Dead Island: Review

Dead Island is marketed as a game, but it’s not really – it takes the concept of unveiling itself slowly to the extreme, to the extent that there is no consistent ‘self’ to unveil, it’s always on the move to its next iteration. By setting the points at which it changes up at each of the game’s three act breaks, it ends up feeling like each new act is a sequel to the last. It’s not one game, it’s four games. Playing through the entire thing feels like I’ve just bought a box-set containing each entry of an episodic series. So without further ado, let’s review each of the four Dead Island acts, in chronological order.

Act I: The Resort

The first act is a traditional take on an introductory entry in a series, the pilot episode if you will. Set in the tourist resort area of the fictional Papua New Guinea island Banoi during a zombie outbreak, the immediately striking and iconic location is a terrifying pleasure to stroll around in, due to the excellent graphical detail present in the game. Unfortunately, the main thrust of the game is the combat, and here it feels as though it might be a bit too surface-level to sustain the full 40 hours or so required to reach the end. Combat is entirely melee-focused for the time being, and ultimately devolves into kicks, melee-weapon swings and player-positioning, a simple system allowing enough depth to be moreish but lacking long-lasting appeal.

On the console versions (or PC with a console controller plugged in) there’s an option to change to an ‘analogue’ control scheme, a more flexible but ultimately slower and fiddly system which changes the single-button swing to a player-controlled movement directed by the right analogue stick. If you’re interested in using this system, do so right from the start because Act I’s scattered and slow zombies are really the only enemies in the series relaxed enough to allow for this control scheme. Later levels will likely knock the enthusiasm for analogue controls right out of you when speed and swing automation become key to success.

Whilst repetitive, combat is at least interesting. Zombies do significant damage to you with each hit and consistently level with your character, so each and every encounter requires care and attention. There’s a measured sort of dance that needs to be performed to succeed in combat, as your character ducks and wheels back, around and to the side, carefully measuring when hits should be delivered with slow deliberate timing, and when opportunities arrive to temporarily burst into fast rhythmic attacks before backing off and reassessing. Almost all of your attacks or any fast movement use up some of your regenerating stamina bar, so judging the flow of your attacks is about mentally balancing both your stamina level and the interplay of movement between you and your zombie foes, trying to reach the best compromise of actions that can exploit the benefits of both. Damaging individual body parts adds an extra layer of depth, but one that is rarely functionally useful outside of a boss fight.

Meanwhile, co-operative play is encouraged but optional. This game is certainly atmospheric, and as ever this is significantly enhanced by playing alone. On the other hand, co-op play is handled remarkably gracefully, so you shouldn’t be discouraged on the grounds that co-op play is sometimes made difficult by the idiosyncrasies of other online players (‘being a dick’, as its more often called). Techland really excelled at building in solutions to a lot of online problems related to co-operative play, and the entire experience is swift, smooth and gratifying. There is literally a ‘Stop being a dick’ button which people who are being dicks can press to correct their behaviour. It’s a revolution in co-op gaming.

I personally played with a mixture of single-player and co-operative, as both had undeniable advantages over the other. Occasional issues did arise as a result of this; the game does become confused about which quests you have or haven’t done if you regularly swap from SP to MP and back again. Frankly each quest is entirely generic anyway and only serves as a reason as good as any other to run around smashing zombies to bits, so this is a shruggable offence, as is the occasional quest completed by a co-op partner entirely without your involvement.

There’s little to be said for story or characters here, it’s really just a good old-fashioned RPG action-grind with some interesting and new combat mechanics on display, albeit ones which fail to really explode onto the scene with a bang, mostly due to being comprised of bits picked out of other games and mostly only done in halves. This means gameplay can feel shallow or gimmicky, but always decent fun. Rounding off the experience are some nods to other half-implemented gameplay mechanics such as the modifying of weapons, which doesn’t really go anywhere exciting, and a very well-implemented but sadly underused driving component.

By the time you reach the end, you’re probably wondering whether or not the remainder of the experience can sustain your interest, but then few players will be expecting Act II to change things up as much as it does.

 

Act II: The City

Picking up right where the first act left off but immediately going in a different direction, both creatively and in gameplay-terms, the second Dead Island segment relocates the survivors to a recently abandoned city in pursuit of supplies and help for the inhabitants of the resort area from the first act. The differences are immediately noticeable, in that you quickly arrive in a Church safehouse and the bikini-clad Club 18–30 types nervously still interested in drinking and maybe having a bit of a party from the previous entry are replaced with elderly nuns and softly praying or mournfully wailing bereaved and shaken parents. New to this act is a day-and-night and weather cycle, and the opening shows this off by taking place on an overcast rainy evening, a far cry from the sunny tropical paradise players have grown accustomed to.

The ‘you have 1,000 generic quests to do’ format is retained, but as soon as players venture out of the church gates they will realise that everything else has changed. The sparse, shambling walker-style zombies remain, but their numbers have been bolstered by a hugely increased number of fast-running ‘infected’ zombies, who swiftly change the pace and tactics of the game. Shortly after that players will meet two new types of special ‘boss’ zombie, just to pile on the new ideas. The cramped city streets add a great deal of unfamiliarity into the mix too, as their sharp, tight corners mean ambushes are much more likely and enemies can be two feet away without players noticing.

To go along with this the difficulty has been ramped up considerably. Or, at least, that’s what players who paid too much attention to their training may believe at first. The reality is that the City plays very differently to the Resort, and until you realise that, you’re going to die. A lot. After realising that, you’re still going to die quite a bit, but at least not every 15 seconds.

Here the zombies are too numerous and too strong to fight as you once did. Instead, you have to run. You can’t avoid fighting, but you now have to do it whilst running from safe spot to safe spot, and the goal is no longer to kill the zombie, instead it’s to do whatever it is you need to do to successfully traverse the next few metres alive. It’s scrappier, faster, tenser, slightly less fun, but ultimately more fulfilling in the way that only survival horror games can be. It’s suitable that the safe zone is in a church because the term ‘blessed relief’ – for when you finally return to those golden gates after a foray out for food or water – is highly relevant.

Due to the more evasive nature of your interactions with the zombies in the City, verticality has become more prominent in the game design. Rather than flat beaches and walkways, you’re now using ladders, rooftops, jumping from car to car and over walls, making for a much more physical experience.

The biggest change to the gameplay, though, is the introduction of guns.

Sticking to the survival horror theme of Dead Island’s second act, guns and ammo are both hard to come by or extremely expensive to buy, and quite weak once you’ve got them. Personally I would have thought either common-and-weak or rare-and-strong would have been restrictive enough to get the point across, but rare-and-weak does at least continue the Dead Island theme of never extending any kind of olive branch to the player. It’s what we should expect at this point.

Despite the relative weakness of the guns you’re no longer just fighting crowds of zombies; you now have human threats to deal with – organised gangs with snipers on roofs, soldiers running from cover to cover and taking potshots at you, y’know, FPS stuff. Considering shit just got long-range, those weak guns might be fiddly low-damage things and you may only have five bullets to see you through to the next pick-up, but they’re now important for your survival, and it’s remarkable how different the game suddenly becomes. I was 15 hours into my playthrough the first time I picked up a pistol, and even after a couple of hours to grow accustomed to it, I still entirely understood what my co-op partner at the time meant when he muttered over the headset: “I just can’t get used to having guns in this game. I have a ‘what the fuck moment’ every time I look at the bottom half of my screen.”

Guns or no guns, Act II is really hard; to the extent that playing co-operatively becomes all but vital, unless the frustration of endlessly dying is an appealing one to you. It is simply too hard for an enjoyable single player experience. Adding to that disappointment is the change to a more generic level design aesthetic. Whilst the tropical island resort was a perfect fit for Techland’s proprietary Chrome Engine 5, the city streets and – oh, here we go – sewers (lots of sewers) are much less suited to its strengths. Also they’re city streets and sewers, identical to all city streets and sewers in every other zombie game, and most other non-zombie games. It’s a less imaginative environment and that is a drag, although a part of me did appreciate their harsh miserablism, which does have its place in zombie fiction.

The one saving grace of Act II is that the storyline picks up here. It’s no great masterpiece, sure, but more effort has gone into telling a tale than we saw in Act I, and the plot does take some interesting turns. I was surprised by how interested I suddenly became in the story of the game. Despite this I got out of the city pretty quickly, leaving multiple optional quests unattempted, in the hopes that the next segment would herald a return to something less punishing.

 

Act III: The Jungle

Luckily for me Act III does indeed herald something less punishing. In fact, after 10 minutes, all bitter memories of my underwhelming time in the city had faded. You start off in a car on a dirt track and have a fairly long drive to your first destination, enough time for the game to show off how easily its robust driving engine can adapt in a realistic and fun way to driving off-road, through water, uphill, over obstacles; it’s a bumpier road than the tarmaced soft curves of previous acts, but equally satisfying.

Once the act gets underway it’s a pleasure to see that the emphasis on storytelling is continuing, and still interesting. Admittedly it makes liberal use of some slightly unsavoury racial typecasting (my girlfriend asked me “Is that considered acceptable in games then?”, the answer being “The stereotyping isn’t, no, but the crappy writing it’s borne out of is a beloved staple of the medium”). Returning the setting to wide open spaces has softened the difficulty some, so we’re back in ‘fun in Single Player, fun in Co-op’ territory again, and by now your character should have bought one or two high-end abilities to help out with the stronger zombies and the newly introduced special enemy: the Butcher, who lives up to his name perfectly.

The mechanics introduced earlier that never really came of age quickly enough have all blossomed by now, so weapon modding is in full swing and providing a decent background game for you to work away at. Additionally, enemies are starting to develop different statuses that can be affected by different mods, giving the player more reason to plan out the weapons they carry beyond just ‘take all the most powerful ones’ (fizzy smoking skin zombies are flammable it turns out, so at least one weapon modded to provide flame is highly recommended once you’re deep into that jungle).

Guns have evolved now too; the shoddy pistols and occasional near-dead rifle with only 3 bullets have made way for shiny magnums, shotguns, sniper rifles and assault rifles, with various versions available for burst firing, semi-automatic, single shot and other gun porn fun. They’re still insanely expensive, much more so than previously in fact, and you still consider yourself very lucky to find one on the body of a fallen enemy. However for the first time so far the real gunplay kicks off, converting it from restrained survival FPS to measured action FPS. You’re still mostly focussing on melee because guns are too much of a resource drain to be a primary weapon, but they are a welcome and satisfying sidearm.

Aside from the new location, the new enemy types and the new weapons, the amount of change and innovation seen in Act II is missing. There’s an arena combat challenge involved, but other than that Act III doesn’t bring new ideas as much as it brings refinement to old ideas.

It’s not simplistic like Act I was; combat has grown into a more complex beast. Yet it’s not too hard like Act II was; it’s balanced and feels ‘right’. The story straddles interesting progression and the requisite time-wasting-and-grinding without dropping the ball. Little touches feel like they’re done well here. A large part of the jungle map is a mountain. In the way that the best games do, something small and seemingly organic like an area with the simple property of being slow to climb up and quick to climb down is exploited for all its gameplay value – the mission design seems aware of where the fun is. This is kind of thing that Act I & II never quite nailed, for all their other strengths. Act III is where Dead Island does best at being Dead Island; it’s where all the most mature and smartly-constructed gameplay design is hiding out. It’s also shorter than the previous acts, perhaps indicating that a tighter focus is what was needed to get the game up to these loftier standards.

After an annoyingly broken story mission (because Dead Island never lets you love it without punishing you for your affections with a horrible bug),  a tense build-up to a cool finale, some pretty dodgy voice acting and one last opportunity to turn back, it’s off to the big finale.

 

Act IV: The Prison

It’s clear what Act IV is from the start as your ‘Story Progress’ tracker hangs around the 94% region before you’ve even started it, so what you might have assumed is a quarter of the game is actually just a quick denouement. Unsurprisingly a prison isn’t as large or open-world as a jungle, a city or an island resort, and in fact it’s really just a final dungeon. A sometimes hard, often bizarrely empty final dungeon.

I don’t know what there is in particular to say about the final act. It’s quick, it’s brutal then it’s over. At this stage the Dead Island schtick might be starting to wear thin with you, although that surely could have been avoided if the refinement of Act III had continued into its final phase. The story stays reasonably interesting but as it grows in complexity near the end, Techland are clearly struggling to tell it effectively within the limitations of their engine. Elsewhere the game falls back on the old technique of hard enemies, and lots of them. In this respect it’s a good thing that it’s over quickly, because this means the tension that is present isn’t given the opportunity to get lost in trudging, overly long levels.

The way the last act is presented is reflected in the way this description of it is written. I think Techland’s attitude has accidentally rubbed off on me. It’s very matter of fact, a bit grumpy, slightly stifled, and there just because it has to be really, as if it’s presented to you with the passive-aggressive attitude of “Okay, here’s your ending which you apparently need. Happy?” (The answer is “Yeah, I guess, but no need to be such a dick about it.”)

When all is said and done Dead Island was a worthwhile experience for me. If you’d told me at the start of Act II that I’d finish the game impressed and involved with the storyline, I’d have chuckled smugly at your naivety and the paucity of your foresight. Well the chuckles are on me, because I would love to be here this time in a year or two, finding out what happens next. This is a prime example of the game’s greatest strength: it evolves. It’s not the same thing from one part to the next. Even though it’s safe to say that not every evolution is a positive one, and that this characteristic results in a few too many low moments, it still makes the experience a rare one and one to savour.

What’s really rare about this game, though, is that it’s a zombie game. I know, I know, there are too many zombie games out there. But are there really? Real zombie games? I don’t think so. Left 4 Dead is much more about the special infected, that’s where the thrust of the game is, and they aren’t zombies, they’re monsters. Resident Evil is all puzzles and boss monsters. Dead Rising casts time as a bigger enemy than the zombies, who really are just a visualisation of a gameplay device that could have been presented countless other ways. I could go on, but let’s cut to the chase and say that Dead Island is actually about zombies.

It’s a true zombie game, in which all you do is kill zombies, and killing zombies is always fun. It doesn’t have any twists on that basic formula, finally someone has released that game that I think of when someone says ‘zombie game’. And now that it’s out, I finally agree with you all – the zombie game market is now officially full. One per generation is all we need.

 

Post-Mortem:

I wrote this review about two weeks ago after my first playthrough. I’m now deep into my second playthough, and want to clarify I couple of points which I made in the review and now disagree with.

1. ‘co-op play is handled remarkably gracefully’

Pfft. It was handled remarkably gracefully for those of us playing through when the game was released, when no-one else had been given enough time to reach their second playthrough. Unfortunately, now there’s plenty of people starting the game on Level 1, and plenty of people starting the game on level 30-something, and it doesn’t distinguish between them when automatically matching people up. There’s also no indication of what level people are when manually picking partners. I’ve ended up switching co-op off now, even though I prefer it on, because with my low-level character, games are ruined by matches with high-levels, and my high-level character playthrough is ruined by the same problem from the other side. It sounds like I’m over-egging the problem, but it’s seriously killing the fun. It’s gone from ‘good co-op games found instantaneously’ to ‘spend 40 minutes trawling games to find a good one that might not last’.

2. ‘Act II is really hard; to the extent that playing co-operatively becomes all but vital’

Okay, I’m a noob, whatever. It was really hard, and many people do find it far too challenging. However, with the benefit of an extra 15 or so hours of gameplay practice under my belt, returning to the City as a solo player is intense and challenging, but it’s nowhere near as impossible as I first thought. This was probably my biggest complaint with the game, and I take it back. It was just me not being smart enough to see the depth in the combat system, or not practised enough to take advantage of it.