I have a confession to make. Iām becoming increasingly bored with zombie games. Without a doubt they are taking over as the undead younger brother to the tired āWorld War IIā staple. Hell, some developers have thrown their hands in the air and sold out to both ā Iām not looking at you at all, Treyarch.
So when another zombie title comes along, it has to be pretty impressive to make reviewers sit up and take notice. When Dead Islandās absolutely astonishing cinematic trailer was released earlier this year, we did. It looked like zombie titles had finally kicked it up a notch. If the early press was anything to go by, Deep Silverās Dead Island was going to be sensational. Unfortunately, after playing my way through the game, the inevitable conclusion is that Dead Island was a victim of its early hype, and is a pretty resounding letdown from what we had been led to expect.
The title starts well enough. The introductory movie places you in the shoes of a drunken lout, barging your way through an unnamed island resort. Along the way people push you, shove you, and call you out on your douchebaggery. Later on in the title it becomes obvious that all of these people have a role to play (or be played). As your night gets progressively worse you start to notice strange-goings on and the stage is set for the nightmare we all know is coming. As far as introductions s go, its fairly well done and it has a lot of character. To be honest, Iāve seen a lot worse.
However, figuring out what to do in the titleās menu screens is a challenge in and of itself; and the game hasnāt even begun yet. The GUI is oddly designed, and like some kind of bizarre pseudo-server it forces you to create a single player experience through the multi-player boot menu. Once thatās finally figured out itās into the action, but getting there is anything but user friendly. Perhaps its some kind of pre-zombie killing intelligence test.
The game itself is an interesting mix of RPG elements, exploration and classic zombie survival. The character you select at the beginning will determine the style of play you experience. There is the Mexican-looking guy who likes knives, the fierce African-American amazon with a penchant for bullets (just think Left for Dead 2), the oriental chick who likes to stab things, and the hulking African-American man who likes to hit things with blunt objects. Heās also a former rap super-star. That last bit deserves a mention, if only to neatly round off the cliches. Oh, and your character is mysteriously immune from zombie infection. The reason for this is both to make the game easier to play, and also to fill in plot holes.
From there, your character is expected to fight their way through hordes of zombies, while completing various important quests for fellow survivors, all in their bid to find a vaccine for those infected in order to make their way off the island. In all honesty, the plot is a fairly weak one. The whole ādeadly diseases gone wrongā angle is wearing thin. This is frustrating as the title does hint at so much more. During the introductory clip we see our rapping hero belting out his number one hit, āWho do You Voodoo, Bitch?ā. Mysterious island black magic. Now that would have been more interesting.
Just like in films, sometimes a gameās poor plot can be held together by excellent characterisation. Sadly, Dead Island cant rely on this saving grace. For an RPG game that uses NPC quests as a main vehicle for its narrative progression, this raises a series of problems. Poor facial animations, poor writing and very poor voice acting contribute to an experience that feels kind of farcical. During my play-though I began to resent the characters I was supposed to be helping. Any game that fails to draw you into its world and make you care has problems ā but with zombie titles itās almost a fatal one. The entire point behind survival horror is to ramp up the tension by making you care about every single survivor. That way, when they get taken down one by one the tension levels are jacked through the roof. Dead Island fails to create this kind of ambiance. Itās not a failure of setting ā some great survival horror takes place both on islands and outside ā its just a failure of good characterisation.
The result is a title that doesn't feel particularly believable, and the addition of RPG elements only makes this worse. If I had just survived a zombie infection, and was surrounded by a group of desperate survivors, I would not heading off on my own to find an old wiveās necklace, or to give someone their insulin. It just doesnāt make sense. Normally, Iām all for developers pushing genre conventions in interesting ways ā but that's a hit and miss process. This time, its a miss.
But there are some things about the title that are pretty enjoyable. The combat is fairly fun ā sure, it doesn't really offer any amazing challenges, but some serious thought has gone into how it operates. Altercations with zombies are satisfyingly gory, and well aimed strikes have tactical effect. Add to the mix different ātypesā of zombie and you have yourself a reasonable combat challenge. In addition, the decision to make weapons destructible is an inspired one, as is the decision to display their various states of disrepair right in front of you. This adds to the gameās tension by constantly reminding you about the need to defend yourself, and the need to protect the things you are defending yourself with.
However, some of the design choices were not so well made. Health is replenished by medpacs, and inexplicably also by energy drinks. These small morsels of pep are strewn around everywhere and itās never hard to find one. In fact, they are so abundant, and so incongruous, that they make you start wondering about what kind of resort Dead Island really was in the first place. Rehab? Surely not.
For a title on an island, youād expect there to be some interesting level design. To a certain extent thatās been achieved. Some of the outdoor environments are really well rendered, the graphics look good and the level layout feels expansive and apocalyptic. Designing a resort island from scratch would have been a fairly fun experience, and Deep Silver have done a pretty good job of it. Itās frustrating then that their originality didn't extend to the indoor environments. Within the prologue alone there was enough replication to give me a sense of deja-vu. Now to be fair, Iām an OCD gamer. I have to go everywhere, open everything and try and collect every item. But Deep Silver knew they were making an RPG hybrid ā and that means attention to detail.
In a way, Dead Island reminds me a lot of Far Cry. Not the first one mind; rather, its slightly odd sequel. Like Far Cry 2, Dead Island has lots to do and lots to see. But there is no real urgency behind any of it. There is no impetus forcing the player onwards. And that's disappointing, because without it, youāre just playing zombie whack-a-mole in a Hawaiian shirt.
Dead Island is not necessarily a bad game, itās just not a very good one either. Its multi-player options will appeal to the hardcore co-op zombie crowd and its disaggregated gameplay elements set it apart from its peers. If youāre addicted to zombie titles, and you want something with a little more depth, then it might be worth a rental. But unfortunately it just doesn't live up to its own hype. When making this game, Deep Silver obviously banked on the allure of the undead. That's all well and good, but Dead Island still needs a soul.