Dead Island Hands-On Campaign Preview -- A Three Hour Toooour...of Hell on EarthBy Sophie Prell - Posted Aug 01, 2011
Dead Island. Its debut trailer was heralded as one of the most daring and emotionally-charged of all time. The slow, somber music – which I'm listening to even now as I type this preview – was even a small meme for a time, covered by Toby Turner of literal video game trailers fame and inserted into Lord of the Rings. And damn if it doesn't make me tear up just thinking about it.
But having played Dead Island for a good three-plus hours (one hour per session, as it was a timed build), I can't help this nagging feeling that itches at the base of my neck like an infected love bite from one of the island's inhabitants. I can't help but wonder: Would we be here, talking about Dead Island, if it wasn't for that trailer? Keep in mind the copy I played was clearly a preview build, and developer Techland still has a little time to polish things up between now and the Dead Island release date of September 6, so take the following criticisms with a grain of sea salt.
Dead Island feels like a hodgepodge of good ideas without supporting bridges to connect them. When mixing a tropical island paradise setting where the Chrome 5 engine can flex its muscles with a classic zombie apocalypse scenario and first-person melee controls, one would think the end result might be a proverbial peanut butter and jelly sandwich: two items, each delightful and scrumptious on their own, combined to make a unified, tasty whole. But that's not how Dead Island feels. Instead, it's more like a peanut butter and T-bone steak sandwich covered in gummy bears.
One major problem is that Dead Island is supposedly an open-world game, but in truth works best when performing in highly-constructed areas like the hotel or garden pools which sit just outside tourist bungalows. Should you decide to blow off the survivors and just aimlessly whack away at zombies – and who are we kidding? You will – the incentives and rewards for playing practically disappear. While side missions encountered on or near the main quest's objectives often reward you with unique items or access to new areas, the extremely few I encountered while exploring in the opposite direction of the main quest basically amounted to someone trapped by a handful of undead.
“Help me!” they would scream from within a besieged lifeguard shack or stranded atop a concert stage as zombies reached and clawed hungrily at their meal. Skulls would pop up on the radar, indicating which zombies had to be killed before the area was considered safe. Once these were cleared, the victim typically gave a small variation on the short and sweet, “Thanks for saving me!” And... that's pretty much it. One survivor had a wrench and several health-restoring apples nearby, but these and similar items are littered everywhere on the island.
More maddening though was the fact that, despite having just been attacked, cornered, and subsequently rescued, most survivors were stationary. “Oh, that safehouse you came from with metal gates, more survivors, and weapons? No thanks, I've got apples.” Fellow survivors are similarly lifeless, both in terms of physical construction and personality. There just wasn't any depth or complexity to anyone I encountered. Similarly, quests never amounted to more than “Go here, kill/get this.” I would hardly expect the variety of a Saints Row, but there are only so many times and ways I can kill zombies without it feeling repetitive.
When I was sent to fetch gasoline to burn the corpses of my fallen foes, the quest-giver hardly blinked, figuratively and literally. Because while the game world looks great, with wide open views, exceptional draw distances, and dramatic lighting effects, textures are murky and humans look static and angular. The flat, dead eyes are particularly disturbing when viewed up close. Long initial boot up and loading screens between some areas are also indicative that the game may be pulling a weight too heavy for its own good.
All of this keeps the game from feeling unified or strung together. At its best, there were moments, flashes of intense satisfaction and direction. At its worst, it felt like a haphazard mess. Many elements we take for granted just don't come together here. A bat swings almost exactly like a cleaver, and neither gives recoil, so weapons feel weightless and flimsy. Controls can be jerky, there's no block button, and the environment doesn't react much to player presence. Even swatting a beach ball somehow feels... off.
This isn't to say that Dead Island is completely without merit. Smashing zombies is just plain fun. Get a good headshot off and you can crush in the entire skull or cleave right through the neck, depending on the weapon. The occasional slow-mo gives just enough time to shout, “Awwww yeahhhhhhh,” and when infected start to gang up on you, adrenaline flows like wine, generous and exciting to the senses. Having a buddy with you increases the number of zombies – though sometimes they spawn right on top of one another – and the game becomes even more engaging trying to tackle the island as a team.
The leveling system is also a fantastic way to encourage play and rewards players by making their progress reflect on their unique character. The tank class can become an extremely heavy-hitter, while the leader class can boost everyone's overall effectiveness. Combine this with the emphasis on loot and weapon statistics, not to mention the customization options available for said weapons, and the whole thing has a very Borderlands vibe to it.
So while I question the validity of Dead Island claim of open-world exploration, struggled with some flimsy controls, and found the overall tone of my few hours with the game lacking, I nonetheless say the game is fun. Even if it is a bit disjointed and unpolished in its current state.