Thursday, 27 October 2011

Video Game Review | Dead Island, dev. Techland

No-one really gave a shank about Dead Island till that tremendous trailer.

The game, for all its immediate promise when Deep Silver announced it in 2006 - of a massive, first-person perspective open world a la The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but with zombies, and the stink of survival horror - Dead Island had been long thought lost to that dead zone known as development hell when in 2011 a stunning CG short film reignited interest in the latest from the Call of Juarez developers.

I was, for my part, skeptical that we would ever see Dead Island on store shelves, and doubtful that if and when we did, it would in the least resemble the touching teaser. Half a year later, the impossible has happened. Dead Island, as it transpires, actually is a game - as opposed to the glorified tech demo I'd expected - and not only that; it's pretty terrific, too.

But that isn't to say it's anything like that trailer.

The zombocalypse begins on the island of Banoi, a fictional landmass supposedly off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Whichever of the four playable characters you pick at the start screen, after a night's irresponsible drinking you - yes, you - awaken in your room in the Palms Resort Hotel with one hangover to rule them all, to find zombies to the left of you, and undead to the right. But here you are. Stuck in the middle of a nightmare.

Thanks to a mysterious voice that guides you over the intercom, you escape the hotel by the skin of your teeth to find spread out before you Banoi, in all its broken, bloodied glory. The island may not be the sheer size of Cyrodil, say, or even the atomic wastelands of New Vegas... nonetheless it is truly a huge place, of incredible, eye-catching environs. First and foremost amongst them: the tropical resort village you find your feet in, with its shallow swimming pools and lavish outdoor bars, where Techland tutorialise the simple mechanics you could spend the next 30 hours getting to grips with.

Which is to say, see a zombie? Kill it dead.

Don't have a weapon? Well find one, why don't you! A lead pipe, for instance, or a machete... or my personal favourite, because I picked - entirely at random - the blunt weapons specialist: the level 7 Baseball Bat. Failing that, there's always your fists. Or a gun, though there are very few of those in the beginning; more's the pity for those players who pick the character with the affinity for arms.

Anyway, next on the agenda - that is presuming you don't have any more pressing business than surviving this beautiful living dead hell - find yourself a workbench and gussy that weapon up some, because the only thing better than a striking stick is a striking stick you've set fire to.

But wait, there's more! When you begin Dead Island, the combat controls default to digital, which equates to a button press that makes your undead slayer flail his or her weapon like a lunatic. Needless to say, this is not so awesome; it makes for flat, pointless combat, with no tactics to speak of, nor any species of player choice. And you're going to fight a lot of zombies over the course of Dead Island, so do yourself a favour: pop into the options, swap over to analogue controls, then let 'em have it.

The analogue controls will be familiar to anyone who's played the Skate series, which had you perform tricks with the right control stick, holding down to charge a jump, for instance, then flicking it straight up to pull off an ollie. In Dead Island, the only difference is you're charging your arms instead of your legs, so when you swipe the stick from left to right, your character does likewise with a weapon. In this way you can lop off individual arms or legs, rendering a zombie practically harmless, or if you're lucky, and you aim your strike just right, explode an undead head.

This mechanic - truth be told only this mechanic - serves to separate Dead Island from the pack. Curious, then, that by default it's inactive. If I hadn't turned the analogue combat controls on, I don't know that I'd have bothered exploring Banoi at all. As was, I completed the very lengthy campaign, as well as almost every one of the sidequests, and I spent an almighty amount of time just traipsing around, too, to see what I could see... looking for loot in all the wrong places.

30 hours of my life later - seriously - I don't regret a second of the time I spent with Dead Island, simply because the combat was so satisfying; so weighty, strategic and visceral. The missions, alas, aren't. Harvest five samples of meat from a certain sort of zombie. Find ten nails so some guy can set up a barricade. Kill all the zombies in a particular area. Well, whatever.

Nor is the world, beyond the small holiday resort you begin in, much to brag about. There's a jungle, a prison and a city, none of which have the strength of character or the freshness in terms of video game aesthetics of the starting area. Also: the voice acting is awful... the graphics get worse the further through the game you progress... and the less said about Dead Island's story - which after all was what that trailer purported to sell it on - the less said about Dead Island's story, never mind its characters, such as they are, the better.

But that combat! There's simply nothing quite like it, and though I expect The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be a trump to Dead Island's spade in every other sense, Bethesda Softworks, the undisputed masters of the open world, would be well to take this essential lesson to heart, because with such singularly solid combat, even a mediocre game - as Dead Island would otherwise be - can be great. One can only imagine how incredible a good game would be with Techland's pioneering mechanics to boot.


  1. Heh, I never understood the love for Bethesdas open-world. They just always fell so dull and lifeless. Just making it huge isn't enough... They could really learn a thing or ten from Dark Souls, that's what a great open world fantasy RPG is supposed to be like.

  2. Oh, did you have to go and mention Dark Souls? :/

    Staying away from it for as long as I have has been a real effort. I mean, I'm in - I'm so very, very in - but I just don't have the time for that ultra-punishing beast of an experience right now, and I can't see that I'm likely to find it any time sooner either. It's killing me! And damn it all... if I must die, I'd rather Dark Souls do the murdering.

    I dare say we'll have to agree to disagree about the Bethesda business though, Severian. I can see how all the vast empty spaces might seem meaningless, but in my experience they make the discovery of some random settlement or event all the more meaningful. What does finding a vault full of rare loot mean when there's one wherever you look, you know?

    In short, feed me the next Elder Scrolls, please. Though if I don't have time for Dark Souls, and I don't, by jove, God alone knows how I can rationalise the hundreds of hours I'm gagging to spend puttering around in Skyrim.

    It was the best of times to be a gamer, and it was the worst of times to be a gamer. *sigh*

  3. Yeah, DkS takes a lot of your time, my first playthrough was about 75 hours and I'm probably around 150h across the NG+ and two new characters. And I haven't even started with the PvP yet...
    All in all this is probably the game of the generation for me, despite it's faults (mainly tech stuff). There's just nothing else out there that can match the exhilaration you feel when you prevail against impossible odds in DkS. :) (Or the frustration when you die while trying to reach your bloodstain.)

    And I get what you mean about Bethesda, but every settlement you discover is the same as all the ones you've been to already, all the people feel the same, you fight the same enemies all the me, it seems like I walk for an hour just to get to the very same spot I came from. The crappy combat doesn't really help either...

  4. I'm liking the sounds of Dead Island, just not 100% sure it's something I want to buy. I've bought other games I've wanted to play less and they're still sitting in their boxes, and I really don't have the money to waste, but it sounds so good...