Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: Dead Island

There are certain phrases I don't think I could ever use to describe the video game Dead Island.

Such phrases include "long stretches of nothing," "too full of itself," and "not broken."

Yeah, that last one would be a major red flag on any other game I play, but strangely enough, in a game about an island completely filled with zombies, having it occasionally shudder to a halt, glitch out completely, and cast your character into what appears to be a demonic-spawned hell where all you can do is die over and over again...doesn't feel too far off.

But let's get into the actual game.

Dead Island is a multiplayer (online or system link only, sadly) game that does many things right, but does just as many things wrong.  Somehow, it manages to come out ahead and be an actually enjoyable experience to play, but there are moments that leave you completely frustrated and ready to put up the controller for a few days.

One of the few "first person melee" games I've played (yes, eventually you do get guns and the ability to craft your own ammo, rendering a lot of the melee weapons pointless), it was quite enjoyable figuring out the strategies that come into play when you're trying to smack a zombie across the head with an oar or wrench instead of simply running around shooting everything from a distance.  It helps that the island the story takes place on is extremely well-crafted, with plenty of random items scattered around that could be used as weapons in a pinch (knives, pipes, kitchen cleavers, planks of wood), and lots of areas to explore to try to find better equipment (swords, hammers, maces, other medieval weaponry for some reason).

The game also incorporates an interesting stamina mechanic, meaning you can't simply zip across the map at full speed and ignore everything.  Zombies will notice you and chase you, so when your stamina runs low you really need to reconsider if you can make it somewhere safe and hide out for a while or if you need to turn and fight.

Combat is intuitive (swing weapon, hit zombie), and a few have different reach (longer swords don't need to be swung as close to the enemy as a kitchen knife, for example), but it can be frustrating when you smack a zombie with a hefty weapon and, for some reason, he isn't disturbed from swinging and smacking you across the map.  Other zombies might simply plow through your attacks to grab hold of you, while some just soak up damage like a sponge.

Fortunately, the AI has the intelligence of a cracked manhole cover.  I've walked past zombies that simply ignore me, others will knock me onto the ground and then get bored and walk away while I'm still trying to stand up.  Sometimes they'll rush a wall nowhere near me, look confused for a few seconds, and then rush towards me.    I've leaned on walls that only come up to my chest watching zombies three feet away from me flail at empty air until I reach out and poke them with a weapon, at which point they stumble back and then rush the same spot of wall again.

But that's not to say that the game is easy.  It's not.  I've died enough time to reach triple digits several times over, but that's usually because I get cocky, I get overconfident, or I simply don't notice that zombie coming up behind me.  To make up for being as acutely aware of their surroundings as burnt toast, the zombies have all been blessed with the ability to walk quietly.  And since you're usually always fighting a zombie, it's hard to make out that the newest moan in the crowd is coming from behind you instead of from in front of you.

Fortunately, the game includes a crafting system, allowing you to take those random items you find (the island must have an extremely severe drug problem based on the number of flexible hoses I found tucked in every nook and cranny of peoples apartments and offices) and combine them into more powerful weapons.  Besides simple things like "glue nails to baseball bat" you're eventually able to coat swords in toxins to poison zombies, light them on fire with special bullets, or knock them fifty yards back with the car battery you attached to a sledgehammer.  These better weapons make facing the undead much more bearable.

Story-wise, the plot is pretty thin.  Four people find themselves immune to zombie bites and are promptly tasked by every other survivor on the island with doing every possible menial chore imaginable.  You left your necklace behind in your room?  I'll go get it.  Your husband got separated from you?  I can find him.  You need the gun from your neighbor's apartment so you can hunt down someone you hate?  Well, I have a gun you could have right n- oh, okay, fine, I'll go get that gun.

One thing I do appreciate, however, is the fact that the game leaves it pretty open-ended as to what caused the zombie outbreak to begin with.  One character rants about aliens while a nun you meet talks about a test from God.  A huge laboratory in the jungle has links to classic horror, but there's also a nearby military base that could be testing a new weapon.  Maybe the local native tribe's legends have something to do with it.  Nothing can really be discounted (especially considering the game's bugs can cause some really unexplainable phenomenon to occur, like bodies floating five feet above the ground when killed), though the alien theory is probably the thinnest.

The missions are pretty standard.  Go to X, pick up Y, return to Z.  Sometimes it shakes things up a bit by making you drive somewhere, or you'll have to kill something specific.  Later on in the game the missions take on a more "these bad guys have guns, go storm their base" type mission, leading to crouching behind cover and shooting at people trying to shoot you back, but for the most part the missions are pretty routine.

So with a broken AI, "adequate" graphics, and repeated missions, where exactly does the fun come in?  Well, killing a zombie never gets old, but as of late I've been playing online with friends of mine, and at that point the levels of fun are cranked up well past anything Spinal Tap could think of.  Having four people running around smacking zombies, trying to come up with strategies to fight things, and being there to help each other when someone falls down makes the game feel less like a chore and more like a small party.

If you have people to play it with, I recommend picking it up (and having them do the same, obviously) to enjoy for a short while.  If you just want to kill zombies without worrying about RPG elements, stick with Left 4 Dead.  If you want to just kill zombies by yourself, go find Dead Rising.

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