No man is a Dead Island

I was supposed to write this a couple of weeks ago.

But then Dark Souls came out, and Batman straight after. To say nothing of the reservists in between and the final touches of Foxglove Copperfield: IGF Hopeful that is finally finished. (More on that later, once DigiPen puts the website out.) Also, there really isn’t a lot to say about Dead Island. It’s a pretty game, and it does some of its zombie dread well, and some of its game systems well, but it’s very rough around the edges, there are some ideas that seem in congruent with the world it wants to build, the story itself is bad b-grade material and the characters, apart from one, are broadly, and vilely written.

I don't really care about any of them.

Dead Island has two things going for it though. The first is one of the best environmental renders and re-creation of a tropical island paradise, and the slums of a city. My main joy in the game comes from wandering the streets of Banoi, the vacated suites of the resort and trudging through the humid, morbid jungle. It’s a fantastic place to be, if it wasn’t populated by zombies of varying difficulties. See, here’s where Dead Island drops the ball. They build a great big playground of sorts in its three main locations, (and one side area), but its quests gives you little reason to traipse around all of it. In fact, the quests mostly sends you cross-map to one particular locale then repeats that locale several times in its side quests. Huge swaths of the country are left relatively unexplored, unless you’re like me and just wander in any direction you feel like it. Even then, Dead Island drops the ball there, because there’s very little reason to wander off. Sure you can hunt for resources, or gather supplies, but you really don’t have to. It’s respawning mechanic means you can game the system for anything you need if you just load between fast-travel areas.

It's an island, but is it alive?

The second thing Dead Island has going for it, is that the zombies are actually dangerous to fight. These aren’t your garden variety, mow and plow them sort of zombies. These zombies are dangerous, and they come in an interesting sort of variety. I suppose if a zombie game failed at doing zombies, then the game would really have been terrible. As it is, it got the zombies and the location right, so it’s merely a mediocre game.

But the real reason I’m not singing the game any praises is the story. It’s vile, vile, badly paced, badly played story. Writing that’s cliched as it is offensive. Characters I have little desire to work with, let alone watch cutscenes of and a meta-plot that makes little sense and seems to lose direction half way through. It starts out conventionally enough. You are the survivor of a zombie attack, and a couple of you guys have to make it through the island, find out what’s wrong, survive and escape. The early game starts out alright enough, with a group of survivors tasking you to gather enough supplies to last them a while. And I guess 2 cans of tinned food will feed 8 people long enough. In Act II, you’re tasked again to head into the city to look for supplies, where you’ll find survivors, and help them hunt for supplies and then ACT III sends you to the jungle, where, again…, gather, survivors, supplies. The point has been made.

No... really.

Dead Island could have done a better job simulating a post-zompocalyptic wasteland with its quests. A few are interesting enough, such as the gangs taking over the police station, but little else is done with that particular idea. I get that it’s primarily a zombie mashing game, so there’s little room for other types of game mechanics, but the quests could have taken on more flavor than find supplies, and do favors for people without sketching out what other ideas might occur post-zombie attack. Act III at least has the players doing something beyond hunting for supplies, but the entire laboratory area seemed half-assed. There’s a good idea in there about the tribal origins of the virus, but the game blows right by that to send you to the prison.

Oh god, the prison. A tight, linear dreary corridor that goes on forever where you are tasked to help… the… survivors… find… supplies. Dead Island is just one more game with disappointing final acts. Thank goodness Batman: Arkham City broke that slump, and broke it magnificently.

Long story short, I’m glad Dead Island for its area design and environmental renders right, and I was satisfied with the zombie fights for most of the game. Yet it’s a game that left a sour taste in my mouth because of it’s pacing, end-game design, narrative and rough mechanics. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone but the most ardent of zombie fans, or PC gamers who like a little Fallout 3 rpg-lite. I don’t regret the game, but I’m glad that I played Dark Souls and Batman next.

Stray Thoughts

– I really should give Dead Island some more thought in how to improve the quests, or the overall story telling in the game to make use of the environments and the locations. I suppose I would if I didn’t want to think about anything else.

– The respawning mechanics really breaks the illusion of you as a survivor scrounging around for supplies. Here’s where game mechanics and narrative fight and game mechanics won. I’m not so sure it should have. They might have been able to keep re-spawn points for several items at certain locales, or tweak the economy somewhat for it not to matter so much. It comes down to a rough system build in that works when you’re playing, but could definitely use a lot of work.

That trailer was really good wasn’t it? They should had the director consult on the story.

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