Haxmonster Finds Himself Shuffling Aimlessly As He Explores Dead Island

Posted by: Jason Silverain / Category: , ,

I find myself trapped on a beautiful island, haunted by a terrible disease. Almost everyone has been infected and those that are, are unaware of the fact that they have become monsters. The authorities have sealed off the island to prevent the illness from spreading, for a breakout would surely be the end of the world. Barricading doors and windows offers no salvation, as the sheer size of the infestation lets it break down any obstacle. The only ones unaffected are the numerous zombies that roam the island. All others have been contaminated with the horrible plague that is the Australian accent. Be honest, I haven’t fallen victim to it as well, have I, mate?

Oh, what fun it would be to actually play Dead Island if it had really been about surviving the apocalypse of the bad accents. Unfortunately, until that game really comes out, we’ll have to make do with boring old zombie apocalypse and the game surely follows the standard undead survival scenario with dedication. It’s a four-player online co-operative game that, like a child trying to build a few sandcastles at once, is spread out across multiple sandboxes. The combat forms the core of the game and is mostly melee focussed and very much stat-based, not unlike the vast majority of MMORPG’s. The story keeps the cliché combo up by continuously alternating between the most common end goals in a zombie scenario, such as defending your home base, escaping the infected area or inventing a cure. So, as you can tell, with the possible exception of Left for Dead no zombie game is as formulaic as this one.

That doesn’t take away that Dead Island is certainly quite fun and is put together quite competently. Like in most zombie games most of your time is spent looking at a standing corpse while either shooting it or trying to smash it’s brains in and in this case we find a clear preference for the latter. Luckily, I can report that cutting through zombie flesh with big stodgy meat cleavers in this game is pretty satisfying, akin to popping bubble wrap with a pneumatic hammer. The fact that slicing a cleaver through an undead’s throat has a punchy feel to it and creates an orgy of blood and severed limbs might sound like an irrelevant detail, but I’ll say the same thing as I said in my Symphony of the Night review: it is the thing you will be doing for the vast majority of your playtime, so if turning enemies into Swiss cheese comes with some visceral joy then that, like the Swiss flag, is a big plus. 

That said, not every weapon is equally engaging to use. Machetes and knives pack a suitable punch, but batons often seem to hit way harder than their size suggests, which makes them feel like they have an invisible brick taped to their end. Mallets are very awkward to use. They have a thing in common with penises in that they are always a bit shorter than their owner likes to think they are. This led to many situations where I flung a sledgehammer a few centimetres before my target’s face as if I only intended to smash his nose off to make an impromptu Lord Voldemort replica. The game’s melee system also reminded me of that of Ride to Hell: Retribution and when that name comes up, that’s not a very good sign. The resemblance between the two games is that the kick attack is extremely overpowered as it knocks enemies down, can’t be interrupted, interrupts most enemy attacks and deals damage as well. Since the time they require to get back up again is usually enough to die of old age you won’t have problems dispatching most hordes this way, which turns a lot of the game into a ‘disabled kicking simulator’, which doesn’t pose a very meaty challenge.

The guns very clearly take a back seat, with no more than about five guns in the entire game. Ammunition is very scarce, so you won’t be shooting any other enemies than humans since they all use guns and therefore drop bullets. This causes the situation where all encounters with human enemies are firefights and all fights with the undead are melee-focussed. It’s a shame that this separates both combat styles. You can’t mow down zombies with your one or two guns because of a lack of bullets and you can’t beat marauding survivors to bits with a paddle because of an excess of bullets, in your guts to be precise. On the other hand, the game offers you a choice of four playable characters and this at least provides situations where the gun-focussed character is at an advantage, which at least gives the character system some use. 

To elaborate on the character system; the other three survivors specialize in knives, blunt weapons and throwing weapons. As I mentioned, blunt weapons are useless since you can’t estimate your range and the throwing weapons expert has his issues as well. He specializes in throwing regular melee weapons at the enemy and since you can’t carry more than twelve weapons or so at a time you can’t fend off more than half the walkers in an average horde. The other half will then have ample opportunity to select the tastiest part of your buttocks for consumption while you are busy looking at the floor to collect all those weapons again. So essentially, your choice is limited to guns or knives, with the deciding factor being whether you want an edge in the first half of the game, when zombies are the primary enemy, or if you want a lead in the second part, when there are more guns lying around than in an average Texan shopping mall. However, I played through the entire game with the gun specialist and noticed no drawbacks when I broke out the fisticuffs, so it can all be safely disregarded.

Beyond their questionable gameplay differences an attempt was made to give all four characters basic personalities, which are very evenly spread out across the spectrum of selfishness. These identities are almost solely conveyed through cutscenes which come across as a little weird when you play the game on your own. After all, they always involve all four characters even if they aren’t all present in gameplay. I like that the leads clearly differ a bit from each other as far as personality is concerned, but the problem remains that they influence the story perhaps even less than I as a reviewer influence the course of the gaming industry. Although a lot of events lead to bickering between the two more selfish and the two less selfish characters, they always decide to just go along with whatever other people suggest. They never make a decision that alters the course of the story. 
Also, their dialogues are more corny than the state of Iowa and entirely one-dimensional. Mister blunt weapons specialist has a problem in particular in that, in cutscenes, he always gestures as if he is receiving electroshock-therapy even though he maintains the tone of voice he could use to ask missus blunt weapons specialist to pass the salt. But what ultimately kills characters for me in Dead Island, beyond zombies I mean, is the horrible facial animation. Characters could be shooting the walking corpse of a former loved one, could be bleeding to death or could be sobbingly telling the story of a former comrade who sacrificed himself for them, they always maintain this dozy look in their eyes that suggests they are coming off anaesthetics. This, combined with the corny, exaggerated Australian accent, kills the game’s many attempts at making me feel sad for the struggling and suffering of the robots pretending to be human characters.

Dead Island: where the NPCs have less facial expressions than the zombies.

I’d better warn you that some very light spoilers are around the bend. Now that I’ve given it some thought, a lot of the story involves the four leads being led around by the nose by a large variation of secondary characters; a problem that also frustrated me in Grand Theft Auto V. For instance, on one occasion the game shifts to an entirely different mini-sandbox because of that one character who we ask to transport us to the ultimate goal of the game says: ‘I can’t take you there, but there’s this other place that’s totally not where you want to go, shall we just pop over there?’ And even without a reply from the protagonists that just happens then. At another point in the game we spend four missions just to please one other character so that he will let us through to our goal, but when we are almost done with that we get a radio call from another character, saying that we don’t need to help him and that there’s another route to where we need to be, rendering the past hour of gameplay pointless. 
For completeness’s sake I should probably elaborate on the fact that Dead Island is an online co-op game. I only joined a four-player game on one occasion and then I noticed that Dead Island shares a problem with Trove in that there is a difference between playing with someone else and playing alongside someone else. It doesn’t do the co-op much good that, like Trove, Dead Island is in the latter category. Besides reviving each other and exchanging items there is very little player-to-player interaction which means that, most of the time, all four players are simply all bashing heads in without interacting with each other. No characters or abilities exist solely to buff other players or offer some kind of supporting role. But as much as that damages the co-op experience, I like that it works this way because it allows the game to stand up to scrutiny when you play by yourself. You never really need others, so this gives the game some versatility. It can be co-op if you want it to be, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Dead Island was developed by a studio called ‘Techland’, but it’s not quite an example of unparalleled technical prowess. Graphics-wise it looks a bit like the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games. Everything looks like it’s shrink-wrapped in plastic and that there are very little small details. Some textures, like those on the big rocks that mark the end of the mini-sandboxes, are extremely blurry. Furthermore, the game makes very temperamental use of invisible walls. Often you can just shimmy your way through a lot of alleged obstacles, but not everywhere and sometimes such a barrier seems really artificial and unnecessary. Using the map to avoid the invisible walls is impossible since the only map is a satellite photograph which shows nothing since the world is filled with more vegetation than a three days old forgotten cheese sandwich.

Silverain here just to expand a little further on the technical aspects of the game, it is very poorly optimised and even computers that have far beyond the capabilities to run the game will experience slow down and the occasional sluggishness as it demands far more CPU power than it really should require. Case in point my own play through with Haxmonster (See Below) was forced short as the Dead Island would often cause my CPU to overheat.

So the game really discourages exploration and prefers that you just drive everywhere in a car. Cars make you nigh invincible since the zombies apparently never played GTA when they were still alive and can’t figure out that they can simply pull the car door open and pull me out. Of course they can damage cars but I got through the entire game without one car ever being destroyed.

You might get the impression that Dead Island is quite an easy game with the overpowered kick attack and indestructible cars and you would be completely right to deduce that. I could finish most of the game with only Silverain tagging along or just by myself. I am not even sure if ‘insultingly easy’ covers it. Zombies usually move very slowly, can’t open doors or climb ladders and, worst of all, there are next to no consequences when you die. You respawn mere meters from your death with all damage you did to zombies still remaining. All you lose is a percentage of money and using money is very much optional. You can pay money to repair or upgrade weapons but if you just complete enough quests, and you will since that’s the only activity in the game, you are constantly loaded down with better weapons to replace the broken ones. Speaking of optional, fighting zombies in it’s entirety is optional as well. Often you can just run past all zombie hordes and close a door behind you, which they can’t open, and you are safe for ever. 

 If you want to see Dead Island in action you can see me and Hax Monster roam the first few areas here.
But in conclusion I think it’s safe to say that Dead Island is fairly amusing, provided you skip a lot of it’s repetitive, dull sidequests. The central gameplay mechanic, the melee combat, is satisfying and I don’t really feel like anything important is missing from the formula. Running a zombie over or smashing is head in is a simple kind of pleasure, but it’s undeniably fun. So, if you still enjoy zombies at this point, disregard most of the previous things I mentioned and pick it up! 
Hang on a minute!

I think I’ve just realized something. As the opening paragraph of this review revealed I believe that zombie games as a genre are more dead than the walking corpses the genre is based around, but just maybe the developers of Dead Island feel the same way. Fighting zombies is optional; they are merely an occupational hazard that you can run past. The biggest enemies are usually humans. In the third act there is even an entire section where the game turns into Far Cry 2, and we find ourselves running through jungle slums wielding an AK-47, fighting a war between two small militant faction leaders with weird accents. Can we still call that a zombie game?

Suddenly it all makes sense! Time to submit it to the ultimate zombie-game test. I kept count of the amount of times Dead Island uses the word ‘zombie’, which one would expect to be quite a high amount since it depicts a zombie apocalypse. The final count, however, is around…
Maybe it’s about accents after all. Gud on ya, ded ayland!


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