Hey internet, this is CrossCrash with my very first review as an MMGaming Contributor! Good times! I’d like to first of all say thanks to the MMGaming Lads for welcoming me to the site and letting me get involved. Hopefully the start of a beautiful relationship.
But anyway down to business. Dead Island, new zombie filled action RPG by Polish publishers Techland and, well… do you want the good news, or the bad news?
I want it said straight off the bat that Dead Island is a very flawed game; the storyline seems all but pointless, the controls take some breaking in and the interface is usable but not particularly inspired. Add to that a host of graphics glitches and somewhat repetitive quest system and Dead Island’s really fighting an uphill battle.
Strange thing is it seems to be winning.
Despite the many flaws I am thoroughly enjoying Dead Island. The game remains consistently fun with a beautiful setting, highly immersive gameplay and a levelling and weapon modding system which will keep you playing for anything up to 30 blood spattered hours. So while it’s easy to pick holes, when you’re having this much fun regardless, doing so seems a little pedantic.
But, of course, I’m going to do it anyway.
The normal place to start would usually be the story but Dead Island barely has one. You play one of four characters who are trying to escape from a small holiday island near Papua New Guinea which happens to be infested with zombies. It almost goes without saying that this is the plot of every zombie game, movie and book in existence. Whether it’s a tropical island, a shopping mall, city, hospital or whatever it’s a format that’s been done and asks little further development; lucky too because Dead Island doesn’t offer any. I mean sure each playable character has their own reason for being there, which is explained via a quick monologue in the character select screen, but it really doesn’t matter. Your character back-stories are never again addressed at all. Imagine for a second an eccentric motor enthusiast; they might give their car a name, perhaps a claim it has a personality but at the end of the day all its good for is climbing inside and driving around. Your character is just that: a vehicle in which to sprint and bludgeon your way across the island. The same can be said for the overarching storyline. It’s really only there to give you an excuse to go collect weapons and kill things. I’m two acts in and so far as I can tell no one has any idea how the zombies got here in the first place (except one guy who rambles in passing that they might have come from space). The NPCs are just as shallow. Sure they all have their little sob stories but eventually you find yourself skipping to the part where they tell you what to get and where to take it.
This brings me rather smoothly onto the presentation where the game more than makes up for its weak storyline. Dead Island offers a highly extensive quest system with virtually every NPC you meet giving you at least one thing to do. I do have to admit however that almost every single mission is a fetch quest. Whether you’re going to get fuel, alcohol, food cans or boxes of juice at end of the day you’ll find yourself doing the same thing over and over. However, as a wise man once said, it’s not the destination it’s the journey and Dead Island certainly makes the most of that. The Island is massive, with hundreds of interesting locations linked together by beautifully designed environments. The level of detail is astounding whether you’re running across the long sandy beaches or sneaking through tight ruined alleyways. From huts, to bunkers, coves, bars and forests there are always new areas to explore and every one of them looks and feels authentic and unique. That said I never really felt the need to explore; not the same way as in Fallout 3 for example which had me constantly chasing the horizon. It may be a personal thing but I found myself sticking largely to quests and following the beacons on my mini-map almost religiously. I don’t doubt that there were probably better weapons and items elsewhere but the ones I have seem to put the zombies down just fine so why bother?
Speaking of zombies; these are some of the best I’ve seen. They’ve all been beautifully skinned with amazing detail to fit with their environments and while the skins aren’t unique it’s rare to see the two of the same zombie at once, even in hoards of ten or more. They also sound great with authentic groans and blood filled gargles that never seem to sound the same twice. The threat feels authentic too. One zombie isn’t a problem at any stage of the game; Just a poor undead sack of meat with terrible motor skills just waiting to be kicked over and curb stomped to death (weapons optional). Even the “special” zombies aren’t much hassle. The tank-like Brutes are a breeze to take down but when the room is small and you’ve got a couple of regular ghouls harassing you things aren’t so certain. Fights get a lot dicier as the numbers increase. A group of four starts to require some fast reflexes and enemy awareness and god help you going up against ten or more without some explosives or perhaps a vehicle. Not like it matters as there is almost no death penalty at all in Dead Island. You die and seven seconds later your respawn nearby with a slightly lighter wallet than before. You can find money everywhere and it’s not that crucial anyway so this isn’t a problem.
Of course it always helps to have a few good weapons in your arsenal. The weapons are extremely varied with everything from baseball bats, machetes, hatchets and sugar knifes to the odd medieval mace or wakizashi (neither of which made sense on a tropical island but I didn’t question it at the time). There are also guns of course but I found them rare at best and practically useless against the undead. No; better just to hurl a nail-bat or electrified hatchet at the poor dead sod. The weapon modding system is easy enough to use. You pick up blueprints, find the base weapon and the other necessary items and then take them to a crafting bench where you’ll spend some money and done! Modded weapons are almost always better and can do some very fun stuff on a critical hit. Add to that the ability to dismember, break limbs and throw weapons and you’ve got the basis of a very robust and endlessly fun (not to mention gory) combat system.
It does take some getting used to however. The controls are rather sluggish with a fraction of a second between hitting a directional button and actually moving. This can be a real pain when driving unless you like the look of lampposts and bollards. Also in combat the crosshair bounces around a lot seeming always to lock onto the chest of the closest target instead of say the head. This is a major problem when, for example, there are lots of targets and you’re trying to throw an axe at the propane tank you’ve thrown almost in the middle of them (but not quite cause you couldn’t see past the bloody thing when you were holding it). By the time your crosshair decides to stop pissing about and target the canister the first wave are already out of the blast radius and clawing at your throat. Like I said however you do get used to it and once it grows on you and your timing improves the combat does get extremely fun if not intuitive.
All of this would be nothing however without equally robust character progression. As you level up you get to choose abilities from a series of skill trees unique to your chosen character. This contains a vast number of options. You can generalize in all the trees or specialise in a specific set of skills to make the character unique to your tastes. While it might not be as varied a system as some other action RPGs, it’s easy to learn and hard to gimp yourself (I’m looking at you Bethesda) so that can only be a good thing.
Graphically the game is pretty impressive to look at. Textures are incredibly detailed, water effects are stunning and while the shadows can be a little pixellated at times overall the other lighting effects look great. It has to be said however that there are big problems. There are noticeable clipping issues with bodies occasionally disappearing into the scenery or zombie’s arms reaching through the solid wood door you’re on the other side of. There are also the strange flickering glitches that happen on the odd occasion but I did eventually stop noticing them. During the first chapter I also found the sheer level of bloom a little oppressive. Okay game, I get it! I’m on a sunny island! Stop blinding me! But yea, overall game looks very good indeed. This is really just the picking holes I mentioned earlier.
While I’m at it I might as well talk about how the interfaces are lacklustre and not very intuitive. I mean they work easy enough but would it have hurt to put images of the items in there somewhere? The cut scenes are another let down, having already given up on the story they just seem half-assed and unnecessary distractions from the game itself. I found it particularly irritating when I had spent an hour wandering around by myself in single player only for a cut-seen to show me with three other companions who hadn’t previously been there. It’s a small thing but it totally shot the sense of immersion dead and didn’t add anything at all to the game.
All of this is coming from a guy who is actually really enjoying Dead Island. I’d hate to meet someone who didn’t. Admittedly it’s a hard game to talk about without bringing up a whole host of issues but these are issues it seems to overcome. The controls might be lame, the story might be non-existent but the world itself is immersive, the combat is fun and visually stunning, the modding and levelling systems are rewarding and the views are beautiful. My best advice would be: don’t expect too much depth from this game. Just keep chasing the next level or the next cool weapon mod and you’ll get on fine. Just give your brain a rest and revel in the carnage.