Upon hearing about Dead Island five or so years ago, I was excited. A zombie game that has you fighting for survival against the undead on a tropical resort island in an open world setting? They had my attention. Then, when the game made a resurgence this year after an extended period of silence, they added RPG elements?! They had me begging them to take my money so I could stomp through this lush open world, lying waste to legions of undead resort goers. Now that the game has been released, I have to say that, though I am not sorely disappointed, the game is simply a buggy mess. While playable, sabotages a lot of fun with both bewildering and poor design choices, making the game extremely hard to love.
I should mention that, since its release, Techland has spoken of issuing a patch for the game. It was supposed to be released on day one but according to the press, it has been a no show. Being a college student whose university blocks Xbox Live/Playstation Network access, I would not have been able to get a patch anyhow. Given that they were already patching the game the day the game came out, it is clear that Techland should have pushed the game back a few weeks, even a few months to fix this because, as it stands, the bugs are hard to look past. Again, some people may find the fun factor trumps the bugs, but for those looking for an amount of polish, this game will disappoint and frustrate.
Players start the game by choosing from an assortment of characters, all having their own back-story and unique set of skills ranging from firearms to blades to throwing (e.g. throwing blades and such). Then they are thrown into the plot, in which a mysterious plague has besieged the resort island of Banoi, turning those (minus a fortunate few) exposed to the virus into walking corpses, hungry for the flesh of the living. Players will travel all over the island to utterly unexpected locations in an attempt to both escape and get to the bottom of what led to the viral outbreak.
One thing the game has going for it is atmosphere. While playing the game, I was genuinely unnerved. I am not one to get scared of video games, but I found myself having to talk myself into even walking around the next corner for fear of running into one of them. I frequently paused the game just to let my nerves relax a little bit. Yes, it was that scary. Running from the beasts, you can feel them breathing down your neck, you can hear their wretched moans and crazed screams as they relentlessly pursue you. The game had me constantly looking over my shoulder.
The first person combat that drives the game is primarily of the melee flavor, as firearms are a rarity around the island and ammo is equally scarce. This is where things got sticky. For one, the melee system automatically targets limbs, which leads to countless misplaced swings. There were many times where I could swear my spiked baseball bat was leveled at a zombie’s head, only to have it smash into the zombies arm. When I was getting swarmed, this led to many frustrating deaths.
Another problem was that, when I finally got my hands of some firearms, they did less damage than melee weapons. I get that this is an RPG and weapons have stats, but it is pretty much ingrained into the zombie cannon (or any cannon for that matter) that when you put a bullet in something’s brain, living or otherwise, it should drop. Apparently that is not the case here. However, when things actually did go right with the combat, the dismemberment, fountains of blood and exploding heads were quite a sight to behold and made each well placed (intentional or not) blow satisfying.
There is a wide variety of weapons to unleash on the undead as well. Anything from oars to pipes to kitchen knives is up for grabs as a weapon along with the aforementioned rare firearms. These weapons can then be upgraded at workbenches (more on those soon) with materials found around the island once you find the blueprints for said upgrades. I was wielding an electrified machete for quite some time and had some bloody good fun with it. You can also craft weapons from scratch such as deodorant bombs (quite clever) and Molotov cocktails that can be immensely destructive.
In addition to upgrading weapons, in true RPG fashion, there are three skill trees that players can work their way through. These skills range from better aim with handguns, more endurance when swinging melee weapons and even one that ups your chances of finding rare loot. This was probably my favorite part of the game as all of the skill upgrades felt genuinely helpful and in no way pointless. Given that I opted for the firearms expert, when I unlocked abilities that allowed me to carry more ammo, find more ammo in ammo stashes and do more damage with my shots, I was overjoyed. Leveling up in the game is just as exciting as lopping a zombies head off.
The game world is split up into various areas such as a jungle setting, the resort and a city/slums area. In these areas, there are usually several stronghold occupied by the few fortunate living who will give you side quests to go out on. The side quests, though plentiful, unfortunately, fall into the inane “go find me this item/person” or “go here, kill this” categories which are exhausted RPG clichés. Not to mention that the quest givers do not adapt to what character you are playing as. I was playing as a woman and was constantly referred to as either a man or spoken to as if I was with a party of people in co-op even when I was alone. It got to be distracting after awhile, even more so when cut scenes depicted me with all of the possible party members when I was not playing the game in co-op.
One totally out of place thing that should be mentioned as well is the money system implemented into the game. Scattered throughout the world are workbenches which you can repair weapons at. For whatever reason, you have to pay to get weapons repaired. Who is my money going to? I am the only one standing at the bench, so why am I being charged? Following this line of thought also foregoes the totally idiotic idea that these small, barely surviving factions of humans are charging the person who they are tasking with countless favors money so that they can carry on with said favors. Given how sparse supplies are and how fast weapons can degrade, being forced to pay to repair my weapons was an enraging proposition when I was in the middle of a quest and was short on cash…thus rendering me defenseless. Speaking of quest progress…
One thing that open world RPG’s have had pretty much since their inception is a save-anywhere system. Going to try attacking that creature that is way above your level? Go for it! Just save and you don’t have to worry about being sent back to God knows where if you are brutally slaughtered. Apparently, the devs over at Techland do not follow this school of thought. Instead, this 20+ hour zombie epic is saddled with a woefully inconsistent checkpoint system. Upon death, you lose money and spawn after a five second wait. Where you will spawn is usually unknown unless you have been paying close attention to the corner of the screen for the checkpoint symbol; you may spawn right next to the swarm of zombies that just slaughtered you or you may spawn in a spot you were at ten minutes prior, leading to a frustrating hike back to where you were.
Another frustrating aspect of death in Dead Island is that, when you re-spawn, all of your weapons stay in the condition in which they were in when you died. This means that, if the game decided to spawn you right next to that undead swarm that just made a luncheon of you, odds are you are screwed if your weapons aren’t up to snuff. Essentially, repeated deaths led to me being a broke, defenseless sod that was destined to be zombie food for all eternity. This led to, you guessed it, rage-inducing frustration that I swear, had it not been for the exceptionally thin walls in my apartment building, would have led to a strung together series of profanities that would have rivaled Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in length.
Along with these annoyances comes a laundry list of other technical glitches. There is frequent clipping in all of the environments, items that should be on the ground float just above it and the controls can feel sluggish at times. The cars scattered around the island for players to drive, when you plow over a zombie, get blood on the windshield that blinds you, even when the windshield has already been broken, giving you a nice floating gob of blood right in front of your face that renders the vehicle nearly un-drivable. These are just a taste of the smaller technical deficiencies that riddle Dead Island and it is sad to see so many good ideas hampered by poor programming.
Before I finish here, it should definitely be mentioned that the game features a co-op feature that allows plays to team up with friends via internet connection and play through the game cooperatively. Sadly, you cannot team on one screen. As long as you have a dedicated set of friends that want to spend a lot of time playing this game (given the quality of ideas, I’m sure there will be plenty willing to look past the bugs that I cannot), co-op should provide a lot of people wanting to team up, though some of the tension is dispelled.
In the end, while I understand that Techland is a smaller studio that is more than likely not as well funded as many of the big name ones out there and may not be able to afford as many game testers and such, I really find the amount of bugs in this game inexcusable. Dead Island has many great ideas to offer, all wrapped up in one of the most unique gaming experiences out there and Techland really stumbled out the gate on this one. While I agree that Dead Island may have been overshadowed by bigger titles like Call of Duty or Uncharted 3 if they had they spent more time polishing the game, this just means that perhaps they should have pushed it back until Q1 2012 instead of shoving it out the door in its current state. While people that can look past annoyances easily will definitely find a lot to love in Dead Island, those that expect polish in their $60 game purchases will want to steer clear until the game is patched up more.