Dead Island review.

Posted: September 15, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Reviews

All convincing depictions of human drama have been removed in favor of a “Bring Your Own Plot” system.

Dead Island is one of the hardest games to rate on a 1-10 scale.  It’s the classic review dilemma of do I assume a 10 is a perfect game and detract points for flaws or do I rate it based on how much I enjoyed playing it?  With most games this is easy as the two are pretty close.  On occasion a game comes along that is more than the sum of it’s parts and I have to decide.  Dead Island is a middle-budget title from a small developer using their own engine.  This is usually a formula for a mediocre game and there are definitely parts of the game’s design that meet that expectation.  The catch is that there are random moments of authentic zombie survivor action that are unmatched by any other game.

I often cheat and read professional reviews before writing my own and weighing the validity of the points made in said reviews.  With Dead Island I noticed an overwhelming trend that most reviewers had rushed through the game’s plot and found the design of the missions to be lackluster.  Most also said that the game was better in co-op because it made the action faster and more intense like Left 4 Dead.  The final conclusion would be that when played through like a shooter with only progression in mind, the game was mediocre compared to L4D.  I think it’s really unfortunate that they were so pressed to get reviews up, because the experience I had was very different and much more enjoyable.

After a playthrough of Dead Island, if I look back at only what happened in the story, it doesn’t sound that amazing.  I helped a bunch of people, there were some plot twists and it felt like a sloppy mix of World War Z and Lost.  On the other hand if I take any one hour block of gameplay and remember what I actually did, it sounds like the best zombie game ever.  I remember sprinting through the city with a huge mob of zombies right on my heels and diving into a store, slamming the door right in their faces.  Then I hid behind the counter to avoid acid vomit and reloaded my weapons and switched dull blades for sharp ones while the mob howled outside.  In the moment I was fully in the zombie apocalypse and all of the arbitrary systems and RPG mechanics of the game faded into the back of my mind as I was totally there.  The fact that dying only costs money and that there are several cheap ways to avoid zombies never entered my mind as I behaved exactly as I would if the fear of undeath was my primary drive rather than the hunt for XP.

The other main thing I noticed was that there are pros and cons to both solo and co-op play.  When played alone Dead Island feels like survival horror.  You can play at your own pace and scrounge for parts in every drawer and the undead actually inspire dread when there’s nobody to roll up in an armored truck and save your ass.  On the other hand co-op gives you the ability to actually play offensively.  Rather than always looking for high ground and choke points to keep them from surrounding you, you can manipulate the horde and distract them while an ally throws a molotov or grenade.  Both play styles are fun but I recommend doing main quests in co-op for the backup and doing sidequests alone for the authentic zombie survival feel.

As I mentioned before though, the sum of it’s parts are somewhat less than the effect.  When considered from a technical bullet-point perspective, the actual design has glaring flaws.  The graphics are overall pleasing to the eye, but poor optimization causes pop-up on all 3 platforms regardless of media or system memory.  The sound design is excellent, but the voice acting is almost universally bad (which actually evokes the old RE games in a sometimes charming way).  There are also a not so short list of glitches.  One I encountered personally caused me to spawn in the city when I had not actually gone there, so I could not fast travel back or access any safe areas.  I spent half a day running around like a madman, having to pick up level 1 pipes and shovels to beat back the undead as I couldn’t repair my weapons.  The testament to the game’s value is that this was some of the most fun I had with the game.  I was way behind enemy lines and all the odds were against me.  When I finally found a way back to the resort to get the armored truck I was supposed to take, I felt like I had already done things the hard way and I re-entered the city feeling like a veteran.

Dead Island will draw unavoidable comparisons to Borderlands as the two share a basic structure.  Also like Borderlands there are a bunch of “immersion” features that got cut, though the game is still a lot of fun.  The earlier claims that the game would have a day/night and weather cycle proved to be false and there is no environmental interaction besides kicking beach balls.  The promised dynamic storm system only shows up as a monsoon that worsens as the game’s plot progresses.  It’s not a gameplay ‘system’ though as you can always travel to earlier areas and the weather will be in the same state it was before.  The resort is always sunny with a few clouds, and each area after has progressively more rain.  It is always daytime for an entire 25-30 hour playthrough, leading me to believe that the game takes place waaaaaay south of New Guinea on the longest day of the year.  The early detail of the game’s zombie deformation system has also been scaled back as you can remove parts of the zombies, but lopping a head off just causes the head to be replaced by a ‘decapitated’ model, just like the original Soldier of Fortune 10 years ago.  It’s still pretty convincing for the most part, but it’s obviously just a “replace model A with model B” system like we’ve seen many times before.

Also missing from the final cut is the promise of heart wrenching drama teased by the game’s award winning trailer.  There are a few quests that try to get a little dramatic, but you will not be hearing any slow piano music or defending any children (or even seeing any children) in Dead Island.  I didn’t personally mind this as the story of Ryan the hard assed survivor, master of the Samurai Katana and analog controls was far more compelling.  Dead Island really put me in the game and I found that living my own Z-Day fantasies was much better than any Hollywood melodrama.

In conclusion I can really only reiterate that Dead Island is a perfect example of a game that is more than the sum of it’s parts.  It’s also a game that can stand comfortably on it’s replay value.  Much like we had with Borderlands, Dead Island isn’t the best made game of the year, but it could easily end up being the most played.  I know personally I will be playing Dead Island at least until another sandbox zombie game comes out and so will many of my Zed-Survivor pals.



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