Part of a well-defined genre of video games that often features some sort of special focus in order to make the game uniquely its own, Dead Island is no exception to the rule or the trend -- with its "hook" consisting of several elements, not the least of which is you waking up on a resort island in the South Pacific with no memory of what happened the night before, and suddenly trapped in a world in which the vast majority of the inhabitants -- including the hotties that you unsuccessfully hit on while partying the night before -- have turned into brain-eating flesh-munching inarticulate undead creatures whose fondest desire is to crack your skull open and eat your brains... No, we are not talking about the board of directors for the Republican National Party, we are talking about Zombies!
A first-person survival-horror action-adventure video game with RPG elements that was developed by veteran studio Techland (FIM Speedway Grand Prix series, the Call of Juarez series, and Nail'd) and fronted by publisher Deep Silver (the Warhammer series, the Secret Files series, and Catherine), the game was professionally promoted and carefully developed to deliver a well-defined experience that hits all of the high-notes, delivering exactly what you would expect from a survival-horror game while at the same time constantly surprising you. That is not to say that it is the perfect Survival-horror game -- we will get to that -- but it does have its moments, and it does manage to encapsulate an iconic experience.
Released with versions for Windows PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360, the base game is centered upon the challenge of survival on a zombie-infested open world island with a major emphasis on melee combat rather than the firearm-centric approach that has been done and over-done in the past decade to the point that when you first hear about yet another Zombie-focused Survival-horror game, your first reaction is "Oh man, another one?!" Thankfully while that may be your first reaction, once this title sinks its teeth into you (yeah, that was a bad pun) chances are you will never take that insincere sort of knowing attitude about a game genre again -- or at the very least will be less quick in jumping to that sort of conclusion.
Originally announced at E3 2006 and planned for a 2008 release date, Dead Island has something of a reputation as an E3 title mostly for good reason -- starting with the fact that while it was announced at E3 2006 it was then pulled from the active PR roles and eventually found itself pushed back to a 2011 release date, resulting in its appearance at a few more E3's than is usually the case for a game, even a game in development. The reasons for the delay were never really fully explained by the studio, but one aspect of the game's development that was given plenty of attention was the wide variety of controversial events that seemed to plague the game, starting with the early release of a video trailer featuring the transformation of a young girl into a zombie that took on a life of its own in spite of the fact that it did not depict any content from the actual game.
In addition to the irreverent manner that the game treats death and the undead with -- an approach that garnered it more than its fair share of attention from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church -- an unlockable skill in the game that is called "Gender Wars" drew intense criticism from gay and lesbian rights groups as well as feminist rights groups, while the ultra-violent and bloody game play that is almost a character in the game found itself the focus of ire from parents groups from local PTA's and religious support organizations to a comment thought to have been made by the Pope himself.
The relatively tiny Dallas, Texas-based Westboro Baptist Church has enjoyed a disproportionately high level of international media attention over the past ten years largely because of its insensitive and vitriolic protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently for its vow to protest the funeral of recently deceased Apple co-founder Steven Jobs, who the church leaders and in particular the daughter of the church founder, Margie Phelps, maintained that Jobs "gave God no glory." If you perceive that as this church punishing Jobs for something that he failed to do, then you fully grasp their motivation. Ignoring for the moment that Jobs was not a member of their church or their religion, the delicious irony here is that the tweet Phelps posted announcing the planned protest was made from her iPhone, appearing on the social networking service with the embedded tag-line "5 Oct via Twitter for iPhone."
The issues that the church had with Dead Island were not that it failed to include God and religion in its story, but that it included the WRONG church and God -- with Phelps allegedly having commented to parishioners that the game includes characters who are members of a Catholic church on the island, and that "Catholics are Godless anti-christian terrorists who worship the Devil through images like the Virgin Mary and an army of false saints who will surely burn in hell." Rumors of plans by the church to picket GameStop locations in Dallas circulated, but the protests failed to materialize, and no official statements were made explaining that decision.
A feature that received far-wider publicity and anger is an unnamed unlockable skill for the playable character Purna which had the effect of increasing her combat damage versus male opponents in the game; Puma was referred to in connection with this feature during the early game development stages as a "Feminist Whore" -- a take that probably would have pleased the members of the Westboro Baptist Church -- and with that thought firmly in mind you probably do not want to know what they think of TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres either.
The man-damaging improvements, including Puma's unique one-hit-kill groin kick ability were either removed from the game before release, or the feature never progressed beyond the talking stage, since it was not included in the final release version. References to the ability can still be seen in the debug notes for the PC version in game, but Publisher Deep Silver describes that line as nothing more than a "private joke" made by one of the developers, confessing that it regretted its appearance in the final product.
Set on the fictional island of Banoi, which is located somewhere off of the coast of Papua New Guinea and Australia, the four playable main characters/protagonists are Logan, Purna, Sam B., and Xian Mei -- and as previously hinted, when they wake up in the Palms Resort Hotel experiencing the aftermath of a truly monumental hangover of the sort you can be justifiably proud of having survived, the adventure that you are about to embark upon consists of equal parts Survival-horror, Action-adventure, resource management, and combat skills with an emphasis upon melee combat.
There are guns in this game, but maintaining a ready supply of ammunition for them is problematical, and besides that, they are more useful against living and un-Zombiefied opponents than they are against the undead, who as it turns out can take on quite a load of lead without it stopping them unless you hit them in strategically-designated body locations. No, you should begin your first steps into this adventure having already acknowledged and being committed to a bloody hand-to-hand combat approach... We are just saying,
The strongest element in the game would have to be its very open-world roaming capabilities, though following the well-established traditions for open-world gaming of the action-adventure and RPG sort, full access to all of the areas of the island were not immediately available, as the player is required to complete different quests and missions within the story mode (campaign) in order to unlock them, similar in scope and execution to the mechanism that is probably best illustrated in games like the GTA series, which featured actual islands that were unlocked in this fashion, in place of the island parts unlocked in Dead Island.
The game presents a play perspective featuring a combination of first-person / third-person POV, with the former appearing largely in play, while the latter dominates the cut-scenes that illustrate the various missions and quests as well as tell the story during strategic transition sequences, such as when the city is unlocked by the player following their upgrade of an armored car found early in the First Act.
The primary game play focus in Dead Island is squarely upon melee combat in its many forms, and this is an important consideration for any review of the game, because it plays very well into both the story and the manner in which the player identifies with the protagonists. Not surprisingly the background and base abilities of the different characters include strengths and weaknesses that, if the gamer fails to pay strict attention to them when selecting the character that they will play as, can have a profound effect upon their successes and failures when they invariably try to use the wrong weapons.
While each of the playable characters has a basic set of abilities for melee and ranged combat, when gamers understand the strengths that each brings to their role in the game, the resulting game play experiences are markedly improved, and with the right weapon and having upgraded the optimal skill points and ability path, gamers experience extreme capabilities in game play that necessarily suffer if they fail to pay proper attention to the details. Roughly translated this means that giving the game its due by paying attention to the information that it freely provides, in addition to taking the time to actually experience and listen to the various dialogue points that are built into it often results in a very different experience in game play, and easily explains why some gamers (the ones who paid attention) view the game radically different than others (the ones who failed to pay attention).
No assessment of game play in this title can be complete without acknowledging the massive and impressive weapon customization system, the vehicular customization and combat systems, and the different RPG elements that, while they may at first feel like genre-busting elements, nonetheless add whole new and additional facets to the game and its entertainment values.
While Dead Island is nothing like Borderlands in its approach to weapon customization, the work-bench driven system, combined with the need to loot a wide variety of components, allows gamers to create basic archetypes of weapons that are really only limited by their basic condition, which is an element that gamers have limited control over through the repair system that is also part of the work-bench approach. The best results are obtained by choosing a specific class of weapon and then sticking to it, maintaining a set of primary and secondary weapons in the class as well as one or two backup weapons in the class for you to use when access to a work-bench is simply not convenient.
A well-engineered XP and Advancement System
Among the many stand-out features in the game -- I mean really, when you get to the security room in the resort you discover that you need to reboot the Windows NT systems that power the security camera array (and these are located in equipment racks in a room that looks eerily similar to our IT department here at Gaming Update) the uber-realism really strikes home! -- the XP and Advancement systems are stand-out and very spiffy.
The underlying theme of the experience system -- which is directly connected to the Skill Tree System, the Stamina Bar, and Skills Development System -- implies a relationship that is clearly built for each character. Considering that the stamina bar ends up being the most important hear-and-now concern when you are off on your own rather than playing as a member of a four-player team, taking whatever steps you have to in order to improve it, while not obvious and not something that the game comes right out and tells you to do, is nonetheless an important focus for gamers who only need to realize that after a set amount of physical actions their abilities to defend themselves -- no matter how awesome that their primary weapon is -- becomes seriously effected.
From running to jumping and swinging your weapon, and even using the special abilities that you have unlocked, the nexessity to find a safe place to stop in order to catch your breath and to regain stamina ends up being the only real bottleneck in the game. In the early levels this is not such a big deal since (1) there are plenty of places that you can find to recover, including simply shutting yourself into a bathroom, and (2) the Zombie types that you encounter early in the game are not really all that tough, but rather the danger that they pose is more reflected in how many of them there are to fight at any given moment rather than their innate abilities to render you incapacitated and eat your brains... Something that, later in the game, seems to happen way too frequently.
Once you begin to encounter the "special class" of Zombies in the later levels you actually need to begin employing specific strategies -- and while play through the first half of the game is relatively easy for a single player, the benefits of having other real, human gamers playing with you becomes painfully clear. The AI in Dead Island is not bad -- don't take this the wrong way -- but the second half of the game really does require you to act strategically, which is something that the AI cannot do.
About that whole multi-player thing...
Up until now we have barely touched upon the multi-player cooperative side of the game, but as you play this game it quickly becomes obvious that it was designed and engineered for multi-player cooperative play, an approach that has been building support in the gaming community over the past few years to the point that it is an almost expected element in modern game design.
The hard core and largely traditional old-school gamer set has so far successfully resisted the trend towards the transformation of the standard console game into an online social and strategic group-play environment, and as the second decade of the 21st Century begins to unfold in earnest, this is a development that gamers are going to need to grapple with and embrace, or at the very least find some sort of uneasy peace with, because as fun as the traditional single-player campaign is the writing is on the wall.
Traditional games focused on single-player, offline story mode and campaign play are not only destined to not receive the love the once did, but your insistence in having your interest in maintaining that standard as the status quo is an approach that game studios are destined to stop supporting.
The Times They Are a-Changin' is singer-songwriter Bob Dylan's third studio album, and its release in January of 1964 may as well have been meant to serve as the clarion call to gamers in 2011 -- urging them to accept the things that they cannot change (and this is one of them) and embrace the new. To be honest I do not like the idea of being forced into depending upon other gamers for my game play joy any more than the average gamer does, but when you are confronted by this sort of event it is often easier to accept of you have already committed to accepting it.
I bring all of this up and cover it in some detail solely to segue into the following suggestion: rather than viewing games like Dead Island, in which your continued enjoyment requires the cooperation of other gamers who, if you are unfortunate, largely exist as unknown names and faces in pick-up games, take an entirely different and more committed approach to the issue by vowing to master it and make it your bitch! What am I talking about? Either join an existing (but preferably large) gamer group or console "guild" or start you own, inviting the gamers that you meet in games who are not jerks to join it, and thereby developing a community of like-minded gamers who have the same problems (and needs) that you do, giving yourself a ready and willing community of gamer partners with which to game! Simpatico!
Observations and Conclusions
No matter how interesting a game's premise is, and no matter how well-built and carefully engineered it is, there are always going to be negatives.
Canadian Actor Nathan Fillion -- perhaps best known for his roles as Captain Malcolm "Captain Mal" Reynolds in the television series Firefly, and as mystery writer and police consultant Richard Castle on the ABC series Castle, is a serious gamer who is not shy about admitting that he loves to game. In addition to acting in film and on TV he was Gao the Lesser in the game Jade Empire (2005), and in games that can only be classified as iconic and important, he was Gunnery Sergeant Reynolds in Halo 3 (2007), and Gunnery Sergeant Eddie Buck in both Halo 3: ODST (2009), and Halo: Reach (2010), clearly having received the honor of working on three of the most important video games so far in the 21st Century.
I bring this up because of a conversation that I overhead between Fallion and his companion in a restaurant in LA in which the memorable discussion was gaming. I know, I know, it is really not polite to eavesdrop and even more rude to talk about a conversation that someone else had when you were not part of it -- but the point that he was making so nicely fits with the thought I am communicating in this review that it is irresistible. Sorry Nathan...
They were discussing a specific video game, but as I was not taking notes and did not record the conversation -- which would have been really really wrong not to mention probably illegal -- I cannot give you a verbatim recital of what was said, but there is no need, because it is not so much what he said, as it is the idea that he was communicating that is important here...
In commenting to his dining companion that no matter how good a game is there is always going to be something about it that you don't like, because just like perfect roles, there are no perfect games, and one of the things that he found that he did not like about the game that they were discussing was the fact that for the most part its primary game play element consisted of the same set of activities repeated over-and-over.
He remarked that this is one aspect of game play that really got under his skin, and while the game that they were discussing was not Dead Island, it could have been.,,
The premise in Dead Island is a good one, the story is interesting, and the game world is well designed and well-rendered, making for a good combination of elements -- but the elephant in the room and the issue that keeps coming back, again and again, whenever I think about the game, is the fact that you end up killing so many Zombies that it just gets old quickly. After the first hour in fact, and even when you try to find new and more interesting ways to dispatch them, eventually even your average 15-year-old gamer who likes repetition is going to start to not like it.
It is not a game-killing issue largely because despite the fact that you kill an awful lot of Zombies -- actually you do not kill any since they are technically already dead, but whatever -- it is a game about surviving a Zombie infestation on a massive scale. To do that you follow the story line, collect clues, and complete missions and quests, and THAT is what the game is about. Killing of Zombies is at first just a bonus, and then later when you get tired of it, a curse.
Eventually you will reach a point in which you have to space-out your game play in this title. Usually that point begins to be an issue around mid-way through Act 2. That is OK though, because it is not like this is the only game in the world, and besides, playing Survival-horror games for long and unbroken sessions is probably not healthy at all... Either way though you will likely find that the best way to play Dead Island is as part of your regular game play rotation, giving it an hour or two and then slotting something else.
Taking that approach will keep the game fresh and interesting, and is especially useful when you encounter quests and missions that lead to frustration, like the mission to repair the loudspeakers that are scattered all over the city to help the Sister get her message out that the Church is now operating as a sanctuary for survivors of the Zombie breakout. Trying to find the access points to the rooftops on which the different speakers are placed can be especially trying while, at the same time, you are also trying to keep the local Zombie population from killing you!
I don't mind saying that this mission was a particularly frustrating one, and one of the few in the game that I was very happy to see the end of, and happier still that I would never have to play that particular mission again!
As difficult as this is to believe, largely because there are bugs in the game, so far in all of our bug encounters we have not found a single game-breaking bug, and that is a good thing! The vast majority of the bugs we did encounter were mostly visual ones, and areas in the game world in which you can get stuck. A few times so stuck that we had to quit and restart the game to get out of the mess that that bug got us into, but thankfully that does not happen often.
Assuming that you stick with the main story line, and avoid doing a lot of the side-quests, a single playthrough for Dead Island should take around 25 hours -- but why would you want to do that?! Seriously, if you play it the way that it was intended to be played, and you complete most of the side-quests that you encounter, a more accurate play time for a single playthrough jumps to 40+ hours, and that gives the game an Average Admission Price of $1.49 an hour -- based on the RRP of $59.99 USD.
After playing the hell out of the game and really applying ourselves to the side-quests and all of the missions, Dead Island earned a rating of 8 out of 10, deducting a point for the various bugs, and a point for
Dead Island probably will not be taking home any Game of the Year awards from major gaming publications or shows, but on the other hand it also will not likely be receiving low reviews and negative recommendations either. It is not a flawed game per se, though it is true that its controls take a lot of getting used to, and the visual bugs and sticking points can be annoying. Among the negative aspects of this game is the over-all feeling that despite having extra YEARS of development, it still somehow ended up being released early.
If that sounds like we are saying that there is a lot wrong with this game, bear in mind that we are also saying that there is a lot right! One of the things that they did right was the huge open world that we get to explore, which is packed with interesting things to discover, and more than an adequate supply of quests and missions, and people and Zombies to hate, harsh upon, and kill! Despite some frustration with having to kill a lot of Zombies just to clear the way so you can climb a ladder, or the odd way in which the slow-moving Zombies suddenly amp-up and become faster-than-light killing machines, at the end of each game session we always went away wanting more, and that says a lot right there!
Dead Island gets a high replay score, and a BUY rating from us, along with the warning that it is not a game you will want to play around small children. The full retail version of Dead Island was released in North America on September 6th, 2011, and worldwide on September 9th, 2011 -- excluding the game's release in Germany and in Japan (November 4th). The RRP for Xbox 360 and PS3 is $59.99 USD. and for PC $49.99 USD, with availability via digital distribution networks.
Official Title: Dead Island
Developing Studio: Techland
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: September 6, 2011
Platforms: Xbox 360 / PS3 / Windows PC
Genre: Survival Horror / Action Adventure / RPG
Ratings: ESRB M (for Mature) / PEGI: 18