Sunday, September 18, 2011

REVIEW - Dead Island.

If there were a method of correctly and accurately qualifying every aspect of a video game - an ultracomputer, perhaps, that would read a disc and spit out a printed page of percentages - Dead Island would be found wanting. It boasts a laundry list of lacks, and while a review is a critical eye leveled at a product, it is also the product of one perspective - it's an opinion.

In my opinion, Dead Island is not one of the "best" games of the year. It behooves me to warn you about its bugs, its mediocre graphics, its crap narrative and infuriating system of auto-saves - but I would be remiss in my duties if I did not advise you that Dead Island is easily one of the most tactile, thrilling, immersive and when all is said and done fun gaming experiences of the year.

It is, therefor, one of the best titles to drop in 2011. I love this game.

As a first-person open-world RPG, Dead Island draws immediate comparisons to Bethesda's Oblivion, Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Where an exhaustively realized world of branching plot lines define those experiences, Dead Island sidesteps the areas other titles have already defined, and sets out to create its own archetype. It brilliantly succeeds, by way of its thrilling first-person melee combat.

Others have tried, but no first-person game I've played has done it better. Period.

It is perhaps best described as the Yin to Bethesda's Yang. One accepts the middling combat of Oblivion and Fallout because the world, its narrative and your effect on it are so compelling. Here, one shrugs and accepts the amateurish narrative because it is the thing that permits you to wander off into its world and get in awesome fights with zombies - and these fights are awesome.

Lose your head and they are a frantic, panicked affair - desperately swinging your bludgeon at a swarm of grasping, cold and rotting hands that will tear you limb from limb in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Keep your cool and you are a grim reaper of dead souls.

These eleven zombies
are screwed.

A lone zed, ambushing you, is dangerous all on its own, so it pays to be keenly aware of your surroundings when sent out on another dull quest - but it's not the quest that matters - it's being sent out that's important. That's the fun part - and thankfully, it's 97% of the experience.

You often see them long before they see you, and can plan your attack. Fools rush in, as they say, and staying alive is about staying in control of the situation. It's about managing the crazy, screaming, dashing Infected and the shambling Walkers. It's about jump-kicking a dude in the face before you turn around and bring your sledgehammer down on the head of a fallen, living corpse, giving you just enough time to turn a few more degrees and bash another killer into the dirt.

Don't stop. Stay in control. There's more coming. Bring that hammer down again.

It is - when your cool is kept - elegant, practiced, and deliciously savage. When a pack of six zombies rush you and you walk away without a scratch, a bloody mess in your wake, it's one of the most satisfying, rewarding feelings I've had with a Dualshock.

The game's atmosphere is also a winner, with dynamic music reacting to the combat (or lack thereof), and lovely, gentle orchestral tracks when you're in a safehouse or during a moment of quiet. The razor's edge risk-reward of the game's combat, combined with its capable-but-not-exemplary visuals prove intensely immersive.

Each of the game's three main, sprawling locales have a distinctly different feel. The bikini'd brain-hungry babes of the Royal Palms Resort have a wonderfully exploitive feel, but most rewarding are the claustrophobic slums of the nearby city of Moresby, where cramped alleys and squat homes turn the rumblings of distant dead into an ever-present chorus.

There are a few linear components - the interiors of major buildings, or a trek through the sewers - that are slightly less successful, but these more-directed jaunts benefit from a few lovely set pieces. There's something intensely pleasing about dashing up to a zombie and jump-kicking it through a third-story window, for example.

Developer Techland is best-known for the decent-but-not-great western FPS Call of Juarez and its decent-but-not-great sequel. With Dead Island, they have achieved a game that skids dangerously close to genuine brilliance.

I love the way your character will confidently offer the zombies a come-hither motion, or defensively change their stance when an enemy notices your presence. At first it simply seems badass, but one quickly realizes it's the game's way of telling you when danger is coming. The game's system of maintaining and upgrading weapons with found money - and taking ten percent of your bankroll away upon death - at first seems counter-intuitive and restrictive, but proves a very elegant system of rewarding the player as their skill improves without truly punishing those who are coming to grips with the game's vicious combat. Upon death you simply pop up somewhere nearby, with all your ammo and weapon durability as it was when you fell - it's like BioShock if the VitaChambers took from each, according to their means.

At the same time, Dead Island is a far cry from what we demand of a major release. I have lost fabulous weapons thanks to the game's insufferable autosave feature - others will clip through the world to never be seen again, or become lost beyond an arbitrary invisible wall you cannot breach.

Honestly, what the hell?

Techland perhaps bit off more than they could chew, here. This is a very ambitious title, and it often takes a studio prepared to pay more than a pound of flesh to rattle out an open-world game that veers dangerously close to perfection.

Techland - and their budget - simply aren't gargantuan enough to throw down with the big dogs, in terms of overall quality and production values. The writing is elementary, the voice work is mediocre, the graphics are merely decent.

I don't care.

I love slapping a battery on a two-handed samurai sword named after an immortal scene from Pulp Fiction which delivers a debilitating electrical charge on a critical hit. I love walking along the beach and kicking at bodies, just to make sure they're dead-dead and not un-dead. I love stalking through the filthy alleys of Moresby with nothing to depend on but a fire axe and a hard-won education in zombie genocide.

Most of all, I love it when a pack of zombies see me, turn to me, and start running. I grip my weapon, grit my teeth and smile - 'cause this is gonna' be awesome.

  • fantastic, strategic, tactile and visceral first-person melee combat
  • fun
  • excellent atmosphere, and an often significant sense of immersion
  • fun
  • some really good music choices which are pleasantly dynamic in and out of combat
  • did I mention it's fun?
  • I love that the cast consists of a variety of authentic accents, given its setting
  • I can see my feet!
  • it's an open-world first-person melee-centric RPG about a zombie outbreak
  • I'm rather fond of the level design
  • when using the fast-travel feature to go to a location on the same map, it's instantaneous - very impressive!
  • phil la marr
  • undead in bikinis

  • long load times between the huge maps - but you often spend between six and ten hours on a single map
  • major texture pop after loads
  • bugs! Bugs, everywhere!
  • mediocre voice work and worse writing
  • auto-saves, you can go to hell. In fact, hand me that fire axe - I'll help you get there
  • I've never been able to get a co-op game going, but in the game's defense I never tried that hard at it. Should I have to? (No.)

Dead Island offers one of the funnest, most rewarding experiences of the year. Buy it.


  1. Once again I have waited for your review, and once again can vet that your label of "fun" means that I'll gain hundreds of hours lost in a fictional world.

    Picked this up this morning, and I won't be sleeping before work tomorrow morning.

    My sincerent thanks again, good sir. (Demons souls previously)

    For now, another handful of zombies require the final warm embrace.... of my flaming baseball bat :-)

  2. So, I know it's not easy to say without playing Resistance 3, but what do you say; did we who voted for this game do a good job?