus not breaking the flow of your current story progress.
However, if you are someone like me who is more focused on single-player experiences, then rather keep this one back until, perhaps, later. It’s not a must buy for us “lone wolves”/socially inept/crappy internet types. While gorgeous, satisfying for its combat and massive, it’s simply uninspiring, has poor character engagement and a lack of satisfying focus. This is not a bad game, at all: it’s got some genuine moments of brilliance and beauty, but unfortunately, not enough depth to force single-player drive.
Excellent combat marred by being uninspiring. Why am I beating these zombies again? Why am I fetching champagne and a rubber duck? Perfect for multiplayer since you don’t need more inspiration to have a great multiplayer game than awesome zombie death effects.
Design & Presentation: 9.0
Stunning, gorgeous and absolutely fluid. It’s easy to navigate, easy to use and just looks amazing. Everything from character models to the beautiful island – of course, character models and faces are often recycled (even their positions are recycled). The sound is stunning, too, with excellent creepy music and noise interweaving. The last time sound creeped me out this much was playing Silent Hill 2 in an abandoned mental asylum at night.
Not very important for the single player. Great fun for multiplayer. There’s little to do and no real reason to come back to it. It’s fun for a quick session of monster-bashing, but since it lacks almost all reason for doing so in terms of story and plot, it won’t last long without a buddy.
I’m not a fan of scoring games (ew, don’t be gross), but I think this conveys nicely what I feel about this game. Not terrible, but not amazing; uninspiring but absolutely gorgeous and solid in combat. Creepy at appropriate moments but lacking in a reason to justify why you should be creeped out. It’s one thing to just feel like going into a creepy house to be scared; it’s another reason entirely to enter a haunted house because your wife/daughter/lover/freedom is there.
Reviewed on PC
Dead Island was reviewed by Tauriq Moosa