Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Dead Island

Post-Launch Review
Dead Island (PC)
Developer: Techland
Released: September 2011
Played: story complete in 23 hours


When an outbreak of the living dead strikes the tropical island resort of Banoi, a group of survivors must work together to fight through the horde and escape the island in this open-world first-person RPG.

At Launch

Dead Island was well received, earning average review scores of 80% for the PC version and 71% for the consoles. Reviewers loved the open world, combat, and RPG systems, and co-op, but there was a lot of criticism for bugs, primarily on the consoles. Many of the bugs were annoyances but there were more severe ones such as disappearing weapons and broken save files.

Post Launch

Patches were released to fix many of the major issues, though there is still trouble with disappearing weapons and PC save problems.
The Ryder White DLC provides a shorter campaign that follows the key character before the events of the main story; the Ripper DLC adds a new weapon blueprint; and the Bloodbath Arena DLC adds an arena where players can fight zombies for loot/money and find new weapon mods.
All DLC items are included in the Game of the Year edition.

I had some performance issues - partially frame rate,  partially sluggish aim. The Dead Island Helper tool fixed that right up.

The island of Banoi looks quite nice, and it's a pleasant departure from the typical gloom-and-doom dirty post-apocalypse of most zombie games. A zombie horde in a vacation resort is a weird and kind of unsettling contrast - it's surprisingly unnerving and tense to wander around the pool bar on a bright sunny day with no one there except a couple of bloody corpses. Act II in the city of Moresby is closer to your standard zombie setting, but it's still interesting because you can tell it wasn't a nice place even before the outbreak. The jungle is also an unusual and novel setting for zombies, with all the greenery and visible humidity, but it's a little too rocky with not enough vegetation for my taste. The level of detail in the environments is good, and the lighting engine works very nicely with all the intricate shadows and their movement, as well as clouds of dust and fog.

At one point I picked up a quest - find the plane that went down in the jungle - and the quest immediately disappeared from my quest log. Huh? Where'd it go, I wanted to do that! I thought this was a weird bug, but research showed that there's a reason (albeit a silly one): I couldn't complete this quest yet. I was in act 1, and the quest area can't be accessed until act 3. The quest shows up again when you access act 3. I guess that makes sense, but that confusion could easily have been avoided by keeping the quest in the log and marking it as "currently inaccessible".

And that's not the only UI problem. Quest tracking and navigation are pretty terrible. The map doesn't zoom out far enough. You can only track one quest at a time. If you want to compare the distance to several destinations, you have to set an active quest, flip to the map, flip back, set a new quest, go to the map again, etc. The minimap doesn't display terrain, only your active quest marker and maybe the path to get there (though if the path doesn't bug out and disappear, it might try to send you through rock).

But enough negativity for now; there's time for that later.

I like the emphasis on scavenging and melee fighting. A tropical resort isn't going to have too many firearms on hand, so it fits the setting. Your melee weapons constantly take damage (lose durability) as you use them, and actually degrade visibly (blades get bent, for example), so you have to keep several weapons on hand, watch for damage, and repair when you can. There's a lot of stuff to pick up off the ground, but it'll be weaker than your rare and upgraded gear, so you don't want to be caught off guard. And even once you do find guns, ammo is rare and you can't carry very much.

You repair and upgrade weapons at a workbench. For some reason, repairing and upgrading eat your money, which is pretty weird. I guess I can understand if the reasoning was that the developers didn't want to have two currencies (money and repair material) so that the player wouldn't have to trade money for mats (or the other way around) all the time, but really, how is money upgrading a baseball bat? Am I embedding quarters in the wood for extra weight? Anyway, a lot of the weapon mods are really cool, and add a lot of visual flair to the weapons. Nails or barbed wire in a wooden baseball bat adds bleed; a glowing superheated knife blade gives fire damage; wires that shoot sparks for an electrical mod.

Levelling up is pretty interesting, too. Now that I think about it, Dead Island is like Borderlands with less guns and more zombies - first-person loot-based RPG. Your abilities are split into three trees: one for your character's unique rage skill, one for combat, and one called survival for combat utility and exploration-based upgrades (like lockpicking, increasing your chances of good loot, inventory size, alcohol combat buffs, etc). It takes a little while to build up steam and get your character doing what you want to focus on, but every boost helps.

Anyway, to go back to the zombies: what Dead Island does best is constant tension. Combat is always dangerous no matter what your level, and this is a great fit for a zombie game. You use endurance to attack, jump, and sprint, but endurance is also lost when you take damage. Single zombies are no threat, but you need constant vigilance to make sure you don't get swarmed. Taking on too many zombies can get you ripped to shreds in a heartbeat - every time they hit you your ability to hit back diminishes. It can feel unfair at times when you don't see an attack coming, but it's not actually unfair - you just weren't paying enough attention.
The biggest annoyance I had with combat is throwing weapons, despite how fun that can be. I played as Logan - who specializes in throwing stuff - and I can't count the times I've nearly lost valuable gear due to clipping bugs (and, sadly, I actually did lose some valuable top-rarity weapons a few times). What happens is that bladed weapons stick in the bodies of the zombies when thrown. At first glance that's pretty cool - the zombie can still be up and active with a knife in its chest, and you can even pull it back out before the zombie is killed. The problem is that when a zombie dies with a weapon stuck in it, the weapon can get awkwardly hidden under the zombie when the corpse falls to the ground, and sometimes it can actually get forced into or through the ground. I've had to scour the area of a fight to find just the tip of the handle of my sword sticking out of the concrete, or kick zombies around a dozen times just to pull a machete out from under them. Sometimes you go to retrieve your thrown weapon and it's just gone - this happened to me with a rare, fully upgraded, and modified cleaver. And at the game's finale I didn't get a chance to retrieve my thrown katana, because the cutscene activated as soon as the boss died.

The other problem with throwing is that there's a pseudo-lock-on system - your reticle turns red and moves to the zombie when your aim is close enough, and if you throw you'll hit the zombie... probably. This does make it somewhat easier to aim while still rewarding accuracy, but sometimes throws go wild. I think what's happening is that your throw is still aimed at the centre of the screen, and the lock will guide your throw to your target only within a certain threshold. So you can think you'll hit and have your throw fly harmlessly over the zombie's shoulder.
Dead Island's biggest problem is its story - or lack thereof. Before I launch into criticism I will say that it did have some interesting stuff - the main one for me being a hidden research lab that's researching the zombie plague but isn't actually responsible for it. This lab is hidden in the jungle because their work had been sabotaged by animal rights activists, so they moved it to a harder-to-get to spot. Once there they found an interesting neurological disease among the native population, and when the zombie attacks hit they realized that the plague was related to this disease. So while the lab is performing some immoral research on the natives, the purpose is to find a cure for the outbreak, and the lab wasn't the outbreak's cause. I like that.

Back to the negative: the story is very bare bones and full of filler. Every time you meet a new group of survivors they send you on some inane fetch quests to get supplies before they'll help you. We think we can rig the hotel antenna to call for help, but first you need to get us some food and drinks. Oh sure we'll supply your group with water, but first you need to get us some gas. Of course we'll help you get to the research lab, but first you need to get us some weapons. It's interminable and really annoying.
One thing that struck me as odd is that at one point the game tries to set up a poignant heartbreaking moment between an infected father and his daughter - there's a tearful scene where he sends her away because he's been bitten, but she doesn't want to leave him - only I just met these people ten seconds ago so it's kind of weird.

The really weird thing (until I got used to it) was the cutscenes. Okay, mission complete, I get a cutscene, and - wait, who the hell are all these random people hanging around with my character? Oh, they're the other player characters. I played the game solo so I was a little confused. Dead Island assumes you're doing 4-player co-op, so regardless of how many characters are actually present, people refer to you as a group and you see everyone in the cutscenes.
And how about that DLC? Well, the arenas are fun enough. They're new environments that are essentially survival mode with waves of enemies, and each wave will offer you a challenge to complete for bonus XP. Each of the four arenas has a different difficulty so if you don't know what to expect you can start at the bottom and work your way up. Any rewards you earn carry over into the story, but keep in mind that any losses you take (whether financially or in items/uses/durability) also carry over. 

The Ryder White DLC is fantastic and made me do a complete 180 on my thoughts on the story. All that stuff I wrote about how the story was kind of bad? Well, in only a couple of hours, the Ryder campaign re-frames everything that happened and gives the story a lot more depth and intrigue. This is all stuff that was hinted at towards the end of the main campaign, but only when playing the DLC do you grasp the full extent of what really happened on Banoi. It's pretty fun to play, too - at the beginning you start with no weapons just like in the main story, but as you pick up guns it becomes more of a fast-paced linear shooter than the open-world survival experience of the core campaign. Ryder's abilities - which you get almost two-thirds of right at the beginning - focus on his military training and give you big bonuses with guns, and he's got a lot of stamina to use with melee weapons or sprinting. Don't be too conservative with your grenades, because this DLC has a higher difficulty and there are some pretty huge swarms of zombies.

So that's everything. What's the verdict?

Recommendation: play it.

This recommendation is probably at the bottom end of the yes spectrum. I (mostly) love the combat and general gameplay, and the visuals and environments are great, but everything else about the game is just OK, annoying, or broken. Despite my harshness, I did have fun with the game because I like the open-world exploration and RPG elements, and the combat is solid. Dead Island has a lot of flaws, but feels like the prototype for a really great game.
...and then I played the Ryder White DLC, and holy crap. It's good fun, it completely re-frames the entire story, and is downright essential. If the DLC were only sold separately I would be pretty upset that such a critical story element was not part of the main game, but at this point post-launch it comes with the game of the year edition, so just buy that for the full experience.

If you do play Dead Island I recommend using the Helper to tweak the graphics for a great frame rate.

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